Mysteries of Medellin

You’ve heard of this city. Netflix has made sure of it. The most commercially successful criminal of the modern age hails from this place. El patron. Pablo Escobar. His is a legacy that is inseparable from Medellin. This city exploded into fame in the 1980s as the cocaine capital of the world. Most estimates say 80% of the white powder party fuel that ended up in the USA came from the Medellin cartel. The first of the Colombian “super cartels”.

Pablo was eventually brought down in a storm of violence that ripped through Colombia. Rival cartels, paramilitary organizations, the Colombian government, as well as the the American CIA all orchestrated his downfall. That was December 1993.

25 years later, Medellin is a rapidly changing city. Is cocaine widely available and offered? Sure. It’s the same in dozens of cities across the globe.

So now what? turns out I’ve been fascinated about Colombia for quite some time. Raw beauty, enchanting people and a beat all it’s own. This week, it was time for me to leave the sunny embrace of Cartagena, for the cool mountain intrigues of Medellin. this city, although only an hour flight from Cartagena could not be more drastically different. Cartagena is distinctly Caribbean. It’s akin to an odd mashup of places like the old town in Hanoi, with a Havana twist. Busy, rhythmic and enchanting, Cartagena is easy to wrap your mind around and manage. Medellin on the other hand is a different animal all together. This city is big. The climate is much cooler, and the vibe is one of a major city on the move. Having just spent a few days here so far, I’ve been traversing this valley as much as possible. This is a place with layers. With depth and grit. The art, the people, the food, all reflect this. to start, one has to venture to the plaza Botero. Famed Medellin artist Fernando Botero is now on his 80s. His pieces are all over the world. Including this one in Cartagena. his style is modern and one of largess. The sculpture park here in Medellin is a kick ass afternoon wander. Although numerous people informed me that the park can be quite dangerous at night.

the pieces collected here represent a cross section of his work Be sure to take an afternoon and discover this plaza in the middle of the city. Enjoy a lemonade de coco, and taste this neighborhood. Bring an umbrella as it may rain for a bit. Watch the clouds roll in and take it easy for the down pour. The art scene here is indicative that this city is so much more than the single story of drugs, cartels and violence. The layers here prove amazing, as does the scenery with the mountains always in the background.

Medellin is a place I’ve barely begun to unwrap and I’m already hungry for more.

More coming soon!

On the Path to Solo Travel

3 years ago I was super stoked.  The summer had descended on Michigan, I had a teaching assignment at the college secured and a great group of friends. I had gone through a wrenching breakup a few months previous, and had reorganized/re focused my life in a drastically more positive direction. (You know, that good growth stuff of your late 20’s) Now,  I had traveled before, I had been on a few study abroad excursions, and had made some amazing connections over the pond.  It had been a year or so since I had been abroad.

The itch was real.

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I thought about it constantly. I began mentioning to my group of friends casually.

“We should totally hit Europe this summer”. I wanted  miles under my feet, and crazy new sensations. Those damn motivational prints all over social media haunted me “Not all those who wander are lost” Etc, etc.

I began hatching some carefully constructed plans, seeing how I could convince my buddies to come along.

Finally after a few weeks, one particular friend who had never been outside of the country, declared over beers “Im in”! And the planning began in earnest.

Where would we go? I was keen on the Balkans, and the Baltics. I was planning on roughly 10 days. Swayed by the scenery of Croatia, and the mountains of Bosnia we decided on the former Yugoslavia.

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At this point I was watching flights daily, frantically refreshing, waiting for just the right combination, connections, and overall logistics.  I would text my buddy my findings through out the day

“Dude, DTW-BUD now 550$”

He would reply “Yeah man, lets do it!”

Later, when it was time to book, some sort of excuse would seemingly always emerge. I was getting anxious, watching flights rise and fall like the stock market. While trying to set a day to book I would read more about our intended region

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Sarajevo in particular looked beyond kick ass. The history, the culture…the food! I wanted to book NOW.  It was ultimatum time. Either we are booking or this, or it’s a no go….the day comes, we are getting together after work, its time to lock this in….

 

and then disaster strikes.

 

Pt 2 coming up next!

 

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Caribbean dreamin’

It’s been damn cold here in Michigan. As friends have not hesitated to remind me, I seem to have missed the really cold days, but I’m rather frigid none the less.

As the semester is underway and the rhyme and flow of the “grind” has set in, I’ve been thinking of Haiti yet again. I’ve been thinking of the island nation on a few different levels.

The first of which is downright adversity. Our last full day on the island was dedicated to a roadtrip to the sea. We tried to go the day before, yet couldn’t find a car. After overcoming this obstacle through much time, hard currency and angst, we then could find no fuel.

What?

That’s right. Port Au Prince was seized by a petrol crises. When was the last time you couldn’t go somewhere because when pulling into your local gas station a 12 gauge wielding team of guards informed you “no gasoline”?

Makes for a frustrated road trip. But this is a common occurrence for Haiti, especially in the capital. The solution? Dollars and time. Our fixer cobbled together a gallon here, a gallon there. We were set for early nothing the next day. To the sea we will go!

A mere hour outside the city is akin to visiting another planet. This is what I had imagined when thinking of a quick week run immediately before the semester. You know, coconuts n shit. Sandy beaches. Drinks with wee umbrellas.

Taking a day to lounge along the Côte des Arcadins is majestic. Slow, easy and not butchered by gaudy resorts. This day on the sea allowed me to begin to wrap my mind around Haiti. I had gone from the context of adversity to one of calm beauty. I did drink out of a damn coconut and floated for a while. These memories are extra potent when confronting sub zero Michigan temps. My final layer/level to Haiti that comes to mind is sheer tenacity. The savage beauty of the landscape as well as the people. I think back to the Ghetto Biennale, and Andre Eugene, the resident artist and curator. I think of seeing the kids of the art collective assemble amazing pieces, and having literally nothing. Living in a tent city.

I think about the grit that it takes to create, despite living in actual realized destruction. While I listen to my students bitch about the battery life of their new iPhones wearing their pajamas to class because they can’t be bothered to find actual pants. They “can’t even” as they say.

I think about Haiti. I think about how this place caught me off guard. Destroyed my intestinal tract, proved much more expensive and difficult than originally intended, how it caused friction among friends and could prove absolutley exhausting. But all of that aside, Haiti changed my perspective. I gassed up my private automobile yesterday…without issue. I drive where I want and things around me work for the most part.

You should smile about that.

Our political situation is nutty, with the US president calling Haiti a “Shithole” and promising to deport more Haitians…and this isn’t the post to delve into colonial legacy, but it’s something that deserves far more attention than it currently gets.

I think about Haiti, and I smile. I’m thankful for seeing a vastly different world, and yet again what that human spirit is capable of.

Thank you!

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An island like no other… dispatches from Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka is on my mind. Travel they say, is the act of leaving the familiar behind. Few things about Sri Lanka proved familiar. In my end analysis, Colombo especially, proved a nut I was unable to crack.

Now having returned and neck deep in the glowing heart of Bangkok, I’ve been unraveling my experience on the island for an afternoon.

Sri Lanka for me was mostly unknown. I had a hazy framework of colonial rule, beaches, and curry. Not a bad trifecta as far as travel destinations go. My last minute run to the island started off a bit rocky, and continued to haunt me a bit throughout the week. I was often left feeling that there was something I was missing. Despite my best efforts, I was seemingly “stuck in the lobby” on a regular basis.

As I was boarding the Air Asia flight from Kuala Lumpur, (after making it rain at the airport Popeyes) the gate agent, upon looking at my ticket and passport asked “where is your visa”?

I went cold for a bit. I was (mostly) sure I didn’t need a visa for Sri Lanka. She asked again giving me that face that suggests I ate too much paste as a kid.

“Visa”??

I explained that we didn’t need one? And eventually was allowed to board. The entire flight of 3 hours and 20 minutes I had visions of being denied entry and awarded the “idiot American of the month” trophy.

Not to worry however. Sri Lanka thinks it loves tourists, and thus the visa, is available on arrival, for 40$ USD, they take major credit cards (didn’t ask about diners club) and the line takes 2 minutes.

From this point, you are recognized as an easy access, no fee ATM. There is no going back. You are a walking community coin purse. Takes a bit getting used to.

Making my way to the taxi stand, after waiting in a 20 minute line for a cash machine, the “official airport taxi” uniform guy prints me a receipt for 2800 Sri Lankan Rupees for the trip to my downtown hotel. Now I’m used to paying the “tourist tax”. It’s part of traveling. Prices for you are going to be higher than they are for locals.

Get over it.

Getting schemed bums me out though. The 2800 was already high. My taxi pulls up in a car that looks more hand crafted from old pizza boxes and bondo than metal. My driver is no joke the villain from Disney’s Aladdin…in his old man jail disguise. He’s also sporting a T-shirt that reads “Friday is my second favorite F word”

We never get over 60km an hour, and it’s 90 outside. (Sorry Michigan, we can defrost together soon) The driver keeps looking back and grinning just like he wants me to grab him cave treasure when he asks if I want him to take the “high way”…because it’s 300 rupees extra.

Now I know, it’s 2$ USD. But I’ve been in country now for 30 minutes. We can “no take high way, hour extra” which I wasn’t game for.

These types of situations were often repeated, along with constant attention from the Tuk Tuk mafia, and other enterprising locals hoping to “help you out”. Side note: I hate being called “boss” and “big man” when people pitch me anything. I seem to elicit these two titles in South Asia a bit too often.

Now this is not to say that Colombo, and Sri Lanka doesn’t have an amazing side. It most assuredly does. I had some shockingly awesome moments and walked away with a quite distinct impression that this place is on the edge of a cliff. If you want to go, go NOW. Because this place, the island I spent a week on will not be recognizable in 10 years tops.

It took me a bit to realize what made Colombo so much different than my previous spots on this run. It’s barely developed. The money is just now starting to pour in, mostly from China, and it will completely change this place. The skyline is already filling in with new high rises and construction projects. The Hilton is finished, the new Grand Hyatt is nearing completion. The planned new China harbor project will be 15 billion USD in scope, and remodel Colombo into the “gem of Asia”.

(A gem most likely free of locals)

This just in. Sri Lanka does not feel like Asia whatsoever. There are similar qualities between Tokyo, Taipei, Kuala Lumpur, Bangkok, and Hong Kong.

Colombo is something totally different. This place has the fringes of globalization, there is KFC, Pizza Hut, and a few hotel chains, but at heart, there is still an authentic culture residing.

In my week here, I was simply unable to unravel it. I thought giving up on Colombo and venturing to the ancient capital of Ceylon might do it, wandering through tea plantations and visiting my second temple focused on a tooth of the Buddha might clear the separation. Give me my eureka moment…while I had a tremendous experience in the mountains, and especially with the elephants…I was still left wanting.

My pictures from the capital, as well as the highlands evoke mystery to me. I met and partied with locals, as well as other visitors, I tried internet resources…all to no ultimate avail.

But in the end that’s okay. By my final days there, I just wanted to experience this place that I could practically feel eroding under my feet. Sri Lanka is indeed an island like no other. Perhaps I’ve been immersed in commercialization and raw globalist influence for so long, encountering something outside of it strikes me dumbfounded. I was immediately reminded of Cuba. My drive to get there and see something so different before it fell to the resort life, and non stop development. Perhaps I should have spent more time in the mountains…but isn’t that always the case?

For now, Sri Lanka will remain a riddle. A rapidly disappearing riddle. From 2000 year old Buddhist temples, to shop keepers burning their trash on the sidewalk. From a culture of Spicy curry, to an endless row of cheap questionable gas station style hamburger stands. Off the beaten path to reset the radar. If you feel the need to get lost, this is your place. But pack shipping containers of patience and an open mind. Also be sure to book that ticket yesterday.

Being back in Thailand feels strange, such a total transition. By the time I landed in Bangkok, after realizing monks in Sri Lanka receive automatic priority boarding…I felt like I had been gone for months. My days on the island bled together into a seamless warm haze.

Do we need more elephants here? Maybe have a elephant post? I’m thinking so.

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Thank you!

Christmas in Sri Lanka

I’m exhausted. Drowsy and curry drunk. It’s the day after my fourth Christmas in a row abroad, and I am ready to sleep in tomorrow. I’ve trekked to the island of Sri Lanka. How that cane to pass I’ll detail a bit below. I’ve had a day tracking elephants. Before that I was dragging my tired ass into the central highlands through old tea factories and mountains, to the ancient capital of Ceylon. Driving here is for the iron nerved sociopath, and I’m beginning to think being a passenger is an even more desperate and depraved sport. This first scrambled bit is going to be short, as my thoughts are still turbulent on this savage place. My chutzpah is running low, but I will say this…

I was all set, enjoying the fuck out of Kuala Lumpur, basking in the unexpected goodness of new friends, cold beer, and eclectic dishes when I hit a snag.

Now I travel with a rather open itinerary as I’ve mentioned before, and sometimes this leads to all around, stars aligning glory. Other times it’s more of a mallet to the dong. I had asked the FaceBook world which path at this travel fork in the road I should take. Should I relax and beach it in Thailand, or should I get twisted and roll through the jungles of Laos? The votes were more or less even, with a bit more weight given to the jungle. But.. wait for it…I waited too long. Flights to Laos had tripled in a few hours rolling back from a fog enshrined Buddha.

Now I’m left to scramble. Let’s scan the skies and look for dozens of possible combinations across a slew of browser tabs. A few hours of logistics and where am I headed?

Motherfuckin’ Sri Lanka!

Mountains AND beaches, exotic flavor, and country #68! Compromise can be awesome.

Sitting next to the Indian Ocean on the Bay of Bengal makes for some epic scenery. Columbo as a city can be a bit like a sugar addled toddler. This place will keep your hands full. The savage nature has been amazing thus far, and so has the incredible warmth of many of the people.

The key factor for many, when it comes to enjoying Sri Lanka is getting out of the capital city of Colombo as soon as possible.

Which, that’s cool, but then you may be overlooking a gem of a city. I’m just not sure how to categorize Colombo just yet.

One thing I certainly did come here for…relaxation and elephants!

I’ve been enamored with the sunsets from the roof top pool and some stunning interactions with local mammals. I’m still organizing my thoughts on this crazy place, so this is just an introduction.

This is indeed, an island like no other…

Stay tuned for the next installment dropping shortly.

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