Saturday, October 16, 2010

Long Overdue

It's been a long 7 months since my last update, and I'm finally at a place in my life where I can firmly say I've got my two feet solidly planted on the ground instead of their usual dangling from a wind-damaged, malnourished tree. Since my travels, I have continued to work at an environmental government agency and enjoy the fruits of an air-conditioned cubicle among a sea of creative, intelligent, and great colleagues. My life is as good as some people may say it gets. Who could ask for more?

Yet there are times the travel bug eats away at me and refuses to relinquish its fangs from my travel organ. I yearn for new, exotic scenery that take my breath away. I dream of that first bite of a strange, borderline-scary culinary delight that tingles mysteriously for my taste buds. I ask myself, why are you stagnant in such a mobile age? why aren't you out exploring the world and bridging dreams with reality?

These thoughts have led me've guessed it! Start traveling again. But unlike my past year of huge trips of great proportions and long distances, this time around I will be taking short trips - weekends to new cities, 1-2 week long international trips, etc. Next I will be returning to Colombia for a 10-day trip to Cartagena. I will continue to explore its food, fun, and people as I uncover the culture in my own way. Please stay tuned for mamie, once again, around the world.

The past 7 months at home have been pretty immobile, but with 5 weddings, a trip to Mexico, and several to different U.S. cities, I certainly have not been curled up at home by the fireplace (not that I have one)! Here are a few pictures to share my recent adventures! Thanks for reading.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Four Days of Beauty and Heat in Cartagena

Dear family and friends,

I'm finally back in Bogota after spending about four days in Cartagena, the crown jewel of the Caribbean in Colombia! I stayed in the working-class district called Getesmani, and it was really close to the historic city center that is walled by a stone fortress. Imagine picturesque cobbled-stone walkways lined with colorful buildings with bougainvilleas wrapping around their beautiful balconies. It's like a maze of indefinite possibilities, filled with breath-taking churches and plazas. Traditional dancing took place every night there in the plaza that used to be the main slave-trading center of the city. Cartagena is filled with a history of sieges, pirates looting Spanish goods, castles built as fortresses, beaches, and local vendors selling all types of crafts. Yes, it was filled with a romantic, "Love in the Time of Cholera" (which was filmed here by the way) atmosphere that I fell in love with, and if not for the burning heat, I would wish to stay forever.

I spent a lot of time exploring the old city center and with local Couchsurfers and people from my hostal. I had the most incredible time there!! I've had experiences that I know will stay with me all my life, and I realize that this is what traveling is all about-- experiencing things and meeting people that you will treasure and keep in touch with for a long while, and hope to see again.

There are photos on my facebook of my wonderful time in Colombia all in a neat package, including Cartagena, and here is the link, in case you're not a part of facebook:

Good ole' States, here I come back to you again, and with changed views and new perceptions, I know I can accomplish for myself something meaningful and fulfilling in my future endeavors.

Thank you all for viewing my blog from time to time, and don't be fooled--I will be back traveling very soon!!!


Saturday, March 20, 2010

La Ciudad Perdida (The Lost City) Trek in Colombia

The trek to the Ciudad Perdida lasted 6 days, and each day was more memorable than the last, so I will give a brief overview of every day. But first a bit of history:

Around 1974, a lot of gold and valuables began turning up in major cities in Colombia, and the government became suspicious, so did an investigation and discovered that grave-robbers had uncovered a "lost city" high in the mountains that used to be the home of the ancient indigenous civilization. There's a lot more history, but that's the gist from my basic comprehension of Spanish!

Day 1: I got picked up from my hostel at 8 a.m. and the jeep went around to collect in total the 5 of us in our group to do the lost city trek. There were two Americans (me and Joel, also from California!), Alicia from Belgium, Peleg from Israel, and Tracy from Canada. There were only 5 of us because we were leaving on Colombia's election day, and most of the other tour companies were closed. We got driven in a jeep through rough, ROUGH terrain to the little town of Machete where we had lunch and watched the locals play Tejo, a local game involving gunpowder and throwing heavy objects. We then did a four hour trek through exposed grasslands and jungle to our first night's camp. This was the hardest day for us, as it was uphill most of the way, and I was drenched in sweat almost immediately. Right as I was about to faint after what seemed like hours of nonstop uphill hiking, we had a watermelon break overlooking the mountains and jungle, and that fueled me until we made it to camp. Camp usually consists of wooden structures, without walls, with a couple outhouses in the rear and a dirt ground with hammocks tied on wooden beams for us to sleep for the night. We were fed a delicious, huge dinner. Joel got really sick during the trek up to the camp, and became violently ill, and could not continue on with us the next day. He had to stay back at camp and could not move or eat. We all slept around 7 p.m, as there is no electricity at all and it gets pitch black after sunset.

Day 2: Woke up the next day, and after breakfast (hot chocolate, eggs, rice, etc.) we all (minus Joel, but plus another two girls who arrived at the camp after we did) trekked on. The second day was supposed to be slightly easier, and the whole last part of the day's trek was steep downhill, and since we all know we're coming back on the same trail on day 5, I made a painful mental note that day 5 would be HELL. After much heat, wobbly knees, and sweat, we all made it to camp 2, which OHMYGOSH, had mattresses under the wooden structures! What a treat. We ate, swam in the river, relaxed, and waited for dinner. After dinner there was another group there who were on their way down from Ciudad Perdida, and they were a very handsome and beautiful group of professionals from Bogota. Well, it turns out two in their group just got MARRIED atop the lost city the day before, AND those two are incredibly famous Colombian actors in telenovelas. Because of their status and the group's charm, that night a local indigenous member, from a tribe called the Kogi's, joined us for an evening chat and the Bogota group told us about the history of the area and the tribes, and the native tribe member told us about their way of life. This is a very special and rare occasion as Kogi members are known to be very shy and offstandish. Photos are not allowed to be taken of them unless you seek special permission from the members, or have something to offer them. The trail we were on for this trek is shared by the Kogi's and us trekkers, so from time to time we run into them, and they are very stone-faced and nonresponsive to foreigners, even the little toddlers and children, but this was explained to us because they are very shy, and weary of strangers. Understandable. But the little Kogi children are all dressed in what I can best describe as white sacks/pillowcases with holes for their limbs. Very simple and cute on them.

Day 3: We awoke early, as this was the day we'd finally arrive at the city! We were told we'd have to cross the river about 9 times today, but thank god there has not been heavy rain yet, so we're hopeful the river is only up to our knees. We spend the morning and afternoon hiking up to camp 3, just at the base of the massive stairs leading up to the lost city. We lunch at camp, see that for the night's accomodations there is one wooden frame with side-by-side mattresses, so it's one huge bed tonight for everyone in our group! After lunch we wade through the river a few more times to get to the lost city, and we finally cross the river one final time and there it is--the beginning of around 1,800 steps up to the Lost City. We begin climbing, and the sun is slowly sinking lower and lower. After much panting, pain, sweat, and cursing, we arrive at the lowest level of the city. There are many terraces (around 180) that have been uncovered of the Lost City, and that has taken 6 years to clean up for tourists. What is open to the public is a small fraction of the lost city, but the government had decided to not uncover the rest of the city and terraces in hopes of preserving it. At this point our guide is explaining the history of the people and area, and a heavy mist had rolled in, making the place eerie and mystical. We climb among the terraces, and it begins to rain. We can barely see the views from the terraces, but we head up to the highest terrace, and that is where the military is stationed. THE MILITARY- there is a group of about 40 young Colombians stationed for around 2 months at a time at the Lost City for "security" reasons, to basically make the visitors feel safe. This group of young guys are BORED and incredibly eager to talk, take photos, sell their army gear, etc. So we all chatted with them for a while, and a couple girls from my group were in bikinis taking photos with them, and I got a photo with the group of them and gave some of them my email address when they asked. They were very nice guys, but it sucks that my Spanish is terrible so needless to say, I couldn't say much!! By that time they were all asking us to come back the next morning, and we said we'd see. It was raining pretty hard so we descended the mountain (slippery and mossy stairs about 5 cm wide!! My legs were wobbly and shaky going down!)

Day 4: A few people from my group wanted to go back the next morning to get better views (and talk to the military guys, perhaps??) but I decided to stay back at base camp along with Lori, another girl. Going up that thing once was enough, and I just wanted to enjoy my morning slowly. So Lori and I were wading in the river by camp, and I went back to camp, and there was a group of the military guys who descended the lost city to do their usual rounds around the mountains! They were some of the same guys from the day before, and were glad to see Lori and me, and offered to take more photos with us, and some wanted a photo with me, but this may be because they don't usually see Chinese girls? They wanted to write to me after their time in the lost city, and some offered to teach me salsa in three weeks. Too bad I'm leaving in one week! And I have two left feet! They eventually left, the others came back, we lunched, then headed out back to camp 2 for the night, where there were a lot more people from other groups who were on their way up to the lost city. I liked having the camp to ourselves.

Day 5: Said goodbye to Lori and Carly, who were doing the trek in 5 days instead of 6, and headed back to camp 1. Arrived super early at camp with the hammocks, and all took naps and lazed around, all in our damp, smelly clothes (nothing dries in the humid jungle). That night about FOURTY other trekkers arrived at camp! There were like a city of hammocks, and there were people eveywhere, each group with their own cooks running around the outdoor kitchen chopping and cutting things for dinner. As our cook said, when there are so many different groups, things get COMPLICATED. I went to sleep around 6 p.m. that night, but I could not fall asleep at all. It was so loud, and we all just drank tons of black coffee (why do Colombians insist on drinking coffee day and night, sometimes right before bed?? Apparantly the caffeine doesn't affect them like normal people!)

Day 6: Got up, and about 15 of us went to the Cocaine "factory" where we had to pay a fee and got led off the trail and through the jungle to this structure with a tarp over it to see how cocaine powder was made from the leaves and through an extremely complicated process. A local man (who probably used to be in the drug business, but through government intervention does this more of for an educational purpose now) showed us the entire process, and appalled us all by showing the ingredients for churning out the white powder--including gasoline, sulfuric acid, potassium, salt, calcium, among other things. Very interesting process, and time-consuming. Then we all headed back to camp for breakfast. After breakfast we made like the wind and blew out of there. The trek was very uphill and downhill today, and a pretty difficult day overall. We arrived in Machete around lunchtime and ate there before riding the jeep back into Taganga and Santa Marta. The first thing I did was SHOWER, since we all pretty much reeked from sweat and our wet clothes the entire 6 days. My heels were rubbed raw with blisters by the end of the trek, and I had about 40 mosquito bites total on my body, and strange scars on my face. A lot of my group members found ticks every day on their bodies throughout the trek, but I strangely didn't find any on myself, thank goodness. We all said our goodbyes, and exchanged information, and then went our separate ways, with very fond memories of new friends, laughter, crazy experiences, and visions of the lost city.

CONCLUSION: So that is a little bit of what went on every day. A lot more than this happened, but since I am exhausted, I cannot write anymore. This definitely is the highlight of my trip in Colombia, and I recommend this trek to every one. I am not that fit at all, yet I found myself leading the group most of the time!! Endurance and determination are all you need. It really also depends on your guide and group, and I was lucky enough to get some wonderful people, although there was only 4 of us by the end of the trek!

A family of indigenous Kogi's. The tribe was gathering for a reunion so along the road and through our camps we saw many of them traveling.

Relaxing and waiting for dinner!

Peleg and Carley trying out their new camera functions.

When the group came down to our camp!

A view into one of the camps.

Tiny frogs all over the river banks. There were many that there 1/3 the size of your thumb nail!

Blisters that were very painful to hike uphill. Damn fake Timberland boots I hastily bought in Bogota in preparation for the trek. Oh well, they were worth their money.

First night arrived in the Lost City, and the army soldiers were pretty pleased to see us, I think.

Wild pineapples.

A typical Kogi home. They are nomads and all live throughout the area, pretty far from each other, thus they have to travel to get to reunions of the tribe.

A random, huge turkey in one of our camps that gobbled constantly.

The first night, when all was calm and there were only 5 of us.

Tracy and a baby goat

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Last of Bogota and New Beginnings in Taganga!

Dear family and friends,

This evening I arrived in Taganga, situated on the coast! I arrived into the Santa Marta airport beachside. Driving into town through Santa Marta and through the mountains to reach this little fishing village was honestly a beautiful, breath-taking experience. The environment consists of a lot of dirt roads, children playing everywhere, skinny horses next to abandoned train tracks, locals lounging on their porches and on the streets, and just a very sleepy but captivating town. This hostel that I am staying in is the best hostel I've been to so far in all my journeys. Situated on top of a hill, it's got plenty of hammocks, tables, garden areas, and all the amenities you can think of, and more. I even got a free first drink from their bar area!

I've been sweating nonstop since I disembarked from the plane in Santa Marta. Seriously, it's 7 pm, it's completely dark out, and I am still sweating like a pig. But there is a cool ocean breeze running through town, which is saving me by a thread. Note: a very thin thread.

Oh, on to the news!! Tonight someone from Magic Tours, one of the groups who lead treks to the Lost City, came to the hostel and I've signed up for a 6-day trek beginning tomorrow morning at 8 a.m.!! Since then I've been running all around town trying to get some last minute supplies, like large plastic bags, flashlight, etc. I can't believe I'm doing this--6 days in the jungle and muddy rivers!! I expect to be eaten alive by mosquitos, but I've done all that I can to prepare (22% deet!) This will truly be a challenge on me not only physically, but mentally as well.

My last days in Bogota were great, and it was sad to say goodbye to my foster family aka landlords this morning. They are incredibly nice people, and I am really beginning to view Colombians as generous, lively, and very content people based on the numerous people I've met and new friends I've made.

No time for many photos, but you can expect an explosion when I get back from my trek in a week, unless I've been bested by the jungle and Sierra Nevada mountains, or taken hostage by the Kogi natives or the coca guerrillas. Just jestiing. Note to my family and those who care about my well-being: this is pretty safe, so don't worry.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Colombian BBQ in Good Company

Hello family and friends,

Bogota has become less and less intimidating over the past week, and I am beginning to enjoy my time here a lot more. There was a huge bus strike during the week so transportation was a bit chaotic, so my research was a no-go, but I've definitely become an expert on Colombian history, art, and iglesias while visiting so many grand sites and walking around the city. Oh, regarding the comment I made last time that the police look incredibly young, WELL, I found out that in Colombia it is mandatory for boys after high school to serve in the police force for 1-2 years! Thus they ARE like 16-year-olds, or a couple years older.

Today was a wonderful day so I'll begin with that. I woke up, as usual in the morning, ate cereal with delicious Colombian whole milk, and left my apartmento. I walked across the city center and towards north Bogota to a new friend, Isabel's, apartment to have lunch with her and her husband. When I got there, though, she was not at home, so in the same apartment complex I called on Beiky, my new and wonderful couchsurfing friend. She's good friends with Isabella, and that's how we met. Well, Beiky couldn't find Isabella, but she asked if I'd like to go with her, Jason (her awesome husband), and newborn baby to her family's house for a traditional Colombian BBQ in Bosa, a district in the extreme southwest of the city, about a 45 mins taxi ride away. It sounded really fun so I decided to join them. This is what I like about Colombia--it is SO go-with-the-flow attitude minded. People are always late, but there's no animosity, and even if people break off engagements you simply jump onto another ship that's sailing and everything turns out wonderful no matter what!

So we all head on a taxi down to Bosa, and I am able to see the entire range of Bogota. It really is a huge city, with sprawling outskirts, like Bosa. Bosa is a poorer neighborhood with a lot of public housing and such, but when we arrived I found it incredibly lively and so different from the city center hub that I had gotten used to for the past few days. We meandered through the dirt roads and street and arrived at her cousin's house, in which we were immediately adorably assaulted by her four cute children plus some more cute cousins. It was kids galore and they were all sooo incredibly cute!! The oldest of them, at age 10, engaged me all day in his brokan English because he really was so curious about me and wanted to learn. At the end he asked his mom if he could go back to California with me. haha!

So of course in most traditional households, there were women scurrying around fixing up the delicious food, and the men were on the terrace with the fire pit and the children were running around and playing. I got to practice my Spanish all day (since Beiky is the only one who speaks English) and when she wasn't there to translate, all her family and I got along, if in a comical way. I ate tons of guacamole, grilled corn, carne asada, grilled plaintains, grilled intestines (which I thought I'd try, but ended up gagging a bit when I bit into it and liquidly stuff exploded in my mouth). We sat merrily eating, chatting, relaxing, and laughing, and it was a very special day. They were very curious about China, the U.S., other places I've traveled, what I'm doing in Colombia, etc etc. The men seemed to be very concerned that I was traveling alone in Colombia, more so than the women! haha. Beiky's uncle and husband showed me a bit around town as well. At the end of the day some of us walked around and ate ice cream. Perfect day.

I'm leaving Bogota in about 6 days, and will be heading up to La Cuidad Perdida (The Lost City) and doing a 6-day trek into the jungle and mountains to find the lost city. In 2003 a group of trekkers were kidnapped by the FARC (the drug guerrilla group operating in the jungle) but the trek has become a lot safer, so don't worry. There are about 60 young and bored Colombian army guys serving their duty at the very remote site of the Lost City, so I'm sure they would be delighted to use their grenades and firearms if the need arises. I think it will be a once in a lifetime experience, and I look forward it, even if I'll be sleeping in hammocks and not showering for like 6 days, and being one with the jungle (snakes, ticks, and all!)

P.S. Can I just say how much I love the Colombian way of greeting with a hug and a kiss?? It's so personal and there is just something a bit cold and detached about the U.S. handshake and/or butt-out, only-shoulders hug!

Until next time...Cheers!


The streets of Bosa. Reminds me of a more traditional, slower town scene.

A couple of the adorable kids, and Beiky!

From the rooftop where we were BBQing!

Beiky's 2-month old baby. Look at how he sleeps!! The most calm, serene baby ever. Never a peep, and he sleeps all the time.

On Sundays the main streets of downtown Bogota shut out cars for walkers, bikers, and joggers!

I spend a lot of time in cafes, and this slice of apple tart was delicioso.

A group of strikers barreling down the main street. There were tons of policemen there with barricades and shields (scene from 300, anyone?)