Yes Mr.Mercury, they DO make the world go round!

Trip Start Apr 07, 2013
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Trip End Apr 21, 2013


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Flag of Colombia  , Bolivar,
Sunday, April 7, 2013

We're a day and a half in and already found the groove. I've discovered that no matter which developing country we visit our feelings consistently evolve from 1) wow, this place is a dump! to 2) why did we come here? to 3) I guess it isn't so bad to 4) this is actually quite beautiful to, finally 5) I love this country, when are we coming back? The trick is to work through these five stages as quickly as possible, and Colombia set a record.

We had read that the people here are exceptionally nice, and we got to see why first hand even as we stepped off the plane. The wind was blowing hard and we had a short walk across the tarmac to get from our plane to the departure gate. A young woman was struggling with two babies and the wind was blowing her very long hair all over face, making it even harder for her to walk. Without saying a word one of the airline security people ran to her, took a rubber band out of her pocket and put the lady's hair in a ponytail to keep it out of her eyes. I've never seen anything like that anywhere else; the people here seem to be actively searching for ways to help you! Our biggest regret so far is that we don't speak any Spanish. I'm actually pretty surprised by how few people speak English here, and I know our trip could be so much better if we would just take the time to get some basics down. We're adding that to our "to do" list for the next trip :)

We grabbed a taxi from the airport and got dropped off at our hostel ten minutes later, using those precious few kilometers to re-acquire the complete indifference necessary to take a taxi from point A to point B without having a stress-induced heart attack every four seconds. After a while away you forget just how crazy they drive over here! We're staying at a pretty cool place called Mamallena Hostel. Imagine that the guys who started Mellow Mushroom decided to open a backpacker's hostel. Lots of hippy looking people walking around and walls covered in "are you high?" type graffiti. I even sprung for a private room, but Brittany has yet to show proper appreciation. "There's no hot water! There's no air conditioning! The mattress is one inch thick!" Pshhhh, I think she's gone soft. I guess we'll need to slum it in a dorm again for a few nights so she'll remember how good she has it ;) Sadly, the bliss-inducing five dollar rooms of Guatemala are nowhere to be found here, and things are a lot more expensive than I expected. No more than you would spend in the States, but definitely high by backpacker standards. It's a good thing I love street food, because it's all we'll be eating for a while!

After dropping our bags on the bed we headed right back out for the ten minute walk to the Old Town. Our hostel is in the walled city itself (we're in a section called Gethsemani) but there isn't much to look at where we are. So we walked, and walked, and walked. I expected the heat and humidity to be petty oppressive, but the breeze coming off the Caribbean kept us cool (still drenched with sweat, but not in heat-stroke territory like August back home). The Old Town is stunningly beautiful. Sure there are vendors spaced every 4.2 feet on each side of the street hawking every worthless trinket imaginable, but a simple "no gracias" has worked surprisingly well so far. It's the building fronts that make this area so special. The doors are often gigantic, each with intricately carved and utterly unique door knockers. Virtually every second story is adorned with beautiful wooden balconies, many of which are covered in blossoming vines and flowers. What really appeals to me though is the color. The city is vibrant in the truest sense of the word. Each building is either painted or washed in a different color, and you experience something new and exciting at every turn in the road. Plazas (large courtyards filled with gardens, sculptures, and fountains) are sprinkled though out the city, so the scenery is constantly changing. And each courtyard has a unique character. Some are calm and reflective, a place for people to read a book under the trees or take a nap in the afternoon. Others are loud and rambunctious, full of street vendors with salsa music blaring and dancers in the streets.

Whatever you're looking for, you can find it here. The vendors sell fresh fruit (many of which are so exotic they don't even have names in english), freshly squeezed juices, skewers of grilled meat, arepas and more. It isn't just food that you can find, there's even a statue (among dozens of others) of a massive yet oddly attractive "fat bottomed girl". I need to read up on exactly what it was, but Brittany thinks a Colombian artist famous for sculpting generously proportioned celebrities made it (see picture below, look in lower left corner). You wouldn't believe how many guys I saw grab the butt of this thing...

Beyond the streets and buildings is the fortress wall protecting the city itself. Cartagena was a critical port for the slave trade in its hay day (is that how you spell that?) and massive walls were built to protect it from invading armies and pirates. The wall is hundreds of years old, and we walked along much of its six-mile length. I love being able to touch things built so long ago; it makes me feel connected to the past, as if I can envision the craftsman building it with his own hands. There are cylindrical lookout turrets scattered all along the wall. They're very pretty to look at, but get too close and you discover that they stopped being turrets many years ago and have now assumed a much more dignified purpose: hobo bathroom. Brittany found that out the hard way; we're hopeful her nose will recover.

After many hours of walking the town we found a fun-looking courtyard (one of the loud ones) and a restaurant with a set menu for $24,000COP. We must have been the only ones there and the waiter was happy to take us to a third floor balcony we didn't even know existed, complete with candlelight and a fantastic view of the courtyard. Unfortunately that's where things got complicated. We had not stopped at an ATM yet, so we didn't have many pesos on us. The waiter spoke absolutely zero English, but we finally got through that we had no money and wanted to use a card. No go; they don't take 'em. He stepped all over himself trying to make things easy for us. He offered to let us eat and then walk us to an ATM, but I didn't want to risk the bank not working out. He tried to take me to the ATM himself, but it was a ten minute walk away. I told him I'd figure it out and went looking for one while Brittany stayed at the table. I finally found it (thank you google maps!) and tried to make a withdraw. We've gotten pretty tired of paying ridiculously high bank fees to use our debit cards every time we went out of the country and thought we'd outsmart the system by signing up for a credit union. No fees! Just about all of our money is in the credit union checking account. I tried to make a withdrawal two times and it was declined both times. If you've ever been punched in the gut you can understand the feeling I had. So I used our regular debit card to get just enough money for dinner and headed back for an excellent meal, but was too worried about cash flow to really enjoy it. We'll just have to hope we can get it worked out tomorrow.

It was about 9PM when we headed back to bed and the town was still coming to life. Tables and chairs were coming out of every restaurant for a patio meal and crowds were coming out of nowhere. They must eat late here! Brittany was tired enough to sleep but I walked around Gethsemani for a bit. Ever heard of outdoor public Zumba classes? I saw hundreds of people in Plaza Trinidad taking a Zumba class at the steps of one of the old cathedrals. Working off the arepas I guess? Everyone there (save for one or two chubby white people) had the mind bending ability to stand perfectly still while simultaneously shaking their butt. It's one of those things that see and think to yourself, "how in the world are they doing that?" Multiple laws of physics were broken, and I wish Brittany had been there to see it.

Mission one for tomorrow is to get the debit card working. Ugh, I'm already getting that punched in the gut feeling again...
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