I used to dream of writing a novel called Halfway to India. I envisioned the book as a stylized version of the life I was leading at the time – a life married to a quintessentially American guy who had lived in the US for decades, but whose ties to his country of birth remained very strong. The “halfway” part alluded to my frustration that I could never work out the opportunity to actually go to the place that exerted such a powerful, pervasive influence on my everyday life. It was definitely a case of so close and yet so far.
Today, the tables are turned. I am not in India, though I eventually did visit.
What does moving to another country really mean in the age of the internet?
Instead, I am very happily in Colombia, the home turf of another culture that I love. But in many ways I am still only “halfway here”, in this country that I have made my home by choice. This is the blessing and the curse of the modern day expat: the ability to live with one foot in your country of birth and the other in your country of residence.
This divided – or integrated, depending on how you look at it – life that my husband and I lead is definitely a product of our technology-driven lives. Continue reading →
It’s National Running Day in the US, and even though I have mixed feelings about “minor” holidays like this (I just read on Facebook that it is also apparently National Hug Your Cat Day – maybe you should run and hug your cat), I figured there would be no better day than today for a quickie blog post on the do’s and don’ts of running road races in Barranquilla.
I have run five road races in Quilla since I moved here almost two years ago. That’s not a high number (hey, I did run a 26.2mi/42k during that timeframe, albeit in Argentina!), but it’s enough to learn a few things about how these events happen here. If you plan to run a road race in Barranquilla, know someone who does, or simply want to be prepared for variances in races place-to-place, these tips are for you!
1. The listed start time is… what’s the word?… aspirational.
Do not – I repeat – do NOT arrive at your race an hour early, or even a few minutes early. Continue reading →
Hate is a strong word. There’s really nothing I hate about Carnaval, especially given that there’s so much to love. But at times, over the past few weeks, I’ve been reminded of a trip I took to New Orleans (I love New Orleans) one year right after Mardi Gras. The plane was full of NO natives returning home after skipping out on the madness. I thought I could relate, but it wasn’t until I experienced Barranquilla’s Carnaval that I understood the true depth of the complicated relationship that hometowners can have to events like this. Is it possible to look forward to something intensely while also wishing for it to be over? Yes, yes it is. Is it possible to value an event for the cultural treasure and/or economic engine that it is, while also complaining vociferously about the disruptions to daily life? You betcha.
As you hopefully know by now from my other posts, I’ve got mad love for Carnaval. But, in the interest of keeping it real, here are ten things that really get my goat as this weeks-long season progresses.
Espuma. Did I say there’s nothing I hate? I take it back.
This espuma war is still at a fairly acceptable level.
Living in Barranquilla at this time of year, you never know when you might turn a corner and walk into a parade or party. That’s exactly what happened one night last year, when my husband and I heard music from our apartment. We wandered halfway down the block and were treated to a thorough sampling of the traditional costumes, dances, music, and cultural traditions that are part of Barranquilla’s Carnaval. Consider the 4-minute video below your “time lapse” Pre-Carnaval parade experience. If you live here, you may already know that there’s a big parade tonight, the Noche de Guacherna. Que lo disfrutes!
La Piedra, as seen from the Embalse (Reservoir) Peñol-Guatapé.
Medellín is perfect for day-tripping, with several great destinations within easy reach. But be forewarned — if you take one of the standard tours to El Peñón de Guatapé, you are probably in for a bit of exercise! Our driver dropped us off at the base of La Piedra de Peñol (the Rock of Peñol), as the freakishly pointy rock is also known, and then informed us that he’d wait while we ascended the 740 steps to the viewing platform on the summit. That we had a two-year-old on our hands did not seem to change our driver’s expectations. My husband, ever the good sport and fortunately boasting admirable upper body strength, was up for the challenge. I did a bit of toddler-hauling myself, and we made it to the top. The good news is that the climb was worth it.
La Piedra is a natural rock formation with a total height of 2,135 meters above sea level. The prominently visible portion rises 200+ meters from the surrounding terrain. The locals told me it may have been a meteorite, though other sources state that it emerged as part of the region’s natural rock bed. Regardless, it’s no surprise that the rock was treated as sacred by the indigenous people that used to inhabit the area. La Piedra was first ascended in 1954 by local admirably-crazy guy (I have deemed him such) Luis Eduardo Villegas López and a couple of others. The masonry steps, squeezed into one of the Stone’s few natural crevices, were built in subsequent years by a visionary family that supposedly still maintains them today.
Visible on the rock are two giant painted letters — a “G” and what looks like an “I”. Legend has it that they’re remnants of a dispute between the towns of Guatapé and Peñol, between which the rock sits. The story is that Guatapé residents started painting their town’s name on the side of La Piedra until folks from Peñol mobilized to stop them. Only the almost-GU remains. Personally, I kind of feel for Peñol, seeing as how the original town of Viejo Peñol was flooded in 1978 and relocated to create the Peñol-Guatapé Reservoir. That being said, another account I read seems to imply that the letter-painting was halted because of La Piedra’s designation as a national monument by the Colombian government. I choose to believe the more fun mob story.
In any case, El Peñon is definitely worth the pain in your calves and shakiness in your quads. Take a look and enjoy for yourself! Click on a photo to open a slideshow and see captions.
It’s around 650 stairs to the top of the rock, but 740 to the top of the viewing platform built on the summit.
The view from La Piedra got a lot more watery when the area was flooded to create the reservoir.
Made it. Those of you who know me know those are my shoes.
Marcello was more impressed with the gift shop than the view.
Gio carried an extra-large 2 year-old up almost 740 steps (I carried him up a few!) and then back down. Never underestimate the descent.
A bit of the painted letters “GI” are visible here.
Don’t look down!
A new plant species was discovered at the top of the rock.
A trip to Medellín is not complete without a side excursion to the nearby town of Guatapé. A one-day visit convinced me that the people who live there have committed completely to the Renaissance of their region. Their efforts have made Guatapé justifiably famous now as a tourist destination, rather than infamous as a dangerous region too close geographically to the power and corruption of former drug lord Pablo Escobar. The outer walls of houses in Guatapé feature brightly painted squares, or zócalos, that tell the stories of those who live there. Many zócalos feature the town’s symbol, a sheep whose stance depicts Guatapé’s motto: “caminando hacia adelante, mirando hacia el pasado” — walking forward, looking back. Grounded in a promise to never forget its history, the future of Guatapé looks very bright indeed.
Note: Many photos in the mosaic have captions. To read them, click on a photo to open the slideshow. Some photos don’t make sense without their captions. Thank you!
This sign in the town square explains the zócalos. It says in part, “An element of identity, the zócalo tells the story of an individual, a family, a past or a value of this friendly community conglomerate.”
The zócalos on the left depict the lamb that is Guatapé’s symbol. The zócalos on the right appear to show doves with olive branches.
The cathedral in the town’s main square.
Inside the cathedral.
Even on a rainy day, this town shines bright.
This zócalo depicts the displacement of a family during the drug-related violence that was so common to the region in the 80’s and early 90’s.
Some zócalos tell you about the person or business inside. These are on a home for the elderly.
The zócalos on the side of this hospital show the cycle of life from conception to death and the afterlife.
Marcello wears a ruana, a traditional cover-up for the sometimes chilly weather.
Not all zócalos tell of times gone by. Marcello was a fan of these pictures that decorate a trucking or construction business.
Antioquia, the state in which Guatapé sits, has a rainy season and we were in it. This awesome moto-taxi allowed us to tour the town and still stay dry.
La Piedra de Peñol (the Rock of Peñol), or El Peñon de Guatapé, is a natural rock formation that rises over 2,000 meters above sea level. Like an iceberg, supposedly the largest chunk of it is below ground. The locals told me it may have been a meteorite. This big hunk deserves its own post, coming later!
This cross marks the town of Viejo Peñol, which was flooded in 1978 to create the Peñol-Guatapé Reservoir that produces approximately 30% of Colombia’s energy. The town, originally founded in 1714, was relocated to a new spot nearby.
The man-made lake has given rise to many outdoor leisure activities – boating, fishing, zip lining, etc. – and to the return of posh urbanites who maintain luxurious weekend homes on its shores.
The bombed shell of La Manuela, one of drug lord Pablo Escobar’s most well-known estates.
The guides on our boat tour informed us that these holes in the hillsides lead to a series of tunnels. Pablo Escobar had them built in case he needed to make a quick escape – to his submarine. No kidding.
The nightclub that was part of Pablo Escobar’s estate, La Manuela.
Little did I know the changes amassing in Quilla while I was in the US!
I spent a truly lovely few years of my life – longer ago than I care to admit – living in Seattle. I don’t know whether Seattle is this way now, but back then, even though it was (and is) a big city, it offered a level of “sameness” that one might usually associate with a small town. One could go away on vacation and feel confident that Seattle would be waiting, basically the same as before, when one returned. Even after I had been living in Miami for two years, when I went back for a visit to Seattle I was still able to get coffee at Café Ladro and Espresso Vivace, and a big, fat peanut butter cookie from Cinnamon Works in Pike Place Market. I swear the same guy even checked me out at Bartell Drugs. (Whether this is good or bad is a question for that guy, but the fact that Bartell’s still exists is actually a little remarkable in and of itself.)
This isn’t to say that nothing changed – like any big city, there were always new developments in the urban landscape – but the changes were usually additions to what was there before, not replacements. This made Seattle sort of a comfort food of cities for me, which was important at the time since I was going through a divorce and other seismic life changes. Seattle was not always perfect, but there was a lot of security in knowing exactly what I was going to get.
This feeling stood in sharp contrast to my experience of Miami, the next place that I lived, this time for nearly a decade. Continue reading →
Just before my senior year of college, thanks to a generous scholarship from the Georgia Rotary Student Program, I had the opportunity to attend the International Summer School at the University of Oslo in Norway. (By the way, the application process for this scholarship is currently open!) The students hailed from more than 80 countries around the world. The experience was equal parts magic (there’s nothing quite like the views en route between Oslo and Bergen) and practical learning (people from almost anywhere will eat rice with a bean sauce, but music is harder to agree upon). Regularly scheduled “Cultural Nights” were intended to help students get to know each others’ cultures, from local crafts to music, dance, style of dress, food, and more.
Fortunately, making a presentation during Cultural Night was optional. Why fortunately? Continue reading →
One of the advantages of expat life is being able to travel to destinations that might otherwise be out of reach. When my husband and I moved to Colombia, we made it a goal to use our years here as an opportunity to see other parts of South America. So when we finally planned a long-awaited vacation, we decided to head to Argentina – first to Buenos Aires, and then down to the Patagonia region, to Los Glaciares (The Glaciers) National Park.
So that you can judge for yourself my reaction to this park, let me provide a quick history. I have visited probably 90% of the national parks in the US. My favorite is Glacier National Park in Montana. Just to the north, in Canada’s also spectacular Jasper National Park, I saw my first glacier, the Athabasca. I have been a huge fan of national parks, especially ones with snow-covered mountains, ever since my parents gave me the amazing gift of carting me around to them. (Thank you, Mom and Dad.) So I expected to love this part of our Argentina trip. I did not, however, expect to be BLOWN OUT OF THE WATER. Continue reading →
I am not much of a shopper. I find the whole process a little intimidating. In spite of this, I’m a bit of a clothes hog and a total nester, as well as an admitted sucker for beautiful design.
One of Barranquilla’s primary “big box stores” – a Super Almacen Olimpica (SAO).
There’s no doubt I like owning nice stuff. If you add the fact that I have lived most of my adult life on my own at a nonprofit salary, then it becomes (maybe) a little understandable that I developed some semi-unconventional shopping habits. For years, I craigslist-ed my way into great furniture, bargain-binned into fancy clothes, and spent all the rest of my money traveling and moving to new places. I thought I had the whole shopping thing figured out — and then I moved to Colombia. Below, are ten facts that took me off guard as I learned to navigate the shopping landscape in Barranquilla. For more shopping specifics, be sure to also click on my Leap Sources page.
1. Generally speaking, imports are really expensive.