Wouldn't it be nice if Greyhounds were decorated like this?

Going Trans-America, Almost

Portland, Ore., USA – I’ve taken quite a few long bus rides over the past several months: Bariloche to Mendoza, Argentina, 19 hours; Cusco to Lima, Peru, 22 hours; another handful that lasted 14-18 hours; more than I care to count in the eight to 12 hour range. I’ve gotten pretty good at it, so after a string of seven bus-less weeks, I’m coming back for more.

I’m setting out from Portland’s Greyhound station tonight at 11 bound for Cleveland, Ohio, on a trip that will take me through ten states in two days, 14 hours and 25 minutes. Among those, Idaho, Utah, Wyoming, Nebraska and Iowa will be first-time transits.

Photos of a fleet of sleekly designed, comfortable and wifi-equipped buses figure prominently on the venerable American coach company’s website; I’m banking on the hope that they’ll be a step or two above those that Greyhound used the last time I rode on one – back in 1992 when I traveled from the US-Mexican border at Brownsville, Texas to Athens, Ohio in the Appalachian foothills.

Unfortunately, I won’t have time to stop anywhere along the way. My return to Slovenia has been booked (9 Sep) and I’ve got several family commitments in and around Ohio I’m looking forward to before heading back to Europe.

So why not fly?

Because my intention from the beginning of this trip back in January was to travel exclusively overland. Had I not gotten sick in June, that streak which began in Tierra del Fuego would not have been broken last month when I boarded a plane last in San Jose, Costa Rica for the Pacific Northwest.

So it’ll be all highway, almost all the time. And seedy city centers at 4 am the rest of the time. Looking forward.

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Near the Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia, 27-Mar-2013

Six Months in, a Change in Plan

I’m writing this in San Jose, Costa Rica, exactly where I had planned to be on the six-month anniversary of this Around the World trip. The time spent here however turned out to be a little different than what I anticipated.

Instead of winding down a month-long visit with close friends and exploring more of the country on my third visit here, I spent most of the past four weeks on the mend from Hepatitis A and planning my next moves. As I mentioned in my last post, I’m pretty much recovered from the virus, but still a bit weak, which led to what was ultimately an easy decision: to end this overland trip in San Jose, and save a return visit to the rest of Central America for another time.  A return to Asia will have to wait as well. So tomorrow I’m off to Portland, Oregon, and the US Pacific Northwest, which was also part of the plan. I’m just skipping the overland part. ☺

Even before I got sick I was mulling over changes in plan. The initial idea, fourteen to sixteen months on the road, was already looking overly ambitious by month four, when I simply began feeling tired. With deadlines to meet, curbing that travel fatigue with a long break somewhere wasn’t possible. So I was just getting more tired.

But no worries, and certainly, absolutely no regrets. As the cinereus harrier flies, I covered nearly 9,000 kilometers between the Beagle Channel in Argentina’s Tierra del Fuego and the Costa Rican capital. All things considered, it was one of the best six-month periods of my life.

The working plan now is to spend about a month or so with friends in and around Portland, and then a few weeks with family and friends in Ohio before returning to Slovenia sometime in the middle of September. After finishing my manuscript, I’ll hit the road again. ☺

In the meantime, I have plenty of catching up to do here on the blog. Look for that to begin later this week.

And many thanks again for all the comments, emails and messages over the past several weeks. All are very much appreciated.

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Molas, One Tree Islands, and Leaving South America Behind – RTW Week #21

Panama City, Panama – These last seven days, the 21st week into my Round the World jaunt, witnessed a pair of milestones: the first, saying goodbye to South America after 142 days (and 7,754 kilometers, or 4,818 miles), and the second, sailing on the open sea for the first time.

The latter, with three-and-a-half days lounging lazily in the San Blas Islands, fit nicely into the rest and relaxation theme I forced myself to undertake at the beginning of the month. Even now, a few days after returning to solid ground, I’m still feeling the calming sway of those Caribbean waves as I sit at my desk. So much so that I nearly let this weekly review go by before returning to the road tomorrow. But even though I’m still in R&R mode, I can’t and won’t let that happen. Not just four weeks into the project. :)

I’m preparing a separate post or two about the voyage itself, one that over a five-day four-night stretch brought myself and fifteen other passengers from Cartagena to Panama. So to save those details for later, I’ll keep this review relatively short and hopefully sweet, allotting no more than four sentences to each day. Almost haiku-like. Onwards.

Tuesday, June 11 – Cartagena, Colombia
I spend a few hours of the morning working and am caught in a sublimely beautiful downpour after venturing out to take some photos in old town in the afternoon. I pay 155,000 pesos, about 81 US dollars, for some prescription medicine. It’s disheartening to learn that the closer I get to the United States the more expensive medication becomes.

Cartagena 021

 

Wednesday, June 12 – Cartagena, Colombia
The moment most worth remembering is the one when I’m casually walking down the middle of a narrow cobblestoned street in colonial Cartagena carrying six bottles of wine through a torrential downpour and feeling inordinately content.

Cartagena 024

Thursday, June 13 – Cartagena, Colombia, and the open Caribbean
Some two hours after our boat, the 84-foot Independence, sails out of Cartagena harbor, we’re surrounded by nothing but cobalt blue, our setting for the next 28 hours. About two hours before sunset we sail through a school of large dolphins. Immediately after dinner I go outside to lie down and watch a pleasant starry night pass by; I don’t leave my spot until after dawn.

Saying goodbye to South America - one last glance at the Cartagena skyline.

Saying goodbye to South America – one last glance at the Cartagena skyline.

Friday, June 14 – At sea, the San Blas Islands
Land beckons shortly before noon as a pair of birds appear on the horizon. We later anchor within swimming distance of two small islands. On one I see an exquisite mola for the first time while another, just a little farther away, is home to two small trees that can’t hide a large pile of trash. For dinner we have a fresh, succulent lobster, the best I’ve ever tasted.

San Blas 002

Saturday, June 15 – At sea, the San Blas Islands
Much of the day is spent reading, swimming and kayaking. The water is so warm and clear that you can watch the starfish sweat. During a forty-minute journey to our anchorage for the night, we pass a wreck where the handcuffed bodies of a husband and wife were found. I begin to entertain the idea of retracing part of a northbound route I took through Central America twenty-one years ago.

San Blas 003

Sunday, June 16 – At sea, the San Blas Islands
We sail another short distance and anchor among a few small islands, some inhabited. On one, Isla Caracol, or Conch Island, an old woman, typically tiny like most Kuna, sits in the shade sewing a mola skirt. We watch a dolphin swim around the channel looking for a way out the shallow waters. We end the day with dinner on Elephant Island after the week’s most colorful sunset.

San Blas sunset

San Blas sunset

Monday, June 17 – At sea, Panama City
For the fourth straight day I’m awake at just past six, and the boat is already on its way. We reach land about a kilometer up the still and narrow Rio Barsukum, where we’re stuffed into SUVs and drive for an hour on hellaciously steep ascents and descents through the jungles of eastern Panama. Three hours later we arrive in Panama City, home to one of the world’s most modern skylines. It’s a raucous symphony of metal and glass that, coupled with the heavily congested streets, is a parallel universe away from the two-tree islands of San Blas.

Panama City skyline

Panama City skyline

Enjoy your week. I’m already enjoying mine.

[Check out the summaries for Weeks #20, #19 and #18.]

***

These snaps are this week’s contribution for Travel Photo Thursday (#TPThursday on twitter) hosted by Nancie on her website, Budget Travelers Sandbox. When you have few minutes to browse, check out Nancie’s photos and those of others who take part. You’ll see some great photos and visit some wonderful places. The direct link for this week’s post is here.

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Medellin, Cartagena and a Bout of Travel Fatigue – RTW Week #20

Cartagena, Colombia –The Hotel Stil is an eleven-story relic of the late nineteen-sixties or seventies that isn’t good at wearing its age. Everything about it is weathered. Humidity hangs in the foyers like an old wet blanket on a forgotten clothes line. The two narrow elevators rattle as they shake. The faint smell of frying grease lingers in the stairwells.

But it’s also functional, the Spartan rooms comfortable and clean and the staff friendly and welcoming, almost to a fault. Cartagena’s well-preserved historic city center, the eighth UNESCO World Heritage Site I would visit on this trip, is less than a ten-minute walk away. All things considered, a good base for much of RTW Trip Week #20.

Even prior to arriving on Colombia’s steamy Caribbean coast, the goal was to get a bit of R&R this week, essentially to listen to body and soul, both of which have been complaining –sometimes loudly– in recent weeks. That I succeeded to a certain extent is due more to Cartagena’s sultry climate than to any great effort on my part. But hey, I’ll take it. But I do need more.

Tuesday, June 4 – Medellin, Colombia
I spend much of the day indoors working on my manuscript; pleased with a rhythm that has developed, I go out for a quick stroll and wind up to the Plaza Cisneros, a busy square that’s home to dozens of twenty four-meter high light poles, a jungle of metal growing from a concrete forest floor. A large, attractive municipal library flanks the park at one end, refurbished brick buildings housing offices and shops at the other. Two police officers mounted on segways take a break in the shade provided by a narrow flank of trees.

Medellin  019000

I decide I need another light shirt so I buy a Colombian national football team kit for fifteen thousand pesos, roughly eight dollars. The shirt vendor’s young daughter introduces me to Lulo juice. It’s not among my favorites.

Wednesday, June 5 – Medellin, Colombia
I visit the Botanical Garden in the early afternoon where I enjoy the company of hundreds of vividly colored flowers and interrupt an iguana’s lunch. I then spend about an hour riding the city’s modern, sleek and efficient metro, exit at a random station, and then walk for about an hour in an area of town that’s slipped under the clean-up crew’s radar. I conclude that the majority of Medellin’s homeless, at least those living in cardboard dwellings under overpasses, are exceedingly friendly.

Salon Malaga, Medellin

Salon Malaga, Medellin

I have my last coffee of the day at the Salon Malaga on Calle 51 Bolivar, near the San Antonio metro station. It’s packed with old jukeboxes from various eras, the walls are covered with photos of singers and musicians, and coffee is just eight hundred pesos, around forty-two cents.

In the mood for a waltz? Or some hillbilly?

In the mood for a waltz? Or some hillbilly?

Thursday, June 6 – Medellin, Colombia
It’s my last day in Medellin so I decide to try out a ‘four by four’ experiment I concocted a few months ago, but never quite put into practice. It is to go something like this: When passing through a larger city for only a short period of time, I would spend the vast majority of that time in a four square-block with my hotel at its center. That type of exploration, the thesis goes, would allow me to at least experience one area of a city fairly well. Since I get a late start which further limits my time, I reduce the area to three blocks by three. I don’t even cover half of it.

As I walk I count fruit vendors (twenty-six), bakeries (eleven), theaters (two), available taxis (forty-one), juice sellers (twelve), and people peddling phone calls (lots). The latter, with cheap mobiles chained to their belt loops, are ubiquitous. During lunch I watch one particularly enterprising woman who has five calls going simultaneously, tugged every so often in a different direction. I’m surprised that I see more than one person walking the street selling incense sticks (four).

My bus (Brasilia) is scheduled to depart at six-thirty from the Terminal Norte. The 109,000 peso ride, roughly fifty-seven dollars, is to take thirteen hours. I wasn’t awake to see the lay of the land arriving in Medellin and I’m disappointed that it’ll be too dark to get a grasp of the geography upon departure.

We pull out of the station at six forty-seven; at nine we stop for a brief dinner break at a place called Estadero Tono. The walls are lined with black and white drawings of famous thinkers, writers, scientists. I had no idea that Pablo Escobar looked like Honoré de Balzac.

Honoré de Balzac? Or Pablo Escobar?

Honoré de Balzac? Or Pablo Escobar?

Friday, June 7 – Cartagena, Colombia
I wake up at about half past six and quickly see that the environment has changed dramatically. The only trees along the surprisingly rough road are those that bear bananas. I can’t feel the heat but I can see it. Locals are already walking along the roads beneath sun-blocking umbrellas.

After a brief police check at eight –the officer has no idea where or what Slovenia is– we arrive at Cartagena’s sprawling station at eight thirty-five, fourteen hours after departure. The taxi journey is a fairly long but illuminating ride, so after some time passes I no longer feel upset about the inflated 20,000 peso fare I paid, roughly $10.50. According to World Bank stats, about forty percent of Colombians live in poverty. In Cartagena, the figure is six in ten. Many of those live along the route my taxi driver covered.

We arrive at the hotel at 9:25 where I’m greeted by an enthusiastic bellhop and given a glass of fresh squeezed orange juice at reception. Just behind me, about five dozen young men and women climb out of two buses carrying brass instruments and bass drums which will provide a large portion of my weekend’s soundtrack. I’m given a corner room on the tenth and top floor where I nap for the next four hours.

I’m up and about in time for the Colombia-Argentina World Cup qualifier. A beer-guzzling sea of yellow jerseys packs the plazoleta near my hotel to watch the game on a pub’s big screen TV. Colombia outplays favored Argentina and drew them to a tie. The honking car horns, noise makers and brass bands continue well into the night.

Watching a football match, Cartagena, Colombia

This was to be the day I revisit the possibility that travel fatigue is setting in. I can’t decide if it’s a good idea to schedule that self-examination on the day after another very long overnight bus ride when I hardly get any sleep – or if it was indeed apropos. I decide that the timing is bad so I put it off one more week. I also decide that if I’m still feeling lethargic and somewhat indifferent to my spectacular surroundings when I’m in the San Blas Islands next week, a serious look as to why I’m doing this will be in order.

Saturday, June 8 – Cartagena, Colombia
In late morning the plazoleto is full once again, as it will be on Sunday as well; this time it’s major league baseball that’s the TV draw. It’s mostly men sitting in plastic chairs talking and laughing, surrounded by empty beer bottles. A few tap their feet to the loud salsa music coming from the competing bar next door.

I head into the old city, first to explore the Modern Art Museum – there’s a strong collection of Latin American works from the 1950s– then just to wander the narrow cobblestone streets.

Museum of Modern Art, Cartagena

Museum of Modern Art, Cartagena

On the famous wall that surrounds the city, one women approaches and offers me two young “negritas” for the evening. A few minutes later another offers a very intimate massage. I tell them both that I’m just looking for some sliced mango.

Sunday, June 9 – Cartagena, Colombia
I remember that Cartagena is a stop for R&R so do very little besides read and watch CNN. I do venture out briefly and notice two things worth noting. The first is a woman standing next to a plastic scale who offers passersby the opportunity to weigh themselves for two hundred pesos, about ten cents. The second is that one can buy chicken or mayonnaise flavored chips here.

Cartagena 016

Monday, June 10 – Cartagena
It’s a holiday so the plazoleta, like much of the streets, is much more subdued. Most shops are shuttered. The music is turned down and at the corner pub a white cover cloaks the TV.

In late morning, two buses, loaded with young brass band musicians and their instruments, depart.

I finalize my sail boat transport to Panama via the San Blas Islands where we spend three of the five days. My boat, an eighty-five footer called The Independence, has a Slovenian captain. I’ve never been sailing. We leave Thursday morning.

***

Check out the summaries for Week #19 here, and #18 here.

Cartagena, looking north towards the Caribbean

End of the South American Line – Postcard from Cartagena

Cartagena, Colombia – After a fourteen-and-a-half hour bus ride from Medellin, I arrived in Cartagena this morning, the northernmost point I plan to reach on the South American continent. The snap above, taken from the top floor of my hotel, was my first view of the Caribbean since 1999.

The climb north officially began 127 days ago on Martillo Island on the Beagle Channel in Tierra del Fuego, the southernmost point where I managed to plant my feet. As the harrier flies, that’s 7,754 kilometers, or 4,818 miles ago, nearly twice the width of the continental U.S. With the exception of a couple hitches, the entirety was covered by bus. I think last night’s was the last longer bus ride for at least the next two months. I hope so because they’re killing me.

Cartagena is also the hottest place I’ve experienced this year. The mercury had already reached 32 C (90 F) when I arrived this morning, with the humidity hovering at about 80 percent. Now, it’s cooled down to a sultry 30 degree (86 F), which weather.com says ‘feels like 99’. I believe it.

Just eighteen weeks to cover the length of an entire continent was woefully short, particularly the past month when the sudden immediacy of deadlines forced abbreviated stays in Ecuador and Colombia. I have to be in San Jose, Costa Rica, on the 27th, and have to catch a boat here for Panama (via the San Blas Islands!) on the 14th. So I won’t be moving on just yet.

I’ll be parked in Cartagena for the next six nights, exploring the city’s colonial charms while trying to catch up on a bit of work. I’ve been making decent progress on my book manuscript in recent weeks, so I can’t stop the momentum now. I hope to share a chapter or two here when they’re near some sort of completion.

To give you quick lay of the land, below are a few more snaps taken today.

Enjoy!

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Botero’s Mujer con fruta in Botero Plaza, Medellin

Hummingbird Farms, Grass Pyramids and Botero Plaza – RTW Week #19

Medellin, Colombia – This past week, the 19th into my RTW trip, began in the Zen surroundings of a hummingbird and butterfly farm in the mountains outside of Quito and ended at Botero Plaza in the loud and busy heart of central Medellin. In between, I spent about 37 hours in transit, snapped 949 photos, and added the fruit juices of Colombia to my list of fetishes. And speaking of which –lists, not fetishes– Colombia earned the distinction of becoming No. 50 (!) on my Countries-Visited List.

Tuesday, May 28 – Quito and Mindo, Ecuador
I make a day trip to Mindo –about two hours one-way from Quito– where I spend the late morning and early afternoon with hundreds of hummingbirds and butterflies, taste organic chocolate, and enjoy my first experience with the addicting sweetness of stevia, now my new favorite plant. Laura, my travel partner for the day, agrees.

 

Not all butterflies are free.

Not all butterflies are free.

 

Laura - a natural at modeling with butterflies

Laura – a natural at modeling with butterflies

 

Hummingbird in Mindo

Hummingbird in Mindo

During a brief hike through the jungle, I see a toucan in the wild for the first time. He even perches still long enough for me to switch lenses and snap a photo, albeit not a very good one.

Yellow-Throated Toucan (Ramphastos ambiguus) in Mindo, Ecuador

Yellow-Throated Toucan (Ramphastos ambiguus)

Wednesday, May 29 – Quito, Ecuador
It’s a lazy day. I wake up listless, not for the first time in recent weeks. I wonder if burn out is setting in and decide to seriously revisit the topic in 10 days.

Twice I interrupt long rounds of reading on the bed in my windowless room, both times for aimless walks around the centro historico to snap some photos. The highlight of the first stroll is watching a couple argue in the large square in front of the Church and Convent of San Francisco. The woman, speaking forcefully and with conviction, shoves and slaps the man in the face a few times. He responds by blowing smoke in her face.

Street musicians in Quito, Ecuador

Jammin’ till the jam is through. Quito

 

It’s raining steadily when I venture out again, shortly after six. When it turns into a downpour, I duck into the small café where I had breakfast the morning I arrived. There are seven customers: two are dining, four are watching a Newell’s-Boca Juniors Argentine Cup football match, and I’m watching all of them. I had typically bad instant coffee and a very good pineapple pastry but don’t stay for the end of the game which Newell’s won after a marathon 13-round penalty shootout.

Thursday, May 30 – Quito, Ecuador
I wake up energized so decide that visits to two museums won’t be one too many on my last day in Ecuador.

I spend part of the morning and afternoon acquainting myself with the work of the country’s best known painters and sculptors, Oswaldo Guayasamin, at his home and studio-turned museum in the hills at the eastern edge of Quito. His is described as a “Pan-American” style, his most notable works focusing on the social inequities in Latin America. I enjoy his work so much that I break my No. 1 RTW Travel Rule and buy a big and somewhat heavy book. He was a serious collector, too, with dozens of works from various eras gracing his walls. The standouts? A series of 18 prints by Goya and a playful piece by Chagall of a man squeezing a mermaid’s breast.

Guayasamin Museum, Quito

Guayasamin Museum, Quito

Next up is the Museo Nacional to feed, with one last dose, my growing interest in pre-Columbian Ecuador. I’ve become fascinated by the Valdivia culture, one of the oldest recorded cultures in the Americas, which dates back to 3500 BC, and the Jama-Coaque, which dates back some 2,500 years. I want one last look at them, and at the Giants of Bahia, insanely cool meter-tall sculptures created about two millennia ago.

I’m in a good mood so I skip the Conquest portion of the museum, choosing a return trip to the Basilica instead so I can shoot a quick pre-sunset time lapse. I get there about thirty minutes before closing, quickly make my way up to the belfry and shoot for about twenty minutes. On my way out I have a quick cappuccino in the third level coffee shop; I choose to descend via the stairway instead of the elevator. That decision nearly forces me to spend the night in the largest neo-Gothic basilica in the Americas.

It turns out that closing time is strictly enforced. The stairways on both back ends of the basilica end at the fronts of doors chained with large medieval padlocks. I return to the center of the wide balcony where for a moment I stand transfixed, admiring how the sun brilliantly illuminates the church interior through stained glass. I break through the spell and start yelling down for help, pleas that are rendered silent as they sail through the vast church. I feel like a frustrated howler monkey, my yells growing louder as they remain ignored. I consider prayer. I finally capture someone’s attention. About forty minutes later the keeper of the key returns and I’m saved from the rafters.

Quito’s Basílica del Voto Nacional, the largest neo-Gothic basilica in the Americas

Quito’s Basílica del Voto Nacional, the largest neo-Gothic basilica in the Americas

I meet Laura for dinner at the Café Dios no Muere, a small restaurant located on three narrow floors of the Santa Catalina convent southeastern corner. It’s run by Mathieu, a New Orleans native who tells me that our visit coincides with the first batch of crawfish –river crabs to the locals– that he’s ever prepared on the premises. The name, God Doesn’t Die, is taken from the last words attributed to Ecuadorian president Gabriel Garcia Moreno who was assassinated in 1875. After he was taken down in a machete and revolver attack, Dominican nuns hid his body in the convent.

My bus is scheduled to leave at 10pm. I arrive at the station at about 9:20, ten minutes before being told that there would be a two-hour delay. We didn’t pull out until just before 1.

Friday, May 31 – Quito, Ecuador to Popayán, Colombia
We arrive at the border at Rumichaca, a bridge over the Carchi River that dates back to the Incas, at 7am. Formalities on both sides only take about thirty minutes, but for some reason we didn’t move on until 9. I’m told that Popayán is another eight hours away. But the road is slow and I ignore that ETA. Long winding ascents precede long twisting descents. Patches of road work, mainly to clean up landslides damage, are common. But the scenery is stunning – mountainous, lush, misty, dramatic. I try counting the shades of green before briefly dozing off.

Welcome to Country No 50!

Welcome to Country No 50!

We stop for a 45-minute lunch at about 1pm (we were back on the road about 90 minutes later). I have a vegetable, beef and potato soup, a plate piled high with rice, beans, plantain and a piece of beef, washed down with a tall glass of maracuya, or passion fruit juice. It’s a deal at 6,000 pesos, a bit over three dollars. The official exchange on Thursday was 1,900 pesos to the US dollar. I’m given 1,700 at the restaurant where I’m not really in a position to negotiate. Nor do I feel it’s necessary.

The lunch stop is located in a small settlement that includes a gas station, the restaurant, another tienda across the street, a pool hall and about a dozen houses, most of them with posters advertising pre-paid mobile phone cards. The light rain returns as we pull out, and steadily increases as the journey progresses. It’s nearly a downpour by seven when the countryside turns completely dark.

I’m the only passenger whose journey ends in Popayán, so the driver deems it appropriate to drop me off at a gas station/convenience store/bakery at the edge of town. “It’s safe here,” I’m told by the steward who plops my bag into a small muddy puddle.

It’s a few minutes after 7:30 but even the darkness and limited vision through the heavy condensation on the taxi’s window can’t conspire to mask how obviously attractive the center of this city is. As we speed along the wet straight roads that make up the center’s perfect grid layout, my taxi driver Miguel gives me a quick rundown on what I need to see and where I don’t need to go after dark. I reach my hotel at 8, nineteen hours after leaving Quito.

Alcaldia, or City Hall, Popayan, Colombia

Alcaldia, or City Hall, Popayan, Colombia

Saturday, June 1 – Popayán, Colombia
I wake to find bright blue cloudless skies that make the whitewash of the town almost blinding. Clouds would eventually begin to roll in, covering the landscape with immense puffy clouds. After three it began to rain hard, a storm that wouldn’t let up until late into the evening.

It’s a short five-minute climb to the top of El Morro de Tulcán, a grass-covered burial pyramid built at least 2,500 years ago. Since 1937 it’s been topped by a statue of the city’s Spanish founder, Sebastián de Belalcázar, who poses triumphantly on horse back. I find the location of a memorial to a conquistador atop an ancient burial ground gravely insulting.

Sunset time on El Morro de Tulcán. Popayan, Colombia.

Sunset time on El Morro de Tulcán. Popayan, Colombia.

 

I buy my onward ticket for Medellin, a 12-hour journey scheduled to leave Sunday night at 7:45pm. As I fork over 65,000 pesos (USD 34.31 / EUR 26.26), I’m confident that it won’t last more than 13. When returning from the bus station I drive by two dwarfs engaged in an animated discussion. One is carrying a sword that was longer than he was tall.

I’m well on the way to becoming a major fan of the Juices of Colombia. The third of the day, bought from a street vendor, is guanava/Guanabana, my favorite thus far. It’s a green, prickly papaya-shaped fruit, with a citrusy strawberry-pineapple taste and creamy texture. In English it’s called soursop and is related to the pawpaw.

Guanava/guanabana vendor in Popayan.

Guanava/guanabana vendor in Popayan

Sunday, June 2 – Popayán, Colombia
It’s Sunday, which means that I hear and listen to lots of singing coming from the open doors of churches I walk by at various times of the morning and early afternoon. I buy some pineapple and sit by the central square and watch some small children dance awkwardly and shyly in front of an appreciative crowd. I later spend some time photographing statues of the nine Greek muses that stand atop the Teatro Municipal de Valencia. Terpsichore is my favorite.

Terpsichore dancing on the rooftops of Popayan

Terpsichore dancing on the rooftops of Popayan

In the afternoon I want to check out the modern art collection at the Casa Museo Negret but it’s closed for renovation so instead I visit the Museo Guillermo Leon Valencia across the street, the home of a former President of Colombia. There are pictures showing him as a pensive hunter, a devout catholic, and in audience with John F. Kennedy, Charles de Gaulle and Spanish dictator Federico Franco.

I arrive at the bus station early where I buy some sweet bread and crackers. I’m surprised and annoyed that in a country so rich in both quantity and diversity of fruit that none is available for purchase at the bus terminal on a Sunday evening.

The bus, scheduled to leave at 7:45, pulls out at 8:10. Less than two hours later I’m lulled to sleep by a poorly-dubbed version of the Hugh Jackman film, Real Steel.

Monday, June 3 – Medellin, Colombia
A firm tug at my arm wakes me at a few minutes after three. “Caballero, pasaporte por favor,” I hear coming from behind a bright flashlight mounted to a large man’s small head. He’s a policeman who also frisks me and searches my bags. He does the same with most of the rest of the male passengers.

We arrive at the Medellin Sur bus terminal at about 6:30, an hour ahead of schedule.  My hotel is about a 10-minute taxi ride away – despite my early arrival, I’m given a room immediately. I flick on the fan, lay down and barely move until noon.

I head out to get my bearings. As a big fan of Fernando Botero’s work, the only item on my Medellin must-see list is a visit to his eponymous plaza. Located in the heart of the city center, it’s the city’s only open air museum and home to 23 sculptures donated by the city’s favorite son. I spend the next four hours in the area, one where seemingly everyone feels welcome and at home. Young mothers, drunks and cigarette and lime juice vendors freely intermingle with musicians, beggars, bankers and artists. I decide that it’s among my favorite plazas in the world.

Botero Plaza, Medellin

Botero Plaza, Medellin

Wishing you all a wonder-filled week.

**

[Check out the summary for Week #18 here.]
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Bootleg Barbies, an Inauguration, a March Against Monsanto and the Coolest Floor in the World – RTW Week #18

Quito facing southwest from the centro historico

Quito facing southwest from the centro historico

Quito, Ecuador – If there’s been one constant on my extended jaunt around the world, it’s been this: I’m finding myself easily distracted. As travel goes, that’s hardly a terrible thing. My curiosity is pulling me in various directions, tossing me into a multitude of tangents. I’m rekindling old passions that thankfully were only temporarily lost while discovering entirely new ones. It’s all been very liberating, something everyone should have the opportunity to live and experience.

I only bring up that tangent because I was planning to post this on Monday, the first of what I hope will be a weekly feature here: an overview of some of the highlights (and lowlights) of my previous seven days on the road, posted in a loose journal form that will give readers an idea of what I’ve been up to while forcing me to organize thoughts and notes into a somewhat cohesive form.

But since I’m more than a day late, this first one will cover eight days, with future reviews to be published each Monday. I’d love to hear your thoughts as this idea, and the blog itself, continue to evolve.

***

This past week, the 18th into my RTW trip, I witnessed an historic inauguration of Latin America’s most popular president, saw stacks of barely legal shark fins and crossed the equator for the first time. I snapped more than 1,200 photos, experienced some wonderful food, and most importantly, met and made some new friends. You know who you are. Thanks for your graciousness, insight and warm hospitality. Onward.

Monday, May 20 – Manta, Ecuador
I decide to stay close to home –in this case the uninspired Hotel Las Gaviotas— and go for an early morning stroll along Tarqui Beach to check out the day’s fresh catch informal market. What I find are piles of neatly sliced shark fins from the ‘legal illegal’ catch. Walking with camera in hand, I’m not made to feel very welcome so I don’t linger too long. But I do manage to snap enough photos for a somewhat interesting 76-second slide show. I decide that staying in Manta for just two nights was a good idea.

The real prize: pile of shark fins on Tarqui beach in Manta, Ecuador

The real prize: pile of shark fins on Tarqui beach in Manta, Ecuador

It’s too cloudy and overcast for a memorable sunset, but the dozens of pelicans that roosted yesterday in the trees along the small park across the street from the hotel converge again anyway, making my last Manta sunset memorable after all.

Continue reading…

‘Around the World’, at 120 Days

Salt Miner, Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia, 28-Mar-2013

Salt Miner, Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia, 28-Mar-2013

Today, 21 May 2013, marks 120 days since I began this Around The World Trip, exactly four months to the day, and the first day of the 18th week. It’s been an amazing ride. And in many ways, it’s only just begun.

To mark the occasion I put together this quick slide show featuring one or two pics taken each day, set chronologically. One hundred and eighty in all, shot from 22-Jan-2013 thru 19-May.

Many thanks to everyone who’s followed and participated here on Piran Cafe, my personal and blog Facebook pages, Google+, twitter, Flickr and Vimeo. It’s all appreciated more than you’ll ever know. The next four months will have more of a work-based focus, so look for more posts, more stories and more photos. Please continue to spread the word.  :)

Pictures taken in:
~ Buenos Aires, Argentina ~ Ushuaia, Argentina ~ Punta Arenas, Chile ~ Puerto Natales, Chile ~ Calafate, Argentina ~ El Chalten, Argentina ~ Los Antiguos, Argentina ~ Chile Chico, Chile ~ Rio Tranquilo, Chile ~ Villa Cerra Castillo, Chile ~ Coyhaique, Chile ~ Puyuhuapi, Chile ~ Chaiten, Chile ~ Puerto Montt, Chile ~ Puerta Varas, Chile ~ Peulla, Chile ~ Bariloche, Argentina ~ Mendoza, Argentina ~ Santiago, Chile ~ San Pedro de Atacama, Chile ~ Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia ~ Uyuni, Bolivia ~ Potosi, Bolivia ~ Sucre, Bolivia ~ La Paz, Bolivia ~ Copacabana, Bolivia ~ Cusco, Peru ~ Lima, Peru ~ Zorritos, Peru ~ Puerto Pizarro, Peru ~ Guayaquil, Ecuador ~ Puerto Lopez, Ecuador ~ Manta, Ecuador

~ music ~
Terra
by
Chico Correa and Electronic Band
(CC BY-NC-SA 3.0)

Aguas Calientes 02

Cusco, Aguas Calientes, Lima and the First 100 Days – A Week in the Life of my RTW

Aguas Calientes 02

Lima – Last Wednesday, May Day, unceremoniously marked Day No. 100 of my Around the World Trip. I devoted about five minutes of my typically deliberate breakfast time to scribbling notes about the milestone in my journal, but found myself stuck after variations of only two prevailing themes emerged: the first was the clichéd reaffirmation that time continues to pass at an amazing rate (Really?), and the second the rightly self-critical reaffirmation that I’ve done very little writing on this blog over those one hundred days.

In my review of this trip’s first five weeks, posted on the last day of February, I wrote:

There’s been an itch of guilt –albeit a tiny one— lingering unscratched in the back of my mind for not having done much writing here on Piran Café over the past five weeks. I’ve been busily collecting notes from the outset, sometimes incessantly, for what I hope will evolve into a book-length manuscript. I haven’t, however, figured out how to balance that with writing here since the focus of each is necessarily very different. I’m working on a plan, though, that will be set in motion shortly. ☺

Much of that still holds true, except the last bit, since obviously that plan hasn’t yet been set in motion. I’ve already forgotten what that plan was. I don’t have another, but spurred on by some interesting ‘Week in the Life’ posts I recently read on The Professional Hobo, I decided to piece together one of my own, covering the past week. It’s a bit long. But it was a long week. Enjoy.

***

Cusco and Aguas Calientes, Peru – Monday, April 29
The alarm sounds at 5:45, exactly one hour before my journey towards Aguas Calientes, the gateway town for Machu Picchu, is to begin. I have a taxi ordered for 6:20 and arrive at Cusco’s Wanchaq train station with ample time to spare. As it’s the tail end of rainy season, the train is still operating on its first quarter schedule which means that the first leg of about ninety minutes, from Cusco to the Panchar station, is by bus. This is done, a women’s voice over the loudspeaker tells us, to avoid any possible delays that inclement weather might cause along this initial stretch. There are few clouds in the sky and the air is warm when we board the bus, making her proclamation a bit surreal.

‘We’ in this case is myself and Arul, a drug peddler (aka pharmaceutical rep) from the UK who these days calls Switzerland home. We met last month when we both stayed at the CasArte Hostel in Sucre and crossed paths again two days ago a few minutes after my bus pulled in from Copacabana, Bolivia. “Hey Bob!” were the two syllables I least expected to hear at the Cusco bus terminal at 5:10 in the morning. Arul had just arrived from La Paz.

Perurail's Vistadome

Perurail’s Vistadome

The train station at Panchar is immaculate; from a distance it looks like a plywood cutout assembled and painted just a day or two before. The men’s room has a generous stock of soft two-ply toilet paper and fresh cut flowers. The last time I sniffed fresh cut flowers in a restroom was at the four-star Fairmont Hotel in Monaco nearly a year ago.

The remainder of the journey is slow but pleasant, tranquil and picturesque, following the Urubamba River — Willkanuta, or house of the sun, to the Aymara – through the lush mountain valleys whose snow-capped peaks are visible through the glass rooftops of the Perurail cars. We arrive at about 11.

Much of Aguas Calientes, a town of about 5,000, is predictably gaudy. Serving as an introduction: the only way out of the train station and onto the restaurant- and souvenir shop-filled streets is to wander through the massive central tourist market.

Welcome to Aguas Calientes

Welcome to Aguas Calientes

After strolling up and down the main drag to check out accommodation options, we settle on a place called Angie’s which sets us back 20 soles each, or about 7.50 USD/ 5.75 EUR, and compels me to hum Rolling Stones songs for much of the rest of the day.

Lunch is fairly regrettable which I’ll only remember for my first Inka Cola, an appalling fluorescent yellow fizzy soft drink that tastes like bubble gum from the seventies. I’ve seen couples empty liter-and-a-half bottles over meals. Since there’s not much else to do in Aguas Calientes besides eat and shop, we spend afternoon coffee time watching people avoid freshly laid dog shit on the main drag.

Dinner? If you’re ever in Aguas Calientes, Indio Feliz is the place to eat. Owned and operated by a French-Peruvian couple, it’s hands-down the most exciting place to spend time in this town. Delicious, start to finish.

Aguas Calientes, Machu Picchu and Cusco – Tuesday, April 30
The alarm sounds at 4am, but I don’t tumble out of bed until about 4:15 when Arul’s finished in the shower. We’re out the door and in the main square a few ticks before 4:40 where we run into a group of twenty or so very fast-walking French. We reach the main gate right precisely at 5, it’s opening time, where we’re part of a group of about one hundred who are preparing, with varying degrees of enthusiasm, to begin the steep hour-long ascent up a few thousand steps with two goals in mind: to arrive at the entrance to the ruins before the first buses do and to witness the sun rise over one of the world’s seven wonders.

I arrive at 6:15, about twenty minutes behind Arul and just after the first two buses arrive. Our early morning effort means that there are only about 200 people spread about the ruins when the sun finally peeks over the jagged eastern mountain peaks at a few minutes before seven. It’s a scene and moment I’ll long remember not so much for its inherent aesthetic appeal but because I feel guilty for feeling underwhelmed by the scene.

The hiking was far from over. After an informative guided tour, at 9:30 we continue upwards to Machu Picchu Mountain, another very steep hour-and-a-half hike. The 360-degree views from the 3,082-meter summit are sensational and go a long way to temper the underwhelming feeling I was struck with a few hours before.

From the summit of Machu Picchu mountain

From the summit of Machu Picchu mountain

We take a bus back down to Aguas Calientes and kill nearly three hours over a long lunch at Indo Feliz, the only place in town worth visiting twice. The return train goes only as far as Ollantaytambo where Arul decides to stay; along with three others –a couple from Utah and a solo traveler from Tokyo— I negotiate a taxi ride back to Cusco. We each pay 15 Soles, about 5.75 USD/4.40 EUR, for a ride that includes a roadblock set up by squatters camped on a hillside beneath the Southern Cross.  I’m back at my hotel at about 10:30 and out for the night less than half an hour later.

Cusco – Wednesday, May 1
I decide on Tuesday that I should stay in Cusco for another two nights, forcing me to spend part of the morning taking care of a short logistical to-do list. Changing the date on my bus departure was possible, I’m told by the person who sold it to me, but it’ll cost 10 soles plus another six for cab fare for him to get it taken care of in person. I thank him and am told to return in about an hour; the colorful May Day parade, with hundreds of local dancers and labor union activists taking part, kept me pleasantly occupied in the meantime.

Folk dancer, May Day Parade, Cusco, Peru, 01-May-2013

Folk dancer, May Day Parade, Cusco, Peru, 01-May-2013

I celebrate RTW Day No. 100 with an over-priced pizza and a Cusceno beer for lunch, followed with about six hours of work and another early night.

Cusco – Thursday, May 2
I didn’t sleep well but this time it wasn’t because of the dozens of barking dogs that enjoy congregating just below my hotel window most evenings. This time it was screaming coming from the room across the hall, where two young Polish women were trying to scare off a man who grabbed one of them through the bars of a window. They didn’t sleep well either.

I work most of the morning. I meet Arul for lunch at ‘Let’s Go Bananas’, a terrific and cheap vegetarian restaurant. I work most of the afternoon and into the early evening, mainly backing up photos. Another excellent dinner, this time at Inkazuela, currently No. 3 in TripAdvisor’s Cusco restaurant rankings.

Cusco, 01-May-2013

Cusco, 01-May-2013

Cusco – Friday, May 3
I have a 6pm bus departure for Lima –ETA is roughly 22 hours later– so I spend most of the day at my hotel working and planning an outline of my next few weeks. I make time to spend a couple of hours the Museum of Pre-Columbian Art. I order a cab for five which gets me to the bus terminal about fifteen minutes later. It’s already dark when we pull out a few minutes after six. I spend most of the next three hours reading, and the two after that trying to fall asleep.

En route to Lima – Saturday, May 4
I didn’t sleep well. The road over the mountains to the Pacific coast is windy, bumpy and slow.  We reach Nasca at about 8, some two hours after the sunrise I was awake for to watch. About twenty minutes north of the city we approach the area’s vast eponymous plain. I’m disappointed that the driver doesn’t take a high road so we can see the famous lines and drawings that have fascinated me since I was seven years old. (Did anyone else read Chariots of the Gods? Back in the early 1970s?)

I arrive in Lima’s outskirts a bit after two and at our destination at just after three. The traffic is heavy. There is no central bus terminal in the Peruvian capital; the end of the line for buses here is their Lima office and depot. Mine is in the Victoria area, which in mid-afternoon is a dizzying flurry of commerce. It takes a taxi about thirty minutes to reach my hotel in the centro historico.

Iglesia San Agustin, Lima, Peru, 04-May-2013

Iglesia San Agustin, Lima, Peru, 04-May-2013

During a walk to get my bearings, I hear a saxophone in the street for the first time since Buenos Aires – more than three months ago. I decide during the stroll that my experience with Lima won’t reach beyond the four block by nine block area of the city’s historical center district that’s illustrated on the business card-sized map my hotel receptionist gives me. My Walden Pond in one of South America’s largest metropolitan areas.

Lima – Sunday, May 5
I wake up still not entirely recovered from the long bus ride. After breakfast I follow the sound of firecrackers to the central Plaza Mayor where a ceremony is taking place in front of the Government Palace. I can’t make out what exactly is transpiring but it involves lots of soldiers clad in ceremonial uniforms –including an entire orchestral brass section– on horseback. Peruvian national TV is filming the proceedings. The street between a temporary grandstand and the front of the Palace is closed to traffic and pedestrians; the only person allowed there is a street cleaner scooping up the horse droppings.

Sax player on horseback. Lima, Peru, 05-May-2013

Sax player on horseback. Lima, Peru, 05-May-2013

After a three-course seafood lunch that sets me back just 13 soles (5 USD/ 3.80 EUR), I return to my hotel to do a few hours of work, continue to plan my next move, and send off about a dozen emails.

It’s already dark when I venture back out for a bit at 6:30. There’s a crowd gathering in the Plaza San Martin, congregating around a 20-something piece orchestra. The concert, which features a national folklore dance group, is to begin at 7:00. I watch the entire thing. It’s excellent. I’m nearly moved to tears.

I’m lulled to sleep by World’s Greatest Dad, a 2009 Robin Williams film I’d never heard of. He plays a talented but luckless aspiring writer whose rebellious underachieving son dies accidentally while masturbating in an autoerotic asphyxiation episode gone awry. That’s all I can tell you because the movie ended on Monday.