September 2010

(click here for photos) Greetings from Colombia! I arrived in Bogotá almost three weeks ago and spent a week in the capital city, which is very spread-out relative to Quito. After I recovered from a mild cold (greatly helped by eating plenty of good food, such as a fish stew called ¨sancocho¨ my friend Carlos introduced me to), I went to a game of ultimate frisbee hosted by the couch-surfing (travel enthusiast) community. One of the locals invited me to join an ¨English Club,¨ which was a group of about 40 Colombians who wanted to practice speaking English. I was one of about 3 native speakers there, so we were in high demand to explain the difference between tricky words like cheap, cheat, sheer, and shear. After that, I took a few days to travel by bus through the ¨Zona Cafetera¨, where most of Colombia´s famous coffee is produced. Unfortunately, I don´t drink coffee so I can´t say whether it is really the best in the world. But, I can say that the small towns and people are extremely friendly. On the bus from Ibagué to Armenia, for example, we had to go over a high mountain pass, and a landslide blocked the road for hours. With a large family and crying babies in front of me, and no food for 5 hours, it was very frustrating, but nevertheless the man sitting next to me shared some plantain chips and invited me to stay with his family in the next town, Santa Rosa de Cabal. I accepted, and spent a lot of time learning about his business, which involves shipping garlic and onions from Peru to Venezuela, and hanging out with his 11-year-old son Sebastian. Experiencing family life in Colombia made me think about how some things are really universal across cultures, even if the language isn´t the same. I next spent a couple of nights in Medellín, which used to be famous as the ¨murder capital of the world¨ and the headquarters of international drug lord Pablo Escobar, but now is much safer. I was particularly impressed by their extremely efficient metro system, which connects seamlessly to a cable car leading up into the hills, where a very modern new library with internet access has been built in the midst of what once were slums known as ¨the cradle of assassins¨. Currently, I am in Santa Marta on the Caribbean coast (interesting article about the town here). About a week ago I flew into Cartagena and spent a night in Barranquilla (home of famous pop star Shakira), then started the trek to the Lost City, an archaeological site about 3 days walk inside the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta National Park. Hiking through the forest and along raging rivers (one of which we had to cross by a wobbly cable car) was really an adventure, and I got to see not only the ruins but also many unusual plants, including the famous Coca bush from which cocaine is derived. The indigenous Kogui people were growing it in their backyards, along with Guava and Cacao (chocolate) trees, and banana plants. Also, it was my first time to sleep in a hammock on the trip. I plan to explore the beaches of the nearby Tayrona National Park over the next few days, then fly to Leticia in the Amazon region before crossing the border into Brazil.

Here´s some pictures from Ecuador:
I´m back in Bogotá again after an exciting, exhausting last few days in Ecuador. It´s incredible how much there is to see in such a small country. So after my last email, Xan had to return to the US to start his Ph.D. program, and I became a solo traveler. However, I wasn´t alone for long before I had the good fortune to meet my cousin´s girlfriend´s friend from high school (try saying that ten times fast!), who lives with her husband in Quito. It was really fun hanging out with them, and to learn a few dance steps from their friends. I also thoroughly enjoyed visiting the Botanical Garden in one of Quito´s many big parks, where there were not only a variety of rare orchids and unusual tropical flowers, but also a beautiful rose garden and a display of medicinal plants. The next day Milton (a friend from college) invited me to play soccer with some folks from his school. The two teams included Germans, Ecuadorians, 2 Americans (including me), and a surprisingly large contingent of blonde Norwegian girls, who were very fast and agressive when going after the ball. I still have a scar from a collision with one of them! After that, I tried to cram in as much sight-seeing as possible, and rode the bus at least 4 hours every day for about 5 days straight. The first place I visited was a big volcanic lake called Quilotoa. It was very beautiful, but the exposed landscape was windy and very cold, so after taking some pictures I huddled around a wood stove with the Quechua owners of our ¨hostel¨ (more like a shack) and four friendly Australian backpackers. They told interesting stories about their recent visit to Cuba and Mexico, and we speculated on why almost none of the men in Ecuador choose to grow beards. On the way to Riobamba, I stopped for lunch (usually the cost was less than $2) at a small place near the bus station. When they brought out the soup, I eagerly started sipping. But when my spoon dipped closer to the bottom of the bowl, a chicken foot appeared! I was surprised but decided to eat it anyway to impress the waitress (actually I already tried chicken feet once in Hong Kong, so it wasn´t too scary). Riobamba is a popular base to explore Ecuador´s tallest mountain, Chimborazo (20,703 feet; the summit is regarded as the point furthest from the center of the Earth). Obviously, I wasn´t a skilled enough mountaineer to attempt the climb this time, but I did get the chance to hike toward the snow line. The landscape was completely barren of trees. The soil had a reddish tinge that made me feel like I was on Mars, and the thin air made everything seem very surreal. It was the first time I´ve experienced snow fall in the tropics as well. From this point, three Germans and I rode bikes down the mountain, spotting camel-like Vicunyas, Alpacas, and Llamas, as well as a falcon, along the way. I then caught a red-eye bus back to Quito and departed the next day for Bogotá, where I am now (and in the last 5 days here, I have yet to encounter another American). Next week I will probably go to the Zona Cafetera (place in Colombia where coffee is produced) and Medellin.