In August 2013, Tina and I went back to Colombia for a couple of weeks. The last time I was there was in 2010. It was nice to see some old friends again and make some new ones as well. Our first stop was of course Bogota, where we got to see Arieta and her boyfriend Will, who is originally from San Francisco. He had opened an excellent Italian restaurant in La Candelaria which we very much enjoyed. They also took us on a tour of the huge Paloquemao Market which I had not seen before. I took Tina to visit the La Merced neighborhood in La Macarena area, but sadly noticed that the El Cafecito hostel where I stayed before was no longer operational.

We then flew to Cartagena, where we were able to walk around the old city wall and watch the beautiful sunset. We had a long conversation at the hostel with an Australian exchange student, and a Doctor/Nurse couple from Michigan who were about to move to Alaska. They had lived in Duluth, MN for a while and shared several fascinating stories about working in the hospital. The next day we walked over to the huge Castillo de San Felipe (a giant Spanish fort). It was fun exploring the tunnels. We also passed through a surprisingly clean and fancy mall nearby. At lunch we met a local guy named Getty who talked with us for 2 hours about his career as an architect, the local politics, and his friends and family. The fish stew was amazing but I can’t remember if the hole-in-the-wall place even had a name it was so small.

Next, we took the bus to Taganga. I was re-living my memories of long family road trips when I was a kid by playing pokemon on my phone and Tina took a nap. In Taganga, we walked along the shore to the beach. It was way more crowded than I remembered, and full of noisy people, trash, chickens, and stray dogs. However, we found a good cove to swim in, and it was comforting to see many police stationed along the cliff trail. In the hostel there were many colorful characters, such as a sketchy older Argentinian man who was lounging around shirtless and watching Robert de Niro movies. He insisted that I look up some obscure jazz composer that he liked. A friendly Spanish guy was trying to access some gay websites on the computer, but then a crowd of kids ran through the room shoving and looking for a kitten that was hiding under the couch. The next day we rested and went to Santa Marta for some souvenir shopping and met two friendly ladies from a local church who helped us find our way. The following day, we hiked to Parque Tayrona. There was a plethora of other foreigners at Playa Cabo San Juan so we had to camp in a tent instead of staying in the hammocks over the rocks like I had before. We had dinner with a nice couple from Bogota- a tango instructor and a lady who was involved in some kind of herbal supplement pyramid scheme. At night, we kept waking up because the tent leaked and we had to put a big sheet of plastic over it. Of course, under the plastic we would start sweating due to the lack of ventilation and end up just taking it off and letting ourselves get wet anyway. We awoke at 5:30 am to see a beautiful sunrise. We went swimming in the cove and after breakfast hiked back out to the road. We rested at a hostel in Santa Marta and ate a lot of fish and drank delicious guava, pineapple, blackberry, tomate de Arbol, and passion fruit juices. There were many mosquitoes and not many people in the hostel, and “Home Alone” was playing on the TV.

We flew to Medellin. The long bus ride from the airport had beautiful scenery of the mountains. A nice local guy helped us get on the subway system, which was very clean and convenient. We stayed at the Palm Tree Hostel where we shared dinner with a friendly Dutch couple named Rody and Carliene and an older British couple who were vegetarians. A very knowledgeable and enthusiastic Colombian-American guy named Orlando gave everyone travel tips and shared a lot of interesting historical and biological information. The next morning we explored the center of the city where we saw many Botero sculptures. There was a long line of people outside a bank waiting for government checks. We then went up the cable car and chatted with an elderly woman and her middle-aged daughter who were from New Mexico. They were in town for the Pan-American Games. Their son was a javelin thrower from the Naval Academy. At the top of the mountain, we enjoyed exploring with bikes and even got lost on a short hike before luckily finding a guided group who showed us the way back. We bought tons of vegetables and an enormous guanabana at the Exito grocery store (like a Colombian version of Costco or Walmart). We made a big stir-fry and shared it with our new friends at the hostel, some of whom seemed to not know what ginger root was (!). To my surprise, no one liked the guanabana because it was too sour. Orlando told everyone about an interesting, sweet fruit called borojo which we had not tried before. Later, a Canadian girl and a Taiwanese girl arrived and told us they had been separately robbed and stalked in Cartagena. I definitely got the feeling Cartagena had gone downhill somewhat since I was there last. On the other hand, Medellin was as pleasant as ever.

Around this time, there were a lot of agricultural and student protests going on all over Colombia. This made us nervous about trying to get to Santa Rosa de Cabal by road, but we decided to chance it anyway. The road was a classic South American mountain highway- viciously curvy and clogged with slow trucks, which the bus driver never hesitated to try to zoom past in the lane with the opposing traffic. We passed Manizales and got off at the outskirts of Santa Rosa. To our surprise, our host family pulled up almost immediately and boisterously hugged us and took us back to their new house, which was larger than the one I stayed in before. Also, last time they didn’t have a car. I was glad to see they were doing well and able to have some conveniences. Their younger son had really grown up a lot since last time, and they also had a new dog, “Midas”, who loved to bark at skateboarders as they would pass by in the street. I noticed that many of the young people we saw all over the country now had iphones, ipads, and other technological gadgets, whereas before, folks were using the older flip-phones. I think this may have been facilitated by the recent US-Colombia trade agreement, which seems to have been a bittersweet deal in that it also may have contributed to the Colombian farmers’ difficulties in paying for fuel and fertilizer while having to sell crops at lower prices due to increased competition. At least, that’s the sentiment I felt from talking to local people.

After spending a few relaxing days in Salento and Valle Corcora, which was just as lovely as ever, but a bit more touristy, we flew from Armenia back to Bogota. Since we wanted to visit the downtown area, we stayed in La Candelaria, something I had not done before. After visiting the fascinating Gold Museum, we headed to the northern part of the city to explore a bit during the day, especially enjoying a large flower market. On the way back, we were physically unable to cram into the overcrowded transmilenio buses due to failing to anticipate the rush hour. So, after walking about 40 blocks, we finally hailed a taxi cab. The driver almost kicked us out when he heard where we wanted to go, claiming that due to the massive crowd of protesters that had converged on the Plaza Bolivar near our hostel, he was afraid to go anywhere within 10 blocks because “anarchists would throw rocks and burn his cab”. We gave him double fare and he let us out in the outskirts of the frightening scene. We heard distant shouts and popping noises. We carefully skirted the back streets and with a sigh of relief dashed inside the hostel. During the night, the drifting clouds of tear gas would come in through the open courtyard and everyone’s eyes would start burning. We were riveted to the television, and everything seemed surreal. Thankfully, we were able to get out of the city unscathed the next morning and catch our flight home. I don’t know if there is any lesson or moral to the story, but it was an experience I won’t soon forget.

While our last couple of days in Colombia were somewhat more “exciting” than we had hoped, it hasn’t changed my opinion of the country as one of the most beautiful and friendly I have ever visited. I only hope that the people there will continue to prosper and can hopefully find ways to resolve any future conflicts in a peaceful manner. On another note, I will never forget how brave and resilient Tina was during the whole unpredictable trip. I feel truly fortunate that she later agreed to be my wife!

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Greetings everyone! I have returned to the USA after almost 3 months in South America. It feels good to be able to see family and friends here again, but of course I am also a bit sad to be so far away from all of the wonderful people I met during the trip. Also, I have decided to move to the Washington, DC area and start a part-time masters program in statistics at Georgetown as of January 2011. Since my company has an office in Arlington, I will continue working full-time.

That said, I do have a few more stories I’d like to share from my time in Brazil. When I left off last time, I was in the Amazon. From Manaus, I took a plane to Rio de Janeiro. While there I stayed with my friend Leo’s family in a neighborhood called Humaitá. Leo, who once lived in Charlottesville and has a PhD in Philosophy, shared many fascinating insights into Brazilian history and architecture as we wandered around the Rodrigo de Freitas Lake, the Botanical Gardens, and of course the famous Ipanema and Copacabana beaches. Rio reminded me of Hong Kong in many ways. Both are cosmopolitan, semitropical coastal cities where steep, lushly forested mountains form a backdrop to skyscrapers and crowded beaches. One afternoon, Leo and I hiked up to a cable car station to watch the sunset from the top of the Pão de Açúcar (Sugarloaf), a giant vertical granite pillar jutting out of the shallow bay near the financial center. After stumbling back down the trail in the dark, we joined Nicole, an American W&L alumna who now lives in Brazil, and her husband Amod in the Lapa neighborhood to experience Rio’s legendary nightlife. It was just as impressive as one might imagine, with hundreds of people dancing in the streets (and it wasn’t even Carnival). On another occasion, Nicole and Amod took me to a street party in a favela near their home in the fast-growing suburb of Recreio dos Bandeirantes. While it is true that many favelas are basically slums and can be dangerous due to drug gangs, this one was relatively safe, and the people were quite friendly. It was amazing to see not only 20-somethings, but also older married couples and children dancing until late at night. While I admire the Carioca spirit of conviviality, I’m not sure I could survive trying to live there, because the constant excitement can be exhausting at times. So, when Leo needed to fly to Canada for academic business, I decided to explore some of the surrounding countryside on my own. Having the opportunity to visit a place as unique as Rio de Janeiro was certainly a dream come true for me, but Brazil is huge and diverse, and I am also glad I had the chance to see other aspects of the country, about which I will write soon.

(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.

I´m currently in Baños, Ecuador traveling with Xan, my friend from college. Last week I initially arrived in Bogota, Colombia for a couple of days. Even though my flight arrived at 4am, I had no problems safely finding a taxi to the hostel. Amazingly, the first person I met the next morning was a fellow Washington & Lee alumnus, Eric, whom I had not met before. He has been living in Colombia and teaching English for several months. Also, I met up with Carlos, a native of Colombia who was a good friend in the Philippines (we had the same host family there). Arriving in Ecuador, Xan and I had lunch with two other W&L alumni, Veronica and Francisco in Quito. Francisco was the leader of my freshman hiking trip almost 7 years ago and currently works for the UN, and Veronica invited us to visit her family´s farm in northern Ecuador over the weekend. This has been the highlight of the trip so far, as we had the opportunity to explore the countryside on horseback and try delicious food. One interesting plant Veronica´s family grows is ¨tomate de arbol¨ or Solanum betaceum, which has a delightful sweet juice despite its botanical similarity to the tomato with which most North Americans are familiar. We also visited the Lago Cuicocha, which is a volcanic crater lake similar to Taal in the Philippines. The ¨cui¨ is a Guinea Pig, which is often eaten by Andean peoples, so we gave it a try. Our next adventure was climbing the Rucu Pichincha peak (15,400 ft, the tallest mountain I´ve ever climbed. The tallest mountain in the contiguous US states is less than 15,000 ft.). It had a steep, exposed section near the summit but luckily we made it without any missteps. The climb reminded me a lot of Mt. Katahdin, the northern terminus of the Appalachian Trail. We were tired after the climb but hopped on a bus nevertheless to Baños, where we are relaxing and enjoying some hot springs for a few days. Overall, my impression of Ecuador is that the roads and particularly the bus station are in surprisingly good condition, and Quito is less polluted and much colder than I expected. Another surprise in both Bogota and Quito was that there are few two-stroke engines (motorcycle-tricycle) on the roads, and the open air markets are less conspicuous than in Manila. I have another week in Ecuador before returning to Colombia, so I will try to post another update, and some pictures, before then.

Starting in May, I will be taking a 6 month sabbatical from my job.  I will be in summer school at UVA until August (math and statistics), after which I will be traveling around South America until November. Here are some of the places I would like to visit:

  • Colombia- Bogota, Medellin, Cartagena, and Leticia
  • Ecuador- Quito
  • Peru- Iquitos
  • Brazil- Manaus, Rio de Janeiro, Curitiba, and Sao Paolo

If you live in, have traveled to, or want to visit any of these locations, feel free to contact me. I definitely could use some advice as I make plans, which I will post here over the summer. I’m looking forward to visiting old friends, meeting new people, and learning more about this fascinating continent.