Catching Up and Slowing Down

It’s been 10 days since I last posted anything here.  A lot has happened!  We made it back from Colombia without too much incident.  We re-established our home base in Milwaukee – though not either one of our ideals, it’s not bad either.  My dad is an amazing chef so I eat like a queen here, my parent’s house is wonderful – each morning I wake up to an ever-changing view of Lake Michigan, there’s a great yoga studio down the road, I get to cuddle with my favorite pup, and I have lots of quality time with my family.  It’s hard to complain about all that wonderful stuff, but Rick and I must certainly admit that we want our own space as soon as possible.  We had such a wonderful routine back in Australia, and since coming to the United States stability in the patterns and timing of our lives has been such a rarity that it’s been hard to really feel like ourselves.  Couple that with having our belongings scattered across at least three, though possibly four states and you can begin to understand why we feel an urgency to establish our lives in one place soon.

Oddly, we had not anticipated that we would be mentally ready to settle as quickly as it’s happened.  Our initial plan had been to bike tour through Cuba for a month, then travel in Colombia, Bolivia, and possibly Brazil for another two months or more before we settled back to real life.  We nipped that plan in the bud about a month and a half ago somewhere in Nebraska in a fit of really wanting to be together and to start a home.  And I think we are both thrilled with that decision to this day,  though it would be nice to just move forward with the settling part.

Here I feel compelled to make a note on traveling.  I love traveling and experiencing different cultures and parts of the world.  I think it’s valuable and enriching, and I encourage everyone to make time to venture out of his or her homeland and to see life in other places – see what people do for fun, for work, for food, and then come back home and try to feel ungrateful for what you have.  It’s hard.  We have it really good – at least in the US.  We also have what I consider a responsibility, to be aware and cognizant of our privilege and of the realities – political, physical, and psychological, of life in other parts of the world.

With that preamble out of the way, I want to discuss my experience traveling in Colombia now that I have had some time to digest it.  To preface this, we undertook our travel with the understanding that we wouldn’t be spending all our time actively being tourists – much of our time was spent engaging in other activities we deemed crucial to the larger picture – e.g, applying to jobs, attending spanish school for two weeks, and participating in yoga teacher training.  We kept ourselves fairly busy with that, but still made time to get out and see Colombia as we moved through it.  It was a different style of travel than I’m used to.

This style of travel had some significant drawbacks in my mind.  In having to be fully engaged with the real world (in the US) as we traveled, it was somewhat difficult to put ourselves mentally into travel mode and embrace some of the joie de vivre that typically accompanies adventures abroad.  I felt I was doing a constant dance between investing serious time and mental energy in tasks like homework, yoga, and job applications and trying to become fully immersed in Colombian culture.  Our travel constraints also often revolved around things like whether we had decent internet at our hostels, our ability to make phone calls, and our ability to be within walking distance of the activities we chose – which admittedly put us in both very heavily touristed areas (in Cartagena) or (in the case of Bogotá) very hip, nice neighborhoods that might not reflect the greater whole of the city.

Altogether, both Rick and I came away from our travels feeling less like we just came off a long and exciting vacation, and more like we just came off a month of existing much the same way we have been in the US, traveling from place to place and living our lives – albeit more foreign places.  We felt somewhat less like we let go and engaged with the culture and more like we were simply two Americans living abroad – much as we had been in Australia.

Unlike the dreamlike travel experiences I have had in the past in places like Bali, Morocco, or Vietnam – experiences where I felt fully immersed in a new place, senses stimulated and constantly taking in new and wonderful vignettes or different cultures – my travels in Colombia tread a thin line between of being amidst a completely foreign culture yet entirely connected to a familiar one.  Mentally we were in neither place.  That made the experience, in some ways, less fulfilling than some of my previous travel.

I have to say that I don’t in any way regret our travel style – it was exactly what we needed and allowed us to achieve many diverse goals all at once.  But, I do think that perhaps in trying to do as much as we did, we may have slightly diminished the overall experience.  Plus, there is the simple fact that when travel is no longer a vacation from real life, but simply real life taking place outside of its normal parameters, some of the magic and sense of wonder is removed.

I don’t know why I feel compelled to note all this.  I loved our time traveling and don’t regret any of it.  But, I think sometimes travel can be overly romanticized.  There is an important line between travel as an escape from your typical life and travel on a long-term itinerary with a mixture of goals, budgets, and restraints. Though both have their merits, I have to say that I may not be cut out to be a long-term traveler.  When traveling for long periods of time I feel constantly a stranger visiting places where people see me as an outsider.  I feel a lack of purpose at times, and I desire greater engagement with the places I move through.  I marvel at the mental and physical endurance it takes to travel for months at a time – both for the ongoing lack of stability, and for the feelings of constantly being without a community.  Perhaps it’s my rootlessness speaking right now.  It’s hard for me to separate my deep desire to invest myself in a place and community for the long-term,  from my feelings of itineracy while traveling.  They say that all who wander are not lost – and I’ve long thought that true, but when you are constantly moving it’s hard to invest in finding yourself and your purpose.    I want to be invested.  Perhaps I can thank my last trip for confirming to me just how deep-seated this desire is.

Manizales, El Jardin Secreto, and… Montana?

As I write this, there are two puppies curled up on the floor near me, Rick is sitting in hammock a few feet from me, and I’m overlooking a lush, green mountainside that falls away into a valley punctuated by a muddy, boulder-strewn river.  Just setting the scene here.  I almost hate to write this knowing that many of my friends and family are hiding out from the cold weather.  We, on the other hand, are taking a little break from the afternoon heat.

We are about twenty minutes from the city of Manizales, near the coffee-growing zone, at a hostel called the Jardin Secreto.  Unlike most of our previous places, this is actually not owned by locals.  That part is unfortunate.  We practice our Spanish a bit less here than when we stayed in the city of Manizales with the adorable Maria Teresa of the Palogrande hostel – she and I sat and chatted over coffee for a few hours, which was so wonderful for my Spanish and great fun to learn about the city from a local!  But, there are trade-offs, the couple that owns this place is American (from Portland) the woman is a yoga teacher in the Anusara tradition, and she’s into Ayurveda – so I’ve found my little happy place.  Needless to say we have been here a night and already extended our stay for several more.  There is something about the lushness, the cool nights, the pungent smells of dirt and manure, and the myriad flowers in every shape and size – it’s a just a hard place to leave.

Today we toured a sustainable coffee farm, which was great.  Lots and lots of good coffee, and some great food too.  Tomorrow we’ll head up to the mountains to trek to Los Nevados – hopefully approaching something like 15,800 feet of elevation!  The day after we will check out some thermal springs, before heading to Bogota where I’ll be beginning my yoga teacher training with BJ Galvan.  I’m really excited! The fact that I’m able to continue my training with a teacher who I have worked with in Australia is wonderful.  And, the fact that we could combine our travel here and my teacher training (after having to drop out of the training I had planned to do in Australia so that we could move home and get married) is a huge blessing.  I can’t wait!  I’m also thrilled at the opportunity to do some of it in Spanish.  What fun!

I have to say that this trip has strengthened my confidence in my speaking immensely. I have always been able understand Spanish fairly well (having taken it from age four through high school certainly helped with that), but my speaking has really come back to me with two weeks of Spanish school.  It’s wonderful and fun to feel relatively sure of myself as I speak, and to be very sure of what I’m hearing.  It’s been nearly 13 years since I last spoke Spanish regularly – it’s incredible what the brain keeps hidden away. 🙂

Anyway, in case you’re wondering how Manizales, the Jardin Secreto, and Montana are at all related, I guess I can fill in a few details. As we have been traveling, Rick and I have been dedicating a fair amount of time to job applications and figuring out some of the details of our future.  While there are challenges to doing this abroad (namely horrendous Internet in Cartagena, and the fact that we are often on the move) it’s actually been pretty effective.  Up until we left for Medellin I was cranking out a few applications a day – mostly to locations throughout Montana and Colorado. Rick has been doing much of the same, though his path is a bit more reliant on where I go so I’ve been leading the charge.

Having completed our tour of the US cities we were considering calling home just over a month ago now, we determined that we loved the sunshine and ruggedness of the Rockies and probably wanted to make those mountains our home.  Though we have both spent lots of time in Denver, and though Rick owns a house there, we are both drawn to a rural lifestyle.  Montana has been calling to us both now for a long time, and it might just end up being our final destination for several reasons.  I’ve always wanted to live there, and have taken every chance I’ve had to visit.  Rick too has felt the draw to Montana.  He was a ski bum at Big Sky and has spent quite a bit of time in and around Bozeman.  And, just a few summers ago Rick and I biked from Missoula to Seattle, seeing some of the best of the west along the way.  That part of the country holds a chunk of both of our hearts and I think we’d like to try making a go of settling down there and bringing up a family – with the majority of our time spent out in the woods.

There is something about the idea of a more rural life that I love.  I am a social person and I love and feed off the energy I get from other people.  Unfortunately, sometimes I feel as though it takes me away from my own priorities and goals.  I found that to a certain extent, the relative isolation of our lives in Australia (in the sense that we didn’t have a huge social network) allowed us to grow individually and together in some really special ways.  I felt like it allowed me to spend time focusing on things I enjoy and want to do more of – like yoga, art, and writing.  Rick, though in very different ways, sees the appeal of a rural lifestyle.  We both want to improve our ability to live self-sufficiently and be close to nature.  Rick loves the idea of being able to leave the house to go trail running, a luxury that might even draw me back into the runners fold. We also both love that in Montana we can have mountains, water, and sunshine.  I guess I’m greedy, but I just want it all – and I’m willing to give up living in a larger city to have it.  Plus, we both love the winters and the potential of amazing backcountry skiing, great resorts, and opportunities to Nordic ski too.

We have a few irons in the fire for jobs in Montana, but we are more and more convinced that even if we don’t have a specific job to walk into, we might make our way to Montana anyway. We aren’t ruling out other parts of the West.  I certainly love the idea of being close to our friends in Colorado, or somehow finding work we love in Jackson Hole or Boise, but when we consider all the options, we still end up with Montana at the top of our lists.  No final decisions have been made yet, but so far this is where are hearts are leading us.

Life and Love – Paisa Style

Medellin: Former capital of cocaine, crime, and kidnapping.  Now, home to bike lanes, amazing public transit, beautifully rotund Botero statues, and Paisanos – the hardworking and friendly residents of the city.

We came to the city with big expectations.  Colombians LOVE this place, and I  can see its appeal.  It’s a progressive city, nestled in the huge Aburra mountain valley.  It’s hard to think that just 20 years ago this city would have not been on my radar – that people were murdered at random in drug-related violence, bombings, and at the hand of the city’s most notorious resident, Pablo Escobar, and his cocaine cartel.  Progressive reform, efforts to reduce corruption, and to improve the safety and well-being of the city’s residents were often cut short when leaders were killed.  In fact, one of the leaders of Medellin who began to implement the improved transit that eventually helped to turn the fate of Medellin was killed as a result of his efforts.

Thankfully, the violence of Medellin’s past is no longer still an issue in the city.  Though the city is not quite like Cartagena, which feels like Disneyworld, it is safe and very easy to travel in.

Yesterday, though we have both been under the weather, Rick and I decided to rent bikes and explore the city.  I wanted very badly to check out the Museum of Antioquia and to see the Botero statues in the plaza near it.  I also wanted to head to the Botanical Gardens, because Medellin is known as the city of eternal spring and I’d heard good things about their gardens. I also thought that Rick might benefit from some exertion because he has been suffering from all kinds of bugs over the last several days and hasn’t had the energy to get out running like he was in Cartagena.  It was a bit of an ambitious plan to undertake by bike, but Medellin has a really cool policy of turning Carretera 43a, “El Poblano”, into a bikeway each Sunday.  They shut down two lanes of traffic and open it exclusively to bike and pedestrian traffic. The road is a busy one which cuts through the heart of the city, making a Sunday ride a very efficient way to check out many different spots.  It’s an amazing policy that I wish was more common in the US!

We rode across the city for about 40 minutes on the bikeway, barely having to stop for cross traffic, under the friendly supervision of a crew of young people at intersections and on bikes who make sure that everything is going smoothly.  The crowd out venturing around the city on bikes had to be a pretty good cross-section of Medellin – from families with little ones, to serious cyclists decked out in loud spandex. Everyone looked like they were having a great time, and so were we. We made our way to the Botero Plaza where I proceeded to take photos of every statue, with me in the foreground mimicking the statue’s pose – like a mature adult.  (I think my imitation of the full-breasted Sphinx was probably my crowning glory.)  We then made our way back to the Poblano and continued on toward the botanical gardens.  At one point, the bike traffic seemed to shut down as we headed towards a tunnel.  I looked at Rick, skeptical, and asked “Do you think we should go in this dark tunnel on bikes without anyone around?”.  He shrugged that it was probably fine, the guards had seen us entering and hadn’t stopped us.  So, we entered, biking fast, and hoping we weren’t making a mistake.  Well, shortly after we exited on the other side, we saw a few more of the bikeway volunteers riding towards us.  They shouted that the bikeway opened to traffic at 1 pm – which is exactly what time it was, so we quickly turned and followed them back the way we had come.  As we were riding through the tunnel, out of nowhere a truck came barreling up behind us and veered around us.  “Oh my god!” I screamed at Rick and we started sprinting on our pathetic rental bikes, at about 6,000 feet of elevation.  It wasn’t pretty!  We all were busting our butts to make it out of the tunnel, and just as we did, traffic began tearing through at high speeds.

Collapsing on some grass nearby to catch our breath, we re-evaluated our situation.  We were both wiped out, and now our route home was a superhighway so we needed to figure out how to get home.  We tried to follow the route of the road we had come on, but the frontage roads sort of meandered in and out of neighborhoods, through shopping areas, and across very un-bike friendly areas.  It took us over an hour and a half to make it back to the El Poblano neighborhood where we were staying, and on the way we found ourselves on more that one occasion in places where we should NOT have been.  It was actually kind of scary to me, and I don’t scare that easily.  6,000′ of elevation has had both of us wheezing and struggling, which didn’t make me feel any better about being in some rough parts of Medellin.  Clearly, our acclimatization from our Denver days has worn off.

Anyway, we ended the night watching some good old American football, in an Irish Bar, in Colombia. Odd, right?  We even started up a conversation with another couple there, and (crazy small world) the guy had graduated from UVA in the same December grad class as Rick. Together, we gave aguardiente (Colombian brandy that tastes like black licorice)  a fair go, and decided  shortly thereafter that we had made enough of our night so we headed home a bit early.  We came home, nursed our sick bodies, and we have continued to do that through today.

Sharing sickness in a foreign place is certainly never comfortable, but together we have been making it a bit more manageable.  I packed all sorts of meds and have been able to keep us well-tended to.  He has made sure I get enough sleep (which I often don’t) and we both keep each other’s wellness in mind as we plan our activities.  Though it is a bit of a downer to not feel like ourselves, there is certainly nothing that brings people closer than jointly commiserating over unfortunate maladies.  And, honesty, we found the perfect place to be sick.  Our current hostel is quiet, with peaceful lounge areas and gardens, we have a giant room with a king size bed, floor to ceiling windows, our own bathroom, and a walk in closet area! (Gran Hostel Medellin in El Poblano)  Tonight we hope to cook dinner in (our first in weeks!) before taking off to check out some areas outside Medellin including Gautape, and the coffee-growing haciendas around Manizales.  We will keep writing as we go!

Adventures of other kinds

Yesterday, Rick and I took the opportunity to see as much of Medellin as we could via public transport.  We took two trains, and two gondolas, which took us to the edge of town, and then up into the mountains to the Parque Arvi.  It’s a 17 square kilometer park  in which we spent a few hours hiking before making our way back down into the city.

It was the first healthy dose of fresh air we’ve had in the time we’ve spent in Colombia, and we loved getting up into the cooler temperatures or the piney forests above the city.

On our way back into the city we rode the gondola with a sweet Colombian family.  They had a nine month old baby girl, Maria Luna, with them.  I loved her.  I caught myself staring at her little baby feet and wanting to softly pinch her little toes.  I felt it immediately – the yearning to have one of my own.  Or five. I know Rick felt something like it too, as she stared in awe of his pellirojo hair and crystal blue eyes – she clearly hadn’t seen many people who looked like him before!  He lowered his sunglasses and peered at her, and then slid them back up his nose and hid.  She was enamored of him – which I get completely. 🙂

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I have intermittently been hit by baby yearning pangs – I vividly remember the first time, because I was 19 and I thought I was crazy.  I saw a little girl being carried by her mom in Fraser, Colorado.  The spring sun was shining, mud season was upon those of us who had worked at the resort, the tourists had left, we were all in transition, and the town was quiet.  I was driving down the road, enjoying the beautiful Grand Valley and caught the glint off the little blond head in the sunlight – suddenly I wanted to be in the mountains, raising a family too, regardless of the fact that I was 19 and single.

In my previous relationships, serious as they were, I was always squeamish about kids.  Mostly I was sure that I’d end up as the primary breadwinner and the most involved parent, and that scared me a lot.  Now, whether it’s maturity, a better distribution of labor in my relationship, or simply my age, some of the details of the implementation matter less to me than they once did.  Though I think I’ll always have an appetite for adventures, the adventure of having and raising a family is definitely closer on my horizon than ever before.

Cartagena

I step out on to the bustle of a street in Getsemani, a working neighborhood in Cartagena.  At once in the warm morning light, the smells of morning in South America assault my nostrils – soap and dirt mixes in the streets as businesses clean their floors in the morning light, mopping soapsuds into the gutters strewn with dust, chicken bones, and banana peels.  Urine in the doorways from some temporary passerby the previous evening intermingles with the inviting scent of strawberry pastries, newly baked and awaiting consumption in the bakery a few doors down.  Mangoes, chopped and displayed in a plastic cup for easy eating; limes, papayas, plantains, apples, passion fruits crowd the sidewalk forcing me into the street where I dodge carts, taxis, stray dogs, and the gente, making their way in the early morning light to work, meetings, or breakfast.

The warmth of the stucco walls painted in striking hues of pink, blue, orange, and yellow, offset with balconies and brightly colored doors, envelopes me when I pass by as though I were family.  I don’t worry about the way I’m holding my backpack, or the fact that I’m carrying my cell phone in my hand.  I wonder at our insistence on buying “alternative” wedding rings for traveling.  This is not a place I feel the least bit threatened.  I greet people with a slow, drawling “buenas” as I pass.  I saunter.  I don’t rush.

Cartagena breathes its own breath.  It is a city of its own making, its own shape and form, its own design.  Its colonial history informs its every action – the hierarchy of the fruit venders, the walls guarding the perimeter, the subtle verbiage used in the streets.  Cartagena is vibrant and alive – a city growing of its own ingenuity and richness rather than the calculated designs of urban planners and architects.  Cartagena rises and falls, soft and welcoming, heart pumping, sensual and alive.  It’s a city that stirs your blood and your loins.

It’s been a week and a half since I arrived.  And with each day that passes I fall more deeply under the spell of Cartagena.  I repeat the name, slowly, over and over again, swallowing my “g” sensually.  I consider naming my first child Cartagena.  I reconsider. I walk slowly, letting the hazy light fall gently, warmly, over my skin.  I wander the streets with my love, mojitos coursing through us, wondering where exactly we are amidst the old, winding streets.  We rise and fall down off the sidewalk and up again, into the street, around a fruit peddler, over a giant hole, under an overhanging window. This is not a city for the distracted – it holds you in its gaze and makes you pay attention.

I spend many a moment reflecting on the grace that has brought me here, and the warm soul who shares this adventure with me.  Though the future holds many uncertainties for us, each morning as we walk through the calles I feel that all is as it should be – we are in the right place, doing the right thing, and experiencing the wild a varied palette laid before us each day we spend in this beautiful world, growing together and storing away a cache of memories and experiences that will sustain us over the many years ahead.

Coming to Colombia

If you’re following along at home, we’re now in Colombia.  After a pretty bittersweet realization that we were sick of not having a home of our own (as we were driving somewhere in Iowa, having a pained discussion over travel logistics), we decided to truncate our plans for traveling more extensively in South American and the Caribbean and determined that a month in Colombia would suffice to scratch our travel itch.

On the way out, we spent a fun night in Chicago with some of Rick’s friends before boarding a plane bound for Cartagena, on the Caribbean coast of Colombia.  With an overnight layover in Panama City, Panama, it was the cheapest ticket we could find and it didn’t require us to fly through Bogota.  However, it did require a stop in Panama – something I would normally be excited about except that my passport expires at the end of March, making me just a few days short of the three month validity needed to enter the country. Definitely a potential issue.  But, we thought to ourselves, “Hey, the most they’ll do is keep us in the airport.”  So, though I was pretty apprehensive about trying it, once we landed, we made our way to immigration to head into Panama City.  We waited in line for almost an hour, and when we approached our agent he was all smiles.  That is until I saw him whip out his counting fingers and determine that I was a few days short of the required minimum.  He let out an agonized whiney sound, apparently exasperated at the fact that we were so close, yet so far from being legal, then told us to wait a minute.  I nodded, and mentioned our connecting flight to Cartagena the next morning.  About 10 minutes later he came back and asked us to follow him.

We walked to a small office where another couple was waiting, and watched our agent plead our case to a small, mean-looking woman inside.  He returned to us with his head hung low and looked me in the eye,  “You will need to take the next flight back to Chicago.  He can come with you or stay.”  I looked at him and decided to play the stupid card, “I don’t understand!  Can I speak to someone else?” He repeated again that I would need to fly back on the next flight to Chicago, leaving in a few hours.  In absolute disbelief,  I looked at Rick, looked at my agent, and said , “We could stay in the airport!  If I had never come through immigration, you wouldn’t have even known.  Please, we won’t leave! We have tickets to Cartagena in the morning!”  He looked at me, sighed and agreed that, yes, they would never have known the difference. Then he turned back towards the office to plead my case again.  I glanced at Rick, my eyes saying clearly, “Why the hell did we attempt to leave the airport!?”

Moments later, the little mean-looking woman came out and barked, “digame!” at me.  I explained, over mounting tears, that we had tickets for Cartagena in the morning and that we only wanted to stay in the airport.  We didn’t need to leave.  She looked at my tickets, thought about it for about a minute, which felt more like ten, and then agreed that if we didn’t leave the airport we could go on to Cartagena. We turned, mounted the stairs back into the airport and settled in for the night.

So, with an awkward overnight in the Panama City airport, so began our travels.

Now, after a bus ride so bad it’s actually funny (I sat next to a piece of cardboard which replaced a broken window, there was glass all over the floor, the video player was broken and repeatedly played one accordion note about every two minutes, and then the bus broke down and we had to switch in Barranquilla), Rick and I are back in Cartagena for week two of spanish classes.  We’re having a great time so far – loving all the AMAZING food, welcoming and friendly people, and warmth – and mostly just trying to find a balance between work and play.  I have to remind myself that traveling in South America isn’t all fun and games – or that maybe I have passed the point where what used to seem fun now just seems irritating.  There is a lot of garbage, a lot of bad and overpriced hostels, and a lot of really loud, young Israeli, Argentine, American, and Aussie tourists.  Having been young, loud, and a tourist once before around here, I now see with a newfound maturity, how obnoxious it can be.  Though, I shouldn’t blame the tourists exclusively.  As we travel, Rick and I are realizing that our lifestyle of waking up at six for a workout and going to bed by eleven, just doesn’t compute with the standard Colombian schedule.  So, it goes, and we adapt. And by adapt, I mean, we lose workouts and occasionally some sleep.

But, hey, we’re having fun!