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.

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!

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!

You can’t go home again

More than anything, I think this road trip is a showcase of how a cross-section of our friends in their late 20’s and early 30’s actually live their lives. It’s fascinating and it’s affirming. Wonderful, even.

This morning I awoke in Salt Lake City on a mattress on the floor of my sister’s house. Her place is amazing.  She has a massive backyard with gardens, a tree house, and fruit trees.  She has the entire upstairs of the house to herself, with walk-in closets, a huge log frame bed, and a jacuzzi.  Right now I am writing this blog while cuddled up with my pj’s on in front of the wood stove with tea and lebkuchen.  Life in Salt Lake is good (current inversion notwithstanding). Yet again, my severe case of “home-envy” (as Rick and I are calling it) has kicked in.

We spent yesterday and the day before in Jackson, Wyoming.  It had been more than ten years since I last visited Jackson, and things definitely were different.  But, I think Rick and I both ranked it high on our lists of places to live.  We visited a friend there and caught up over coffee.  Between hearing about her backcountry skiing, trail running, the amazing gluten-free cafe she likes, and her yoga studio, we were pretty smitten.

The downside to Jackson, and several other places we have explored, is the difficulty of getting home to our families.  Even Salt Lake City or Portland don’t allow us to travel home without a connecting flight, making a trip into a full day of travel.  So, with this in mind I have been examining my attachment to the idea that I can travel home easily.  I have struggled with guilt and a sense of irresponsibility living far from home and from my family.  I don’t particularly want to live in Wisconsin, or Chicago, or the Midwest – but I want to be there for my family.

Over the course of our trip the phrase “you can’t go home” has come up several times. The first was in “Travels with Charley” the Steinbeck book about a cross-country road trip that Rick and I listened to during the first half of our trip. In the book, he travels back to his boyhood home in California and realizes that what he associates as home has changed around him. Home exists only in his memory.  Revisiting the place only serves to deconstruct the idea.

The second was in reference to a seedy bar in Denver called the Rock Bar.  Many of our friends from our time in Denver are now spattered across the country; New York, Chicago, Portland, Salt Lake, Seattle.  So this trip has been revisiting “Denver” in the sense that it’s the last place we all shared together.  As we have traveled, we’ve spent lots of time reminiscing about our lives while in Denver – surely it was kind of a magical time for all of us.  We were young, in transition, unburdened by much responsibility, with good jobs, and altogether very free.  We skied and hiked and went out to the bars.  It was a FUN place to live.  But, we all recognize that the joy of Denver was mostly a product of the coalescence of many factors of our lives there in a specific place and time.  Were we to go back to Denver now, it would prove to be a different place.  This hit home in Portland as we reminisced about our hazy memories in a little place called the Rock Bar.  It closed down a couple years ago – thus concluding a chapter in many of our lives.

You can’t go home again.  I keep reminding myself of this. In both a light-hearted way and a serious way, life as I knew it can’t be recreated.  This is a new chapter and we have to choose what home will be going forward.