Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Barranquilla con los Papis

Barranquilla is not high on the list of tourist towns in Colombia. It is a sprawling gritty port city that lies at the confluence of the Magdalena river and the Caribbean. It has the most famous carnaval celebration in Colombia but in September most tourists give it a miss. But they don't know los Papis.

That is Mami and Papi, my friend Lynn's parents. They raised Lynn and her brother Ken in New Jersey before retiring in full vigor back to Papi's hometown.

We spent 6 days with Mami, Papi, and their cousin Margarita. Also with their 2 immense labradors Choco and Tinto, their talking parrot Yuyo, and their 21 caged songbirds. We ate exceptionally well, slept in our own lovely room, and wrung the sights out of the town with our indefatigable hosts.

The first day we rode the trencito, a platform on wheels that runs along rails formerly used for moving unloaded cargo. It heads out along a long jetty that separates the river from the sea, out on which live subsistence fishermen who also sell beer to the trencito tourists. Mami and Papi like their beer -- we had many communications with waiters along the lines of, "Waiter, bring me another, this bottle must be broken."

We had a great meal at a fish restaurant on the river and then charged off to the zoo where there is the only white tiger in Colombia. That night we caught the Red Sox vs. Angels nailbiter on TV, making Mike very happy indeed.

Thursday we were picked up by Ramiro, a friend who drives a cab, and tooled off to Totumo, a volcano about an hour away. It is not an especially tall volcano and the crater is filled with salutary mud. You mount a rickety wooden staircase in your bathing suit and submerge yourself. We ran into Walther and Suzanne, a German couple we first met in southern Chile, recognizable before getting in.

After rinsing off in the nearby laguna we drove to the Sombrero Vueltiao, a restaurant with a roof constructed to look like the blonde and black straw woven hats ubiquitous in this area.

The next day Mami took the morning off and we went with Papi and Margarita to the recently opened, highly technologized Museo del Caribe. From there we took a walk to the immense central market and then a cab back home with our purchases. We succeeded in taking everyone out for lunch, a small repayment on all the expenditures that they refused to let us have any part of. That evening we strolled to a neighborhood ice cream shop to recognize Leon Crutcher Memorial Hot Fudge Sundae Day. This is an annual family event in honor of my maternal grandfather and the Papis appreciated it fully.

Saturday we took a bus an hour out of town to the Casa Julio Flórez, the house, museum and final resting place of the mustachioed Colombian poet. It is a beautiful place, whitewashed and airy with caned furniture and Florez' melancholy poems on the walls. We had a good lunch at which I drank an entire pitcher of the delicious Colombian limonada and then bussed back home to nap.

That night we met Margarita at La Cueva, an atmospheric old bar where Garcia Marquez and Obregón drank with their friends. From there we headed to La Troja for rumba, bringing our own bottle of Old Parr, Colombia's favorite whiskey. Rumba in Colombia doesn't mean Cuban dance music -- it's the Colombian word for party. At La Troja the salsa dancing went until 4am when we took the rumba back to Margarita's and danced in her front yard until 7. Margarita gave us two CDs of her favorite vallenato singer, Diomedes Diaz, a musician we had wanted to track down. Then she and Mami went to buy piping hot arepas and empanadas for breakfast while we rocked in rocking chairs and Papi tossed back one last Old Parr.

We slept until 2 and got up to find that Mami had meat, potatoes, rice, salad, and fruit ready. Papi got up and we ate very well while Yuyo (the parrot) shouted, meowed, and chuckled maniacally in his cage. After many goodbyes we took a cab to the terminal to take our bus to Cartagena.

¡Muchas gracias, Papi, Mami, y Margarita por una semana cheverissima!

Monday, September 21, 2009

Visiones y Sueños en el Caribe

And it shall come to pass in the last days, saith God, I will pour out of my Spirit upon all flesh: and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams.--Acts 2:17

I promise not to start every blogpost with a Bible quote, but this one was too good to pass up. And it is not entirely gratuitous. There is definitely something mystical about the Colombian Caribbean. Maybe it is the color of the water, the mindbending heat, the profusion of plants and animals, or the unearthly colors of the sunsets. Maybe something still lingers in the air from the religious swirl of indigenous cultures and voodoo brought by slaves before being crushed by the Inquisition. Or maybe after almost a year away, getting ready to sail to North America, all the memories of what we have seen in this long continent, are filling our heads with visions and dreams.

We came from Mompós to Cartagena, probably the most visited place in all of Colombia. It has a beautiful colonial old town on a sort of peninsula surrounded by stone walls to keep Sir Francis Drake out. It has wonderful statuary scattered throughout the old town, elaborate doorknockers on giant wooden doors, a park near our hostel (the wonderful Casa Viena) with iguanas and monkeys and reportedly sloths in the trees, and a huge stone fort with long underground passageways to wander around in.

We spent only one day here our first time, before heading up the coast to Parque Nacional Tayrona and the Guajira peninsula, but we are back now getting ready to board the sailboat that will take us to Panama through the San Blas Islands. Yesterday we were followed around for a couple hours by a smiley dog that we named Pericos (after Hilary's favorite breakfast dish). Perhaps our last canine friend from South America.

We spent two days in the crowded but gorgeous Parque Nacional Tayrona at the base of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, the highest coastal mountain range in the world, with a páramo and a permanant ice cap, though that is hard to believe from the bottom where it is crushingly hot and jungly. We spent two nights there swimming and walking through a landscape full of monkeys, frogs, lizards (some with electric blue tails), a profusion of bugs, and bizarre plants entangling everything. One of the most fascinating things was the highway system of the leaf cutter ants. They have cleared long pathways through the jungle where they relentlessly march carrying bright leaves back to their nests to grow the fungus on which they feed.

From Tayrona we headed for the Guajira peninsula close to the border with Venezuela, highly recommended to us by our friend Steffen. We took a bus past Riohacha to a place called Cuatro Vias (four ways or crossroads) where we found we had just missed the pickup truck, and took a taxi with Daniel and Karen from Bogotá, catching up with the truck in Uribia. We rode in the back with the friendly locals, the kids staring at us wide-eyed.

After two and a half hours of jouncing over the desert roads we reached the small indigenous beach town of Cabo de la Vela where the desert meets the sea. We slept for three nights in hammocks under simple shelters right on the beach. There is little fresh water in town so we bathed in the sea. We took a pleasant walk on the beach with Karen and Daniel and played Uno with them in the evening, listening to vallenato music with few other tourists around. But the most important part of each day was the sunset, dreamy visions in their own right.

There were also many dogs in town who we befriended by day but cursed at night as they sang chorus after chorus of the age old doggy song. On the second night, I discovered that hurling a full two-liter bottle of water into their midst, then shouting and shaking my stick tended to scatter and silence them. One dog named Perry (not by us) took offense and growled at me all the next day, but most of the others, especially Frijoles and Cream Cheese (our names) took it in stride. Also living at our hostel was a small litter of larval puppies with their eyes still shut.

Leaving Guajira was difficult. Partly because it was so beautiful and relaxing and partly because the pickup trucks only leave for Cuatro Vias at four in the morning. One of the few times I have felt paranoid in all of South America was being stuffed into that truck in the dark, bouncing over that horrible dusty desert road, not understanding a word being said, and then suddenly being joined by several hogtied goats bellowing in bloodcurdling fashion. I thought, "What if these people all want to rob us, or sell us to the FARC, or leave us out here in the desert like something out of El Bueno, El Malo, y el Feo? What's to stop them?" But the guy I was most suspicious of turned out to be very kind and friendly, jumping out at Uribia shortly after sunrise to buy us coffees, restoring my vision to reality.

Finally, from Cuatro Vias we grabbed a bus to Barranquilla to join in the big dreams of Mami and Papi, as our time in South America winds down.