Tuesday, November 30, 2010

I "Sea" Your True Colors

Thanksgiving is a time to be grateful.  I am grateful for many things - family, friends, my job, health, etc. - but I found one more to add to the list.  The beautiful island of San Andrés.  For Thanksgiving Break a small group of us hopped on a plane and headed for the tiny patch of land 12 km long and 3 km wide (at its greatest point) closer to the mainland of Nicaragua than to Colombia, for a few glorious days of white sand beaches, crystal-clear waters, and general relaxation.

Normally, as evidenced by the travels documented in this blog, I prefer to explore, discover, and generally fend for myself on my adventures.  We opted this time for exactly the opposite - an all-inclusive stay at the Decameron San Luis.  I may have been converted in the ways of vacation travel.

Despite it's small size, there is much to do on this Caribbean island other than lounging on the beaches looking out at the famous "siete colores del mar" or the fact that the ocean appears to have seven colors, all of them stunning variants of blue.  The easiest way to see these sights is to find a way to travel around the island at your leissure.  Golf carts, scooters, and bikes are all available for rent in the largest settlement, San Andres City, at the northernmost end of the island.  We opted for the latter, mosltly as a way to fend off all the extra calories we were allowing ourselves with three square buffet meals each day.

Swimmin' with the fishes!
While circling the island we stopped at a place known as La Piscinita ("the small pool"), a tiny cliff-shaded cove teeming with tropical fish.  Now, one can assume that these fish were once here on their own accord, however, they congregate now for the chance to eat the pieces of bread tourists are given when they pay their US .50 cent entrance fee.  Fortunately, the fish are only interested in you when you still pocess bread and quietly ignore your presence when you are out.

Getting drenched at the blow-hole.
At the southernmost tip of the island is El Hoyo Soplador (the Hoyo blow-hole), a geiser created by a small channel carved into the volcanic rock reaching out to the crashing surf.  This blow-hole mostly just hisses and mists water with impressive force, however, every once and a while it shoots water two meters into the air, drenching anyone standing near, including yours truely.

Dotted around the the northern and eastern sides of the island are several smaller plots of land.  These smaller islands, or cays, are alos popular as day-trips for tourist who want another option for a beach.  We visited Rocky Cay on afternoon, unique in that a sandbar makes it possible to reach the islet on foot without fear of wetting one hair on your head.  This shallowness was not a friend, however, to the shipwrecked boat moored just off the shores of the cay.

There is plenty more to do on this island, including visiting a Baptist church in the settlement of La Loma on the top of the island, built in Alabama and contructed on the island.  (Unlike most of Colombia, most San Andres residents identify themselves as Baptist.)  Not to mention other snorkeling opportunities, Captain Morgan's cave, and visits to the other cays not within walking distance.

I guess this just means I'll have to go back...you tell me if I'll have company or not.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Ain't No Mountain High Enough

As the bus that picks me up at the still-sleepy hour of 6:10 am climbs the hilly Avenida de Chuchas toward school, I am often welcomed, on clear mornings, with this view of the Cordilleras rising to the west of the city. 

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Making It Worse

or...How Not To Run 21KM

This last weekend the city of Pereira hosted the 4th Annual Eje Cafetero Half Marathon.  I ran this race two years ago, implausably as the "3rd Annual," and achieved my personal best time for running 21 kilometers (13.1 miles).  This time around was a little different.

I finished in a reasonable one hour and 43 minutes, about twenty minutes slower than my last and best attempt, but given the circumstances (read: excuses) I can live with the time.  Pereira is in the coffee region of Colombia and is quite hilly and a slightly higher elevation than Cali, however, not enough to really blame altitude for my poorer performance.  The race started off gloriously cloudy at 9 am but began clearing about thrity minutes into the race.  The sun, while scorching, will also stay off my "blame list."

Yes, its gross.
First on the chopping block is the fact that I got sick during vacation two weeks ago.  This took some time to recover from and, combined with the start of the rainy season, afforded me only three solid runs last week.  Also to blame: myself, for forgetting my current running shoes in my locker at school and having to use an older pair that just do not fit as well as they used to after my dear maid sent them through the wash.  (Although they are impossibly white.)  This unfortunate mistep resulted in the pain of a blood blister the size of my thumb, pictured at right.

Finally, and the proverbial nail in the coffin, was the decision to eat a buñuelo 45 minutes before the starter's gun.  A buñuelo is Colombia's delicious answer to a donut hole - a deep-fried salty mass of white flour, corn meal, and cheese the size of a billiard ball.  Obviously, this is not the fuel of champions; don't ask me what I was thinking.

All in all though, it was a great day for a race.  The water stations, route, traffic controls, and military presence, were all organized well and its always good to have a feeling of accomplishment to start off a Sunday morning, even if it is with a sore foot and a little nausea.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Stranger Than Fiction

I received a message from a friend after my last post commenting that she was interested in hearing more about my day-to-day existence in Colombia. What about life is different? This question struck me as I used to think everything was different! Different language, different money, different fruits (lulo juice, anyone?), different cars (test drive a Renault 6 lately?), different salutationary customs (kiss, kiss), different daylight...and on and on. I started to think, as I made my way through my daily routines, what still occasionally strikes me as "different" that I take for granted, nonetheless.
  • Come and stay at my house and one of the first things you will notice is the man on a bike riding slow laps up and down my block, a machete dangling from his belt.  My vigilante is paid by the residents of our street to keep watch over the neighborhood.  Ironically, I don't really know my street's vigilante as well as I know the vigilantes of the connecting streets.  It is initially disarning to be walking home in the evening and be suddenly aware of a man standing in the shadows of a tree or patio wall, watching as you make your way down the road.  Thankfully, its like having various armed escorts ensuring your safe passage to your house.
    Pico y Placa street banner
  • The general infrastructure of Cali is terrible.  There are no highways or biways in the city, just several "major roads" that, at times, allow cars to drive at accelerated speeds.  Therefore, in a city of over 2 million, this causes many traffic problems.  As a way to combat this, Cali practices what is known as "Pico y Placa," literally "peak and plate," referring to the peak traffic hours and the license plates of the vehicles.  Depending on numbers beginning the license plate, certain cars are prohibited from being on the road during rush hours.  For example, Mondays people with a license plate beginning with "1" or "2" will be ticketed if they are caught driving between designated times.  The rest of the week they are fine to drive whenever, as other cars will be legally kept off the road.  Interestingly enough, this is the one traffic violation that is ardently enforced.  People will literally pull off the road and sit in their cars rather than drive the rest of the way home if they happen to be caught en route when pico y placa hits.
  • As much as the aforementioned infrastructure of Cali is a mess, the city has taken great strides in implimenting a new bussing system known as the Mio.  It works much like an above-ground subway with stations, set unnegotiable routes, and swipe cards; no cash is exchanged with the drivers and there are no surprises along the way.  However, one anomaly that I can not quite wrap my head around is how people wait for the bus.  Hop on the Metro in Paris, the "L" in Chicago, or the train in New York and you will see people patiently waiting for their train, far away from the tracks.  In the Mio stations people crowd close together directly in front of the sliding glass doors that will glide open upon the arrival of the next bus.  The problem is that multiple routes come through the stations, so, when your particular bus arrives and you step forward from the back wall of the station - because that is a normal place to wait - you end up physically pushing and clawing your way through this mass of humanity that are waiting for some future bus, not the one that will soon be closing it's doors.  To make things worse, they look at you as if you are inconveniencing them.
  • Telephone etiquette or protocal is another cultural norm that will always seem strange to me.  Its is as if there are different rules.  Rule number one is simple: never leave a message.  If the person you are attempting to get in contact with does not answer it could not possibly mean they are busy, it simply means you should call back repeatedly until they answer.  A subclause for this rule is to do this as many times as it takes to elicit a response.  Rule number two pairs nicely with the former: there is never an inappropriate place to answer your phone and have a full conversation.  The movie theatre, a faculty work meeting, a parent/teacher conference, the crowed bus; these are all perfectly acceptable places to chat.  It is important to know, however, that should you answer your phone in a public place, it is respectful to just cup your hand over the receiver and, if possible, duck under the table; lowering you voice is not necessary.  The third and final rule is that if someone you don't know calls you, they can begin the conversation by asking you who they are speaking with.  Don't try returning the question as that information is not privy to you.
While some cultural nuances are now so commonplace to me that they have been adopted as a part of my behavior or psyche, others will continually cause me to scratch my head in wonderment.  Seriously, though, talk on your phone in the movie, spy on me from the shadows of my own street, but don't try and make me miss my bus; there will be elbows thrown before that happens.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

The Song of the Sea

Many people often find Cali on a map and comment that I'm "pretty close to the Pacific."  This is both true and misleading.  Cali is close to the Pacific as the crow flies and relatively close - about three hours - by mini-bus.  However, if its a beach you're looking for, you'll be hard-pressed to find the white sands and sun-soaked umbrella-filled beaches of your southern-California dreams.  The entire western coast of Colombia is largely virginal tropical forest, dotted with a few small predominantly Afro-Colombian fishing communities.  The beaches are mostly black sand and it is almost guaranteed to rain at least part of every day, if not the majority.  The western coast of Colombia is one of the wettest places on Earth.

I've traveled here before, during my first year's Thanksgiving break I got to explore the port city of Buenaventura and take a boat north to the towns of Juanchaco and Ladrilleros but I haven't been back since.  This last weekend a few of us decided to explore the northern part of the Pacific coast, a region famous for its pristine beauty and secluded nature, called Chocó.  From Medellín we hoped on a small 18-seater prop-plane for an hour flight to the coast.  (You know its a small plane when the pilot hands you earplugs as you climb the steps.)  Watching the terrain change and the towns and roads below disappear as we approached the coast was exciting.

We landed outside the town of Bahía Solano and were met by a man who would drive us the rest of the way to the (unicorporated) village of El Valle.  (Good luck finding it labeled on a map.)  The road was terrible at beat and if not for the primitive power and experience of the "wooden" vehicle we were jammed into, along with crates of eggs and bags of fish, I'm not sure how we ever got trough the pot-holed muddy road.  Once in El Valle we were taken to our cabaña which was within sight and sound of the crashing waves.

For the next few days we enjoyed the warm climate, relaxed culture, warm and friendly people, and delicious Pacifico cuisine.  I, however, enjoyed the inside of my mosquito-netted bed after developing what was later diagnosed as a tonsil infection which caused me to throw up everything I ate for two days.  It's never fun being sick while on vacation but at least I had the sound of the waves crashing on the shore and the rain on the roof to lull me to sleep.

One of my colleagues, Tara, had a friend visiting from California.  He brought along his fancy water-proof, bulldozer-proof camera and made this video of our trip.  It pretty much sums up all the sights and sounds of the typical coastal community in Chocó.  Note my conspicuous absence from most of the "field trips":

The music is by a Colombian group called Chocquibtown, taking their name from both the department (state) of Chocó and the department's capital Quibdo.  The lead song is called "Somos Pacifico" ("We Are From the Pacific Region") and celebrates being from Chocó.  In the chorus are the words "...la pinta, la raza, y el don del sabor!"  Translated, this phrase is singing the praises that the colors and race of Chocó are what give it its flavor.  This could easily be the anthem of this unique region.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

No Reservations

“It’s crazy that this place [Colombia] exists,
and not everybody wants to live here.”
~Anthony Bourdain (chef and host of the Travel Channel series "No Reservations")

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

No Two Left Feet Here

Women dressed like brightly colored street walkers? Check.
Men costumed, gelled, and glittered for a night at a gay night club? Check.
A Cher tribute concert? RuPaul's entourage? Nope and nope. There must be a salsa competition brewing...

Cali is salsa. Salsa is Cali. Unlike any other place in Colombia, you hear the horns and cowbells everywhere you go. It pours onto the streets from the radios' of taxis and eminates from little tiendas all across the city. There are sections of Cali where club after club - sometimes for several consecutive blocks - are all salsa bars.

It seems only appropriate then, that Cali is the host of the 2010 World Salsa Festival, a celebration of the dance that Caleños hold with such pride. The festival features concerts of reknowned salsa bands, interviews and forums with famous musicians of the genre, and a dance competition.

We attended the first round of competition on Saturday at the Cristales Open Aire Theatre. Even the "bad" groups were pretty amazing. Both of these videos are of the group portion of the contest. We arrived in time to catch the last handful of contestants in the pairs division, but unfortunately, I didn't have the mind to record any of that.

Despite the glitter and often-times ridiculous hair-styles, this dance has evolved to a point known as "Cali-salsa," adding flairs to the footwork not found in other salsa styles. When coupled with theatrics, cheerleading-like lifts and throws, not to mention the fact that women are in very high heels, this is a sub-culture all of its own. As evidenced by the crowd's reaction and screaming throughout, this is kind of a big deal here.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Not On The List

After three full years in this beautiful and diverse country I have had the opportunity to experience much of it. There are some places that continue to bring me back, such as the quaint mountain town of Salento in the coffee region, or places I dream of visiting again, like the romantic walled city of Cartagena or the quiet cobble-stoned town of Villa de Leyva north of Bogotá. There are, however, places that will never make my "to visit" list.

One such place is the town of Caucasia, north of Colombia's second largest city, Medellín. I had not heard of this town until just recently when I happened upon this article by Elyssa Pachico for the phenomenal website Colombia Reports.

Aside from profiling a still-very dangerous area, Pachico has written one of the better anylises of Colombia's social - political, drug, tourism - situation in recent memory. Feel free to read the whole thing, but two parts that struck a chord with me were her disection of Colombia in the international media and an analogy of the challenges facing the current administration change coupled with the ongoing problem of nacro-trafficking.

To quote the article in regards to why the is little press on Colombia, and when there is it is usually negative in nature, Pachico writes:
"In the international press, especially if you’ve got one correspondent covering the entire Andean region (as is the case for the New York Times and the Washington Post), Colombia’s ongoing drug war is pretty much a story not worth reporting, aside from the occasional grabby headline. For an international audience, trying to explain Colombia’s drug war is like trying to explain Mexico’s – there are too many characters and too much backstory. There are no central protagonists anymore, no central conflict that is easily summarized."
Part of the reason for the lack of "central protagonists" is the work of ex-President Álvaro Uribe and his work over eight years of breaking up the functionality of the FARC and other strong paramilitary groups opperating in the country. With the election of new President, Juan Manuel Santos, in office now for less than a month, she writes this of the current challenges in respect to drug control and gang enforcement:
"Uribe successfully disarmed and/or extradited the top level of paramilitary leadership, and now all the regular Joes too stupid and violent to previously ascend the paramilitary ranks are all scrambling for a piece of the drug-trafficking pie. Territory that was previously respected has now splintered, boundaries ignored. It’s a little as though Uribe punched a mirror and now it’s up to Santos to pick up all the tiny shards of glass, which nobody can find and which everybody keeps stepping on."
Some believe it is bad luck to break a mirror; I guess it would be good advice to follow then, to not visit places still containing shards of glass as well. Sorry, Caucasia.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Waiting for Water

Recently I came across an interesting article on a social trend toward minimalistic living. While this twist on "green" lifestyles, leaning heavily on technology, is intriguing, I realized these last two weeks, that I could probably do it if I had to.

When I packed up and moved to Colombia three years ago - this past August first marks the beginning of year number four - I came with just two large suitcases and a pair of rubbermaid storage bins. This was much less than what I moved out of my apartment in
Manitowoc with by nearly a truck-load. Granted the school here has provided furniture, but some of it serves no real purpose for me other than marking the corners of a room. (The couches are nothing more than glorified dorm lobby pieces.)

Upon returning from the States a couple weeks ago I found I had no water in my home. This was not surprised, and half expected, as I hadn't had time to pay my utility bill before leaving for summer vacation. I was honestly excited when, after taking a deep hopeful breath, I flicked the light switch and the lights came on.

I paid my bill on Wednesday of last week, and it was only restored yesterday after a long holiday weekend and several phone calls. Now, when the utilities people said it would be turning on later on in the day that I paid, I in no way believed them - this is Colombia, c'mon! - but I honestly didn't think it would take over a week's time.

Living knowingly without water has been interesting. Showering at school at the end of the work day and then not over-extending myself for the next 24 hours was tricky, but doable. Having enough forethought to buy bottled water for the brushing of teeth or making tea was a definite mindshift. I already had several used bottles, filled from the tap, frozen in my freezer (as a way to conserve energy) and that was used for rinsing dishes, in moderation, and other chores like shaving and wiping down spills.

This way of doing things went quickly from an inconvenience to a mode de vie. I knew how much water I had stockpiled and how much was needed to do certain activities. I had worked out a bathing system that seemed to work advantageously to my schedule. I am very happy to have my water restored and available at the turn of a faucet, but I learned that perhaps I use more than I need in the first place. When people would ask if my water was back on and my response was that it was not, they gave me the expected exasperated face and "how terrible" comment. Really, though, it wasn't, but I am glad I can now stop feigning agreement.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Voting Rules (Part III)

Round two of the Colombian presidential elections occured on Sunday, along with another ley seca (dry weekend) and heightened security. This time around the voter turn-out was lower; this is being blamed on voter fatigue, rain in Cali, and the FIFA World Cup 2010 games being on throughout the day. (Father's Day, however, can not be blamed as a reason since, although the rest of the world observed it yesterday, Colombia moved it one week so as to not be affected by the elections-imposed drinking prohibition.)

Juan Manuel Santos emerged victorious with around 69% of the vote over Antanas Mockus. Santos will likely continue the leadership style and philosophy of outgoing president, Alvaro Uribe, who, for the last eight years, has improved security in the major cities and much of the countryside through swift military actions. Uribe has also made many deals both in trade and in the drug war with the United States, making Colombia a friend to the US in a very socialist-dominated continent where Uncle Sam has few allies.

Mockus advocated for change, and while many of his ideas were based on the use of education to better the nation, Colombians as whole decided they were not ready to take on such a drastic shift in idealogy just yet. Partido Verde (Green Party) will no doubt be back in four years and maybe then the country will be more open to that kind of change. In the mean time, I think it is evident that change has occured in that the two political parties that used to dominate the elections did not even make it out of the first rounds this time.

I am leaving for the summer tomorrow and will return on August 8th, the day after Santos takes has taken office. While it would be nice to be here for the inauguration, I look forward to being here from the begin of what will surely be a historic and interesting presidency.

Friday, June 11, 2010

The Darndest Things

"So, you're telling me I can not take calculus, move to a third-world country, and still be a player?"
This gem comes courtesy of one of my dear grade 11 students who asked me to help him with his note card for Calculus final exam after I told him that I had never taken a calculus class.

Monday, June 7, 2010


An ultra marathon is a race that exceeds the distance of a traditonal marathon (26.2 miles). Usually these events are of a masochistic distance, like the London to Brighton race, which covers 54 miles, or in insane conditions, like the Badwater Ultra Marathon, which takes place in Death Valley and covers 135 miles.

On Sunday I participated in my third half-marathon of my running "career." This was also the worst most miserable I have ever been while participating in a running event. My frequent race partner and colleague, Adriana, and I decided that this was not a normal run-of-the-mill half marathon, as advertised, but a horrible abomination of an "ultra half-marathon," if such a thing even exists.

A seemingly thrown-together race, it began in the small town of Restrepo, less than an hour north of Cali, near to the resort and vacation area of Lago Calima, a weekend spot for many Cali residents. Ignoring the fact that the race began with a blow horn from atop a fire truck and that water stations sprung up like weeds on the side of the road where ever the water-carrying motorcyclists decided to stop, the race failed for several other reasons.

First of all, it didn't begin until almost 9:30am, and in the high country around Lago Calima, that means it gets hot very quickly. Secondly, there were no clouds. More accurately, the clouds just never went near the blazing sun. Next, the course was hilly - as expected when one is running in the mountains - however, of the last 7 kilometers, the first four were straight uphill. To make matters worse, the organizer of the race coordinated with a bike race doing essentially the opposite route, so that we all would pass each other. Runners struggling up a mountain road and cyclists barreling down one, do not a happy combination make. Finally, as an added bonus, the distance between Restrepo and the finish line, a tiny hamlet called Pavas, was not exactly 21.1 kilometers (the traditional half-marathon distance), but about 24 kilometers instead.

All compounded, I finished in a painful just-over two hours. Thankful to be done, we escaped to the shade of the car and left immediately, despite the fact that Adriana had finished third for the women (I was 73 for the men out of some 300 runners). If I ever see a fire truck at the starting line of a race again, I'm going to take it as the warning it probably is.

Sunday, May 30, 2010

Voting Rules (Part II)

Today marks a very important day for Colombians; this will be the first time in eight years that they will elect a new president. In the country's bumpy and politically challenged history, only recently have people had the opportunity to be politically active without fear of retribution, or worse. If a candidate gets over fifty percent of the popular vote, the race will be over. Historically this has not happened and subsequent elections are held, knocking out the lower vote-getters each time, until a majority is achieved. This also means the potential for several future "dry weekends" in the coming weeks, as is one of the voting traditions here.

As it stands, the election has become a two-candidate race with two others in contention but not threateningly so. Juan Manuel Santos, a member of the "U" party and self-proclaimed ally of current two-term president Álvaro Uribe, and ex-Bogotá mayor, Antanas Mockus of the "Green Party," are leading in the campaigns. (It should be noted that Mockus's "Green Party" is in no way similar to the "Green Party" of U.S. elections.) The other two candidates that have fallen and risen in popularity, respectively, are Noemi Sanin, the only woman in the race and another self-proclaimed Uribe ally, and ex-Senator Gustavo Petro.

It is amazing to me the knowledge of those too young to vote but the empowerment many of them feel irregardless of this fact. Many times it is easy to dismiss the political views and opinions of students as simply being the rehashings of what they hear at home. Refreshingly, many of my students, can not only give an informed opinion about the candidates but also the entire political process. I know that I didn't have that kind of understanding when I was in ninth grade, let alone an interest.

At school and on the streets, it is not uncommon to see not only signs and flyers but bumper stickers and t-shirts, campaign propaganda techniques that are par for the course in the U.S. but unseen in Colombia before this race. The most frequent are the green shirts sported by Mockus supporters (pictured above at a rally in Cali last weekend*) although the orange and white of Santos and vintage-style yellow and black of Petro are also not unpopular.

Its fascinating to be living in a country undergoing such a potentially huge political change and be able to watch it without having to form an opinion. As an ex-patriot who has only just begun to scratch the surface of the complex history of the country, I do not feel as though I deserve to have one, which makes being a spectator to the whole process that much more engrossing. Whoever emerges victorious, one this is clear - the Colombian people are the true winners for finally finding their voice and being able to participate safely in true democracy.

*Photograph by (and jacked from) K. Radermacher

Tuesday, May 18, 2010


Being that time of year, crescendoing toward the final days of school, sometimes it feels like a miracle that I make it to the end of the week without maiming someone. It was appropriate then that last weekend my friends Beatriz, Hana, and I took a short day-trip to the small town of Buga (say: boo-gah), about an hour north of Cali, to visit the Basilica del Señor de los Milagros, a church credited with granting miracles to many who have visited.

The entire city of Guadalajara de Buga, as it is offically known, seems to be build with the "Miracle Church" as it's crown jewel. If one is approaching the basilica from the front, it is possible to have an unobstructed view of it for about the preceding seven blocks as a buildingless bricked promenade leads worpshippers toward the towering building.

Basilica del Señor de los Milagros

As a municipality, Buga is one of Colombia's oldest cities, founded in the mid-1500's. Part of this reason is tied directly to the church and its miracle-giving properties. According to the story, when missionaries from Spain came to the area they attempted to convert the local indigenous populations. One indian woman was saving her money to be able to buy a small crucifix for herself. One day she saw some conquistadors taking a man away to jail for his outstanding debts which he couldn't pay due to his poor econimic standing and his large family, who needed food. The indian woman payed the man's debts which her crucifix-savings. Later, while she was washing clothes at the river, a small crucifix came floating by. She took the tiny cross home and, according to legend, it grew bigger and bigger each day. The cross now hangs in the church crypt behind the altar in a glass case where visitors can view it during church hours.

Although we did not see anyone, it is customary to revisit the church, as a show a gratitude, should your miracle be granted. People blessed with miracles walk on their knees into the church; some, presumabley, from several blocks away. Maybe I can swing a return visit if June 18th arrives and no one - students or teacher -have been hospitalized. That might be a miracle.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Stayin' Alive!

From the Beatles' last group hit, "Let It Be," in 1970 to Madonna's "Like A Prayer" in 1989, the twenty encompassing years were a unique time for music in North America. The years that gave the world funk and disco came alive again this weekend on the Colegio Bolívar stage in the form of a 70's & 80's themed talent show complete with live student rock band, full choir, alumni guest appearances, and dance numbers - including "Stayin' Alive" and "Maniac" from Flashdance.

I lent my voice to the male section of the choir on Queen's rousing, "Somebody To Love", who was backing an alumni guest performer with applaudable chops. I also made a choir appearance in "Like A Prayer" and the famous collaboration "We Are The World", as well as dabbling in some supportive percussion work during Bonnie Tyler's overly dramatic "Total Eclipse of the Heart."

Other songs that were brought back to life were "Top of the World", by the Carpenters; "The Boxer", by Simon & Garfunkel; a Jackson 5 medley; "Don't Stop Believin'", by my person favorite, Journey; "Alone", by Heart; and the duet "Don't Go Breaking My Heart" by Elton John and Kee Kee Dee. Two of the more surprising songs on the set list were Little Eva's "The Locomotion" (originally from 1962) which evidently made it to the top of the charts again in 1974 in the hands of Grand Funk Railroad and Frank Sinatra's recording of "New York, New York" which, believe it or not, he recorded in 1980. (It wasn't even written until 1977!)

"Stayin' Alive" (The Bee Gees)

"The Wall" (Pink Floyd)

"Maniac" (from the film Flashdance)

Saying goodbye to the Seniors...

Monday, April 19, 2010

Drip Drip Drop

Most athletes know that the reason a marathon is called a "marathon" is because the Greek messenger Pheidippides, ran from the Battle of Marathon to Athens, a distance of 42.2 kilometers (26.4 miles). In a similar spirit, Sunday there was a race in Cali, organized by one of the local universities, Universidad ICESI, to raise awareness of water care and usage. The race, called Nuestra Carrera Es Por El Agua (Our Race Is For The Water), was 6 kilometers in length, which is, evidently, the average distance most people in impoverished areas of the world must go to get clean and safe drinking water. There were similar races run in a multitude of countries around the world on this day in a show of unity.

The fact that we are in the midst of one of two rainy seasons here didn't seem to poke its ironic head out on race morning and we were greeted with pleasant sunny weather. The course was through the picturesque Ecoparque Rio Pance (a nature reserve along the Pance River just outside the city) and more resembled a trail-run than anything else. The beginning was rough with all the runners trying to squeeze onto the narrow and muddy tree-lined path, but once everyone found their pace, things spread out. As the course wound its way though the trees and along the river, up and down hills, I just tried to not trip on a root or slip on one of the wet foot-sized leaves carpeting the way; for me, not biffing it and face-planting in the mud was going to be the victory!

I finished in around 22 minutes and 40 seconds and was informed soon after crossing the finish line that I was "el primer niño" to arrive. I told the man who celebrated this fact with me that I was 28, and therefore not a "niño," to which he tried to recover by telling me I was "the second non-Colombian" to finish. This only only made me think, "Wait! Who was the first?!?!"

I ran the race with my usual race partner and colleague, Adriana, as well as a few other teachers who were up for a good cause and a shorter distance. Four students also took part; hopefully Adriana and I can recruit them to do more races with us and increase the youth interest in a near-non-existent sport here in Colombia.

Sunday, April 4, 2010

A Pastuso Walks Into A Bar...

Brunettes make fun of blondes. Us northerners have jokes about the southern rednecks and they have their "yankee" ones in return. Minnesotans have the 'Sconies to laugh at. And everyone makes cracks about Canadians. It almost seems to be part of human nature to assign one group of people as the delegated "butt" of jokes. Well, Colombia is no different and here they have the Pastusos to thank for that.

The southwestern most part of Colombia, mainly the department of Nariño, includes the mountainous region bordering Ecuador as well as a small part of the tropical Pacific coast. Due to its proximity to Ecuador and the terrain of this part of the Andes, the region is culturally different than much of the rest of the nation. Winter coats, wraps, and scarves are worn by anyone in the streets. Cuy (guinea pig), a common food staple in Ecuador and Perú, is is sold in many restaurants and street cafés. And the selection of hot drinks is plentiful, as is mora juice - a blackberry relative.

My high school friend, Chris, who I traveled with to Machu Picchu and Lake Titicaca in Perú over Christmas vacation, is currently on a two month trek through the continent and was conveniently passing into Colombia at about the time my Spring Break/Semana Santa vacation was beginning. I met Chris in the border town of Ipiales, where money changers were commonplace around the main plaza exchanging U.S. dollars (the currency of Ecuador) for Colombian pesos.

Sanctuario de las Lajas
There isn't much to do or see in Ipiales save for the majestic and architecturally out of place Sanctuario de las Lajas, a massive church that spans a picturesque mountain gorge. Originally built has an homage to the Virgin Mary after a peasant girl saw her imagine on a rock in the gorge in the mid-1700's, the worship structure has morphed and grown many times in the last 200 years to the point it is at today.

During the guided tour of the church crypt and museum, our guide, while knowledgeable, did not do her fellow countrymen's dim-witted reputation any favors. For several rounds of questioning, she insisted that a black and white photograph depicting a little campesino girl in her mother's arms, pointing at a picture of Mary and two saints drawn on a rock, was "an actual photograph of the girl" who saw the imagine. Until it was pointed out to her that the camera wasn't invented until at least 50 years later - and I'm pretty sure there wasn't one in rural southern Colombia, nor was it of this kid of photographic quality - she continued insisting on the pictures authenticity. She also disappointed and confused us in her spacial awareness as to what part of the church's lower levels we were in. After going down two and then three flights of stairs, she insisted continuously that we were still in the first level below the church despite that fact that the windows were much different on each level.

So, what do you call a Pastuso tour guide who...oh, you've probably heard this one before. Never mind!

Our next stop in Nariño was the larger city of Pasto. For being isolated, mountainous, and not very large compared to Colombia's other metropolis's, Pasto was quite cosmopolitan in its cultural atmosphere. There were many beautiful churches and plazas to visit as well as an abundance of cozy cafes filled with well-dressed and trendy locals. It was the perfect marriage of small town quaint and big city bustle.

Laguna de la Cocha

Just outside of the city of Pasto is Colombia's largest and highest lake, Laguna de la Cocha. After spending time in Perú's Lake Titicaca, Chris and I joked that we should visit all of the highest lakes in South America. We stayed at a Swiss lodge founded and run by a couple from Switzerland. It felt like a ski resort without the snow; there was a lot of wood in the building, hot drinks served all day long in the restaurant, and bags filled with boiling water put under your bed at night. From the top of a nearby hill we got a scenic view of the northern part of the lake as well as the sole island, home to a nature reserve for the trees and birds of the area.

After a relaxing and chilled couple of days in the mountains, we headed to the airport to fly back to the tropical warmth of Cali. I mention the airport because it is located on the top of a flattened peak. Flights literally take off by running out of runway and the airport shuts down when there are clouds. We were fortunate enough to have a sunny day and clear skies for our return trip to the land of salsa dancing and no coats.

Monday, March 15, 2010

"Hey, Johnson!"

I love my one 11th grade Pre AP Biology class. I had these twenty incredible people two years ago as Freshmen, my first year in Colombia. It was a wonderful feeling to be able to start school this year and not have to go through the usual familiarization process; they knew me and I knew them. This period is often my saving grace from the occasional inanity of 14 and 15 year olds as well as an intellectual challenge for me and them. It is a largely a project based course and, for the most part, being over-stressed Juniors, they handle work time pretty well. And even when they're not, I can't deny their creativity and love of life.

These pictures are not mine; I jacked them from a blooming photographer in my class. This is my life.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Voting Rules (Part I)

It's the first of several election weekends here in Colombia which means that Cali turns into a very different place for two days. Beginning at 6pm on Friday, for example, the sale of alcohol is prohibited, thus turning the entire country dry. I don't recall "inebriated voting" being an issue in the States, but perhaps, it wouldn't hurt things! There are also several other rules in effect such as the weekend law that does not allow two people to ride on a motorcycle together, unless it is a man and woman. This is due to assassination attempts where one man drives and the other shoots; women, evidently, are not seen seen as potential assassins.

Compared to the US, election season is not nearly as obnoxious in Colombia. There are not a myriad non-stop bombardment of campaign ads on television, one after another for six months or more leading up to election day. I have received only one campaign flier under my door, despite the multitude of candidates running for several offices. Most of the propaganda seems to be relegated to banners stretched across the major thoroughfares, billboards, posters around telephone poles, and the occasional internet pop-up ad. Of these, the only information seems to be the candidate's name, picture, party, and possibly an innocuous slogan like "Por un pais justo" (For a just country) or "Todos al frente con el Presidente" (All in front with the President); public political mudslinging is either veiled or non-existent.

This weekend is the Congressional elections and preliminaries for several other races, including the parties running for President. Two-term current President, Álvaro Uribe, was denied a constitutional referendum for a third term at the end of February. The first official round of Presidential voting will be in May. The way it was explained to me by Colombian colleagues at school was that there will be subsequent elections every two weeks after that until a candidate receives at least fifty percent of the vote. That could potentially mean a lot of weekends where the bars and clubs are dark and people are stocking up on cervezas, ron, and aguardiente!

Monday, February 22, 2010

Birds & Bees...and Testis (Part II)

My own high school biology teacher never called evaluations at the end of a unit "tests" or "exams;" they were "learning experiences." I never really felt like I was the one learning anything during the exam and this euphemism just irritated me more than anything else. I know now that he was referring to himself and the subsequent grading of these tests.

Well, I might have been a little premature by posting the "best" quotes of this most awkward part of the curriculum before administering the Cell Division/Reproduction unit exam. There were some gems buried in the scribbles and semblances of answers and I can definitely say it was a "learning experience" for me.

This one was my favorite:

"...the sperms job is to pass through the treacherous vagina to fertilize the egg." (This in response to a question about the path the sperm takes from formation to fertilization. I take no responsibility for the inclusion of the hyperbolic adjective.)

Both of the following were parts of answers responding to the question about the many physiological obstacles a sperm cell encounters that prevent it from reaching and fertilizing an egg:

"Sperms may not have been pulled from the penis with enough velocity." (This is no doubt caused by the suction from that 'treacherous' vagina.)

"When sperm is ejaculated, some don't even touch the woman. They fall on the floor." (Um, no. My jaw, however, is on the floor.)

Definitely a "learning experience," wouldn't you say?

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

The Greatest Show On Earth?

Riding the bus to school last a couple weeks ago, I noticed several giant pink semi trucks parked in a large vacant lot on a busy street that serves as a kind of main artery for the south of the city. The next day a large frame-like scaffold had been erected in the middle of the grass and dirt. It was then that I became curious; were they building a drive in movie theatre? My first attempt to read the sides of the trucks as we sped past was unsuccessful and I only got the word "Ruso" (Russian) because it was by far the biggest.

The next day I recruited help from others on the bus to decipher the script. By this point there were more trucks, more scaffolding and what appeared to be entrance gates. As people peered out the bus windows into the already dusty Cali morning air, the other worlds fell into place one by one - "Ballet!" "Hielo!" "Circo!" "Sobre Hielo!" Adding "Russian" back into the mix, we figured out that this organization of pink trucks and tarps was the "Circo Ballet Ruso sobre Hielo" (Russian Circus Ballet on Ice). What?!?!

Last weekend I went with a couple friends, partly out of curiosity and some burning questions that resurfaced every morning on the bus and partly because it sounds too strange to pass up, to investigate. Is it really "Russian?" What are they doing in Cali, Colombia? In a lot across the street from a supermarket? There can't be ice in that big top, can there?

The Russians and the ice rink...what a circus!

Upon entering the Pepto-Bismal colored big top, there was, in the center of the floor, no more than 20 meters in diameter, an ice rink. On the far end leading away from the main circle of ice to the backstage area was another strip of ice. Cooled presumably from underneath, the ice was frozen but struggling to stay that way. I had brought a sweater just in case the climate was like a hockey arena but I didn't need it. I actually was quite warm throughout the two hour show. As was the ice - it had a light film of water on its surface the entire time that occasionally splashed up when the skaters stopped abruptly or slid on the ground.

Tarzan and Jane "swing" above the ice.
As the lights went down and then up again to show the newly emerged performers, it became clear that this was indeed a "Russian Circus." Decked out in Vegas variety show costumes and cheesy choreography, the company spun and twirled its way through interpretations of "The Little Mermaid" and "Tarzan," the later with a man skating and swinging above the ice stage in only a loin cloth and the requisite skates. There was a "circus" aspect of the show too; several clowning skits took place, mostly as a way to fling water around in an effort to patch up the ice, as well as some stunts involving rings and some juggling all while on skates.

While I'm not about to pass judgment on the skills of any of the performers - anyone who can skate backwards is amazing in my book - I couldn't help thinking these were the figure skating rejects of Russia. You know those stories of training camps that young kids get sent to as children in Russia, China, and some other soviet nations? Well, what happens to the ones that just "aren't Olympic material?" Perhaps they tour South America in a big pink tent?

The only frustrating thing - and I've experienced this before - is that, in Colombia, people don't seem to know when to clap. Many a time it felt as though we were leading the applause. I'm sorry, but when a girl is skating around a tiny rink while spinning twelve hoola-hoops around various parts of her body, that deserves some clapping!

The concept was bizarre, the soundtrack cheesy, and the costumes ridiculous, but it was definitely worth attending. So, when the Russian Circus Ballet shows up in your hometown and sets up their tiny ice rink in a vacant lot, take some time out of your busy schedule to pay them a visit.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Birds & Bees...and Testis (Part I)

As a biology teacher I get the joy of teaching human anatomy. More specifically, I get to experience what most never have - a two-week long blush from covering the ins and outs (pun intended) of "reproduction." This starts with rather innocuous lessons on mitosis and essentially culminates with the early '80's NOVA film of the slimy blue baby in all its delivery room glory.

Along the way, however, we inevitably have some lively discussions. Sometimes the questions the students ask make me laugh and other times I become fearful for their future. Regardless, each year, after the unit is over, I always end up wishing I documented these questions - humorous, naïve, bizarre, and otherwise. So, this is the year.

After several weeks of looking at where life begins, I give you the best of the worst; these are my favorite "human reproduction" questions of the year! While they are all typical, most of them I have not been asked before quite like this.


"Does the masculine system look like that [the diagram of the uterus]?" (asked by a boy)

"If you have sex for 30 minutes does that make it more likely to get pregnant?"

"Exactly how many sperm are there...like per cubic centimeter?"

"Ew! It's like spaghetti! [magnified image of the seminiferous tubules inside the testis where sperm are formed]"

"If a guy has sex before breakfast and again after lunch and then again after dinner, how is the number of his sperm changed? (This student assured me that the women - only in Colombia are there multiples - were very pretty.)

"So...how many holes do we have?" (asked by a girl while looking at a diagram of the female anatomy from the text book)

"What happens if a guy puts 'it' in one of a girl's 'other places'?"

"Where on here [diagram of the female reproductive system] is the G-Spot?"

"Would it be a good idea to masturbate before having sex? [What?] Well, if you masturbate then you get rid of all the sperm and then you can have sex and not get the girl pregnant, right?"


It should be noted that all of these questions are said with straight faces and most of the time the rest of the class quiets down to hear the my response. Maybe just having "sex ed" only in fifth grade isn't such a good idea...

Oh, and Happy Valentine's Day!

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

That's Sick!

It starts after four days with a fever which turns into a splitting headache, both of which don't really ever go away. Once the muscle pain, intermittent nausea, and sporadic vomiting set in, one has to think for a second to see if, yes, the pounding in head is still there and, yes, so is the fever. This goes on for almost a week. Welcome to your bed.

This is Dengue fever, a viral disease, transmitted by a mosquito (the Aedes aegypti to be specific), that I had the unfortunate pleasure of experiencing all last week. (This blog is a chronicle of my life in Colombia, good, bad, and ill but I'll spare the play-by-play details of the later!) Unfortunately, at present there is no vaccine or drug regime for Dengue, meaning one must wait the whole ordeal out in nauseous agony until it passes.

After three days in bed, not eating much more than orange juice, Sprite, a banana or two, and crackers, I made a Sunday morning trip to the nearest hospital's emergency room. I was pleased to see that the medical facilities and efficiency were on par if not better than most North American hospitals and my friend, Nira, who helped me through the ordeal since I could barely walk without feeling like I had been put on a tilt-o-whirl, told me the particular hospital we were at was one of the best in Colombia. Three I.V. bags of saline and about five hours later I walked out hydrated and with a prescription for two different pain-killers and some pills to help keep my platelets up.

The next few days were again spent in bed, but with the pain medications and passing of time, I found I could walk a little further each day. At the beginning simply descending the stairs to unlock the front door earned me a rest on the couch, but a couple days after the visit to the hospital I had enough stamina to make it a few blocks to my local bakery.

The tricky thing about the transmission of Dengue, which attacks the blood's platelets is that it is most often found in urban areas, unlike other mosquito-borne diseases like Yellow Fever or Malaria. The Aedes mosquito is also most active in the late afternoon and early evening hours, but obviously not all Aedes mosquitoes carry the virus. I do not wish this on anyone and hope that one day a vaccine is available, much like the one for Yellow Fever or cholera, that one can take before entering an endemic area.

After about a week since the virus passed through my system, I am finally feeling back to my old self. My weight is climbing back to normal and I feel strong enough to return to the track for my running work outs. I can not remember ever being knocked that flat from an illness before and I hope I never have anything that can compare in the future!

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Well, Perú To You Too!

This coming summer marks my 10-year high school class reunion. It seems somewhat appropriate then, that I spent the two and a half weeks around Christmas and New Years with a good old friend from back in the Roseville Area High School days!

I actually knew Chris's mom before I knew her, as she was my elementary school librarian. I got to know Chris several years later in the waters of Parkview Center School as we were both swimmers. Chris is currently working as an English teacher at a school in the ocean-side city of Trujillo in northern Perú for one year, so it seemed like an opportune time to visit the country of the Incas. After many adventures cruising around town in a friend's JEEP, skinny-dipping in Lake Owasso, and endless spontaneous dance parties, it's nice to see that some friendships never change.

LIMA (Part I)

"Pues, es conocido."
I had not intended to spend any time in Perú's capital city, Lima, as my guide book's description and various friend's recommendations were more or less lukewarm. Nevertheless, due to flight times and bus schedules, I was stuck there for a night. After asking the counter-girl at the bus station if she knew of a good hotel nearby, she hesitated, choosing her words carefully, and replied, "no bueno...pero conocido" (not good...but 'known').

So I spent the first night in Lima here, in a little cell with a drippy faucet and triple locked door. (That's essentially the whole room; the fact that the bathroom is not visible is for the best.)


The small town of Nasca, located in the middle of one of the ugliest deserts I've ever seen, is about six hours south of Lima and not far inland from the Pacific Ocean. Nasca is most famous for the mysterious Nasca Lines spread across a desert plateau a few kilometers from the current population.

The "Owl Man"

The monkey

The condor.
I remember seeing pictures of these giant mysterious figures etched into the desert floor several hundred meters across when I was younger and being awed and impressed but never actually thinking I'd be able to see them. "Seeing them" is debatable. I know I looked at the first half dozen or so, but after that the banking of the tiny cessna plane carrying me, an Australian girl, and Taiwanese guy, high above the enigmatic creatures got to me and I resorted to "point, shoot, hope, and look later" strategy for enjoying these phenomena. (The going rate for almost losing your breakfast is about $50 USD, in case you're curious.)

No one really knows how the lines were made, as the figures can only be properly viewed from the air. Many theories exist - including aliens - but no one has been able to prove anything. They actually weren't discovered until this last century when commercial pilots began passing over the area. The Panamerica Highway actually accidentally cuts directly through one image, as it is nearly impossible to recognize the presence of the pictures from ground level. The largest is around 400 meters across and all shockingly straight and proportioned. The arid conditions of this part of Perú aid in preserving the geoglyphs and are really the only reason they lasted long enough to be discovered in the first place.

Most people stop in Nasca to see the lines and move on, but I had about 9 more hours to kill before my bus left so I trotted back into the tour agency that so kindly tested my upchuck reflex and asked about other guided opportunities. Before I knew it I was on a bus with a bunch of obnoxious Australian tourists heading back into the desert to an archaeological site called Cemetario Chauchilla.

This ancient burial site, also linked to the ancient Nasca peoples, was originally discovered by grave robbers who dug up the tombs, taking the valuables and leaving the mummies and broken pottery scattered across the desert-scape. Again, as with the lines, the arid conditions preserved the mummies - many have skin and hair still - as well as their clothing and pottery. The bones are bleach-white from the years spent sitting out exposed to the suns relentless rays.

The Peruvian government has worked very hard to gather the mummies and return them to their tombs, however, returning each mummy to it's original burial site is next to impossible. As you walk from tomb to tomb it is possible to spot various bones and strips of cloth out, off the path, stuck in the sand, where the grave-robbers presumably left them.

The most interesting thing for me was the initial heart-in-throat shock I felt upon approaching each of the grave sites. They were all essentially identical, two or three long-dead corpses, wrapped in their finest once-brightly colored blankets, facing east, awaiting the rising sun, but each and every time I felt a silent gasp coming from somewhere deep within. I suppose it is a natural ingrained reaction to seeing other humans in the deceased state, much like approaching the casket of a loved one at a funeral; you know they're going to be there, but the sight of their soulless shell of a body is slightly unsettling.


In Colombia there is a caramel-like sweet called arequipe (say: ahr-ay-keep-ay). I think I kept mixing the two up during my two days here! Arequipa, the city, is built in the foothills or several mountains, including the still-active volcano, El Misti. With a distinctively Spanish architectural feel, it is easy on the eyes and even easier on the pedestrial visitor; wandering the city-center, marveling at the myraid cathedrals was almost like going to a home-and-garden show for churches. Most of the buildings, including the churches, are built from sillar, a whitish volcanic rock.

Aside from the catholic places of worship, two other structures are notable in Arequipa. The first is the convent Monasterio de Santa Catalina which was veiled in secrecy for nearly 400 years. Built in 1580, the convent was home to nuns from mostly wealthy families; each had to pay a dowry upon entry equivalent today to $50,000 USD. When you wander the maze of this several-city block-sized structure, you soon realize how poshly these nuns had it, each having their own "house" complete with private living room, dining room, kitchen, bedroom, and servants quarter.

Pretty nice furniture!
Life continued this way for the monestery - no one exiting, no one entering, save for incoming sisterly candidates - until the late 1800's when word got around about the grandiose conditions of the nuns. A new Sister was sent, a strict Dominican nun, who freed the slaves and servants (providing the option to stay as nuns, of course) and sent much of the riches back to Europe. About a hundred years after that, the convent was opened for tourism and for the first time the general public could see for themselves the secrets of the mysterious walled monastery.

Even with my map and the aid of the idiot-proof arrows marking the corridors, I still found myself getting turned around. The most fascinating part of the convent for me was the delivery area where goods from the outside were delivered to the cloistered women. Through rotating doors and storage courtyards, it was completely possible to drop off large amounts of food and products to the nuns without anyone seeing anyone else. Incidentally, there is still a small population of nuns living on the grounds, in a corner away from the tourist path.

Another famous Arequipa resident is even older than the convent. "Juanita" the "Ice Maiden" was a young 12-14 year old girl sacrificed to the Incan Gods about 600 years ago. After an earthquake, her opened tomb was discovered high atop Mount Ampato, near Arequipa; her tightly wrapped body was discovered further down the slope, more or less in good condition. The small museum she is housed in takes extreme precautions in exhibiting and preserving her. No photography is allowed and the mummified remains of Juanita herself are under very low light, behind thick glass, and in a freezer-like case. Nevertheless, this discovery sheds a lot of light on the rituals of the ancient Incan culture and empire (more on that later).


At around 3,400 meters above sea level, the ancient Inca capital city of Cusco (or Cuzco or Qos'qo) is the only still occupied city originally built during the Incan Empire. Many of the people here still speak Quechua (say: ketch-wah) and most of the streets are slowing being returned to their original spellings, after being translated to Spanish when the conquistadors arrived in the 1530's. In this way, with the prevalence of the native language, visiting southern Perú was like being in some place outside Latin America; all of a sudden I had no idea how to pronounce anything all over again!

Since the Spanish built their city directly on top of the Inca's city, there is a distinct fusion of Incan and Spanish architecture. The bases of many building retain the characteristic precision-cut and angled stones of the Inca with the tops embracing the soaring baroque style of Spain.

As touristy as parts of Cusco are, that becomes part of the fun. Searching through the endless markets for just the right scarves, gloves, sweaters, and blankets made from 100% pure alpaca wool to wear immediately and bring home is only enhanced by the low prices of these hand-made goods.

I met Chris in Cusco and we spent a few days in the city and visiting the surrounding area, which is host to dozens of other long-abandoned Incan cities and ceremonial archeological sites. Of these, we visited Písac (pictured below), Ollantaytambo, and Chinchero on a day-long bus tour of the Valle Sagrado ("Sacred Valley").

The interesting thing about the Inca culture, as opposed to many other ancient and modern civilizations, is where they built their cities. Most often major populations are found along natural resources like oceans and rivers, for food and transportation purposes. The Incas build nearly all their cities, agricultural, and ceremonial sites at the tops of mountains, not in their valleys. While this gave them a good vantage point and, arguably, protection, it also meant they needed to get the several-ton stones used to create these structures up there!

The Incas were the first to use several unique forms of governmental policy and agriculture. For one, the Inca did not pay taxes int he monetary sense. They were required to "work for the government" for four months of each year. This is how the cities got built; the Incas worked together to cut, polish, and drag these enormous pieces of rock to the tops of these mountains.

The Incan farming method.
They also practiced terraced farming. At the high altitude, the temperature changes every six levels, therefore different crops were planted at different levels - corn, potatoes, yucca, beans, and coca all had their places. This method also proved to be less dangerous than farming on a slope and allowed for more surface area. Our guide said that it is theorized that if farmers in mountain and hilly communities went back to this method of farming, more people the world-over could be fed.

The Inca-Jungle Trail

The "original" Inca Trail, otherwise know to locals as the "Gringo Trail," gets booked early, is packed with hikers, and requires both a guide and high entrance fee. For all these reasons, Chris found a tour agency that leads small groups of hikers along one of the lesser-known Inca Trails, this one through the low-lands and jungle.

Discovered only six years ago* by the owner of the tour company and father of our fantastic guide, covering this trail involved three complete days - one biking and two hiking. Our guide, Johan, is a Quechuan himself who went to University to study the Quechuan religion, language, and culture which made his insights into the ancient Incas all the more interesting. (Several years ago, in the midst of rising ethnic tensions between the indigenous populations [highlanders] and those of Spanish-relation, the President made it mandatory that all Universities offer Quechuan [or another native culture] courses. This both improved the literacy of the native peoples, but got others interested in the culture-within-a-culture in Perú.)

*The local Quechua in the area knew of it's existence and used the trail frequently.

Johan discusses coca agriculture.
The chewing of the coca leaf is one of the most prevalent symbols of Quechuan culture. The leaf, surprisingly high in many minerals like Calcium, helps fight off altitude sickness as well as having a caffeinated effect. The cocaine made from coca leaves can only be attained by turning the dried leaf to powder and adding other chemicals like gasoline and fertilizer; growing of the coca leaf is legal in Perú and the production of cocaine has not been a problem for the country.

We learned that the Incas had several Gods, the main one being Pachamama or "Mother Earth." They also held the mountains (Apus) in high regard, specifically those found surrounding the ancient capital of Qos'qo (Cusco) - Machu Picchu, Salkantay, Saqsayhuaman, and Abra Malaga.

The condor, puma, and snake.
Before chewing the coca leaves, for example, a ceremony is performed where the chewer selects three leaves of increasing size representing the trinity of the holy Incan animals. The condor represents peace and is the largest, the middle leaf is for the puma, which stands for strength, and the final and smallest of the leaves is for wisdom, carried by the snake. The three leaves are raised and blown on in the direction of the four mountains (which can be the same direction if you are anywhere outside the Sacred Valley). The leaves and then buried in tribute to Pachamama and the "watered" with chicha, a fermented corn drink, in the shape of a cross. (I found it interesting how the trinity theme and the cross shape showed up in the Inca ceremony.) Finally, a three new leaves are chosen and those are chewed and then spit out after several minutes. Or, if you're Chris, you swallow them and then look surprised when Johan instructs everyone to spit them out later!

Where's the nearest shower?
The biking was fairly easy, as it was mostly downhill. Regardless, when we got to the tiny jungle town of Santa Maria, we all looked like we had been crawling through the underbrush for days, chewing on sticks and caterpillars and sleeping under rotting leaves. That night over dinner we got to know our tour group a little better. Chris and I were definitely in the minority as our caravan was composed of German-speaking Europeans - two German guys, a German family of three, and three more from Switzerland about our age (two girls and a guy). They all knew English at least passably but because of the first-language difference, Chris and I got to know Johan really well.

Highlights of the first day of hiking included sunny weather all day long - a first for our time in the Cusco area as it was in the midst of the rainy season. Also a rest stop at a mountainside "tienda" fulfilled a childhood (and adulthood) dream of holding a monkey. Another highlight that persisted throughout all my time in Perú, but was magnified by the hunger built from hiking all day, was the delicious soup. I am convinced that within Peruvian cuisine are some of the most flavorful soups in the world. Not spicy, just delicious; pumpkin soup, criole soup, quinoa soup, asparagus soup to name a few were all incredible!

Day two of hiking was more of the same but with a stop the night before at some local hot springs converted into several pools of increasing temperature left us re-energized for a three hour hike straight up a mountain to visit the Inca worship temple of Llactapata (pictured). From here we had the unique vantage point to see the iconic Inca city of Machu Picchu for the first time. It was a cloudy day up there on the mountain but at one point the mist cleared in passing through the peaks long enough for a brief, albeit clear view across the valley to see the famous ruins.

This is not a fashion show.
Just as we began our descent it began to rain. This was not a cloud passing around us, misting our faces and jackets, this was a torrential downpour or the near-monsoon variety. As if navigating a steep switch-backed dirt and rock mountain slope was difficult enough, the dirt turning to mud and blinding rain falling on our faces upped the ante a little. At the bottom, almost in accordance with some perversion of Murphy's Law, the rain ceased. We then continued our trek, off the Inca's trail, along the raging and rapid-filled Urubamba River, passing an amazing waterfall, back and forth over several bridges, and finally onto some railroad tracks leading us to the tiny tourist mecca, and Machu Picchu starting point, Pueblo Machu Picchu (or Aguas Calientes).

After another delicious dinner, we bid farewell to Johan and went to bed. At 4 AM we woke up to begin out 90 minute hike to the top of Machu Picchu mountain (Quechua for "Old Mountain"). There are two ways to get to the top to see the ruins - walking or by bus. People begin walking at around 4:30 AM and you need only follow the sleepy but determined parade of hikers to figure out the way to go. The buses begin taking tourist to the top at 5:30 AM, although a line has inevitably been forming since around 4 AM at the bus stop. Regardless, morning is the best time to see Machu Picchu and the gates open for everyone at 6 AM sharp, so really it's a matter of how much you want to be the first to the top and how earlier you can get out of bed! (Pictured below is Chris and me halfway up the mountain at about 5:15 AM.)

5:15 am has never looked to amazing!

Machu Picchu was a sight to see. I have never seen a picture of this ancient city that wasn't impressive and feel that all my photographs succeeded on this front as well. Unfortunately, Johan had been such a fantastic guide that the one we were met by in Machu Picchu, while interesting, was giving us information we already knew and didn't have the guiding prowess to disseminate more advanced information. The basic nut-shell history of Machu Picchu is that that reason it was not discovered and then ransacked by the conquistadors is because the Incas abandoned it before the Spanish even knew to look for it. Looking out across the remote and baguette-like mountains all around and its easy to wonder how that might have even been possible.

Chris and I wandered around the site, watching both the thickening of the tourists (the train from Cusco had obviously arrived) and the clouds. One minute you could see the entire city and the nect you could barely see the wall a few meters in front of you. And then the cloud would pass and it would all be visible again; it was like a meteorological magic trick.

After four days of biking, walking, and climbing, we were exhausted and took the bus down the mountain, to our hostal, grabbed our bags, and headed for the train station. Peru Rail has created an interesting situation. This is the only non-walking method of getting to Aguas Calientes and the company has a monopoly on the track. Therefore, the British-owned train can charge astronomically high prices; our one-way 90 minute journey was a bit over $50 USD. The company has also been accused of some racial practices, one being not allowing Peruvian nationals - even those who can pay - to ride the tourist or backpacker cars; they are relegated to the Peruvian-only cars. It's difficult to fight this though, without leaving the same way you came in - on foot.


Back in Cusco we hopped on a bus and headed seven hours south to the nearly 4,000 meter high city of Puno on the shores of Lake Titicaca. But not before being told by transit police that the tire was bad, getting off the bus, returning to the same bus with the same tire, going through the same routine with the tire and the police, and finally watching the driver pay off the police officer. So...is the tire still bad and the cops are looking the other way, or was the tire never bad in the first place and Officer Crooked over there didn't get enough a Christmas? Ah, foreign travel...

Feliz Año Nuevo
Puno is cold. Fortunately we found a lively little fusion bar to spend New Years Eve and danced the night away with an international community of Peruvians, Australians, Russians, a couple Brits and a Dutch guy. I even requested some salsa be played and then got many compliments and a free beer for my dancing efforts. Thank you, Cali!

The next morning wasn't so festive. The night before I has drank a local Peruvian beverage called a Pisco Sour which tastes a little like a frothy margarita. Pisco Sours, however, are made with eggs and mine were evidently very bad eggs. Chris used the time where I was sleeping and or making mad dashes to the bathroom (or one unfortunate time to a potted plant in the hallway) to make reservations to take a tour of the highest navigable lake in the world.

The next day, feeling 80% better, we hopped on a boat that would take us on a two-day tour of the lake. Being from "the land of 10,000 lakes" it takes a significant body of water to impress me, but this was impressive. At over 32,000 square miles, Lake Titicaca is very important for the communities in both Perú and Bolivia that share its shores.

Living like the Uro.

The first stop was the visit the Islas Flotantes ("floating islands") of the
Uro people who have built entire communities consisting of houses, restaurants, schools, and a post office, on mats of reeds. Originally constructed as a way to avoid conflicts with other nearby more-warring groups, about 50% of the Uro's economy now comes from tourism. Walking on the reed floors was a unique experience as there is some give to the "ground" and the artificial islands definitely move with the waves. While the reeds are continually being replaced as the older ones rot away underneath, it is impressive to think that you were standing on 15-16 meters of water.

Our next stop, after an even chillier cruise through more open water, was the island of Amantaní. This island, inhabited by native Quechua-speakers was where we spent the night with a local family. There are no real hotels on any of the islands as a way to regulate tourism and not hurt the local populations. The reason we chose this particular tour company is that we were required to pay our host-family directly and not through the tour group, which has been known to cheat the islanders.

Amantaní fiesta!
Our stay was pleasant and relatively uneventful. The mother of the house, Bacilia and her nine-year old daughter, Maria de los Angeles, were amazing hosts and cooked us delicious soups and dishes by wood burning stove. At night we were invited to a party in the town center and got to dress up in some of the traditional clothing. For me that consisted of just a hat and poncho whereas Chris got wrapped tightly in several layers and girdle-like waist wrap; she had impeccable posture for the evening!

The next morning, after potato pancakes from scratch, we headed for the neighboring island of Taquile, a similar but slightly more visited island than Amantaní. After a nice stroll around the island's winding upward path, we reached the town square at the top and had lunch a nearby restaurant overlooking the expanse of the lake. On Amantaní the women, even our host mother, were always knitting. They would walk and knit, cook and knit, probably even sleep and knit. On Taquile, the men knit also. And they take great pride in this skill. We passed several men and boys, including the one below with his flock of sheep, knitting away the day.

The sheep of Taquile.

LIMA (Part II)

We rode the boat back in to Puno, said our goodbyes (until Chris quits her job and visits me in Cali!), and I headed to the bus terminal. I had bought my ticket back to Lima three days before while still in Cusco, so this should have been easy. Upon arriving to the terminal I soon discover that my reservation and seat have been lost. I have the ticket and receipt so the bus company believes that I bought the ticket. They just don't know where to put me. Eventually it was decided that I would sit in the "lounge area" up at the front of the bus for the first 6-7 hours until a space opened up; this is table with a semi-circular cushioned bench seat facing the oncoming road. (Buses in Perú are not like normal buses. They have fully reclining "bed" seats, stewards that serve food and drinks, and television monitors playing movies from the ceilings.) Fine. Just get me to Lima so I can catch my plane.

Right before we leave an employee comes on the bus and asks me to follow her off. When we get outside she tells me I actually can not ride up front for safety and security reasons and then has the gall to suggest I take a taxi and meet the bus in the next city, six to seven hours away. I asked her who was going to pay for this suggested taxi and she didn't have an answer. The driver then stepped in and, when informed of the situation, told me to just get on the bus and that it didn't bother him. Great buses in Perú, but not so great communication.

Upon arriving to Lima I was, of course, accosted by the cab drivers outside the terminal. I told the driver I wanted to go to a hostal from my guide book near the airport. He told me I "didn't want to go there" (oh? I don't?) because it "wasn't safe" (hmm...my guide book is generally not in the interest of suggesting unsafe digs). He then told me I wanted to go to Miraflores, the touristy area. I told him I was "en transito" and just needed a bed and shower so I can be close to the airport and catch my flight. He then suggested a place even closer to the airport that he said was good. Fine. I was too tired to argue. If it was hovel, I would demand he take me back to my original suggestion.

It turned out the place was not a dive and the price was right. I checked in and immediately took a shower. Two things happened almost simultaneously. As I stepped out of the shower I noticed the abundance of mirrors in the room. There were two parallel facing ones in the bathroom alone, and three of the four walls of the bedroom were caked in them. Fortunately not the ceiling. Then I heard the faint exaggerated screams and Hollywood-style sex echoing from somewhere down the corridor and the smell of bleach and disinfectant I thought was evidence of proper upkeep upon entering the room, was suddenly so much more. My taxi driver had taken me to the "love motel." I slept on top of the covers that night and left earlier than necessary the next morning.

To seal my disdain for Lima, the cabbie who took me to the airport charged me the exact same price for a five minute ride that the one from the night before had charged for an across-town haul. There are no meters in cabs in Lima, and when I told him what my driver from the night before had told me the fare would be he just laughed and gave me some mumbled lie about taxes or something. I payed him as angrily as I could and made a B-line for the airport. A straight line toward freedom from Lima and home to warm, friendly, happy, non-cheating Cali.