Wednesday, March 24, 2010

tacoma: the elephant in the room

We have finally reached the Mecca of all Colombian voyages: Cartagena is the most beautiful city on the continent. I'll post some pics soon to prove it, but first, a dose of reality from a portly Italian gentleman we met in the bus station on our way out of Medellin.

Jaime is a big guy, speaks English well enough to incorporate phrases like "butt-ass naked" into his vernacular, and has lived all over the world for business. This includes Mexico, Colombia, Japan, Germany, Texas, and everyone's favorite All-American City: TACOMA, WASHINGTON. I almost launched into my old high school debate standby of how underrated my hometown is, but he beat me to the punch with his own opinion.

"For all the dangerous places I have ever lived, and all the warnings people have given me about Central and South American cities, I have never ever lived in a scarier place than Tacoma. Oh my gott, is it terrible there."

*I want to point out here that my poor father's nerves are absolutely frayed this year-- with one daughter in South Korea (thisclose to Kim Jung-Il, that crazy a-hole) and the other traipsing around FARC-filled jungles without a man to protect her, the man has been stressed out and just wants the whole family back at home where they belong. Once he hears that the most dangerous part of our lives, statistically, was actually when we were at home as kids, his whole paradigm is going to shift majorly.

The Italian then went on to tell us that his house got broken into and his car got stolen on two separate occasions during his stint in TacTown. "I would rather live in Bogota or Mexico City than Tacoma any day," he added.

This makes me feel two things: a sudden affection for the place I was born, and a feeling that the world is way, way smaller and less scary than a lot of people think. Tacoma's like the younger sibling with a learning disability in the Puget Sound family... and darnit, don't you just love it all the more for that?

Monday, March 22, 2010

couple of the year!

Meet Noah and Marcela Bleicher, who are living in her grandparent's old house in Medellin and starting a tourism business to make Americans understand how awesome Colombia is.These two are hilarious, fun, intelligent, generous and super in love! Yes!
When Marcela found out what my last name is, she got really excited and suggested I start a blog in which I award people and inanimate objects Huysman Trophies.
Which is why these two win the first award:
Huysman Trophy for Coolest Expat Couple Ever.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

my new buddy.

These two solemn little boys watching a blimp hover over the track and field event today were very serious about watching pole vaulting. They didn't smile very much. I felt old and uncool next to them until Daniel asked me sweetly "Como te llamas?" after looking over curiously at my camera.

Daniel and I would be good friends, I think. He asked me lots of questions like, "What's it like in New York?" and "Why is the Peruvian runner so slow?" and "Do you know how to speak English?" ("Big. Loud. Fun." "No one can beat the Colombian runner today." "I'm getting there.")

He told me he had been in love last year, when he was eight, but his girlfriend moved away. He asked about what it was like to live in Seattle and why I was in Colombia. And finally, he scampered off, but not before leaving us with a bright break in his serious demeanor.

south american games.

We're lucky to be in Medellin when Pablo Escobar is NOT here and when the South American Games ARE here. We stayed extra time with new friends because the lure of every summer sport ever invented was too much to resist. Plus, the Brazilians and Colombians are specimens of creation and we're not even mad about being in the one South American city that's filled with the continent's best athletes.

Horseback police, military men, and RoboCop riot patrol. All in an average Medellin protest.

Friday, March 19, 2010

international smugglers: that'll happen.

I'll be succinct: crossing the border from Cotacachi into Cali, Colombia was an effort. After getting grilled by a creepy old man about our incomes and possessions ("I will be your friend! I invite you two to my house!" he offered effusively. "We have enough friends," we answered warily) and got offered a $10 taxi ride by the bus assistant that would most likely have turned out to be some kind of jaunt into the jungle to take all the white girls' stuff, we fortunately joined forces with a rotund Ecuadorian, his sweet wife and energetic baby and got our newest passport stamp with zero hassle.

Ok, it's not like we weren't expecting to get to know the military really well on our way through southwest Colombia, but the bus ride into Cali was REALLY a stop and go affair. Men with machine guns as big as my leg cleared the bus shortly after we left Ipiales, and we stood around on the side of the road as they examined passports, crawled around the luggage hold, and looked stern. This happened four more times on the journey, with variations. Once they tore apart the driver's area, banged on the ceiling looking for trap doors, and scowled at us as they gripped our passports ("They are looking for something specific!" our new friends said. "Something must have happened!"). At 3 am, as we pulled into the outskirts of Cali, we realized that WE WERE THE ONES DOING THE DRUG RUNNING FROM ECUADOR when our driver stopped the bus, a mysterious, darkened doorway appeared from a sketchy building, and he and his assistant lept from the bus, quickly unloaded four large packages wrapped with garbage bags and duct tape, and sped off into the city. UM? Pretty sure those weren't blanket donations for Haiti.

But for all the varieties of military and police and riot officers and other peace-keeping measures that are ubiquitous in this country, we have only been greeted by wonderful people on every side. After an uneventful day in Cali, we arrived on yet another overnight bus in Medellin and stumbled into the early morning light more than a little disoriented. The only other people we saw was a literal army of 18 year old army recruits, standing around with the aforementioned machine guns and looking like it was military picnic day or something. Within 30 seconds, we had a thick clump of about a dozen of them begging to help us. One particularly short one took it upon himself to hail us a cab as the others explained the neighborhoods in Medellin and were being all-around adorable. They loaded our backpacks into the cab trunk and waved goodbye sweetly. At that moment, we knew fully that we were in a superbly unique place that would be hard to leave.

We're on the three week countdown until we fly out of Bogota, and if anyone has any ideas on how to extend that to another two months, let me know.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

nutrition, volcanoes, and chicken trucks

Our last stop in Ecuador has confirmed that we absolutely love this country. We were fortunate to spend the weekend watching another friend of a friend, Kenji, work his PeaceCorps magic with a group of native kids from the outskirts of his village of Cotacachi. He runs roughly a million programs aimed at environmental education and protection, and we tagged along with his gang of teenagers to see Volcan Cuicocha and one of the only crater lakes on the continent.
We rode in the back of a truck up the mountain and made friends with the kids with questions like "If you could eliminate any one food from earth, what would it be?" Food is a universal, right?

Not really. Here is Jefferson, age sixteen. He wears clothes that would fit the average American 5th grader and before we made him our pet, guessed him to be about 9 years old. Kenji gazed at him sadly when we asked about his story.

"He's from a wonderful family from one of the communities but his growth has been majorly stunted by poor nutrition. He has been raised on rice, potatoes, and water. They don't have milk or fruit, and very rarely meat, to supplement their diet, and it shows." Kenji brings the kids fruit to try to combat their malnutrition, but it can't replace widespread education about how to grow the area's original crops again.

Here are some really beautiful faces. I think the kids (and for that matter, the parents) in the Otavalo area are some of the most amazing-looking people we have seen so far.

Jessica carries the heavy solemness that seems to characterize so much of the countryside. The girls are shy ("Feminism does not exist here!" insists Kenji when we make a joke about having a girls-only truck to head to the volcano. Machismo isn't always obvious, but Betty Frieden definitely hasn't yet hit the bookshelves). They were tired, and seemed to be inside their own heads for a lot of the day. I wondered how much was due to their personalities and how much
could be because there were two gringas around.

We've loved Ecuador and could spend months in any one spot... but "the road north" calls us...

quiteño graffitos.

Unite for a living wage

Bullfighter and meat-eater: the same murderer!

If a woman says no, it means no!

Coca Cola Kills

Laugh at life so you don't cry

Friday, March 12, 2010


Has anyone here ever seen five dubbed Dolph Lundgren movies in a row? We did, over the course of 8 of the longest, most machine-gun-filled hours of our lives to date, and arrived in Banos in a state that could only be described as utterly brain dead. You know you've hit a new mental low when you praise Jean Claude vanDamme's portrayal of a robot in "Universal Soldier" as "really funny" and "highly nuanced."

After a night of sleep, though, we made the executive decision to hit Baños like little friendly bats out of hell. Within 24 hours, we had:
1. Mountain biked through the valley to see the gorgeous string of waterfalls.
2. Done a tandem bridge jump that was without a doubt the scariest thing either of us had ever accomplished. Leaping to your doom is not what intelligent people do, but we might be hooked on the adrenaline now.
3. Climbed up the Pailon del Diablo to be greeted with a shock and awe campaign from Mother Nature.
4. Taken a chiva up the mountain to see the volcano at night. Did we touch lava? NOPE. Did we get completely downpoured on? YUP.
5. Pretended to salsa dance before requesting hip hop from the nice DJ (his answer: a Mary J. Blige remix. After five months of pure merengue, we'll take it) and closing out the club with a hilarious set of Scottish/British guys.
6. Oh NUTS. I somehow chipped my front tooth on a beer bottle. Now I have to find a dentist in Colombia who will cap that thing for under $20 (my self-imposed dental limit). I'll keep you posted on this bullshiz.

50 hours in cuenca

Highlights of the Cuenca phase:

--Seeing shrunken heads at the Museo del Banco Central (almost as good as mummies)
--Cappuccinos at the Panama Hat Museum
--Hiking up to the top of the mirador over the city and meeting an old couple with a new litter of puppies and a new photographer friend who made sure we were safe at the cemetery.
--A few hours at a dangerous new bar with a bullfighter theme and $1.50 tequila shots. One needs to be careful with such a discovery, we found.
--Unintentionally yelling "NO DOY" simultaneously at our new friend Kevin, who gave us a withering look and asked when the last time we had been apart was. None of your business, Kevin! Jeez.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

robbers, tarantulas, and hippies

The SUPER COOL thing that happened as we were trying to leave Peru:

All my cash, credit card, three sets of presents and the coin purse from our godchildren in Bolivia: STOLEN. Right out from under me. Right when we were trying to cross the stupid border on an overnight bus. When we got off the bus from Mancora, I was massively irritated and the first thought that came to mind was something along the lines of, "Cool, take all my money. I'll eventually go home and earn that all back-- and then some-- and you can stay here in your pitiful 3rd World thievery. Enjoy that." Then I remembered I'm supposed to be praying for my enemies. I struggled with that one and would have ALMOST concluded the Peru expedition with a bitter taste in my mouth if it weren't for a couple of things. Firstly, the kind man at our bus line office who found me an obscure computer (the only one with internet) in the station so I could cancel my card, and who counseled me with such gems as "Money is like water! It'll flow back to you in no time!" and reminded me that I was still safe. It's amazing how good-hearted, well-placed people can turn a situation around. Secondly, Marlo reminded me that we were heading to pure nature to live on Neverland Farm, which would be a perfect time to escape from using money at all and, as she put it, "really focus on a good mental cleanse" so we could start Ecuador on a positive note. Mental cleanse, brainwash, whatever. Let's do it.
We found ourselves arriving in Loja, Ecuador at 5 am, ready to move to a farm but having had the complicated directions stolen as well (maybe the most annoying thing about getting robbed is when they take the things that mean absolutely nothing to them, but everything to you. I met a Canadian girl who had a thousand dollars of things taken from her in the main square of Quito, but the thing she cried most about was her journal). Essentially stranded, we slept in the bus station for three hours until the town opened up and we could get to an internet cafe to REWRITE the 5 paragraphs of instructions. Finally, after two busses into the highlands and a long hike that was no easy jaunt with our backpacks on, we arrived at Neverland Farm.
Let me take a moment to describe what we THOUGHT we would be doing, based on the website:
Drinking farm-grown coffee, smoking farm-grown tobacco, eating farm-grown fruit and learning about sustainable organic agriculture. Not to mention getting our own hippy names (MoonBeam?PeaceWart?) in the process. What we did do was come to understand what it actually looks like to live on a hippy commune. We lucked out and had a vegetarian chef from Denmark cook us all our meals, ate veggies from the farm, and showered in the outdoor rock bath. Added bonus: new litters of kittens and puppies to play with, as well! What we were not up for was sharing an outhouse with tarantulas, finding spiders with weird fangs outside our door, having a leech colony waiting to attack from an unknown location, and having all our stuff permanently damp from the highland forest dew that seemed ubiquitous. I think we knew it was time to call it quits when, in a midnight attempt to avoid the outhouse, I accidentally peed on my Lulus. *Flashback to age 5, when my cousin tried to convince me that it was easy to pee in the woods. I got my grey sweatpants all wet and was mortified when we passed a cute 1st grade boy on the hike back. Since then, I have avoided the squat pee maneuver at all costs, besides that one time in the Bolivian desert where it was either "bano natural" or a UTI.*

So, with our new army of wonderful hippy friends left securely behind in their hemp beds, we made the trek back out of the woods and headed for safer ground in Cuenca, more than ready for a place that wouldn't either rob us blind or make us feel high-maintenance for not wanting bee hives in our living areas. Chau, puppies.

Sunday, March 07, 2010

little wolves.

We spent our last week in Peru with our new friend Andres, a friend of a friend living in Piura. Marlo and I camped out on his apartment floor for a few days before the three of us headed north to Lobitos, which will henceforth be known as the world's most beautiful former military base.

This place is essentially a ghost town: Peru only opened up the land to the public a few years ago, and the army barracks facing the water became Los Muelles Surf Camp... a line of tents, hose shower, and a vast view of the ocean. We have never been so content to live in a rickety, falling apart structure.
There was something quite poetic about how surf hippies came in and filled the place with peace and love paintings and left the army slogans up as well.

What is there to do in a ghost town? We wound our way past the "NO ENTRAR: TIERRA MILITAR" sign to spend a day on the quiet beach, all alone (Andres surfed a little, but I was too intimidated by the waves). We tried to fish off the dock at 2 am with a handful of beers and a few Spanish surfers. We read surf magazines by gas lamp and ate lots of fish at the one restaurant in town.
So essentially... we fell in love with Lobitos and will probably have dreams about it for a long time to come.