Friday, November 19, 2010

Ciudad Perdida

After a 4 hour bus ride from Cartagena to Santa Marta, Colombia, we decided to make the 5 day hike through the Teyuna region of the Sierra Nevada to Ciudad Perdida (Lost City). The hike was breathtakingly beautiful, although it consisted of either 'arriba' or 'bajo' (a.k.a. up and down), so we were extremely bushed after the very first day. The first day's hike also consisted of a lot of rain, as the jungle tends to have very hot and sunny mornings, then rains every afternoon, and sometimes all night long.
Tyrone made a little buddy along the way!

Tyrone had the biggest pack of the group, as he carried both our supplies (what a gentleman!), and everyone was impressed he survived all 5 days... they were also jealous when we had our tasty steri-pen purified water and when we were toasty warm with our sleeping bags on the cold nights!

One of the many highlights of the trip was interacting with the local Kogui people who had little grass hut farms along the way. Our guide mentioned that the immediate area in which we were hiking had about 180 Kogui people, and there are approximately 3,000 total Kogui left in Colombia. Although some Kogui speek Spanish, the majority of the people speak Kogui. Of the few indigenous people we passed, most were fairly shy and offered a quick 'buenas' or 'hola'; however, the children were very curious and playful! The first adorable Kogui girl we encountered ran ahead of us on the trail, clapping her hands and grinning... then she popped behind a bush to pick up an orange and chucked it down the trail at us! Bowling for gringos is a major sport in Teyuna for the local children!

Our first camp site offered comfortable hammocks and breathtaking views of the mountains and valley below. We were never hungry on the trip, either, as each camp was fully equipped with a kitchen and tables, offering up 3 large meals and snacks daily! We never thought we would get such hospitality so far away from civilization!

Although we were provided with plenty of chocolate on our journey, Lydia just couldn't help herself from sampling the cocoa pods along the way...

Each day was full of mountain peaks full of vistas better than the last... it made the uphill hike worth it every time!

On top of the high peaks, there were also numerous river crossings. Most were done on foot, but this one required a bit of a mechanical advantage!
On day 3, Lydia waged a battle with two Kogui girls (they started it!), throwing little beans at each other... Below you see the truce after a peace offering made to Lydia by the littler of the two girls, which was a handful of beans put in her pocket to take along the journey!

The littler Kogui girl was also fascinated by our camera, so Tyrone had her take a photo of him to try it out!

Bright and early on the morning of day 4, we made it to Ciudad Perdita. We had to conquer 1200 steps to get to the top!

Our guide, Jesus, explained to us that the Tairona people who inhabited Ciudad Perdida (yes, Tyrone believes he is their reincarnated leader!) had extensive carvings of maps, one of which is pictured below. There apparently was no form of writing or pictographs found in the archaeology, however, so it is believed the history of the Taironas is solely oral as well as gathered through anthropological interpretation.

Tyrone sitting on the Shaman's throne with his special stick thing... we don't recall what it was called, but apparently the boys in the region each get one when they reach 17 years of age, along with a wife (who could be any age from 12 to 30). It has something to do with cocaine and conch shells... and that was the best we could interpret, as our guide only spoke Spanish.

View of Ciudad Perdida and Tyrone taken from the Shaman's wife's house plot.

The farthest circle is the Shaman's house plot, and the closer circle next to it belonged to his wife.

We made our journey along with an awesome group of people from such parts of the world as Australia, Zimbabwe, Wales, England, Czech Republic and Switzerland. A few people are travelling in our same direction, so we are hoping to meet up with them along the way! We even met the ancient cat of Ciudad Perdida, held below by Nick.

Tyrone packed a small bottle of champagne around for 4 days for us to finish at the Lost City. Unfortunately, shortly after we cracked the bottle, we were interrupted by a small group of extremely rude French people who actually 'shoed' Tyrone out of their picture just as we were taking ours... as you can see, he wasn't very impressed...
Next to the terraces of Ciudad Perdida, there are a few remaining uninhabited grass huts where our guide explained the rise and fall of the Taironas to us. The city was established in approximately 800 AD, and was extremely rich (based on the gold and treasures found in the 1970s by looters). The Spanish came in the early 1600s and brought with them guns and diseases, causing many Taironas to be wiped out, and many to flee to higher grounds where they succumbed to cold and hunger... And the city wasn't discovered again until 1972 by looters. Local authorities didn't catch wind of the site until 1975 when they figured out where all the treasure on the black market was coming from. Since then, there has been much archaeological research done in the area. In 2003, the National Liberation Army (ELN) kidnapped a group of hikers who were on their way to the Lost City. Fortunately, they were released 90 days later in exchange for the release of some jailed ELN. The site was again deemed safe to travel to in 2005, and 5 years later, we travelled there!

Tyrone became one with the butterflies, as they believed he was descendant of their ancient leaders...

A little known fact about Tyrone is that during his time in Africa, he acquire some Doctor Doolittle-esque skills (seen in the video below):

Day 5 was a gruelling hike, as we made up the same ground back as we covered in days 1 and 2. We still stopped to snap some photos of the fabulously flourescent flora and fauna.

This guy was sleeping, but when he opens his wings, his top half is an extremely bright royal blue... We have both never seen anything like it before!

We made it back to the starting line! Through muchas mud, rapid rivers, relentless rain, scalding sun, malicious mosquitos and annoying ants, we had finally made it back to civilization... Cold beer had never tasted so good... and clean clothes had never been so appealing before that moment in time! But we thoroughly enjoyed ourselves (well, for the most part... there were some rough parts during the 50 km hike, especially for some... no names mentioned!) and we would recommend the journey to anyone and everyone! It was truly an experience of a lifetime!

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Cartagena (car-tah-hay-na)

After two or so weeks of fun in beautiful Cartagena, our time has finally come to an end. I´m now sitting in my hostel in Santa Marta, waiting for the bus to pick us up to go find the ´Lost City´or ´El Ciudad Perdida´ (more on that in our next post).
Cartagena is a georgeous colonial city of about 2 million inhabitants. Although by our standards, this is a very large city, Cartagena actually has a small town feel to it. The central section of Cartagena is sectioned off from the rest of the city with a giant fortified wall (and ocean). This area is composed of three parts: Getsemani, San Diego, and Central. The landscape in this area is absolutely stunning. Picture Spanish city from the 1800´s, with cobble stone streets, horse drawn carriages, white-wash buildings that are painted bright colours, which is frozen in time, and you have Cartagena. This area is reasonably small, meaning it´s quite possible to walk from A to B, and even though you can cab anywhere for about $2, we found walking was the best (to enjoy the people and the sights).
In Cartagena, the people are very friendly, very inviting, and for all you nay sayers, Colombia is absolutely safe now (at least Cartagena, from our experience)! Lydia and I spent our time in Cartagena mostly taking Spanish lessons, walking around the city, and enjoying the beaches (Bocagrande). We confirmed our notion when we first arrived in Colombia that strong Spanish skills are drastically needed here, so we thought a good way for us to ramp up our Spanish was to take two weeks of lessons at the BABEL school. We found the teachers there to be really friendly and quite good at what they do. Unfortunately, it takes a little more than two weeks to learn a language, so we´re still pretty useless when it comes to conversations, but we´re getting much better at reading and putting piecemeal sentences together!

Cartagena's most famous monument is a statue of the 'old shoes', which is a tribute to Cartagena paid by the local poet Luis Carlos (and sculpted by Tito Lambrano). Not having read the poem, I can't give you any idea why this comparison is made (and taken with such pride, given the fact that he compares the city to OLD SHOES), but all I can say is that they must have been some damn fine boots as it is on proud display in front of the city's main attraction - the castillo de San Felipe de Baras, a colosal 16th century fort designed to protect the city from pirates.

On one of our first days in the city, Lydia and I toured through the fort. After the tour, Lydia and I decided that we were not going to be able to sack Cartagena for all of its booty, so we were just going to be beach bum tourists instead.

The view from atop of the Castillo de San Felipe de Barajas.... Nope, no pirates approaching!

During our time in Cartagena, Lydia and I stayed at Casa Viena, a local hostel. To put things into perspective (with respect to cost of living here), Lydia and I paid about $20 a day to stay in the room, and about $5 each for terrific meals (i.e. crepes for breakfast, roast chicken for lunch, and steaks for dinner). That being said, we shouldn't have too much trouble stretching our budget without starving here. The picture above is our buddy 'Laundry Cat' who used to sneak in through our balcony while we were away for spanish lessons and sleep on our clothes during the afternoon. He was very cute, but was a little annoyed each day when we would have to kick him out to get our clothes whenever we got back.
A splash of a Cartagenian street. Colourful, historic, beautiful!

One of the many beautiful churches or iglesias within Cartagena (from outside and within). This particular church (San Pedro Claver Cathedral) had to be rebuilt after Sir Francis Drake bombarded it with cannon fire until the locals handed over all their city's fortune. Sir Francis Drake then skipped town with all the wealth, neglecting to pay the neighbouring army that helped in his seige. This then led to a second attack of Cartagena by the army that wasn't paid for the first attack. Unfortunately, Sir Francis Drake had all of Cartagena's gold by that time, so there was little the locals could do. I'll have to remember such tactics if I ever want to become a nobleman (such as SIR Francis Drake): armed robery + cut and run = highest honour from the queen!
Apparently, the cannon fire blasted out the Cathedral's colums (pictured above), crippling the church. A couple hundred years and a few coats of paint later, the church is back in fine shape.

The statue above may look familiar to the style of the Berlin statues shown in our Germany blog. This work is done by the Colombian artist Fernando Botero, or as I like to call him, Sir Mix-A-Lot. His work is depicted in statue and painting form across the world, but in particular in his native Colombia. Personally, both Lydia and I are huge fans of his work, and will likely have to fit at least a few replicas in our pack on the way home.

Lydia and I attempting to become like Botero works of art via eating golden chocolate cake.
One of the most surprising things that we found out in Cartagena was that our good friend Verity used to be a Colombian emerald model while she was in high school! Verity, why didn't you ever tell us about this?!
Unfortunately, our time in Cartagena wasn't all sunshine. By about the fourth day in the city, the storm clouds started to roll in, and stayed for the rest of our time in the city. Daily violent thunder and lightning storms, coupled with terrential rain resulted in city-wide flooding. The storms didn't come as much of a surprise to us, as we knew it was the tail end of the hurricane season for the region, but the lack of city-wide irrigation, contributing to massive flooding was a hard one to grasp. How a city with obvious wealth can go without a basic irrigation system is beyond me.
The storm is a coming!

A video of the flooding in Cartagena (taken 2 minutes away from our hostel).
The flooding depicted above is just the tip of the iceberg. One of the teachers from our Spanish school described the region of Cartagena where he lived as being under about 3 feet of water. The man was devastated at the fact that the storm hit while he was at school, meaning he was not able to return home to help his sister and mother save their belongings from the flood (as all transportation routes were flooded as well). The next day, he said that the flooding in his house was chest-deep, and that all his family's belongings were destroyed in the flood. He was enraged by the fact that the same thing happens every year in Cartagena (as well as many other regions in Colombia), yet aside from a few charitable donations to those affected, his government does nothing to solve the problem (i.e. create a bloody irrigation system).

Our last days in Cartagena were spent celebrating the Miss Colombia pagent (held annually in Cartagena, tied in with Cartagena's Independence Day celebration on November 11th). Colombia goes absolutely nuts over the Miss Colombia pagent! The city errupts into a week long party for the girls (and for Cartagena). Lydia was disappointed, because we found out after the fact that Shakira gave a free concert for the event! Above you can see the Miss-Colombia-to-be clones (all of whom were about 5'9, 110lbs, long brown hair, etc.).

One thing I can tell you for sure about Colombians is that they know how to party! Like all good Colombian parties, we started out our Cartagenian Independence Day celebration with a bottle of rum.

.....well, maybe a few bottles of rum ;)

The Cartagenian Independence Day and or Miss Colombia pageant turns into a city-wide foam, paint and flour fight. Watch the video above for a better description, but long story short, everyone in the city is armed with giant shaving cream bottles of foam, bags full of flour, handfulls of paint, and absolutely everyone is fair game.... especially gringos!

Lydia and I must have gone through about 10 bottles of spray foam to protect ourselves from the foam carnage within Cartagena that day. I can't express how much fun it was at this event. Young and old, rich and poor, locals and foreigners, EVERYONE was spraying everyone all day. It didn't matter if you were off to work or heading for the parade, you were going to get sprayed.

Foam-rambo Lydia!

One of Lydia's many victims of the day.

This little kid thought that the 'spray the gringo in the face' game was especially fun, so he decided to follow me around for the whole day and continually launch sneak attacks on me. At the end of the day, when he ran out of foam (finally), I managed to hunt him down and get him back!
If you notice the military presence in the background, it is to be noted that it is a good idea not to take too many valuables with you to this celebration for two reasons. One, it is a giant foam, water, flour, paint, etc. fight, so your belongings are bound to get ruined (I protected my camera with a waterproof case). Two, there are a lot of pickpockets that pray on people during the festivities. First, someone sprays you in the eyes with foam, second, someone throws flour in your face, then, before you know it, you have five dudes going through your pockets (searching for your wallet). This happened to just about everyone I knew (including myself and Lydia), but we knew about it ahead of time, so we didn't have anything on us). There's worse ways to rob someone than this slap-stick snatch and grab, so I still wholey recommend this festival as a must do!

Cartagena is a beautiful and vibrant town full of colour, music, and fun! Lydia and I managed to both have a lot of fun, take in a lot of beach fun, and learn a lot about the Colombian people, history, and language while we were there.
Next stop, Santa Marta and La Ciudad Perdida!

Sunday, November 7, 2010

The Big Apple

After the Boston trip, Lydia, Verity, and I hopped on a bus and headed for the big apple. To me, New York was a very mixed experience; on one hand, it is a very beautiful city, with brilliant architecture, heaps of things to do, and places to see, and yes, we had tons of fun, but there is also so much about the city that rubs me the wrong way. I'll get into that later (after the fun bits).

We didn´t arrive in New York until later on in the evening, so we didn´t get up to too much mischief on the first night (we just met up with Ver´s sister Felicity and her BF Joules) who kindly offered to put us up in their apartment for the first couple of days in our New York experience. The second night was a bit more eventful, as Lydia, Joules, and I headed off to a New York Comedy club to catch a show. There, we had maybe a few too many beer, which resulted in a lot of good comedy material for the comics (seeing as how we were front and center...... and Lydia actually managed to shush a comedian during his set)! According to most of the comics at the show, Lydia and I love each other too much and Joules wears clothes that are too small:) It was all in good fun though, as after the show, one of the comics even decided to go out with us for some after partying (Ruhbin Mehta - hilarious, so check him out if possible). The day after the comedy show wasn´t quite as funny, however, as both Lydia and I had apocalyptic hangovers!

Here are some photos from some other events we got up to in New York:

Here we are in Grand Central Station.... yup, it´s pretty grand!

Amazing architecture is everywhere in New York. Most of our fun in the city came from just walking around and looking up. Unfortunately, we didn´t have the best background knowledge in building names, so we kept seeing these grandiose buildings and thinking.... WOW, the Empire State Building...... wait a second, that´s not the Empire state building! Pop quiz, what is the name of the above building? 500 points to the first person to get it!

This is the headquarters of the UN, along with a plaque that is posted outside the building. I think Isaiah still has to wait for this one to come true.

Time Square, nuf said.

Lydia being all statuesc´. This picture was taken outside the box office for the Broadway Show Avenue Q, which was the show we were intending on seeing while in New York. Unfortunately, we got our dates wrong as to when the show was playing, and the night we went to go see the show (the day before we left) was the one day the show wasn´t playing, meaning we weren´t able to catch a Broadway show this time.
We were able to catch somewhat of a different production while in New York, however, as we went to North America´s #1 ranked haunted house: Nightmare Superstitions. We got a good student rush rate for the haunted house, and got to take in all the twisted fun. In the haunted house, two of the following actually happened, and 1 did not, I´ll leave it for you to work out which one didn´t happen:
a) We witnessed a child birth

b) Both Lydia and I were sprayed in the arm with monster secretions

c) Lydia was brought back to her farming days in a chamber of hanging rabbits

If you guessed (b), you are correct. We were actually sprayed in the face with monster secretions!
Some more of the brilliant architecture in New York:

Empire state building at night (95% sure).

I always thought that Lydia´s dance moves were one of a kind, but this series of photos proves otherwise. Not only is the giant M&M copying her in the picture above, but in the picture below, our flightless bird friend from the Antarctic (currently residing in the central park zoo), busted the exact same move as her later that day!


The central park zoo is small, but very fun, with several adorable animals!

Top 3 highlights of the central park zoo include:

3) a polar bear that was trying to get a large stick into a small cave.... keep trying buddy!

2) A battle royal of baby dwarf mongooses! Did you know that if you equip a mongoose with an enchantment it gets +2/+2? Inside joke to fellow geeks out know who you are.

1) A snow leopard. Nothing funny to say here. It was just a magnificent animal!

Another highlight of our New York trip was winning tickets to the Late Show with Dave Letterman. About 2 months before our trip, I entered our name into an online lottery draw for tickets, and by chance, my name was drawn the day before we left the island! I was then able to answer a trivia question to attain free tickets to the show!

Of course, when you go to watch the late show, you have to get a sandwich with Rupert G at the Hello Deli beforehand (notice Rupert in the background)!

Lydia enjoying a mouth full... probably will kill me for posting this pic :)

But she can´t be mad now, because here´s one of me :)

The show we saw was awesome! We got to see Charles Barkley, Baba Buey, and KINGS OF LEON!!! KOL in particular were SWEET! It´s awesome too, because Lydia and I were disappointed that we couldn´t catch a KOL show earlier because we were saving for our trip, but KOL came through for us for free anyway (it always works out for us).

I thought I was going to be on the actual show too for giving a WOOT for Canada during the taping but they edited me out... bastards! To get back at them, here (above) is a picture of the studio that I wasn´t supposed to take :P

A wicked free activity to do in New York is to catch the Staten Island ferry, which gives terrific views of the statue of liberty and Ellis Island. HIGHLY recommended!

Once Lydia was done taking shots with the Statue of Liberty, she crushed it with her fingers!

More free fun includes walking around FAO Schwartz:

Unfortunately, I was mauled at FAO by a wookie. Damn him and his Bowcaster attack!

In FAO Schwartz, you can actually make your own Muppet (see video above)! I would so take one home with me if I wasn´t backpacking!

Also in the free New York fun category includes strolling around the beautiful Central Park!

With an ice rink!

And now for the unpleasantness of new York (and no, I'm not talking about the Naked Cowboy of Time Square, which is actually quite amusing, nor the wafts of urine in the air common in most big cities, although that is present too)....

As soon as you step foot off the bus, you notice that New York is ridiculously crowded. Walking down the streets of Manhattan is reminiscent to a stroll down an isle of a mega-Wal-Mart during a Boxing day sale. The next thing you notice is how generally unhappy and unfriendly so many of the people are. I´ve never seen a cashier roll her eyes at someone for trying to purchase a $3 item with a $20 bill before (because breaking a $20 is such a big deal). Nor have I witnessed two grown women (about 50 or 60 years old) get into a shoving match over a public transit seat before I went to New York!

I think part of the reason why I am slightly jaded about the new York experience comes due to the fact that we spent the second half of our time in the slums on the outskirts of the exclusive city (within Manhattan, the cheapest 2 star hotel costs around $300/night, meaning we had to go elsewhere). During our time spent in the "real" New York, we witnessed more than a few crowning achievement in human society:

- When finding our hotel in Queens, we overheard one man say the following on his cell phone:
- "Do me a favor. Uncuff him! Yea man, just let him go for me"
- "I'll be there in a couple. Give me your weapon!"
- "Get it ready, pull the pin out!"
- "Man these Fu$=@"& cops are giving me trouble!"

If it wasn't fun enough that the guy was sitting next to us, he also decided to get off at our hotel stop (during which time, he scanned the streets through the bus window for his buddy with the gun)! Needless to say, we waited to get off at the next stop!

- On a separate occasion, we overheard a group of 15 year old boys talking about their recent knife and pepper spray fight.

- On yet another occasion we saw a guy in our hotel admiring his recent stab wound in the lobby.

The topper in our "real" New York experience came when we were taking the subway over to Manhattan for the day, but in our subway car, we found a guy who was passed out, twitching, and covered in human waste. What I didn't understand though, was why everyone just went to the next car and didn´t go for help! Lydia and I got off the train to get some help for the poor guy, but when we found the transit security guard and informed him of the situation, the guy literally laughed in our face and said "welcome to New York". I'm sorry, but I would never want to live in a place with such disregard for human life! It is such a backwards culture from what I've grown up with! Without getting too much into the topic, this ignorance disgusted me, and really made me grow a strong disliking for the New York culture and social structure.

On a happier note, jumping ahead a few steps, Lydia and I are now in Cartagena Colombia and having a ball! Updates on South America are due next!