Sunday, September 12, 2010

Viva Colombia!

"Fear leads to anger; anger leads to hate; hate leads to suffering."
- Yoda

Someone told me I was going to die if I went to Colombia. Odds are I will at some point, but Colombia didn't do it. Even Colombians asked me, "what made you want to come to Colombia?" They don't ask that in Hawaii, or New York, or Italy. I think my desire to give that place a chance was the main reason I was so well received. Imagine someone telling you they think you are so much better than everyone thinks that they'd bet their life on it. From the hotel service to the food service to the taxi drivers, I had the distinct feeling that I was welcome in this country. Strangers took me in as friends, and that I can say was truly overwhelming. If you see Colombia in a movie, it probably has something to do with cocaine or violence... or both. What you won't see are the beautiful beaches, the vibrant culinary spirit, the modern festive nightlife, the magestic green mountains, or the inquisitive friends who don't want you to leave. You won't see it... unless you go there. Colombia is colorful, rich in culture, and in my opinion a much under-appreciated gem at the gateway to an awe-inspiring continent. But you probably won't see it.

I was asked today what was the best part of my trip. Without hesitation, my answer was the discussions I had with my new friends. I saw some beautiful treasures, saw some fantastic sunsets, ate some delicious creations, and danced a lot of dances. However, I spent some time with some great Americans - South Americans. We bridged a gap in some small way that is difficult to accomplish without travel. I went blindly into a strange land, and I found old friends I had never met. It was the people who made me feel safe, and these are a people who are passionate about becoming better - not just than anyone or someone else, but better than who they are thought to be. The time spent with the good people on my third South American expedition was not only enlightening, but inspiring.

One of the most fearful parts of any foreign trip is the arrival gate. You are basically fresh meat for pickpocketers, kidnappers, down-on-their-luck transvestite hookers, crooked money changers, corrupt cops, and young jihaddists. At least that's what crosses my mind between customs and finding my ride to somewhere safe. But, take that return trip to the airport two weeks later and... like my niece Alexandra told me about using the toilet: "It's not scary." So the message from this trip, seems to me, is about fear. Fear of danger, fear of the unknown, fear of failure, fear of intentions of the too-friendly-to-be-on-the-up-and-up gay Italian restaurateur are not only things we encounter in international travel, but things many of us encounter every day. Fear was installed in us to keep us alive, however fear can also keep us from living. Fear can make us hard, it can make us enemies, and it can make us weak. How many things don't we do because we are afraid? How many lives don't we touch? How many mysteries remain mysteries? The future belongs to those who refuse to be afraid and who vigorously seek out truth. Fear will prevail if you let it, but just think of what all you'd miss!

Viva Colombia!

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Monday, September 6, 2010

Y la Cava...

Alright, where were we... FOOD! Ah yes, I was on a mission to keep myself in the good graces of any Colombian reader of mine; let's be honest, I'm sure that number is in the low to mid hundreds of thousands at this point. I had the excellent fortune on Saturday evening to dine at Santissimo in Cartagena. Not only did I make the acquaintance of a charming Venezuelan family there, I had the nearly as exquisite opportunity to sample a local dish called obtalá with a fine Chilean cabernet sauvignon. On the menu, it is described as beef "punta de anca" which is sautéed and then stewed for two hours with vegetables and beef broth (tasted like some red wine in there, too). The trio of flavors of the stew, plátanos en tentación (soft cooked bananas), and arroz con coco (dark fried coconut rice) was amazing, and I savored every bite of the harmonizing flavors. I had ceased note-taking toward meal's end, but I had a delightfully simple yet unctuous vanilla ice cream with a local dark red berry with tough skins and large inedible seeds. The degree of difficulty in the required careful mastication was forgiveable. Mmm! The next day, I stopped by La Vitrola for lunch. I saw octopus carpaccio on the menu for the second time in as many days, so I decided it wasn't some drunken disgruntled German expat chef's idea of countering my boss's liberación de los pulpos, and may be just crazy enough to work (referring to carpaccio, not my chef; he works, right?). Bravo! It was thinly shaven octopus topped with parsley and diced tomatoes. On the side were fresh lime, a cruet of olive oil, pepper mill, and salt shaker... so I utilized them - delicious! So we're in business.

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Saturday, September 4, 2010

Code Red!?

Okay, how do I say this without offending anyone...

"I want the truth!"
"You can't handle the truth!!"

Sorry, had to get my Colonel Jessup on, because my Colombian friends are not going to like this. As delightful as this place is... wait... ooh, how 'bout this: I have yet to take any food notes as is standard for my trips. I did have good churrasco, but I think that may be Brazilian. Had a good causa, but that's Peruvian. My friend's steak with cheese and sun-dried tomatoes was good, but I think they were trying to be Italian. They keep telling me about Andres Carne de Res, so we may have to go there when I get back to Bogota. Perhaps I'm going to the wrong places. I'm sure it's my fault. It's not that the food is bad, it just hasn't been remarkable. Actually, I have made it my goal for the day to change my mind and have awesome Colombian food. That, and to go to the beach. And world peace.

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Friday, September 3, 2010

Thou Shalt Not Covet Mark's Moves

My friend Christina just proposed that life may in fact be a dance floor, and God is the DJ. Now would He play just Christian music? I think country maybe too sad. Definitely no gangsta rap. Does He take requests? "Yo, Holiest of Homies, how dost Thou feel about a little 'Karma Chameleon'"? Love would be easy, if your colors were like my dreams. I think we're getting off track here. Is Jesus pouring the wine at this club? Woo woo! In any case, I believe we are supposed to just dance.

My friend Gemma calls me "Happy Feet", I think due to some lack of formal dance training. Kevin told me once that if I taught him how to ride a motorcycle, he'd teach me how to dance. My niece Alexandra thinks I'm a great dancer. I think only the purest minds can appreciate my interpretive moves (that's right). I mean there are so many types of dance dating back to the beginnings of history. I just may not be appreciated in my own millenium. (This really is going somewhere, I promise.) So, I think to "just dance" is to get out there and DO IT (and do it, and do it). That's what traveling is. That's what life is. Might as well jump.

I was dancing last night in Cartagena. Of course every song had a new dance, and by the time I got the hang of one, I had to learn a new one. No MJ. It was the end of a great day. Like I said before, it's nice to have friends... and friends of friends. My Cartagena tour guide was Diana. She took me to the best hotel - Sofitel - for a refreshing beverage; I had a green mango martini (with lime and salt). Afterwards, we cabbed it to see the sunset from the top of the centuries-old city wall - awesome view, looking out at the ocean! We had reservations for a really nice restaurant, supposedly, but our cocktail waitress took 50 minutes to deliver our check, and we missed our reservation. However, we found a mediocre, yet pleasant meal in a delightful setting of one of the main city's plazas. A man even sat with us and sang while playing guitar! It was a good night, as my host was determined out of national pride (no, I'm serious) to make it so. One impression I have had so far on this trip is that the Colombian people are not only very open and welcoming, but in fact determined to impress their guest with hospitality (cocktail waitress excluded) so as to leave an indelible positive impression. Colombians are eager to have the world know that what you see in the movies is not Colombia. There are many unpleasant realities in many places. What a breath of fresh air to see a people dedicated to rising above. Now that, my friends, is change you can believe in.

Off to the pool...

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Thursday, September 2, 2010

Consejo Sin Precio

When my mom stepped out of the hospital room for a few moments, I asked my uncle Sam about Colombia. I thought if I had his blessing, I'd go. He was short on words at that point, but not on fondness for this country... and more specifically, Cartagena. So, I'm here.

First of all, I have been extremely lucky to have several Colombian friends in the United States whom, not only have advised me on this trip, but, have put me in contact with their friends and family down here. So, Jamie, Jorge, Jaime, Manuel, Oscar, Natalia, and Natalie... Muchas Gracias. I have had so much help that I haven't even much looked at my guide book! I'm quite certain there is no section in there devoted to where to spend your birthday with a table full of friends; probably nothing in the index leading you to an international conference on migration with the speach writer for the mayor of Bogota; and definitely no section devoted to cruising the local malls with senior citizens for mamacitas... or perhaps I just borrowed the wrong book from the MLK Library (was the only one!). In any case, for better or for worse, as I wrote several entries back, a world traveler believes and comes to know that are some things not found in books.

So I arrived around dusk yesterday in Cartagena. In contrast to the oftentimes chilly huge capital city of Bogota set inland and high up in a valley surrounded by mountains, and seemingly always nestled among the clouds, Cartagena is situated down along the Carribean coast between Panama and Venezuela. (I don't plan on making jaunts to either to make country #21.) There are palm trees at the airport. I'm going to leave it at that for now, as it is morning and have yet to see this place in the daylight. Buenos Dias a Todos!!!

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