Jun 272016
 

I knew Gabriel Garcia Marquez was from Colombia, but until I went there, I didn’t realize how his homeland must have influenced his work. They call Colombia the land of magic realism, and it’s very fitting. Colombia is very REAL, and by capitalizing it, I mean more expressive, more colourful, bigger, and louder than the understated colours and culture I’m accustomed to. But it also has an otherworldly magic to it, a surreal energy that is entirely it’s own and very hard to describe – so I’ll describe it with an event.

On the jungle hike, we had a half day to do whatever we wanted. Instead of swimming or accompanying Brad on adventures, I wandered down the Buritaca River and found a big boulder that had been sculpted and smoothed by centuries of river currents. I meditated for a while, then lay back, fitting my body into the boulder’s gentle curves, shut my eyes, and allowed the rush and tumble of the river to carry my thoughts away.

I’m not yellow butterflysure what made me look up but minutes later, I did, just in time to see a flash of butterscotch yellow. A butterfly.

A moment later, a second butterfly, this one creamy yellow. Then another, again yellow, but brighter.

I sat up. Facing upstream, I saw them coming. Not in hordes or flocks or whatever you call masses of butterflies, but one by one, like sparkling yellow jewels, each one precious, each unique, each incredibly luminous in the sunlight as they flew toward me.

Brad’s morning wanderings eventually carried him downstream as well, and we sat on the boulder that was as much art as rock – and we watched dozens, then hundreds of yellow butterflies pass by, letting the updraft from the rushing water carry them along. A butterfly highway.

To this day, when I think back to that morning, the entire world seems just a bit more lovely, a touch more wondrous – but there’s more to the experience than remembering the beauty. When I’m feeling down or going through a difficult situation, and I remember that in the jungle, glowing yellow butterflies fly en mass along a rushing river, it is as if each butterfly picks up a bit of my sadness and stress, and flutters away with it.

Magic realism? Residual magic? I don’t know. But it is REAL, at least to me. And I am infinitely grateful for that experience.

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I am living this year with the view that ALL THINGS ARE POSSIBLE. What this year may include: adventures in travel, career, personal growth, and more. If you are interested in following my haphazard posts, sign up here. Thank you!

Mar 102016
 
 March 10, 2016  Colombia, Fun Stuff, Living As If All Things Are Possible, Miscellaneous, Reflections, Travel Comments Off on Ciudad Perdida

Two days later, we hiked into Ciudad Perdida. The trip up to that point had been amazing: the cloud forest vegetation and flowers, the river, the indigenous dwellings, coca plants, and so much more.

The second day of hiking, we passed an elderly indigenous woman on the trail. She asked with hand signals for a hiking stick from a woman in our group, then with stick in hand, flipped a scorpion out from beside the rock at her feet, and proceeded to pound it to death.

Weird Catepillar

Weird Neon Catepillar

Another time, Quapak, our guide, told us that a snake had bitten a mule right there – and he pointed to the creek bank I was standing on. Two days later, when Quapak hiked back, the mule was still at the water’s edge, but it was dead. Needless to say, I crossed with exceptional care.

I was pretty happy to not see a snake close up, or a tarantula, but I was a bit disappointed that there were none to be seen from a distance. However, we did see this strange creature, which to me, looks like it could be related to a nudibranch if we’d found it underwater.

A few of the 1,200 stairs up to Ciudad Perdida.

A few of the 1,200 stairs up to Ciudad Perdida.

 

Finally, on the morning of the third day, we crossed the Rio Buritaca, and climbed the 1,200 stone steps into Ciudad Perdida, gaining 400 meters (over 1,300 feet) in less than a kilometer.  It was a brisk climb but not as challenging as that first day when we climbed 640 meters (2,100 feet) beneath the blasting afternoon sun. Now, trees, some with hundreds of pounds of epiphytes attached, towered over us, vines hanging to the ground.

At the entrance to the city, we made an “offering” to show respect to the indigenous culture. I gently tossed a leaf into the sacred circle, and after a shared minute of silence, we walked into the city, which consisted of stone walled circles, filled with earth, the platform foundations of the houses that had once been there.

The city was abandoned about 400 years ago, though the local people continued to use the site for ceremonial purposes. Only the Mamo (the medicine man) and his family continue to live there, a short distance from the main circles.

Circles and stairs.

Circles and stairs.

These days, thirty more people also live nearby – soldiers. An observation post is on the mountain above the highest circle, and the soldiers keep watch, fully armed and ready to protect the visitors.

The stone circles became bigger as we moved higher on the ridge. As in countless civilizations around the world, the more successful families had the biggest circles and the best views. When the rest of the group stopped at the biggest circle, the one reserved for community gatherings, Brad and I kept climbing, up and up, from circle to circle.

Finally at the top, with only the military post higher, we looked back to see our group grown small below. Oropendolas built hanging nests in some tall palms nearby, their tail feathers flashing yellow in the sun. A pair of green parrots flew by, and then a red bird, and one so blue it looked startling against the blue of the sky. Beyond the stone city itself, the expanse of mountains and valley stretched to the horizon, the first mist of the day starting to gather among the trees.

I was standing in a lost city in South America, something that a year ago I would’ve thought was impossible and, considering our financial situation, irresponsible. Okay, so maybe that part hadn’t changed.

A beautiful view.

A beautiful view.

 

 

But the sight before me, the almost audible hum of energy in the air, the cry of the birds as they enacted their eternal dance, the vines swaying rhythmically to the hot breaths of wind, even a hiker’s laugh from down below – they combined to make that experience far more “real” than the cost, and in that moment, the cost became permanently irrelevant.

So I guess at the end of my life, I’ll die a few thousand dollars poorer, but that’s okay, because I have no doubt that I became much, much richer during these few hours at Ciudad Perdida. And that’s what I call good value.

Feb 252016
 
 February 25, 2016  Colombia, Fun Stuff, Living As If All Things Are Possible, Reflections, Travel, Ups and Downs Comments Off on Cuidad Perdida or Bust
Mules passing me on the chalk trail.

Mules passing me on the chalk trail.

I seriously thought I was going to collapse. Hills should not be this high or this steep. Three hours up? In 35 degree C  heat? With no shade? Come on!

The rest of our small group had shown us their backs a while ago. I’d already guzzled most of the water by the time the trail turned to white chalk dust, reflecting the heat back into my beet red face. Dust poofed into the air at every step, sticking to my sweat and coating my heaving lungs. And yet, there seemed no end. Up, up, eternally up.

Earlier that afternoon, we started the three day hike into Ciudad Perdida, a “lost city” in the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta mountains. It had been a wonderful day. Meeting our hiking crew that morning and driving out to El Mamey, the town with such a bloody history it was nicknamed El Machete, where we would start our hike. The peaceful little village that greeted us did not live up to its past reputation, thankfully. We’d seen a massive iguana (or I think it was an iguana – it was a huge lizard in a tree, anyway) and the two snow capped peaks in the Sierra Nevadas, the two biggest mountains in the world at sea level. Incredibly impressive!

The hike itself started out easy-peasy, with gentle uphills and the occasional downhill. It was hot, that was for certain, but it was also shaded. The surroundings were beautiful and exotic, creeks bubbled past, strange fruit hung on trees, and the flowers… oh, the flowers! They’d drive me to poetry if I wasn’t careful.

Anyway, it all seemed amazing, even for a little while after the gentle slope turned into a not so gentle slope. Then the shade vanished, the sun got hotter (I swear), we hit the chalk dust – and the hike became a trudge.

Brad stayed with me, encouraging me and dutifully offering to carry my pack every once in a while. No way, I thought. I’d rather die, right here, right now. I may be suffering the ego-beating of being agonizingly slow, but to have someone carry my pack? No way, dude.

Just a random awesome flower in the jungle.

Just a random awesome flower in the jungle.

“Are you sure you don’t want me to carry it?”

“Yeah (gasp) I’m sure (gasp, stumble).”

Trudge, trudge, trudge.

“Here, let me take your hand.”

“Aw, you’re so (gasp) romantic.”

“Uh, yeah.”

Pulls me up the hill.

“You know, I can carry your pack for you.”

“Grrr.”

Waits one minute.

“Do you want me to?”

“I’m (gasp, pant) fine.”

“Okay, just let me know.”

Washing off the dust

Washing off the dust

Well, I must admit, the time did come, and then I had the added pleasure of seeing him carrying both our packs up the last of that massive hill without even breathing hard, as I panted and wheezed alongside.

But you know what? That was an amazing day. I loved the challenge and the exertion and the heat and the wiping of dusty sweat out of my eyes and the chalk breathing – and later that day, washing said dust/chalk off in the river while getting nibbled on by little vampire fish.

That hill was a profoundly satisfying experience. I may not have conquered it in style or even reach the top with my own pack on my own back, but conquer it I did. And that makes me happy.

 

Feb 232016
 

So, I did my part in Colombia to inspire people. I had a panic attack.

We’d been working a tough schedule. Mornings at PARE (a home devoted to helping people get off the streets) doing English lessons and teaching the residents skills that they could use to make money. It was loud, high energy, and fun – and for a major introvert like me, incredibly bombarding. Add to that, the facts that I’m deaf in one ear and can’t hear anything said on my right side, and that I knew so little Spanish that I was afraid to say the little I knew, because the response would then be in Spanish and I wouldn’t understand a word said – if I even heard it… and well, I was stressed. During the afternoons, we either planned or put on events at El Redil del Sur, a Christian church in Sabaneta, and I had to hear and talk to even more people. All day. Every day.

To add to the upheaval, I kept expecting those closest to me (the team I was working with) to be mad at me! I know it sound crazy, but really it’s not so crazy as it sounds, because in my day-to-day life, my special-needs daughter has rage issues and is almost constantly angry, usually at me. Her anger has dominated my daily life for years now. What I didn’t realize until I went to Colombia was how much it has affected me.

Brad and me, later that day in Botero Square, Medellin.

Brad and me, later that day in Botero Square, Medellin.

Still, no matter how much I expected it, no one got mad at me there. I don’t even think they felt frustrated with me, though they certainly had a right to be. Every time I noticed myself closing down emotionally, I’d remind myself that no one was mad, that they actually even seemed to like me. I’d be fine for an hour or a day or whatever, and then it would sneak it again, and I’d start feeling like a miserable burden to the people I worked with, like any moment they were going to snap and say something mean… Surely they’re mad at me now. Nope. Okay, but what about now? Sorry, no evidence of that. But what about now? And on and on it went.

And then Sunday came. The first church service that day was very spiritual and I felt so open… and then when the service was over, it’s like all my doubts and fears of the proceeding week zoomed into that open space, and wouldn’t leave. I held myself together only a few minutes into the second service, and then for the first time ever, I had a panic attack. To make things worse, I had to leave the service during a relatively quiet time and I was sitting at the front, so of course a lot of people noticed. Though the panic attack was as scary as I’ve heard they can be, it couldn’t stop my feelings of embarrassment or humiliation. If I could’ve chosen anywhere else to have my episode, I would’ve done it. But, well… it was simply not to be.

Brad stayed with me the whole time of the attack, and eventually, I could breathe normally again. Ages later, the tears stopped. I tried to slink out of church unnoticed, and mostly succeeded. Either that or most people were giving me the gift of averting their eyes (I suspect that’s the case, actually). The rest of the day was awesome and rejuvenating, and I was able to start up again on Monday morning with no outward residual effect. But underneath, I still felt ashamed of my meltdown. I blamed myself for being both weak and an idiot. That is, until the day we left Sabaneta.

We had a last lunch together, and were sharing our thoughts on the trip, on what was a success and what might be better next time, and right at the end, Jairo, the pastor at El Redil, said something that completely changed my outlook. He said that one of the things that really impacted the people in his church during our visit was how supportive and gentle Brad was with me when I was upset. Many people saw it, he said (and I thought, “oh great!”), and they were deeply moved by Brad’s kind and loving response.

And all of a sudden, I didn’t feel so bad about my meltdown. I had made a difference. I’d helped to inspire. I might have done it by crying and hyperventilating, but if I hadn’t done that, Brad wouldn’t have had a reason to show me such kindness in front of so many people. Yes, at the time it was terribly embarrassing and frightening, but to have that painful experience inspire others on the value of kindness and gentleness? I’m glad it happened. What more can I say?

Feb 192016
 

Jardin SquareThe wind sways the tree tops in a silver sky, and I find I’m mesmerized by their stark northern dance. So different from what I was seeing just a few days ago. I was in Colombia, soaking in the heat, sights, sounds, and smells of a culture that is very different from my own – and very attractive. I can see why writers and other artists gravitate to South America. It is place alive with passion! Everything is less reserved than in the north: the people, the vegetation, the colours, the streets, the churches… Life on overdrive!

The night we arrived in Sabaneta, a neighbourhood in Medellin, I saw my first example of this. We stayed in an apartment with a local woman, Adriana, who was very hospitable, welcoming, and kind. From her fifth story apartment balcony, we watched the street as night descended and saw groups of adults sitting in their plastic chairs in circles on the sidewalks, talking, gesturing, and laughing. Happy, loud music floated up to our balcony. Teens hung out in small groups, joking and teasing each other. Younger kids played with a skateboard, taking turns, running, shrieking with joy, and quickly moving to the side whenever a car honked to signal they needed to drive past. A searchlight swayed back and forth in the sky, and later in the night, the fast paced music and sky was regularly punctuated with fireworks. What was the celebration? Nothing, our host told us. It was just a normal Saturday night in the neighbourhood, hanging out with friends and family in a multi-generational gathering.

As the next weeks passed, I became even more impressed by the values of the people there. Family and friends not only seemed far more important than ego and influence, but those things hardly seemed to be in the running. The people were very accepting of us foreigners too, though I must admit, at first I found the expressive welcomes a bit intimidating. It felt weird to feel so welcome – until it began to feel good.

I learned a lot of things in Colombia: things about the culture, about the plant and animal life, about the history of an amazing country. Just as importantly, I learned to a much deeper extent the value of an open heart, and once again, I was reminded of how our cultures, both societal and familial, shape us. I also learned things about my own life that I just wasn’t seeing clearly before, because my perception was wrapped in my own personal convention, built up over years, or in some cases, a lifetime.

The picture here is one of the few available to me, since one of our bags went missing somewhere in the Mexico City airport and our camera was inside. Until it’s found (if it’s ever found) this photo will have to do. It’s not even of Sabaneta, but the square in a small town outside of Medellin, called Jardin.

We may not have come home with all of our luggage, but honestly, I came home with something far more valuable. A fresh perspective. And a very strong desire to move to South America!