We Need to Talk

The tension in the air in the US right now is so thick you can cut it with a knife. Fear is rampant, but not everyone is afraid of the same thing. We are afraid of each other.

The phrase “divide and conquer” comes to my mind as I feel Americans become more and more divided, and I fear how we might be conquered.

But I also see so many uniting, which gives me incredible hope. I have been a part of some conversations where people are really listening to each other’s differing perspectives and experiences and trying to learn from each other. I see people struggling through the discomfort of hearing a different opinion that scares them and being patient and trying to understand it.

But I also have been in many spaces where different opinions and perspectives are not something that people can discuss civilly. Where conversations aren’t seen as a way to better understand each other and the world; rather they lead to defensiveness and cause people to shut down and/or to start slinging insults. And I see a lot of people only having conversations within groups with similar opinions and not branching out to try to understand the opinions of people outside their comfort zone.

It’s as if we never learned those basic lessons of dialogue. We are all Americans, we are all humans that want to live in a safer America, and yet somehow we lost the ability to listen to each other about what a safer world for everyone would look like.

I’m hoping this can be a bridging tool to help us take a step closer to having some productive difficult conversations.

Original source of image unclear

Simplifying the complex issues brought up by the recent protests, I see two predominate perspectives – contradictory, though equally valid and true to those who hold them.

Perspective 1: The police keep our communities safe. If we feel threatened, we can call the police. Only guilty people have reason to be afraid of the police. Defunding the police would be a disaster in public safety.

For people whose experience with the police has mostly been positive, (other than traffic tickets or mild offenses,) this perspective will probably resonate. The recent protests often make these people feel threatened because it seems like the institution that keeps them safe – the police and the criminal justice system – is being threatened, by the protests and by calls for defunding the police.

Perspective 2: Many police officers abuse their power, and the string of police brutality incidents against black people are blatant indicators that racism is still very alive in America, especially in the criminal justice system. Police officers and the entire criminal justice system need to be held accountable, reformed, even defunded, and structural racism must be addressed.

For people of color who have experienced racism by police officers or in other areas of their life, this statement will ring true, and the sight of a police officer will often incite fear rather than a sense of security. For them, the George Floyd-inspired protests give them hope for a safer, more just America, despite the fear they feel as unarmed citizens when they see the armed officers policing the protests and the white men with guns, counter-protesting.

Both of these perspectives are real and valid and varied (as I said, I simplified a complex issue into a binary issue to be able to take a first step in talking about it.) Though they seem contradictory, many people are starting to be able to hold both perspectives in their mind at one time. And this, to me is the first step forward.

To be clear, I’m not saying that each perspective deserves equal weight.

The majority of people who identify with Perspective 1 are white, and the majority of black people identify Perspective 2. Yes, there are exceptions, but speaking in terms of majorities, there is a clear race line between these perspectives.

Yep, I brought up race and made a generalization about different experiences based on the color of our skin. I’m such a racist, some will say.

“Equality means we’re all equal and so we shouldn’t even see black and white, and we should have equal standards for everyone; the best way to achieve equality is to be colorblind.” I used to believe that.

And then I spoke to people of color and learned about their personal experiences of racism that I had never in my life experienced or witnessed outside of books and movies; I wasn’t aware of how prevalent the experience of discrimination still is today for many people of color.

If racism didn’t exist, sure we could all be colorblind. But since racism DOES still exist, saying we are colorblind is turning a blind eye to an injustice that we are living with, here in the nation where we strive for Justice and Liberty For All. Turning a blind eye to racism is turning a blind eye to our American principles.

So if people actually have different experiences based on the color of their skin, we need to talk about these differences to understand each other. And one important question would be why does race have anything to do with whether someone feels threatened or hopeful by the current protests? Why does race have anything to do with whether cops make us feel safe or not?

Understanding the difference between these two perspectives is crucial to finding a solution that will help people of the both perspectives feel safe and secure.

As we have known for decades (but it seems to only recently be getting a lot of attention and hasn’t made it into basic education), there is plenty of proof 1 that racism is alive and well in the criminal justice system, keeping alive the Jim Crow laws, but in a more subtle way. It’s often not that blacks are more likely to commit crimes, it’s that they are more likely to get caught and punished, indicating an underlying racism in both law enforcement personnel and the criminal justice system.

People of color are disproportionately stopped without cause by police officers, and they are also searched at a much higher rate than whites. Despite the fact that blacks were searched more often than whites, contraband was more often found on whites.2

Studies also showed blacks being spoken to in a more degrading manner than whites by the same officers.1

And despite the fact that rates of drug use are equal among races, blacks are charged for drug offenses at much higher rates than whites.3

While more whites are killed by police officers annually, blacks are killed at a disproportionate rate – nearly 3 times as often, compared to their share of the population – and those blacks killed were more likely to be unarmed than the whites killed.4

I have been afraid of getting a ticket or getting a fine when I’m pulled over by a cop, but I have never feared for my life, like my black friend, who is an upstanding citizen and serves in the military. I also have never been pulled over for no reason, whereas it has happened to him twice.

These experiences of discrimination are not only different from the majority of white experiences, they are negative, frustrating, dehumanizing, even life-threatening, and unfair.

The history of this country has been dominated by white people talking and a vast majority of black people having to be submissive, deferring to the white voice, having to be more patient and humble because they could be killed or jailed or lose their job if they didn’t.

And it still happens today. I have had multiple black friends tell me stories of how they are held to a higher standard than their white counterparts in their jobs; they have witnessed harsh repercussions for black people who lose their cool, compared to white people that don’t even get reprimanded for the same or worse responses to stress or unjust personal attacks.

So, it’s time for whites to switch the centuries-old race role and defer to black voices. It’s white people’s turns to be held to the higher standard of being more patient, empathetic, and understanding, as our fellow Americans tell us about their experiences being people of color.4

White people (including me!) are not the experts on racism because we haven’t had the same experiences due to the color of our skin. (Maybe we’ve had similar experiences for other reasons – for our gender or sexual orientation, etc, and that can help us be more empathetic, but it is still a different experience with a different history.)

So I would argue that even if you identify with Perspective 1, we as a nation and as individuals need to invest more of our time listening to and trying to understand Perspective 2.

For example, someone with Perspective 1 will be incredibly scared of the idea “defund the police force” because it will be seen as taking critical resources away from a fundamental part of one’s safety. But if we can actually converse on a deeper level about this hot-button topic, the validity of both sides can be seen. For example, imagine 911 calls related to a person experiencing homeless being routed to professionals in organizations that are funded and prepared to work specifically with the homeless community instead of being routed to the police. It could be a burden taken off of police and instead given to experts in that area.

Source: Instagram @auntsarahdraws

As we are having important conversations about the protests, about police, and about racism in the US, let’s remember that we all want to feel safe and secure in our communities, and we want all our children to grow up in an America that is safe for them. To do that, we need to listen especially hard to those that currently don’t feel safe and have a history of not having their voices heard.

There are obviously many issues underlying the protests spurred by the death of George Floyd, but let’s take them one at a time and give them the response they deserve. When the reality of racism that still exists is highlighted by those affected by it, don’t change the subject to the other issues faced by our nation. Listen. Empathize. Learn. Recognize the problem and think of ways that we can make real changes.

It is a long and difficult road, but we need to have those hard conversations with those with differing perspectives. This is how we create a more perfect union, a free world, where there is truly liberty and justice for all.

Listen: 1619 Podcast
Watch a video: Systemic Racism
Watch a series: 13th (Netflix)
Look (Instagram): An Explanation “Defunding Police” in 10 Photos
Read articles: Reflections from a Token Black Friend
Read books: Anti-racist reading list
Do: From donating to volunteering to activism

 

Famous Footnotes

(1) This article is a compilation of studies demonstrating that racism in policing is not confined to certain isolated incidents that make the news, but rather it is the predominant trend in the instituation. https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/opinions/wp/2018/09/18/theres-overwhelming-evidence-that-the-criminal-justice-system-is-racist-heres-the-proof/

(2) https://arxiv.org/pdf/1607.05376.pdf, https://www.justice.gov/sites/default/files/opa/press-releases/attachments/2015/03/04/ferguson_police_department_report.pdf

(3) https://www.naacp.org/criminal-justice-fact-sheet/

(4) https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6080222/

(5) If the majority of your conversations about race are with other white people or the handful of black people that are against the protests, are you really getting enough information to really be able to understand both sides of the issue? Are you truly trying to understand racism on a deeper level?

In the ideal world, a white person that truly wants to understand racism would be listening to many voices of the black protesters and trying to understand their perspective. They would seek out multiple perspectives and read as much as possible about black history – how Reconstruction after the Civil War was interrupted by a political deal over an election contest, sending millions of recently freed slaves to be subjected to a century more of injustice. How the civil rights movement of the 1960’s stalled out when it tried to address the problems of systemic racism that still persist today.

That is not to say that white people conversing with white people is not also a valuable conversation. In fact, many of my black friends have expressed how incredibly tired they are trying to explain their experiences, only to have their experiences invalidated, to have them fall on deaf ears, to hear unfounded excuses for the racism they have experienced, or tell them that they are playing the victim and that white people experience those things too. That is why it is also time to step out of our comfort zones and be advocates (without pretending to be experts) in white-white conversations.

The Heart of “La Ruta 40” – Part IV: The Lakes Region

It was in Chos Malal that my destiny with Liliana and Edgardo began.

Panoramic of the town of Chos Malal, from “la ruta” (the highway)

Edgardo is a doctor and Liliana an accountant and a life coach. They also have a construction business (and no, I have no idea if they ever sleep). One day, they decided that they were going to quit their jobs and travel for a month. So they headed off in their pick-up truck from San Juan to begin their journey through the Patagonia in Argentina and Chile.

As they were telling me about their decision, they called themselves crazy for taking such a risk, for deciding to embark on this adventure. I asked them why they thought they were crazy – did their kids and other family members call them crazy? They thought about it and replied that no, no one else had called them crazy. Then, in sync, they both said, “we call ourselves crazy”. They laughed at their surprising synchronized response and then high-fived each other. And I thought to myself, “I like these people.”

They let me join them on their way to the lakes region where they would head off to cross into Chile. (They later confided that they had been kind of nervous to give a ride to a stranger; it was very much out of their normal comfort zone. I guess that in the same way that my travels have opened my mind and led me to step out of my comfort zone and into new experiences, it had done the same for them.)

We weren’t strangers for long. On the ride, they shared some of their favorite music and presented me with the theme song of my journey “Ruta 40″ by La Renga. They then continued to introduce me to the cornerstones of “rock nacional” or Argentina rock (G.I.T., Charly Garcia, Fito Páez, Soda Estereo), and a range of other music that they love (Alejandro SanzLos Pericos, Pablo Alborán, Jorge Drexler, Joan Manuel Serrat, and Silvio Rodriguez). The experience reminded me how music can be such a uniting part of culture and people’s personal stories, and how powerful it is when people can connect over it and share it.*

When we parted ways, I was left with a reminder to follow my dreams, invest in things that that I’m interested in, and not let myself be fettered to the idea of maximizing my income or savings. And to not be afraid to sometimes just see where the road takes me.

It was sad to see them go, but it turns out that that was not the last I saw of them. Later, I saw them pass by in their truck when I was in Villa La Angostura! They honked and waved and we caught up by text message later. Then, a few days later, I was hiking through a park in Bariloche, lost in thought, when… who do I run into? Edgardo and Liliana! I have to point out here that there are countless places to go hiking in and around Bariloche, so it was quite a coincidence to run into them for a THIRD time during our travels! We took that as a sign that we were destined to be friends and so we have stayed in touch.**

City park in Junín de los Andes

I parted ways with Liliana and Edgardo in the gorgeous area of “Junin de los Andes” and “San Martin de los Andes”. This is the beginning of the stretch of La Ruta 40 called “Camino de los Siete Lagos” or “Seven Lakes Route”, which starts in San Martín de los Andes and ends in Villa la Angostura. (Though one continues to see beautiful lakes as you continue past Villa la Angostura to Bariloche and on towards El Bolsón!)

It was here, outside of San Martin de los Andes, where I stayed in one of the most gorgeous spots of my trip – along one of those incredible lakes, Lago Faulkner. The weather was perfect – the sun was still strong enough to warm you up during the day, but it got quite chilly at night. And the wind!!! I always heard the wind in the Patagonia was strong. I don’t know if it was just this day or just this particular area, but the wind didn’t just blow, it whipped by! Walking along the lake, there were parts where the wind died down, but where the wind blew across the lake, it made waves as big as you could see on an ocean shore.

When the sun was shining strongly on the area of the lake where the trees blocked the wind, I took time to jump in the lake and go for a swim. Yep, it was freezing. I was glad those “polar bear swims” in Girl Scouts had prepared me for this. But once I was in, it felt good and I swam around for about 20 minutes, enjoying the crystal clear water and surprised every time the waves would lap me in the face.

Oscar, a former policeman who now helped look over some properties in the area, took me hiking around one lake and told me stories of some of the characters that he had met around the area. Many people come through and camp around the lake, but he had once even seen someone who came and stayed for more than a year, supposedly writing or working on some creative project. He also once came across a very unprepared camper who was freezing in her tent and he quite possibly saved her life by giving her a warmer place to stay. One of my favorite discoveries was that in one of the properties he took care of, there were some sculptures by a famous Argentine artist that worked with recycled materials.

The culture of the area kind of reminded me of the rural part of Texas where I grew up half-time, in that it has a big outdoors culture – fishing, hunting, hiking, camping, and watching shows like National Geographic and “Naked and Afraid”. I also met a modern day “gaucho” here. He was riding a horse to go check on his land and his animals.

The place where I stayed was literally off the grid. It got its electricity from a water turbine generator that was powered by water piped down to the house from high up in the nearby hills.

Water turbine power generator

In my travels so far, I had heard multiple times about the popular drink Fernet and Coke that had originated in the city of Cordoba, but was popular throughout the country. Finally I had my chance to try it with Oscar. Fernet is a grape-based spirit made with a mixture of a variety of herbs. It naturally has a bitter flavor, which is probably why they mix it with Coke. Originally from Italy, it was brought over by the great Italian immigration to Argentina in the early 1900s and is so popular here that they built a distillery in the country, and Argentina accounts for 75% of the world-wide consumption. Since Fernet is basically the unofficial official drink of Argentina, I had to try it.

 

Oscar also introduced me to the card game “escoba” (“broom”), which uses a Spanish deck of cards similar to the traditional poker deck… but completely different. It does not include the 8, 9 and 10 cards, so the jack is worth 8 (though it is marked with a “10”), there’s a horse worth 9 (though it is marked with an “11”), and the king is worth 10 (though it is marked with a “12”). To score points, you then have to make hands that add up to 15, remembering that some cards aren’t actually worth their face value. In conclusion, it is really confusing and challenging (but fun).

Speaking of confusing, that night there was an important Argentina fútbol (soccer) moment, that I only kind of understand. There were two important matches that would determine the champion of the Argentina Superliga Tournament. (Which is not to be confused with the Copa de la Superliga, which follows this tournament.) There are many fútbol clubs in Argentina, but the two most famous, with the longest history and the most fans across the nation are Boca Juniors and River Plate (pronounced “Ree-bear”). We watched the River game (Oscar’s preferred team), and unfortunately they tied, giving the championship to Boca Juniors.

The next day, I did yoga surrounded by incredible hills and crystal clear lakes before saying my goodbyes to the lakes region and my new friend Oscar and heading off to Bariloche.

 

Famous Footnotes:

*For you music lovers, I threw in a few links for you to have a taste of the soundtrack of our journey together. (Hopefully sharing this music with you makes up for my failure to be able to share music with them since I had been reserving the space on my phone for photos. Note to self for future trips: Take at least a few of my favorite songs along, especially if they’re somewhat representative of American culture (whatever that means!))

**(They had been able to cross into Chile and see part of the “Carretera Austral”, but their trip got cut short (like all of us) in mid-March, and they had to return back to San Juan, where they are now safe and sound, riding out the physical isolation measures, like the all of us.

The Heart of “La Ruta 40” – Part I: Salta

My journey on “La Ruta 40” has been a unique adventure that I will never forget and that is impossible to describe in detail unless I write a book (which I might.) What really marked my journey, even more than the amazing landscapes, were the people I met along the way.

It was an unforgettable experience of connecting and sharing with so many different people, and just being overwhelmed by the generosity of people. In some ways, this has been the heart of my journey – where I’ve really had the opportunity to do what I came to do – connect with people and share experiences, getting a glimpse into the lives and hearts of people here.

In the next few posts, I’ll try to share some of those encounters (as well as the landscapes behind the conversations).

Part I – Salta
Salta is a city in northern Argentina, just south of Jujuy. In Spanish, “salta” means jump. So I did.

And in so doing, I met a French traveler, Thierry, and we became travel buddies for the day.

We explored the city parks together, tasted some ham and cheese empanadas, and people-watched, as the parks were full of people enjoying the beautiful weekend day.

In Salta, I stayed with Facundo, or “Facu” (a common name here). From the moment we met, we had some incredible conversations, so much so that we chatted into the night even though we were both running on very little sleep. But this is why I couchsurf – it’s a chance to meet someone from a different city, a different country, a different reality, and share experiences.

Facu is a super sharp guy around my age, studying biology because, he explained, that any job he got would require him to work a lot of hours and probably still not pay great, so he’d rather study something he really loves so that he can at least be doing something he’s passionate about. He’s a realist. He said I left him feeling more inspired and empowered that he could have a positive impact on the world. Which was incredibly flattering and in turn made me feel inspired!

In the grocery store line, I met the nicest woman. You know how the grocery lines can be pretty savagely competitive – everyone wants to be first in line and find the shortest line, especially when the wait is long. Well, this woman went out of her way to try to find the shortest line for me since I only had 2 items. (And I wasn’t even in a hurry, she was just being incredibly thoughtful.) We started chatting and it turns out that she’s an accountant that works in a government agency looking at the economic side of the “triple bottom line” (economics-environment-social impacts) for projects – coincidentally, my line of work and my passion!

On my way out of Salta, I met Valentina who is my age, and a lawyer from Buenos Aires. She had quit her job and before moving to the next one, was taking a vacation with her partner (who was from Paraguay and was traveling through South America). They had been to Patagonia together and invited me to join them exploring a beautiful part of “La Ruta 40” as they headed to Califate, a tiny town in the wine region.

They also spoke English so we ended up speaking a mix of English and Spanish, conversing the whole way and stopping to see a few of the most interesting spots – Garganta del Diablo and El Anfiteatro (which happened to be filled with tourists at this time of year*).

When I told Valentina about my Peace Corps work in Peru with water systems, she told me that she has been doing a volunteer project for eight years, working with a small community called Arbol Blanco in the province of Santiago de Estero. With an NGO from Buenos Aires, they work to empower the youth and help them take advantage of educational opportunities that could give them more professional options as they become adults.

We completely geeked out about sustainable community development work, really connecting with some of the similar experiences we’ve had. Similar to my experience working with Engineers Without Borders, she has witnessed the importance of being a long-term community partner and facilitator – focusing on cultural exchange and helping the community achieve its own stated goals, (rather than trying to do short-term projects based on funder priorities, which have a high failure rate). As we parted ways, I was excited to have met another kind and kindred spirit, (and also excited about the possibility of lending a hand if they needed any WASH (Water And Sanitation & Hygiene) expertise).

As if I hadn’t met enough wonderful people, I finally met Gabriela who went out of her way to drive me to meet up with my friends. A fellow lover of the night sky, she pointed out the observatory nearby and we made plans to go if we ever crossed paths again in the future. As we went our separate ways, I didn’t hear from her again, until one day, a month later when Argentina enforced the mandatory isolation measures, she messaged me to check in and offered me a place to stay if I should need it.

The beginnings of my journey along “La Ruta 40” were renewing my faith in the good of humanity and showing me the power of human connection and cultural exchange.** I was excited to see what lie ahead and only hoped that I hadn’t used up all my good luck.

 

Famous Footnotes

*This was during Carnaval season, which happens while school is out and is when the majority of people take vacations in Argentina.

**”Se que hay mucha mas gente buena que mala. Pasa que los malos hacen mas ruido.” – Dany Reimer
(“I’m certain there are more good people in this world than bad. The thing is that the bad ones make more noise.”) – Dany Reimer (Police officer in one of the toughest areas of Buenos Aires)

Small Town Argentina

In the morning, the sun was shining brightly and Argentina cumbia was coming from the radio. I prepared my breakfast and went outside to sit and chat with the 87-year-old man, “Carlos viejo” who lived there. (His son was also Carlos so in jest he said he was “old Carlos” and the other was “young Carlos”.)

While the sun was strong and made you feel like you were being toasted and all the water sucked out of your body, under the shade it was quite cool and there was a nice breeze. We sat under a “natural roof” created by a vine-like tree that created a roof out of thick layer of foliage that wrapped itself along a wire matrix.

From the moment I met him, I realized that Carlos Viejo was a kind, friendly, and witty man, even if he moved slowly and was a little hard of hearing. He had lived in the town his whole life and had served in the town’s police force for 27 years. Now he had arthritis in his hip and knee and spent his days sitting on the front porch, reading the paper, greeting people who passed by and chatting with his son and the woman who comes to cook and help take care of the house – and today with me. There was probably an equal measure of conversation and comfortable silence – a slow, easy rhythm that seemed to be characteristic of this small town in Argentina. (I’m so glad I learned how to adapt to this slow rhythm, to practice the “art of sitting”, in my Peace Corps service – something that would have been impossible for me four years ago.)

The caretaker came back from running errands and said, “here’s your change,” placing five little candies on the table. She continued by saying that since the 5 mil peso bill doesn’t have value anymore, the store is giving candies instead of bills. At first I thought it was a joke referring to the inflation in Argentina, which has accelerated in the last year (not nearly as bad as Venezuela, but still a marked devaluation.) Later, when Carlos Viejo passed me the newspaper he had finished reading, I learned they were discontinuing circulation of the 5 mil peso bill, and since many people don’t have the 5 mil coin yet, the stores were offering candies as change instead.

Later, Carlos invited me to eat lunch with them – a delicious fish empanada, a second course of chicken soup, and fruits (peaches, grapes, apples) for dessert. In Peru, lunch is usually served with soup first and then a main dish (segundo), but here they served the main dish first and later the soup.

I looked over at the television and realized that the program airing was the Argentina version of “The Price is Right” – El Precio Justo. Given the inflation in Argentina, I thought it was a kind of ironic show to have, painfully reminding everyone how much prices have increased in such a short time. The show is really similar to the American Price is Right – I recognized the same games and rules, and even the big wheel to spin! The host is a trans woman with a sense of humor, and the show seemed to be quite inclusive given the diversity of the participants.

While this small town (Chumbicha) is not on the typical tourist route, it does receive visitors from Buenos Aires, Uruguay, and Brasil. Many passing through for work or traveling through Argentina on motorcycle to see the country. I had arrived in this small town last night, by pure chance. (And a unique sense of adventure I have developed in the last few weeks.)

I had been on a bus to Catamarca – a city that was a few hours out of the way to where I wanted to go (but it had been the best bus option available from the small town where I had been previously.)

Then the bus had suddenly stopped for a few minutes because the copilot was sick. I looked at the map and saw that we were at a small town, and we happened to be at a spot on the highway just before it headed off out of the way from where I wanted to go. The bus wasn’t going to arrive to Catamarca until around 10:30 or 11pm, and I was still going to have to look for a place to stay, so I decided it would be more convenient, safer, and cheaper to stay in this small town if it seemed safe.

I got off the bus and asked a local about the town and asked if there were hospedajes (inns). I got a really good vibe and she called a friend and said he had room in his inn and could even pick me up to take me there. So I said “chau” to the bus driver and headed off to explore a small town in the middle of Argentina, slightly off the beaten path – exactly what I really wanted to do during my journey.

And that’s how arrived in Chumbicha, home of the mandarin and the annual Mandarin Festival in May. The town that all the locals described as “tranquilo…too tranquilo”, or safe and quiet…to the point of being boring.

I arrived that first night at the inn, it was an older house with extra rooms that they rented out. It reminded me of the old country house where my great uncle had lived in south Texas. It had all that you needed, but basic, older models with a feel of about 40 years ago. And it was the same house that Carlos Viejo had grown up in – and was still living in now.

As soon as I arrived, I asked about the town and a friendly young man –  working there (Gonzalo) pointed me to the center of town (3 blocks over) where I could find convenience stores and restaurants and the plaza. An older man sitting on the porch (Carlos Viejo) asked me if I wanted to sit and chat, and I promised I would when I returned (which I did), and I headed out to explore the little town and buy some food for dinner and breakfast.

A few blocks into town I heard what sounded like a sporting event and found women playing volleyball. I started chatting with a woman who was watching and she explained that it was a tournament and this was the championship game. She explained that she wasn’t playing because she played soccer. However, there weren’t many women around the area that played soccer so she trained with the men in the town and played on a regional travel team (someone I could relate to!)

Women’s volleyball tournament

It was 10:30pm, and the stores were just starting to close so I ran across the street to buy some fruits. Even in small towns like this, things stay open late, and it is not uncommon to stay up late into the night chatting. But during the day, from 1pm to 5pm everything closes for siesta, when people go home to eat lunch and often take a nap. It gets extremely hot during the day here, so it makes a lot of sense to have that break. The the work day continues from 5pm to 9pm usually.

In the evenings after 7-8pm when it finally cools off, you see families sitting on their porch drinking mate (loose leaf tea that is drunk through a metal straw), walking, biking, or rollerblading through the street, or hanging out in the park in the middle of town. When you greet them, they often respond “chau” or “adios” instead of the “hola” or “buenas tardes” that I’m used to.**

Later that night I was getting ready for bed, and Gonzalo* said that someone was outside asking for me. I went outside and there was the soccer woman I had met earlier and two other women on motorcycles. They had come to tell me about the times that they buses come through, and we ended up chatting for more than an hour out front. I had only been there for 3 hours and I already felt like I had friends!

The next night, my new friends invited me out for a drink. They were bummed that the one club (“boliche”) in town had just a fire a few days ago so they couldn’t take me there. Instead, they put a lot of effort into finding friends that could come out to hang out with us to show me a good time in Chumbicha. They were also trying  to find out something about “the game” (I was clueless what was going on). We ended up at an ice cream shop and shared a drink (soda) while we played “the game” – a giant version of Jenga!

Later (at around 1:30pm), they gave me a tour of the city on their motorcycles, and I showed them some constellations in the night sky (after a few minutes of convincing them that it wasn’t scary to find a dark spot without lights so we could see the stars, and another few minutes trying to find a dark spot because the town is really well lit and every street has street lights.) Like we were 15 years old, they taught me all the bad words and taboo expressions in Argentina Spanish, and I felt a sense of innocence in them, even though they were my age. (Small town sheltered life?)

One thing everyone agreed on was that the town was full of good people, there was no crime (though there was drug use), everybody helped each other out, and everyone knew everyone else’s business. I definitely felt a great vibe, I felt like everyone I met was a good person that wanted to help out and there was a sense of trust among everyone. Even if it was “too tranquilo” to the point of being boring, I loved it! And it was just what I was looking for – a safe and quiet spot, with Giant Jenga and buena gente (good peeps).

 

Famous Footnotes

*Chatting with Gonzalo later, I learned that he was from the capital (Buenos Aires) and had come to Chumbicha a few years ago. He said he had been kind of immature and “lost”, and working with the Carloses, they had taught him to do things like house maintenance and taking care of the old man, and they had also made him realize that he needed to be more responsible and be a better father for his little kid.

**In the small town in El Salvador where I worked they had used the same greetings of “chau” and “adios” when someone was passing by, which at first was strange to me since they are typically reserved for “good by”/”see you later” in most parts.

Jujuy & Carnaval – First Impressions of Argentina

After a long (9-hour) drive, I arrived in Jujuy, Argentina, without local currency nor a local phone chip (so unable to contact the person I would be staying with). While I wasn’t too worried – (I’m getting used to navigating without those basic things we take for granted like money and cell phone service – for a short amount of time) – those moments are still somewhat humbling and uncertain.

Yet I felt like I was greeted in Jujuy by a welcoming committee!

First was David from the grocery store. I asked him about phone cards, money exchange, wifi, how to get around the city, and not only was he super friendly and helpful, he made me feel really welcome and we ended up chatting for 15-20 minutes about life in general.

My first experience in Argentina was a warm welcome from David from the grocery store

Then there was Pablo from the internet store. He lent me wifi for free, told me about his favorite things to do in the city and we exchanged travel stories and ended up chatting for nearly an hour!

A serendipitous trip to the internet store led me to another welcoming and fun soul who made me feel right at home (and gave me free wifi). (Don’t judge my appearance – I had been traveling through the desert for 9 hours!)

Then I arrived at the house where I was couchsurfing, and my host invited me to the dinner he had cooked, introduced me to his cat, the washing machine (it’s a real treat to have access to a washing machine when traveling!), and made me feel right at home. Over the course of my stay there, we ended up becoming friends – he even invited me to a birthday party where I made friends with his friends, and even vacationed later with some of his friends! (Unfortunately, we forgot to take a photo together.)

I crossed this beautiful city park to arrive at the house where I would stay.

Given the friendliness of everyone I met, I was surprised to hear that a famous tv personality from Buenos Aires visited Jujuy and noted that the locals complained a lot. A friend I met from Jujuy agreed that it was a fair stereotype. (As a traveler passing through, I didn’t experience any complaining while I was there, and actually had nothing but wonderful experiences with all the locals I met!) To be fair, “Porteños” from Buenos Aires also have a reputation among other Argentines to be snobby and less friendly, and so the stereotyping across regions continues, just like we do for east-coasters and west-coasters, New Yorkers, and southerners in the US.

To be clear, I am in San Salvador de Jujuy – the capital of the province of Jujuy. For those who live in other parts of the province, the city is usually called “San Salvador” to distinguish it from the rest of the province, whereas by outsiders, it is often referred to as Jujuy.

San Salvador de Jujuy is a pretty big small city, with wide roads and a fair share of traffic. It is clean and seems well organized, with nice parks, good infrastructure, good public transportation, and I was surprised how many people had personal vehicles.

My first impression was that Argentina is a bit more well-off than Bolivia and Peru, especially because a local informed me that the province of Jujuy is one of the poorer provinces of Argentina. To me it seemed a bit more put-together than similar cities in other parts of South America, though it also has a clear wealth gap, with neighborhoods of what seem like makeshift houses, where people are just making ends meet, according to one local.

Argentina has a history of an economy that fluctuates drastically, and they are in a period of inflation, with the currency devaluing monthly. At the bank, I learn that it’s very difficult if a foreigner wants to sell Argentine pesos, and they only permit it one day per month.

One friend I met is earning half of what he earned three years ago, but the cost of living hasn’t changed. For him, he can still get by, but he points out that there are a lot of people who struggle to get by because of it. Throughout his life the economy has been in drastic fluctuation – growing at insane rates, like 8%, with everyone doing really well economically, then inflation getting out of hand and things falling like they are now. While it’s not ideal, he kind of casually said. “We just have to wait a few years for the economy to improve again. And the cycle continues.”*

I was planning to run some errands in the early afternoon, and luckily my friend stopped me. Siesta is a thing here,** and most places close at 1pm and don’t open again until 5 or 6 pm. Restaurants typically don’t open again until 7:30 or 8. When things do open again, downtown “el centro” is a bustling place, people hurrying from one shop to another, people passing out flyers, reading your blood pressure for a small donation to the Red Cross, and even a huge protest with a marching band (protesting a raise in some type of tax) passed by when I was walking around downtown.

Most of the locals and transplants (the majority of people I met were actually transplants) agreed that the best thing about Jujuy was the outdoors. The city is surrounded by forested hills, has some great parks, and it’s fairly easy to go out and immerse yourself in beautiful nature for a day trip, for the weekend, or anytime.

There are a ton of great hikes and also many sites to see in the towns outside of the city, the most famous being Purmamarca, Tilcara, and Quebrada de Humahuaca. In addition to being home to great hikes and outdoors activities, these towns are also the heart of Carnaval.

I just so happened to arrive in Jujuy during its annual Carnaval, which is similar to Louisiana’s Mardi Gras or Rio’s Carnaval, but with its own unique flavor. It was both a blessing and a curse to be there at this time; on one hand, I had the opportunity to get a taste of Carnaval, but on the other hand I wasn’t able to take advantage of the beautiful hikes and outdoors activities because of traffic and logistics.

I was told that the best places to experience Carnaval are “in the north”, in Tilcara or Quebrada de Humahuaca, (though Pumamarca, and many other small towns throughout the province of Jujuy and nearby provinces have insane celebrations too)…BUT, then I heard horror stories of the traffic and that there wouldn’t be a place to stay.*** In the end, I opted to participate in a celebration in the city put on by the local government, which I would call “Carnaval Light”, though it did have a live performance by the regionally famous Carnaval band “Los Tekis”.

While each town does it a little differently, the main aspects of Carnaval are the “desentierro” and “entierro” of “el diablo”. That’s the unearthing of the devil to kick off the festival, and the burying of the devil to end the festival a few days later. The idea is that after unearthing the devil, people are free to do whatever they want that would normally be considered immoral (what happens in carnaval stays in carnaval), and then once the devil is buried again at the end of carnaval, life goes back to normal.

Each town has their own unique way to exhume the devil, but it usually involves a bunch of people dressed in devil costumes appearing from some special spot. This “desentierro” is the main event and that is why traffic is so bad as crowds of people try to arrive to witness the desentierro.

Before, after, and during the desentierro, people drink (especially box wine, often mixed with any number of other drinks – soda or alcoholic), people paint themselves and throw paint on everyone else, people throw powder and flour on each other, and spray cans of foam at anyone passing by.

Luckily, my friend had warned me not to wear any nice clothes. If you enter clean, you don’t stay clean for long. Random strangers do you the favor of painting you or spraying you with foam, like a little sibling trying to annoy an older sibling. (It would normally be a situation that would lead to a fist fight, but it’s expected at Carnaval and people who don’t like to be randomly attacked by foam in the face or paint thrown at them don’t go.)

All the while, the music is playing and people dance and drink and party all day and all night long, some for multiple days. I enjoyed Carnaval “light” for a few hours Saturday night, and when I arrived in a small town in the south (Amaicha) two days later their celebrations were still in full swing.)

Soon after arriving (still clean), with the Basil of Carnaval
About an hour after arriving (still very mild paint and foam coverage – and no flour still)

The atmosphere in Jujuy in general and also during Carnaval was super friendly. I met multiple people who offered to help me in one way or another – a group of women my age invited me into their group to dance and hang out at the event, a group of older women offered me basil to put behind my ear, which is supposedly a thing you do during carnaval (right ear if you’re married, left ear if you’re single), and a family of three offered me a place to stay in their home if I ever visited Santiago de Estero in the next province over.

Carnaval friends
They hooked me up with basil so I could be legit
I gifted my hat to the woman and she invited me to stay at her house if I ever visited her city.

My first impressions of northern Argentina have been highlighted by the friendliness and generosity of the people; I don’t think I’ve ever been in an environment where I felt such generosity everywhere I went!

 

Famous Footnotes
*Just one perspective on the economy from one person of upper middle class.

**Siesta is not unique to Jujuy, as it seems to be the norm for all the places I’ve been in northern Argentina so far. It is so hot at mid-day in some places, that it makes a lot of sense to be at home resting.

***For future reference: If you want a place to stay in one of the towns in “the north” during Carnaval, you either need to know someone that lives there or reserve a year to 6 months in advance.

Another option is to arrive early the morning of the desentierro and then not sleep the night – just party all through the night and catch a car early in the morning back to Jujuy (I shared a car south to Salta the next day with some people who had done this.)
You would need to leave the city before noon, otherwise you might not make it before the “desentierro.” The normally 2-hour drive often takes up to 6-8 hours the days of Carnaval desentierro.

Colombian Things

I fell in love with Colombia – with the warm, friendly people, the neat and colorful little towns, and with the diversity of landscapes, climates and cultures. Across the country, in every place I stayed, I quickly felt at home.

(Podrías leer este publicación en español haciendo click aquí.)

The friendly and hospitable people and incredible diversity of landscapes wasn’t exactly new for me, because I have found it in abundance in every country in South America.

But each country has something special and its own unique flavor. Each country has those unique things that make it different from its neighbors, like an accent, certain words or phrases, customs, or trends. Colombia has its fair share, and I’m sure I only picked up on not even 10% of them, but here I’ll share a few that I noticed that made Colombia unique from the other South American countries I’ve visited. With these, you can start practicing so you can blend in as if you were from there!

In the streets…

Being a cyclist, I was fascinated by the number of people that ride bikes – both for daily commute and for exercise! I loved that in three of the cities that I visited, they opened “ciclovia” on Sunday mornings, where they closed of major streets to vehicle traffic, for cyclists, runners, or families that wanted to enjoy the morning walking in the fresh air.

Another two-wheeled novelty… I found that I could get around easily thanks to motorcycle taxis! I’m not talking about moto-taxis or “tuk-tuks” where they put a type of carriage for you to sit on the back of a motorcycle. Rather, you can flag down a motorcycle, just like you would a taxi, hop on the back, and get where you were going quickly and easily. (A few even insisted they had no problem taking me and my huge hiking backpack – and they really did carry me and my backpack just fine. Though I only rode with my big backpack in smaller cities at lower speeds!)

They even have an app like Uber or Lyft, called “Picap” where you can call the motorcycle taxi to come get you. (Everyone uses these apps (Uber, Beat, Picap), even though they are technically illegal.)

You can also see Chiva buses in many cities in Colombia. You’ll recognize them when you’re walking down the street and you suddenly hear the party coming down the road towards you. That’s right, they’re party buses that either go through the street picking people up (you can just hop on!) or some are contracted and you can rent the whole bus for your party.

I loved that there were a ton of outdoor parks, green spaces, and public parks throughout the cities I visited. There was usually outdoor exercise equipment, basketball and football (soccer) courts, playgrounds, and trails to walk or run. Especially in a big city like Bogota, it made it a lot more welcoming and livable, in my opinion.

I noticed graffiti art adding color to most cities, mostly with clear neighborhood or political themes (though also a few instances of gang-like tagging.)

Finally, I loved that there were water fountains in the airport, a sign that the country had advanced in providing potable water to taps for people. It turned out to be true that most of the places I visited did have potable water delivered to their taps!

There were also many different phrases, words and expressions that I noticed were different from the other countries I visited. One example was that after saying “thank you” for something, the common response not the “no problem” that I was used to, but rather “with pleasure”, which made one feel much more welcome. For more examples, read the Spanish version of this blog entry.

Finally, I was lucky enough to be in Colombia on December 7th when they celebrate “la noche de las velitas” or the night of candles. This is when families gather on their front porch or in the street outside their house to light candles. Each candle represents good wishes for a special person in their life. In Bogotá, many families or groups of friends gathered in public parks to sit in a circle and light their candles. It was a really lovely atmosphere where one felt a sense of community with others from the neighborhood, while enjoying a special moment with friends and family closest to you.

 

Trocitos Colombianos

(You can read this in English here.)

Me enamoré de Colombia, con su gente cálida, sus pueblos coloridos y ordenados y su diversidad de paisajes, climas y culturas. En varios lugares a través del país me sentí en casa y me acostumbré rápido al sitio nuevo y su gente.

En muchos sentidos, la gente acogedor y amable y la increíble diversidad geográfica no me fue nuevo, ya que son placeres que una encuentra en todos los países de Sudamérica. Cada país tiene su encanto y su sazón único.

Además, cada país tiene sus características únicas que lo distingue de los otros, que sea un dejo, palabras únicas, costumbres o tendencias. Colombia tiene suyos y seguro que yo solo capté ni siquiera un 10 por ciento de ellos, pero aquí te dejo un trocito de observaciones y diferencias que me sobresalieron de Colombia. Con esto, puedes comenzar a asimilarte al idioma y costumbres colombianos para que parezcas de allí al llegar.

Empezando en la calle…

Siendo una ciclista, me fasciné con la cantidad de gente que vi andando en bicicleta a diario. Además, en tres de las ciudades que conocí hacen “ciclovia” los domingos en la mañana (y posiblemente lo hacen en otras ciudades también). Tuve la suerte de estar en Bogotá, Medellín y Manizales cuando cerraron varias calles principales para los ciclistas, corredores, patinadores y familias que salen para caminar juntos para divertirse en el aire libre.

Otra novedad de dos llantas, es que en todos lados pude movilizarme fácilmente con taxi de moto linear. (No hablo de la moto taxi que tiene asiento con techo atrás del conductor, sino la motocicleta linear sola. Mi mochila grande de mochilera no los intimidó y con ella también nos llevaron varias motos lineares taxistas! Incluso, igual como se usa Uber o Beat para un taxi de auto, se puede contractar una moto linear taxista con el aplicativo “Picap” en varias ciudades. (Se usan los aplicativos de taxi a pesar de que son ilegales en Colombia.)

En todos lados también verás los Chiva Bus. Los reconocerás cuando escuchas la fiesta pasando por tu lado en la calle. Son buses que tocan la música, sirven bebidas alcohólicas y pasan por las calles de la ciudad. Hay unos en que podrías abordar en cualquier momento y otros podrías contractar para realizar tu fiesta con familia y amigos mientras que vayan pasando por la ciudad.

En varias ciudades vi una cantidad de parques, espacios verdes y espacios públicos en el aire libre, con equipos para hacer ejercicios, con canchas de futbol y básquet, pistas para caminar y correr y columpios para niños.

En todas partes observé el arte de grafiti que suele ser arte público con temas comunitarios, históricos o políticos (aunque también había instancias de lo que parecía de pertenecer a pandillas).

Además me impresionó que había bebederos – fuentes de agua potable – en el aeropuerto. Varias ciudades han logrado de abastecer agua potable a sus poblaciones y yo podía tomar agua del caño (“del grifo”, “de la llave”) sin preocupación.

 

Hablando de diferentes palabras y expresiones, me encontré con unas pequeñas diferencias del castellano peruano con que ya tengo costumbre.

Dos de mis favoritas son unas frases cotidianas que tienen un poquito más de calidez y que me hizo sentir bienvenida. Cuando dije “gracias!”, no solo fue “de nada” que alguien me sirvió o me ayudó, sino “con mucho gusto”! No solo se me despidieron con “chau,” sino “que este bien!”

Al contrario a la calidez que me sentí por escuchar siempre que me ayudaban “con gusto” y me deseaban “que este bien”, me sentí rara al escuchar “que pena” cuando alguien se me chocó conmigo en la calle o cuando algo se cayó de mis manos sin querer. En estas situaciones, tengo costumbre de escuchar “lo siento”, “disculpa”, o “perdón”. En mi experiencia previa, “qué pena” se usa para expresar sarcasmo, para darme la culpa a mi o cuando una persona culpable no acepta culpabilidad. Pero no suele ser así in Colombia, sino es costumbre decir “que pena” en lugar de “lo siento” cuando algo mal pasa sin querer, aunque sea una falla pequeña de alguien. Mi ejemplo favorito es cuando mis amigos pidieron unas bebidas en el restaurante y el mesero se equivocó. Al explicarlo que no eran las bebidas que habían pedido, les respondió, “que pena”.

Asimismo, en Colombia no solo te piden que “te colabores” con el sorteo del colegio, la pollada o para ayudar a la persona en la calle. También te piden que “colabores” cuando quieren que sigas las normativas de la empresa o las normas sociales. En una lancha en el rio amazonas nos regó el capitán, “Colabórenme y pónganse el chaleco de seguridad, por favor”.

En la mayoría de los países Latinoamérica que conozco, “tomamos fotitos” y “llegamos en un ratito”, pero en Colombia y Venezuela, “tomamos foticos” y “llegamos en un ratico”.

En Colombia, se dice a su amigo o conocido “marica”… “Oye marica! Vienes? Vamos a la playa! Salimos en un ratico!”

Una frase que es útil en el negocio, desde el principio hasta al final, es el clásico: “A la orden”. “A la orden!” te gritan los vendedores para llamar atención a sus productos. Incluso al cerrar la venta, les dices “gracias” y te responden “a la orden,” (siempre están a tu servicio).

Tengo que clarificar tambien, que hay unas palabras y frases que se usa en Colombia y Venezuela y unas que se usa en Venezuela que han llegado a Colombia debido a la llegado de muchos inmigrantes refugiados. La verdad es que a veces yo no me fije en cuales son de Venezuela originalmente; sigo aprendiendo.

Me hace recordar de las arepas, que encuentras en Colombia y en Venezuela, pero son diferentes en cada país. A mi me gustó mucho la version Venezolana.  Mi amiga venezolana en Bogotá me enseño que se puede preparar arepas con casi cualquiera combinación de comida (si lo sabes bien).

De comida colombiana, me gustó mucho la sopa “ajiaco” y el postre “obleas”.

Al final, les cuento que tuve la suerte de estar en Colombia el 7 de diciembre cuando celebran “la noche de las velitas” (o “el día de las velitas”). En la tarde, con toda la familia prenden velas en la barrera o patio fuera de la casa. Cada vela representa buenos deseos para una persona querida.

En Bogotá, familias y amigos se reunieron en parques y espacios públicos para prender las velas con sus queridos, en compañía de vecinos de la zona. Fue un ambiente muy bonito en donde uno siente en comunidad y rodeada por la buena vibra de los buenos deseos.

Ciudad Perdida

If there was one thing I wanted to see in Colombia, (besides my good friends Adam and Adrienne), it was la Ciudad Perdida (“the lost city”). To describe the impact and significance of this archaeological site, many call it the Machu Picchu of Colombia. But unlike Machu Picchu, the only way to arrive to la Ciudad Perdida is a multi-day (4-7 days) hike through the hot, humid jungle of the Sierra Nevada, Colombia.

Translated as “The Lost City”, it was found overgrown by the jungle and being looted for precious stones (like most archeological sites in the world). In the 1970s, the Colombian government and archeologists were able to protect it and begin “recovering” it, (cutting the jungle back). This revealed the historic city – neighborhoods (terraces where houses once stood and walking paths that connected the at least 500 houses of the city) and ceremonial areas overlooking the surrounding mountainside.

In the 1980’s it was opened for visitors, and now you can access this unique site by trekking through the jungle with one of the 7 authorized tour companies. (And you can ONLY access it by trekking with one of these authorized companies). During the trek, you pass through two national park reserves (parques nacionales naturales), which are protected areas.

Since all the companies by law have to charge the same price, I chose to go with Wiwa Tours, which hires guides from the four native communities whose ancestors founded Ciudad Perdida and who still live there and in the surrounding lands, still practicing many of their traditional customs.

Our guide, Juan Daza, in Ciudad Perdida, explains a traditional process of making pots

Our guide explained that the site of Ciudad Perdida was home to the Tayrona (also “Tairuna” or “Teyuna”) culture, the ancestral culture of the four present-day, distinct but connected communities of the Sierra Nevada – the Arhuaco, Kogui, Wiwa, and Kankuamo. Each has their own language, customs and leaders, but they share this sacred site.

Ciudad Perdida was as interesting and mystical as Machu Picchu was for me, though in different ways. One of the most fascinating aspects was its connection to the present – the “mamo” and “saga”, or male and female community leaders from one of the four communities still lives on the grounds of Ciudad Perdida.

Mamo’s or Saga’s house in Ciudad Perdida

The communities still live in and around the surrounding lands and are involved in management of the tourism that comes through, receiving some of the financial benefits from it.* Each September, the four communities still gather at the sacred site of Ciudad Perdida to perform ceremonies (and clean the site of any bad juju that tourists might have brought to the sacred site in their visit). (Yes, I said “juju”. Don’t hate.)

The vistas are also breath-taking. The site is on a high point in the hills, surrounded by 180 degrees of beautiful green mountains and valleys, and even a waterfall cascading down a mountain in the distance.

To arrive at this amazing site, we hiked for about a day and a half up and down through the hills of the jungle, crossing streams and the river. The jungle humidity kept me drenched in sweat the entire day, every day of hiking, and we got rained on twice – which was actually quiet refreshing! (Having done my research I knew to prepare my bag as light as possible and to water-proof it to be able to hike in the rain and cross rivers, and still have dry clothes to wear in the night and the next days.)**

I was surprised to find that these tours and their accommodations are actually a pretty well-functioning machine – they get hundreds of tourists to and from Ciudad Perdida every day of the year! First, the accommodations were surprising. There were well-equipped camp sites along the way, prepared to accommodate multiple groups at a time, some seeming to accommodate up to a hundred through-hikers each day. They had bunk beds with mosquito nets, showers, and flush toilets in every camp where we stayed. There was also a huge kitchen area where the different guide companies prepared meals for their groups – and the meals were delicious and nutritious! Since they provided all the lodging and meals, we only had to carry clothes and a few basic personal items.**

I was impressed by how they’ve scaled up a multi-day trek through the jungle, making it accessible for a wide range of ages and fitness types (there was an 80-year-old man in one of the groups) and also making it accessible for a lot of people at once. On the other hand, I might have been slightly disappointed that the crowds and accommodations did make it less exotic, mystical, and hard-core. But I was also happy to have a shower and delicious meal each night and to meet people from all over the world.

Our group had 19 people from Europe, Colombia, Chile and me, two tour guides (one Wiwa, one Kogui), and an English translator (Venezuelan).

This was actually one of the first guided hikes that I’ve done in South America where there was a good percentage of locals on the tour – nearly half of the group were Colombians, with a group of 3 Chilean women (a few years older than me), and the rest Europeans.

Almost as if to prove our worthiness, the morning of the third day we had to cross a rushing river and then climb a few hundred meters to arrive at the Ciudad Perdida.

There, we learned about some of the current and ancient customs of the Tayrona culture and the current-day communities. Interestingly, there is still disagreement between some archeologists and the current-day communities about the meaning of some of the ruins and artifacts.

One of my favorites of the artifacts were the maps etched in stone – always with the 2 snow-capped peaks of the Sierra Nevada as a reference. (These two peaks of the Sierra Nevada are very important in the culture and show up in many artifacts, artwork, and architecture of the Tayrona culture.)

“You are here”

While a little more “touristy” and expensive than I typically go for, I wouldn’t have missed this grand adventure. An incredible mix of history, culture, adventure, nature, and incredible landscapes, it embodied what I am seeking in my travels – an opportunity to invest in cultural and natural conservation, while learning and experiencing a great adventure!

 

Bonus Content

A peek into some traditions of the modern-day indigenous communities of the Sierra Nevada:

Throughout the 4-day hike, our guides constantly chewed coca leaves and carried a gourd-like thing, always “painting” it with a stick.

Note the bulge in the cheek where he chews his coca leaf, and the gourd and stick he is always wielding.

Finally, after arriving to the Ciudad Perdida, our guides (one Wiwa and one Kogui) explained that gourd for them was a kind of journal or a work of art. They chew the coca leaf and then spit it into the gourd “popora” where they mix it with crushed seashells. They then paint the outside of the popora with this mixture of calcium, coca leaf, and saliva, building up layers of a coating on the outside of the gourd. This coating carries all their thoughts, hopes and ponderings, and so functions as a kind of journal for them.

A tradition that probably dates back centuries before the Spanish arrived (according to archeological evidence of poporas), when men become of age, they go through a ceremony to become official members of the community, and this includes receiving their first “poporo”. When it reaches a certain size, they take it to the mamo (leader) for consultation and then receive another to start on.

The women have a similar tradition in which they weave circular bags using the fibers of the fique plant. (The fique plant is the same plant used to make the coffee sacks I mentioned in a previous blog about a coffee farm in Salento.) The bag contains all of their thoughts and stories and ponderings while making the bag, so that when the gift the bag to someone, they are also gifting them all of their thoughts during the creation of the bag. The circular design is to keep the positive energy in the bag because the energy “runs into the corners and escapes”. This circular style of bag is typically referred to as a “mochila”, or backpack, and is actually fashionable all through Colombia, used by men and women alike throughout the country.

The coca leaf is, and has been, an important part of the indigenous cultures of South America for centuries. One of the most interesting uses I saw was in the greeting. When one person (male) of the Tayrona culture greets another person, each offers the other a handful of coca leaves.

Exchanging coca leaves

Footnotes

*A person that grows up in an indigenous community in the “modern age” inevitably experiences an identity conflict. The person has to reconcile adapting to the modern world without losing key aspects of their cultural identity. That means defining what parts of each world define them – which customs from each culture (traditional and modern) they will adhere to and maintain in their daily life. With the “modern” culture dominating in cultural and economic power, many traditional customs are abandoned in order to be able to survive or to gain more opportunities in the modern world. In my opinion, the “cultural tourism” aspect of visiting Ciudad Perdida was a way to invest in promoting cultural conservation of these traditions. By sharing their traditions with us, the guides were able to keep their cultural memories alive, and they could be inspired to do so both by the interest we have in learning as well as the financial incentive – the fact that they can earn a living through keeping their culture alive.

**Packing for Ciudad Perdida, I recommend: quick-dry towel, flip flops for the evenings, newspapers to stuff in shoes so they will dry at night, carabiners to hang things from your backpack to dry during the day, water-proof backpack cover, multiple plastic bags to store everything you want to keep dry and to line the inside of your backpack, a ziplock to keep your phone dry, just enough shampoo and soap, 1L water bottle, money to buy gatorade or snacks along the way.

 

 

 

 

San Agustín – Ancient History and Home Away from Home

At about the same time that the Greeks were building the Parthenon, here in hills of present-day Colombia (where all 5 of the country’s major rivers begin), the San Agustín culture emerged, evolved, developed over the centuries, and then disappeared. While we have hardly any evidence of the inner workings of their societies, hundreds of statues, some basic metal works, and tombs have been discovered and give us a tiny peek into their culture, leaving the rest up to our imagination.

Artwork in a museum in the nearby town of Obando where the oldest tombs (from 1000 BC) are found. Depicts the artists interpretation of some key elements from the San Agustin culture.

Some of the personified animals and figures depicted in their statues are similar to aspects of the cultures of many of the indigenous communities that still maintain their traditions today in Colombia. As such, many of the depictions are interpreted through the lens of the modern day indigenous communities’ beliefs and traditions.

In my opinion, these statues are signs that the Agustinians played baseball.

Many of these statues were found next to tombs, suggesting that just like we put gravestones at burial sites today, statues marked or guarded these burial sites, or maybe guided the deceased into the next life.

Some statues were painted with sap from trees, seeds, bark, and plants.

Seeing signs of creativity and human works from so long ago made me feel tiny and at the same time great – as I peeked into tombs from 1,100 BC and marveled at statues carved 2000 years ago (around 9-20 AD)., I could feel a tiny connection a with this far away past, with our American ancestors, little talked about in history class.

These archeological sites are located in and around a small, rural farming town of about 11,000 people, called San Agustin. People come from all over the world to see the statues, which are located in many different sites dispersed throughout the region. You can see many statues and archaeological sites in the archaeological park just outside the city center, but many more sites are farther from the urban center, and are more commonly accessed by rides in van, jeep, or on horseback.

When I was there, the majority of tourists were actually Colombians, (a change in the norm due to the holiday season when people have vacations). It was especially cool to hear so many different people excited to learn about the history and geography of their country. (And I was really impressed with the couple from Cúcuta,* who were there with their three year-old, doing the day tour to see the statues, tombs, and waterfalls.)

El Estrecho del Rio Magdelena is a channel where this major river of Colombia passes through a space only 2.2 meters wide between rock formations.

For me, San Agustín was a magical place. (I was even hesitant to write this blog because I don’t think I can convey in words how special of a place it was for me.) I fell in love with it, not only for its connection with its ancient past, but also because of its current vibe – the friendly and down-to-earth people and the familiar rural Latin American small-town feel.

It resembles my Peace Corps Peru home of Oxapampa in many ways. It has a temperate climate and is surrounded by beautiful green hills, rivers, and waterfalls. A town of agriculture (mostly sugar cane, coffee, bananas) and tourism, the conversations between strangers in the car ride there were about the going prices of different crops and gossip about people they knew in common. The guy who took me to my hospedaje (lodging) just happened to be cousins with the owner and helped me negotiate a price within my budget for a very nice room.

I happened to arrive just when the family was preparing to host the novena that night. And that is how I learned what a novena was.

I arrived at the same time that  extended family members were arriving and gathering on the patio outside the kitchen. While cooking my dinner, I listened as they took turns reading passages and later singing along to (religious) Christmas songs from the stereo while adding some spice with maracas and shakers. After the extended family left, they invited me to eat my dinner at the table with them, and I learned that they celebrate novenas for the nine days leading up to Christmas, alternating houses that host it each night.

Over the few days that I was there, the family became like my Colombian family. They invited me to one of the novenas, let me help milk a cow, and drove me around town to see the Christmas lights and the town’s annual nativity scene. (San Agustin boasts to have the largest pesibre, or nativity scene, in all of Colombia. (They say it used to be the biggest in the world.) It includes 20-50 different outdoor “rooms”, each with different scenes made of life-size mannequins. Some are a depiction of a part of the Christmas story from the bible, while others depict historic life in San Agustin, but most are a mixture of the two, sponsored by a local business promoting its products or services.)

This was one of those really special places where I felt a real connection with the place and the people, so much so that it was kind of hard to leave. I had similar feelings about my experience in Amantaní, the island on Lake Titicaca, and coincidentally I had a similar mystical “despedida” (farewell) with nature. My last morning in Amantaní, a hummingbird came and hovered close my face looking at me for a few seconds, while here in San Agustin, just before I left, a butterfly landed on my face and remained for nearly a minute, giving me a goodbye hug and kiss.

 

 

Famous Footnotes:

*Cuceta is a border town with Venezuela, located on the other side of country. This family of three (a lawyer and an engineer) had literally traveled across the country to visit San Agustin.

**Fun fact: In San Agustin, I saw many guys sporting Mohawk-like haircuts- something I haven’t seen anywhere else in my South American travels so far.

New Year in Ecuador

Sometimes it helps to close the door on the past so that we can start fresh and fully immerse ourselves in the future. Or at least that’s the idea behind the New Years Eve (NYE) tradition in Ecuador (and many other Latin American countries).

Welcoming the new year is done by first burning the “año viejo” or old year – a symbol of burning away all the bad that happened in the previous year, and also scaring away the bad so it won’t come in the new year.

“Año viejo” is often represented by life-size dolls or dummies, often dressed in old clothes or adorned with symbols of bad things from the year before.

“Año Viejo” being sold on Dec. 31 in the streets of Cuenca, Ecuador

In some cases, “año viejo” is dressed as people, political figures, or even family members, in an attempt to burn the bad they caused the previous year.

The president of Ecuador and various figures representing major events that took place in Ecuador during the past year

It is a moment to combine art and self expression with hopes for better future. Some people go to great lengths and create entire displays. For example, this one depicts the 12-day strikes (“huelgas”) and protests that occurred in Ecuador in October of 2019, spurred by the government’s announcement that they would eliminate fuel subsidies.

In most cases, people create their own smaller, personal dolls or creations with items of personal significance and burn them bonfire-style in the street outside their house just before midnight. Sometimes a creative person will create a humorous testament, recounting things that happened to their friends or family members before lighting “año viejo” on fire.

From the “año viejo” tradition, grew the “viuda” (widow) tradition, which explained why I saw a bunch of guys dressed in drag when I crossed the border into Ecuador.

One of the first things I saw crossing the border into Ecuador, Dec. 30

As a humorous take on the tradition, some men dress as widows mourning the loss of their husband/boyfriend (themselves) who would be “burned” as part of the “año viejo” tradition.* They dress in drag and often ask for coins in the streets, usually while goofing off and having a good time.

Dancing with the “viudas”

Walking through the street after midnight, all the neighbors had fires smoldering in the streets, many playing music and celebrating with family members. I joined a couple of people dancing outside and made some new friends – an extended family that owned the restaurant where they were dancing, and lived in the same building.

I am happy to have started my new year off dancing and meeting new people, leaving behind fears, inhibitions, and self-consciousness smoldering in the past.

Famous Footnotes:

*If you didn’t follow the “viuda” tradition it’s because it is kind of confusing and takes some imagination. The men are assuming their partner will burn a figure of them (because they were the cause of problems during the previous year), so the men, pretending that they are actually dead from this symbolic burning and have therefore left their partners widowed, then dress as their partners and beg for coins in the streets.

**One source said the “año viejo” tradition came from the colonial times when many people died from yellow fever and their clothes would be burned at the end of the year for sanitary and spiritual purposes, to ward off the disease.

**https://culturacolectiva.com/historia/tradiciones-de-ano-nuevo-en-ecuador