Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Colombia Take 2: In Two Parts

Oh Hey!  I’m blogging from a bus again.  This time the ride is only 15 hours.  NBD.  My destination: Arequipa, Peru.  But this part of the journey will be saved for a future blog.  For now, I have a lot of catching up to do on my last month in Colombia. And I’ve decided to tell the story in two parts. 

Part I: Traveling with Friends is Fun

Don’t get me wrong… I love the adventures I’ve had on my own.  But even though I’m traveling alone, I’m never really alone.  As this blog has documented, I’ve met incredible people along the way, many of whom I grew very close with in a short amount of time.  But nothing compares to spending time with a friend who knows you, really knows you.  You don’t have to explain where you are from, or where you’ve been, or what you like and what you don’t like, because they already know all these things about you, and more. 

Annelise is one of my closest friends from Taylor University.  We met our freshman year… and ended up on the same wing our sophomore and junior year.  (“First East” shout out!)  I “keep in touch” with two college friends and she is one of them.  By “keep in touch” I mean that we may have averaged one or two phone calls a year for the past few years.  I saw Annie in Chicago the summer of 2013 (before the journey began) when we met up at my college roommates’ house, Missy (the other college friend I “keep in touch” with).  Over a year had past when I gave her a call in October, just a few days after I had arrived at the vineyard.  We spent an hour catching up and it was great.  As I offer to just about anyone, I threw out the invitation for her to come join me if any destination sounded appealing.  The next day I sent her a text to tell her how great it was to reconnect.  She responded likewise and then asked if I was serious with the invitation to join in on the journey.  Thus began the planning for Annelise and Ashley’s Colombian Holiday Extravaganza or AACHE for short.  (We actually never called it that…. I just came up with the name right now…) 

I met Annelise at the Bogotá airport on Christmas Eve.  Earlier that afternoon, we had sent Marion (my Colombian “little sister”) off to the Canary Islands to spend a month with her brother.  
My Colombian "Family": The Doctor, Marion and Sandra

Then I hung out the rest of the evening at the airport and watched as families greeted loved ones arriving for the holiday.  This inspired me to attempt, unsuccessfully, to Facetime with the fam who was all gathering at Grandma’s house for Christmas Eve.  (Free Airport WiFi – there is nothing like it to give a traveler hope and determination and eventually, resignation.)  But then I saw that familiar face and thus began a 10-day dialog that made me laugh, cry, think, hope, reflect and dream.  Any Taylor peeps would appreciate that it only took about one hour for us to recount our Stick ‘Em prowess/obsession from college days.  Good times were had by all… as we stalked random people on campus using some pretty shady tactics.  Only at TU. 

We started the Extravaganza with a hair-raising ride up to the vineyard.  I gave Annie fair-warning (which she later admitted was not an exaggeration) that it would be so, but encouraged her that I hadn’t died yet with the Doctor’s Andretti-like tendencies.  After giving her a little of the lay-of-the-land, we settled in for a Colombian winter’s nap.  Christmas Day was spent enjoying a special breakfast with the Doctor and Sandra before we decided to go down the hill to the little chapel at Hotel Puntalarga for the Christmas Day Noon Mass.  We were both a little confused by the two white chairs at the front and center of the chapel but after inquiring if we were at a mass or a wedding, we were assured it was a mass.  Confused/amused glances were exchanged when the wedding march started the mass.  You know: “Daaa-daaa-da-da-da-da-da.  Dum-da-da-da-da-daaaa.”  But then there were no further characteristics of wedding events taking place.  Regardless, it was good to celebrate the birth of Jesus, or wedded bliss, in words that we barely understood.  

The Chapel at the Hotel Puntalarga.  Notice the 2 white CHAIRS at the front. 

(The really funny part happened when I tried to recount the story to the Doctor and Sandra at lunch later that day.  Somehow I mixed up the words “chair” and “bed” in Spanish.  So I said that “We walked into the church and there were two white beds at the front of the church.”  I quickly corrected myself and finished the story.  But at the end, Sandra asked “Two white beds, huh?”  I about died laughing.)
Christmas Day Toast from the Valley of the Sun

Later that evening we decided to go to Nobsa to see the town square lights. We ended up hitching a ride from a “USA ARMY” Jeep that was leaving the vineyard.  Annie quickly jumped into Colombian culture by sharing a postre from “Expo-Postre” or “Hall of Desserts” as I call it.  Imagine 20 women, each with about 20 Pyrex-casserole dishes filled with whipped cream goodness of every imaginable flavor, each offering a spoon to taste-test any dish you would like.  Annie was reminded of church potlucks.  I don’t know about you, but I’ve never been to a church potluck like that, but why not?  Bible Study Beauties?  Who’s in???  Later we enjoyed canelazo, a hot-Colombian beverage that is sure to warm you up, mostly because of the aguardiente.  Cuidado.
Paper Mache Giants in Puntalarga

Paper Mache Giant Photo Bomb

Friday we set off to explore the Valle del Sol. A harrowing bus ride to Playa Blanca on Lago de Tota left us with the highlight of being quoted by a curious girl who wanted to "learn" Spanish. She would ask each of us how to say the name of any object in view (house, beach, tree, table). When we told her, she would respond with "bueno" and move on to the next word. 
Playa Blanca on Lago de Tota

We had a nice dip in some hot springs... Sorry there is no picture evidence of the surgical like caps everyone was sporting. We hitched a ride from the "second most important person in Sogamoso" back to town and then took in the lights of Tibasosa. 
Christmas in Tibasosa

The next day, Saturday, Annie got the full taste of Vid & Vino Internacional (the Wine Fest).  It was talent day!  Several of the girls performed regional dances, many quite impressive. Especially the “Dance of the Wine”, where both partners balanced a cup of wine on their heads while they danced!  There were a couple speeches and poems and one comedy routine that I could tell was funny by the audience’s response, but the humor was, sadly, lost on us.  We both had our moments of embarrassment as Annie was introduced by the master of ceremonies but she didn’t realize it.  Later I had my first live-radio interview to tell of my experience at the vineyard… in Spanish.  I had 20 seconds warning.  My Spanish is not good enough to pull something like this off.  Not cool, radio dude.  Not cool. 
The Dance of the Wine

We finished off the day with a trip to Pueblito Boyacense, a little town that was created to showcase the 7 most beautiful pueblos in Boyacá.  I’m not sure how it took me 2 months to learn of this little gem of a place, but if you ever find yourself in Duitama, Boyacá, Colombia, be sure to check out this cool tourist attraction.  The purpose of the visit was a PR event to showcase the candidates for Queen of the Vine, as several beautiful Colombian girls – with sashes, walked around the town with a little entourage, drawing stares of many.  I’m not sure what Annelise had in mind when she agreed to this trip, but this was not your average tourist vacation.  I do my best.  ;)
With some of the queens during our parade through Pueblito Boyacense

No Words
I thought I was a baby, hence the crying.  Instead I'm a crying little boy Jesus. 

On Sunday, we began “AACHE goes to Antioquia” – or Medellin which might be more familiar to you.  We took the bus to Bogotá where Annie got the 2-hour tour of La Candelaria.  
Bogota - Plaza de Bolivar

Plaza de Bolivar - in Lights

Then we flew to Medellin.  We were there for less than 12 hours before we caught a bus to Jardin to spend a few days.  (This is where I was supposed to be volunteering during October and November but the arrangement fell through at the last minute.  And as a result, I ended up at the vineyard.  I can’t imagine how different my experience would have been had I ended up in Jardin!  I’m grateful for the way things worked out but was thankful for the opportunity to check out this little town.)  Admittedly, I began scoping out the landscape for the perfect place for a little B&B, and maybe even inquired about the price of land.  But alas, the roads to get to this beautiful pueblo in coffee country, are not “moms-approved” (as in no dosage of Dramamine could sustain Shells Bells to get here to pay me a visit).  The highlight of our visit was, without a doubt, our hosts at La Boira (“The Fog”), Soley and Xavi (pronounced “Chavi”).  Soley is Colombian and Xavi is from Barcelona.  I knew I liked them when Xavi’s first words to us were “Your room is so ugly.”  Mentiroso!  Our room had stunning views of the paisaje around Jardin.  Soley, in her raspy Colombian voice, was eager to show us all of the features of our room, make us a cup of coffee, introduce us to her mother who lives in a little casita a few meters away, and explain each plant and tree they have in the lovely little garden.  
Our amazing hosts at La Boira - Soley and Xavi

Soley's Garden

I forgot to mention that one of this dogs mistook Annie's arm for a bone as soon as we entered the gates of the house.  She accepted the "welcome" with grace.  

Our room was above me. 

Honestly, I could have been entertained by the banter between these two for hours, but a cute little town square with horses trotting through (with an extremely strange and unnatural gait), and Colombian beverages of our choice awaited.  Later we ended up offering to share our table for 5 with a family of 3 at one of top-rated restaurants in town.  Near the end of the conversation, I offered the rest of our bottle of wine to the family.  This prompted Cesar to inquire as to how we found Jardin.  He and his wife, Adriana, had visited when they first met 30 years ago.  And know they were back with their son, Esteban, who will be headed off to study in Germany in a few weeks.  The next day, we ran into Cesar in town, and he invited us to join his family to visit to an indigenous community just outside of town.  The visit proved to be a bust, but it was a nice gesture and one of many examples of the hospitality and warmness that we experienced from the Colombian people.  I’ve told many a Colombian that many people from the US think Colombia is  dangerous place and that I am crazy to visit here, but then I follow up by saying I’ll do my best to tell American’s they should come and visit.  So here is the fulfillment of my promise:  Colombia is a wonderful place, filled with wonderful people.  But don’t take my word for it… come experience it yourself! 
Watching the world pass by in Jardin

Jardin Cathedral

Hike outside of Jardin

We loved all that Jardin had to offer, including a hike along the river and through some mountains.  But, our plan was to celebrate New Year’s Eve in Medellin.  Unfortunately, as we began to inquire about NYE festivities, we found that New Year’s is really a family holiday in Colombia.  Most people spend the evening with their family and THEN go out after midnight.  We were kind of hoping to meet some family in Medellin and get invited to their house, but that didn’t exactly happen.  So we were left to ring in the New Year with just about every other tourist in Medellin who stays near Parque Lleras.  We met some nice mates from Australia and had a good time celebrating and a little dancing as well.  The incentive to get home at a respectable hour was low considering our room was right on one of the main streets where the party would be going on into the wee hours of the morning.  And when we did make it back at 3am, it was like we were still at the disco.  “Bootsandcatsandbootsandcats” until sunrise.  Happy New Year!
Ready to Ring in the New Year!

High 5 for Botero's fatty hand in Medellin

Or a fatty face

Medellin from Comuna 13, home of the only urban escalators - the glass covered orange things below. 

Despite our considerable fatigue the next day, our last day together, I think we had one of our best conversations over breakfast.  Talk turned to typical New Years topics.  But Annie’s questions were good ones:  What was the most rewarding part of this past year?  What was the most disappointing part of the year?  I countered with: What habits/practices did you develop this year that you want to continue or perfect in the year to come.  Good stuff.  Although it had become more and more obvious during our week together, I encouraged Annie that she is one of the most self-reflective people I know.  She seeks to improve herself physically, emotionally, spiritually, relationally – all-around.  It doesn’t come much as a surprise as she is in Human Resources and as I tried to interpret for those who asked during our trip, she tries to make life better for the people who work in her company.  Coaching is her true passion and I know that she will continue to make life better for those who are blessed to spend time with her.  Because that is how I felt after my time with her.  And, any other travel extravaganza would be a great way to make that happen again.  Thank you, Annie, for your time, your willingness to try new things and put yourself out there.  It was a blessing to me!

Part II: The Blessing and Curse of “Staying Put” while Traveling

It’s hard to believe that I arrived to Vinedo and Cava Loma de Puntalarga late in October after a 28-hour bus ride from the coast.  I am continually amazed at how blessed I’ve been during my time here; especially considering that Boyacá was a place I didn’t even know existed before I arrived.  (In my opinion, it is seriously underrated/unknown in the tourist world, and that should change.)  During my time here, I’ve left few stones unturned when it comes to visiting the surrounding community.  I was able to appreciate the Christmas Lights in many a Boyacense pueblo.  I was blessed to get out for a day in a paramo, a unique high-altitude eco-system that only grows around the equator, the majority, and arguably best of which are found in Colombia.  I became adept at using the local transportation to get around as needed.  I enjoyed some regionally delicacies including hot chocolate and cheese (as in you break off chunks of mozzarella-like cheese and drop it in your hot chocolate, let it melt a bit and then eat it with a fork… sounds strange but surprisingly tasty!). 

But as always, it was the people who made the experience memorable.  Many of those kind souls were the staff at the vineyard.  I remember when I first arrived; meeting several beautiful young Colombian women and thinking I would never be able to tell them apart.  That idea quickly faded as I got to know each one of them to varying degrees.  Blanca would greet me each morning as she arranged the kitchen table for breakfast.  Alejandra always greeted me with a kiss on the right cheek (the Colombian customary greeting).  Diana was eager to practice her English which led us to become fast friends.  And somehow Marta and I became an “equipo” or “team”.  We washed tables and chairs together, we washed wine glasses together, we cut plastic tape to tie up vines together, we washed corks together… but we also shared our love for Jesus together.  She would always have words of wisdom and encouragement for me and they blessed me much.  Don Teo would greet me each morning in a Spanish accent I could not understand and I responded in a Spanish accent that he couldn’t understand.  And we smiled.  Just as I smiled and waved to Jimmy as he went about his tasks around the vineyard each day.    

El Equipo!  Marta y Yo
Don Teo and Jimmy getting the fire started
These relationships extended beyond the vineyard as well.  Mariluz and Javier from the Hotel Puntalarga down the hill, greeted me warmly each week when I came to drop off my laundry.  (I gave up on the hand washing after about a week.  In reality – it’s not the washing that was the problem but the drying.  When you only have a few changes of clothes, one cannot wait days for clothes to dry).  And Isabel and Eloise were sweet to allow me to spend several hours on end as I found my second “office’ in the beautiful courtyard at San Luis Hotel across the street.  And in my last week I was blessed to spend time with Nicolás and his mom Leonora.  Nico and I have birthdays 3 days apart and both shared excitement in living out our “Jesus Year”… as in we are the same age as Jesus was when he died.  (It’s pretty crazy to think about, really.)  I reminded him, and his mom, several times, that I’m pretty sure he has the biggest heart in all of Colombia.  And it’s obvious where he learned it from.  His mom is a sweet woman who had nothing but encouraging and endearing words of wisdom for me.   

And of course, there is the Doctor, Sandra and Marion.  The Doctor’s generosity was great as he truly treated me as one of his family.  Sandra accepted me into her home and never once commented on the way I, a foreigner, may or may not have had strange customs around the house (like being the only one to drink water with our meals… from my big plastic water bottle I call the adult sippy cup).  And the house just wasn’t the same after Marion left on Christmas Eve.  As we saw her off at the airport, I had tears in my eyes as we each sent her off on her first international trip alone, like a mother hen sends off her chicks.  I told her I was excited she had the opportunity to travel (something I obviously was in full favor of), but I was sad that she wouldn’t be around during the rest of my time at the vineyard. 

So obviously, there is great blessing in “staying put”.  And there-in lies the curse: saying “goodbye.”  It stinks.  You meet wonderful people, who could be friends for life… and still can be just in a different way… but it’s just not the same. So in my last week I reminded each person I had to say “goodbye” to that I don’t say “goodbye” but “Nos vemos” or “We’ll see you again”.  Because I truly hope that I can see each of these people again, whether it’s by welcoming them into my own home someday or coming back for a visit.  Puntalarga will always have a little piece of my heart.  Gracias a todos por tu hospitalidad y carino!  Dios te bendiga y nos vemos…pronto!  

1 comment:

  1. Ashley, I LOVED reading about all your Columbian adventures with Annelise. I felt like I was experiencing each activity with you! Annelise felt as blessed to be with you as you did to be with her. I'm so glad you are in each others' lives! Enjoy the rest of your sabbatical and hopefully your travels will bring you to the Twin Cities in the near future!