Wednesday, June 28, 2017


 Another year and another trip to Colombia. By now I would have thought I know something about the country, but I guess we are still only just scratching the surface. It is a large country offering tremendous variety of cultures and endless beauty in landscapes from high mountains to rain forests and tropical beaches. I will try to describe our trip for those of you who are interested, but mostly for myself so I could relive again the fantastic times we were gifted by Emilia, Julia and Hernando and his family.
Transportation in Colombia:
You can fly, you can drive – not that I advise that - you can have somebody local drive you, you can take a cab, a bike, ride a horse or a motor bike, or take the bus. Taking boats – not so much.
We flew to Bogotá arriving around 11 pm. Took a cab, with the comforting knowledge that Emilia knows the ropes and we will not be ripped off. Well, she was so excited to see us that she forgot to check if the driver turned on the meter – in Bogotá they actually have meters in the taxis. In a couple of minutes into our trip she realized her lack of vigilance and asked the driver how much the ride would be. He jovially told us a price that was about double of the normal fare. That was the point where my almost nonexistent Spanish knowledge proved to be useless on the one hand and on the other; totally unnecessary. From the rising volume of the conversation I gathered that a serious argument was unfolding in which the word “police” was frequently mentioned.

Driver: Tranquila, this is the fare because I picked you up at the international terminal. (He had a point, it was about 10 feet further than the domestic!)
Emilia: It makes no difference, I have taken cabs from the airport a million times and the fare was about half of this. I am not paying this are you taking me for a gringo?
Driver: Tranquila Señora, I will not call the police!
Emilia: But I will!!!
We did end up paying a bit more than the normal fare, but she did win a major battle.  Day one lesson, do not get in the cab without checking the meter or negotiating the price first.
And the actual traffic: It’s like nobody cares about his or her own life or for anybody else’s for that matter. 
Cars won’t stop for each other, whoever is pushing the hardest will win. Cars won’t stop for pedestrians, neither will the pedestrians for the cars.  Cars expect the pedestrians to jump out of the way the pedestrians expect the cars to stop. And the miracle, nobody gets hurt.
There are motorbikes and cabs everywhere. 

Buses in all colors, all sizes. They come all the time!

Flag them down,ask them to stop wherever you want to get off!


Buses come in all sizes and colors. Plus the chivas! 
And horses and donkeys. That is in a nutshell.
Chiva in real life at Julia’s finka. 

and the chiva we did not see

We tried this one-man-cab last time, and I felt bad all the time while the poor man had to peddle and pull the weight of my slender body!

Ah the motos! Scary and scary! Did I say scary? Well they are! And fearless. Once I saw five people riding on one tiny moto. They think they own the road!

Horses were everywhere in Solento!

 And now the trip:

Bogotá and the hotel was kind of a coming home for us. Emilia took on the impossible task of trying to teach us Spanish. It was a lot of fun - not so sure if we gave her any feeling of accomplishment though. But in truth it did help us to navigate around tremendously! So with the little we picked up we got out of Dodge and found our way to Medellin!
I have known for a long time that you can learn about and get to know a country and enjoy your stay there a million times more if you have locals to show you around. And we did have fantastic guides and hosts, a "transplant",  Emilia and a native, Julia and her family.

 Our first meal in Medellin with Julia's parents at a restaurant! Only a native can find a place like this. It was beautiful, rustic and the food was fantastic. Only the company was better.

The plate mat at the restaurant.
Those of you who speak Spanish can enjoy a joke with the words on top. (I wont even attempt to translate), but the rest roughly reads:
The man who eats a lot must be a good person because in order to eat a lot a good digestion system is needed, and good digestion depends on having a good consciousness.

 We stayed with a wonderful family that took us in like we belonged to them!
We went and stayed at their finka! And we have a real feel for the beauty of the mountains that surround Medellin. Or rather that covers most of the terrain of the country!

This is what you see when you walk around the finka or when you drive around in Colombia!

 Of course these are only IPhone pictures and it is only a poor teaser of the real beauty and tranquility of the countryside that surrounds you for miles and miles.
Except when you see a large potato field in the middle of the forests on the hillside. A soar to the eye. Then you find out, that it used to be the hiding place of the paramilitary and there was no other way to smoke them out of there than actually destroying the woods in which they were hiding.
And the hardships of the people that had to be endured  is unthinkable! And it is always the poor who suffers the most!

On our way back to Medellin we enjoyed the view!
We stopped for the best Limonade de Coco. Well, come to think of it, the Limonade was on our way to the finka, but who cares.

 Then came the feared bus ride. I guess for people under 5'2" or so is impossible to understand the harsh life of tall people blessed by long legs. The shorties can curl up in the smallest little niche in the wall and feel comfortable. I, on the other hand, suffer three times; first the fear of having to spend my time in the pallets, then spending my time in the pallets and keeping quite, for nobody likes a whiner, then for the third time when I am actually let out of my confinement and try to unfold my crushed limbs and restart my blood circulation. In any case we booked our tickets on buses that were more comfortable than planes, had air conditioning, reclining chairs and some unavoidable horror movies on display with uncontrolled sound effects coupled with the constant low volume of music coming from a centralized source and occasionally from some unruly passengers' phones. So, in other words it was fun and typical of the country. On some other occasions, on local buses, we have entertainers jumping on for a couple of stops along with vendors selling goodies or fellow traveler having  carton boxes on their laps with holes cut out for the chickens to stick out their heads to enjoy the view.
The trip to Solento took us about 7 hours instead of the scheduled 5 and a half, but we arrived in one piece and happy.

Our hostel is shown on the left, the room had two twin beds and a bunk bed. It was great fun, clean and quite after 10:30, no earplug necessary to sleep. And they rented boots, even had a European size 45! And we needed those as you will see! 
and the streets of Solento

We were to go up the mountains in the morning donning our boots, that were not up to snuff, I mean not up Nokia standards, but I could not care less, they were boots that fit! We were supposed to take a jeep to the foot of the mountains, and of course they were trying to cram as many of us in one of the jeeps as they could. Again, tall people's misery! Well, I opted to stand on the back of the jeep, risking my life for the first but not for the last time of that day.
That is me hanging on to dear life and trying to take a selfie at the same time while the crazy driver is negotiating a curva peligrosa and I am saying a kurva anyád to the driver under my breath. (I let you all find the translations from Spanish and/or from Hungarian). 
And if that had not been enough, my climbing mates gentle pushing made me agree to saddle up and go up to the mountain on the back of a horse. Mind you, I have never been on a horse before. No helmets, no instructions, no nothing. But they took our passport numbers! I guess they needed them in case they need to send back the corpses to the US. And for sure no mentioning of the steep and narrow passages, the crossing of wild mountain streams with rushing water up to the horses belly.
through the streams

in the saddle

on the way
Off we came from the horses, all without a scratch. And then we had to cross another stream!
We are now up to god knows how high and somebody sucked out all the oxygen from the air. At least from the air I was trying to breath in! I think it was only the air around me that lacked the necessary amount of oxygen because nobody else seemed to have a problem. Grasping for air I made it up to the hummingbirds sanctuary. All colors and shapes they flew around or just helicoptered in the air!
And more to go up! I had to stop just about every minute - I could have blamed the view, that it was so fantastic that I just had to stop, but in reality I could not see anything except the steep path I had to climb. But it was all worth it a thousand times. We got to see the valley of the giant palms! Majestic.
on top of the mountain

It's me holding the tree saving it from falling

On the way back Joanna took the ride on the back of the jeep. She had an even crazier driver who enjoyed speeding up at the curvas while Emilia displayed her unending repertoire of swearing in various languages. But one thing is for sure, it is good to be tall when you travel standing up on the back of the jeep and if you are short, you should just take the seat they offer you inside!
We got back to Medellin to enjoy a pizza before taking off to Santa Marta next day.
Here are a couple maps for reference. Of course the time is under google ideal conditions. Yet it worked between Santa Marta - Barranquilla and Cartagena.

Santa Marta is hot. Well maybe not as hot as Cartagena, but it is hot. But it has the highest mountain that is immediately rises next to any see. And on top of it there are coffee plantations. The regular way up there is on motocabs, which I admit looks fun but I refused to take. So we took a jeep ride up to the plantation that uses 150 year old equipment to process coffee beans. It is amazing what they need to do with those beans before they can sell them and make those undrinkable bitter black beverages. You may have guessed; I do not like coffee. I love the smell of it though!
It was another amazing mountain to marvel about. The vegetation and the natural pools in which you could swim! Joanna took a motocab, while Emilia and I braved the elements and walked through a "stream" and stony roads barefooted.
This is what we saw on our way:
Emilia and I swam in that!

And the Beach called Los Angeles. To me it is the road to paradise:

 We found out that there is a street dance in Barranquilla called Rueda de Cumbia jus on the eve of my birthday, a nice welcome to the traveler, so we cut our Santa Marta stay a day short and made it to Barranquilla. What a treat!!!And we enjoyed this with Hernando!!!

 I have no idea how to attach a video :(

Next day was family day, we finally met Hernando's family, and enjoyed a good homemade meal while some of us watched soccer.

 We visited Hernando's old neighborhood and got mangos from the tree at their house!
And then we rushed off to Cartagena. A totally new experience, an old colonial Spanish city, a bit of a time capsule and a tourist trap at the same time. Nevertheless, it is part of the wonders of Colombia. We enjoyed cocktails not at poolside, but inside the pool, have an unbelievable seafood dinner and night walk inside the old city walls. Unfortunately Hernando had to go back to work, so only the three of us remained to explore the old city during the day.
arriving to the new part of Cartagena

a glass of wine at the hotel
 Walk in the city peeking into courtyards!

 The amazing trees that grow around the buildings.


and the coffee as they served it in Cartagena
while I was sipping two orders of Limonade de Coco
 If you actually get this far then you must have a lot of time on your hand.  Thanks for reading my blog.



Friday, November 18, 2016

61 YEAR OLD MALE (contemplating about life)

How do you know you are getting old?

When young males sit around with their buddies and talk loudly; they often discuss how many times they had sex the previous night. It does not matter if everybody knows that the numbers are grossly inflated, youth is the time of bragging, the time of shooting the breeze. Young people want to show off with their vitality. After all we are all on this Earth to make sure our species survive.

But later on in life, men sit with their best friend, their confidant, and the conversation is reduced to a one on one situation and the voices are kept low. They discuss how many times they got up during the previous night to go to the bathroom. And these numbers are painstakingly accurate, they are neither inflated or deflated. They are not bragging, they are merely acknowledging how life has changed and what keeps them up at night. No need to discuss the other intimate facts of the night, each learnt it by now that it should be kept between him and his partner.

When I was a small child I spent hours with my grandfather. I learnt from him to read the daily papers and that it should be read from the back page going towards the front. For me that meant to read the sports pages first, for him it meant to read the obituaries first. I could see the smirk on his face when he discovered a familiar name among the dead who was younger or who was exactly his age. Not that he was happy about their demise but he was happy that he was the one who read about them and not vice versa. He would look at me and say, that poor bastard will smell the lilies from six feet under. That was one of his favorite expressions. We could talk about any future event, and he would look at me and say, I will be smelling the lilies from six feet under by then. I just laughed and the thought never occurred to me that he was at least half way serious.

Death is always lurking around the corner. My father used to say, every man receives his death sentence at the moment of his birth. Yeah, but when do we start thinking about it that it could happen to us, as well? As we go through life we learn about acquaintances and sadly about friends and relatives who were close to us, who die at a young age. As much as it saddens us we still do not think that it can happen to us. As long as some ugly illness does not affect us or our most loved ones, death happens to somebody else. To the old. So, again, when do we start feeling that we are getting old? Or rather, when do we actually acknowledge that we are not young anymore? Maybe not old, but not young either.

By the stroke of luck, a fluke ultrasound exam that seemed totally unnecessary, revealed that I had an aneurysm, well actually not one but three abdominal aneurysms. One big and two cute, little ones. I was very well versed about the seriousness of aneurysms – thanks to the high quality medical shows I now admit to watching on TV – so I knew I had to take care of them immediately. I knew it is routine on the one hand, and I also knew it was a dangerous operation. The funny thing is I was not scared. Not yet, not before the operation.

So there I was in the hospital and I saw my medical record. It said: 61 YEAR OLD MALE. That was me. Short and sweet description, my new identification, telling the medical staff all they needed to know about me. Wow, my name became irrelevant. I was a 61 year old human being who happened to be male. Being male is relevant, when you think about how they are going to place the catheter in you. 61 years of age is relevant when they have to consider how radically they can treat you how much abuse you can withstand. Your name, national origin – unimportant.

Religion came into the picture, in case you want someone to pray for you, or maybe to give you the last rite? I was already upset learning that I was 61 years old, so perhaps it can be forgiven to me when I sent the good chaplain on his way using somewhat irritated words.

The operation was successful and the patient did not die. That he was in excruciating pain, was not the doctors' concern. Nothing to do with the operation. Well, fuck that, I did not have the pain before and now I have it?

Walking in the hallway with the help of a nurse’s aide hours after the operation:

Aide: “You are feeling better now?”

Me: “Better? Better than what? I felt perfectly healthy before I came in here and now I have to lean on you and tubes are hanging out of me? Why would I feel better now?”

Her face was priceless, poor thing she had no idea what operation I had and I was mean enough not to explain immediately.

But yes, I have to admit, I finally know I am not very young. Maybe not too old yet, but I know now I should cherish and enjoy every minute of my life that is left. And I know I am surrounded by a great family and the best friends one can ever get. So who cares if they think I am a 61 year old male. I am me, nothing has changed.



Thursday, July 21, 2016

Medellin/Bogotá - Colombia Part Two

We have survived!
Is it a dangerous country? – we were asked more times than I care to remember. People looked at us, their eyes could not hide what they really thought: you must be a couple of idiots to go there when you could go to Cancun! Or is Colombia not in Mexico? Well they speak Spanish there, don’t they? Some actually knew the difference – thank god to Netflix and Narcos. They have heard of Don Pablo. And there were some who even knew about the guerillas, maybe even heard of the FARC if not ELN. I never bothered to explain, just kept smiling, reinforcing the image they already had of us, yes, a couple of idiots.
But of course we have our friends, they knew better.
But we did survive, and I will tell you how and what we survived, because it was dangerous and scary. I mean the cab drives, well those you have to experience in order to understand. Most of what we lived through and saw I cannot really describe, the beauty of the country, the roughness of the drives, the liveliness of the cities, the ever present crowd, the emptiness of some streets at night, the poverty, the riches, the old, the new, the slums, the modern buildings and the funky architecture, the mixture of the people in color and race that give them their incredible beauty and attractiveness, and how we could never have enough of this all.

Bogotá the beautiful, the variety!

So let’s start at the end. We thought we knew how it is to survive cab rides in Bogotá, until we got to Medellin. Not that the drivers in Bogotá are any less crazy, but they only have to race through a city, whereas in Medellin they also have to negotiate the steepest and curviest slopes going at least 50 km faster than they should. There are actual lanes painted on the road, although it is possible that only foreigners can see them. There may even be traffic rules in place, such as stop at the red light, but again, those apparently do not apply to taxi drivers. So who needs a roller coaster or the Beast at Kings Island when you can ride a cab in Medellin and it is a lot less expensive. There may be a slight difference though, in Medellin the danger is real.

Well Medellin. We were there for only two and a half days, so everything I say is only my impression and not to be quoted. Just like in Bogotá, there are different barrios (neighborhoods) that are so different it is hard to believe they are in the same city. Poblado is Medellin’s restaurant and party district. Cincinnatians, imagine Mt. Adams at its best and most crowded times and multiply it by a couple of thousands. My Hungarian friends should do the same substituting Gozsdu Udvar for Mt. Adams but use a multiplication of ten thousand. The place is full of restaurants and people all night. It is loud, maybe not as loud as the Caribbean night clubs in Barranquilla, but definitely loud enough to make conversation difficult. The variety of food is endless but still overwhelmingly Colombian. And by American standards, it is dirt cheap. We had a bottle of excellent Argentinian wine for about 15 dollars. My stepdaughter and her boyfriend dragged us to an after dinner salsa place. The nights in Medellin are quite pleasant around 22 -23 C, (72-74 F) but when I entered the club my glasses fogged up as if I came in from the Helsinki winter. The club was in a cellar, and must have been heated by all the energy coming straight from the dancer’s bodies. This was a real dancer’s paradise, no high heels, not much Colombian butt enhancers, or butt implants.
By the way, Medellin is the world capital for plastic surgery and we have witnessed the Colombian infatuation with fair size butts and busts. But if you are reluctant to go through with butt enhancing surgery you can buy the above enhancers or padded underwear. It is beyond me why this is good, but it seems to be taken off in Colombia. But the salsa crowd did not seem to be into this, they just wanted to dance and sweat. And they did both. It was fun to see.

Young people in Poblado - Emilia and Hernando

Still in Poblado is the Museo el Castillo of which you can read on your own. It is worth seeing and it is also a heaven for meat lovers. Meat galore seems to be part of Colombian cuisine. We have indulged with the help of our Colombian friend.

Our Colombian friend, Noris, is amazed about the size of the meal!

And then, public transportation. It is fantastic! Of course taxi rides are easy and cheap throughout Colombia, but in Medellin it is fun to take the train and the connecting cable car. Medellin is built not on seven hills but innumerable high and steep mountain slopes.

Originally this hillside was home to poorest most destitute of people in Medellin. The cable car made it more accessible and provided a cheap way to work thus made the place more livable and less crime ridden. We took one of the gondola lines up and down the hill and could not stop clicking on our IPhones taking pictures, but non gave back what we really saw. You must be there.

Botero park in Medellin:

So let’s now go back in time a couple of days, and we are in Bogotá again. It was our second time, yet it felt we saw the city as it is for the first time. Bogotá for most visitors means Candelaria. And while it is definitely something to see in order to have a feel for this incredible place one must venture out to other areas as well. We walked a lot and breezed in a ton of exhaust from buses and cars when on the main streets. On the side streets there are few cars and the air is fresh when the wind blows from the mountains. Walking was hard, especially the first couple of days due to lack of oxygen at the altitude of 2,600 m (8,300 feet).
We discovered several new neighborhoods and visited tons of restaurants and cafés. Starting with Macarena, where Emilia lives and our hotel was conveniently located. The hilly and narrow streets hid many restaurants from Peru, Spain, Mexico, Italy, France and here and there Colombia. I even got to watch the UEFA European finals at BBC. Bogotá Beer Company.

Walking around Macarena

And there was the market. Plaza De Mercado De Paloquemao. Mountains of fruits, avocado, vegetables, fish, meet and eggs and eggs, and eggs.
Market with mountains of eggs
We walk to Park Way a bit further north, with a nice park that reminded us a bit of Tel Aviv, surrounded with many coffee houses.
Then we got to go to Chapinero and Zona G. Zona G is a bit more affluent neighborhood with again tons of variety for food and drinks, from Japanese and Lebanese restaurants, combined with antique furniture stores, residential areas on the hill side.
Café in Zona G
Joanna at the rooftop café with a view

Of course we saw Emilia at Universidad de Los Andes, what a campus! And coffee houses all around with students and young professors, dogs and cats. We walked back to Candelaria and visited the Gold Museum and the Police Museum. The Police Museum was free for all, with a private guide to show the history of the Colombian Police Force including some paraphernalia from Pablo Escobar of whom, I must admit, we have a slight obsession. Why else would we have watched El Patron del Mal, an 80 part Colombian series about his life? Both museums were fun, and my reluctance to visit them was soon turned into amazement. The gold art of ancient times was incredible, beautiful and full of humor. And the view from the Police Museum was fantastic, albeit different than that of from Monserrate.
Gold Museum:

View from the roof of the Police Museum and Handcuffs appropriately named Esposas!

One more thing, we had Turkish food at a mall, that I named Mall of South America, in the tradition of the mall in Minneapolis.

And I know we have not really seen Bogotá. One must live there to get to know the place. But this is true for all great places. So little time and so much to see.