A Travellerspoint blog

February 2012

They Even Fried The Carrot Cake!

On our diet here...

So friends and family have been asking about food since we’ve been here: mostly, “how is it?” Generally speaking, Latin American cuisine consists of rice, beans, root vegetables, plantains and corn. Supplement these basic food stuffs with arepas (or any variety of corn-based pancake or tortilla), dozens of varieties of delicious fruits, fried pig and chicken parts. Jumble this around, mix some of it in bowls, and you have what you generally eat throughout the day, every day here.

I don’t get too tired of rice and beans and fruits and veggies, but it gets pretty tough to sustain ourselves in any healthy way when the only options on the road are fried… everything. There’s fried chicken, fried chicken pastries, fried empanadas, fried chicharron (pig skin), fried cow intestine, fried fish on the bone, fried plantains, fried mashed potatoes, fried potato chips, fried and battered rice cakes, fried yucca, fried doughballs, fried onion rings, and fried corn cakes: kind of like your good ole’ people’s fair back in the States.

To say the least, we’ve jumped at the chance to buy granola and raisins and fruit and carrots to travel with, so as not to saturate our bodies too much in the saturated-fats buffet here. Still, it’s impossible to avoid having to eat at least a few fried foods a day… T.L. isn’t complaining too much about it really.

Why so much fried food? Well, foods are generally prepared stovetop, as most people do not have an oven in the home. In addition, the best option for street vendors is portable burners. So the quickest and easiest prep, which doesn’t require much seasoning or special ingredients, is frying. When I talk about heavily fried foods, this means, if you place your fried food on a stack of napkins, it will soak through around 15, while still leaving an oil mark on the table.

We had a menu-of-the-day meal recently (they usually come with 2-3 courses and a juice, and can be found at any number of small eateries that line every town)… This one included soup and salad and carrot cake, so I was pretty excited. When our meal came, T.L. asked what I thought the little fried thing was on our plates, and I said “Who knows? Just another little fried thing...” We both bit in, and said wow, that is super fried and really delicious, but what is it? Then I saw some trace of a shaving of carrot… it was the carrot cake! They battered… and fried… the carrot cake! The default healthy dessert! The sacrilege! They knew it would be delicious! So I let T.L. finish mine, as it was very rich, and I supplemented with some ice-cream later that night.

The Colombian diet is also heavy in meat: pork, beef, chicken, lamb, sausages, hotdogs, hamburgers etc. so for a mostly non-meat eating person, I’ve had to slowly introduce more meat into the diet. While T.L. had been thoroughly enjoying our vegetarian meals at Organizmo, his only birthday wish had been for meat. So, I set off to town with Itamar, a vegetarian, in search of birthday supplies. We thought we had done a good job buying some raw red meat and chicken, until T.L. told me, post-barbecue, he wasn’t even sure it was meat.

Thus far in Ecuador, however, we’ve tried a large selection of tasty, less-fried snacks, and we’ve been able to make some of our own food again at our WWOOF site in Baños and couchsurfing. So we’ve made it so far without having to eat guinea pig, but it’s coming sooner than later. House-pet-impaled-on-metal-stick-over-hot-coals (cuy) has yet to ignite my appetite, but who knows what we’ll eat at the end of a treacherous day of hiking!

Posted by AmyERichards 15:33 Archived in Colombia Tagged rice cake corn foods carrot colombia ecuador fried beans Comments (0)

Colombia Expenses

where has the money gone?

Due to Amy's impressive frugalness and my economic training we are keeping an accurate record of expenses. Overall Colombia was more expensive than we expected and we were a little discouraged at times about how fast our money was flying out of our pockets. This was partly due to the majority of our time being spent in cities, general high cost of long-distance bus travel, and figuring out how best to travel on a budget and spend smartly. The repeated balancing act we have to play with our money is how much to splurge for activities/foods/cervezas in the present and how much to deprive ourselves of entertainments/experiences/pleasures now in order to see more of the continent down the road. In one sense you want to spend what is necessary to enjoy your time in a place and try new things but on the other hand you must remember that most of your trip money must be spent on cheap food, budget lodging, and transportation in order to continue the journey. This can be a very difficult task individually and even more so when trying to coordinate the desires, preferences, and needs of two companions. Amy and I have certainly had some disagreements in this regard but we are getting better at it as we go. In Colombia we divided expense into five catagories but have since added a sixth called Necessities which includes bathroom fees, internet costs, toiletries, and other expenses we deem necessary while Other now encompasses all unnecessary expenditures.
As you can see transportation and shelter were the majority of our costs over our thirty one days in Colombia. Our two longest bus rides from Bogota to Medellin and then from Medellin to Neiva were a little over thirty dollars each. All the shorter rides and more local bus and metro rides added up (we took a few taxis with others in Bogota and Medellin but only once by ourselves to find our couchsurfing destination in Medellin). Much of our lodging cost is the payment of our first WWOOFing experience outside of Bogota at Organizmo which charged $165 per person for two weeks. This cost did include three meals a day (which were delicious, the consistently best and by far the healthiest we have had) and was certainly worth the experience. Unfortunately we had some difficulties resolving payment in Colombian pesos and how the decreased value of the dollar factored into that payment. WWOOFing can be a tricky process when both parties (host and volunteer) have different expectations. As a volunteer I always try to fulfill work requirements and be ready to help with anything. I think this works best when there is no payment involved and you have the general goal of earning your keep and working for your food and shelter. No matter what the circumstances there is always the chance of a volunteer feeling taken advantage of or a host or often even both at the same time. CouchSurfing dynamics are simpler but can be difficult as well. I have found myself wondering why these people are taking us in for free and then feeling like I must provide something, whether it be interesting conversation, food preparation, dish washing, information, anything to make up for the fact that we are strangers being treated kindly as guests. I am trying to change my way of thinking and not see these interactions as exchanges but instead try to focus on the simple, unquantifiable, social sharing and learning between humans that is at the heart of them all. We have volunteered at three WWOOF hosts (an educational center, family farm, and garden/orchard) and stayed with three different CouchSurfers and all have been astoundingly different and positive. In general these experiences have cost the least and been the most rewarding of the trip. Most of our money has gone to getting from place to place and feeding ourselves (which probably come in second and third in terms of rewarding aspects of the trip).

$1,165.83 is a lot of money but we did a whole lot with it in Colombia and were able to stay under twenty dollars per person per day. This was the general guidline I had found for budget travel in Colombia. Ecuador is proving to be cheaper and we should be closer to 10-15 dollars a day during our time in Ecuador, Peru and Bolivia. Hopefully we will have some money left after that to brave the near European prices of Argentina and Chile. Who knows if we will have the funds after that to cough up the $100+ visa fee for entering Brazil. Only time (and money) will tell.

Posted by tltisme 13:26 Archived in Colombia Tagged budget transportation activities shelter cost expense food/drink Comments (0)

Medellin to San Agustin

Latin transportation from the city of eternal spring to ancient statues amidst soggy hills of coffee

all seasons in one day 66 °F
View To the equator and beyond! on tltisme's travel map.

We joined a throng of well-dressed people (faded and pre-wrinkled designer jeans, sporty shoes, colorful tops, gelled hair, headphones, and stylish bags) leaving the metro station and entering the busy Medellin bus station at 8 PM on a Saturday night. The metro took us right to the Terminal del Norte where we had come in from Bogota and where our bus south left from. We were well provisioned for this ride after our last extra long bus trip. All our containers full of water and granola, sandwiches, and fruit packed (much of it bought from the all-inclusive, Wal-Mart like Carrefour of Colombia). After some tense waiting and confusion trying to board the correct bus, our main bags were safely stowed below and our essentials kept with us aboard as we tried to relax. This Bolivariano bus played Cowboys vs. Aliens in dubbed Spanish throughout the bus for all passengers viewing pleasure. I tried to follow along and maybe learn some espanol from Daniel Craig's and Harrison Ford's spanish personas but eventually drifted off to sleep as the plot became more ridiculous and my eyes grew tired of focusing on the small TV.
We, well Amy, had asked the driver how long the trip to Neiva would take, mas o menos (more or less, I have found it is often a decent answer when you are not sure what is being said). We were told about nine hours and arrived groggily in Neiva about twelve hours later, not so bad considering our first long distance bus experience. As we entered the Neiva bus station we were besieged by competing bus employees shouting out every likely destination we could have in mind and attempting to usher us along to their bus (this occurs at every terminal when an apparent foreign traveler arrives though to varying degrees of aggressiveness). We decided to hit the bathroom first (about 15 cents which is a common charge in public restrooms) and check out all the bus options before giving our money to anyone. In the end, we returned to one of the first guys who had approached us but got our ticket for 20,000 pesos (a little more than ten dollars) instead of us his original price of 30,000 for the four hour trip to San Agustin. We were escorted outside and took the last two seats in the back of the small bus as it cranked up and pulled out of the station. We always ask when a bus is leaving but the problem is that drivers almost always say now or soon when in fact it usually takes the bus or van to be close to full before they leave. This has never taken very long and large buses often do run on more or less set schedules as I discovered in Quito when I ran to the bathroom and assumed I had plenty of time since only a few seats were taken but had to run to catch the bus as it pulled out.
This smaller bus seemed to be half filled with passengers going to Pitalito (the larger town on the main road before going up into the hills around San Agustin) and the other half hopping off along the way and being replaced by other passengers picked up from the roadside. This is characteristic of all transportation we have seen so far, even personal cars and trucks will usually stop to pick up passengers if they have the room. I have to keep reminding myself of the fact that essentially whatever road we are on it is only a matter of time before a taxi, bus, or other vehicle will come along that we can hold up our arm for a ride if we so desire. From an economic perspective this makes automobile transportation much more efficient: most vehicles traveling on the road are full (often overflowing with lashed on cargo and dangling passengers from all possible holds). This practice allows individuals who can afford an automobile to maximize its utility on each trip while providing pedestrians with ample transportation options even on the most remote mountain roads (providing some positive externalities to go along with all the negative ones caused by motor-vehicle use). Though roads are winding, often in poor condition, and driven aggressively there seem to be fewer accidents than you would imagine. I believe this is due in large part to the specialization in driving that occurs due to greater economic and social barriers to owning and operating a motor-vehicle. Professional bus and taxi drivers know their routes extremely well and are more than comfortable passing on downhill curves if the opportunity presents itself. Most people walk and take public transportation everywhere they need to go and may own a motorbike but few own automobiles. Those that do drive are quite competent and I have been impressed with the many uses of honking here, rarely in frustration but often as a warning when approaching a blind switch-back turn or to stop a pedestrian or car from pulling out ahead. Though I have traversed the most insane roads of my life already on this trip I have surprised myself with my calmness and at this point relative comfort on rough and precipitous mountain drives. There are too many breathtaking landscapes and intriguing sights to look at out the window to be worried about the driver anyway. I am sure there are some less than satisfactory motor-vehicle operators on the roads down here but none seem to be lacking in confidence and practice which goes a long way.

Ok, back to the bus trip:
After one military stop on the road where all male passengers were taken off the bus and patted down for weapons we reached Pitalito. We had wondered if this small bus would indeed take us to San Agustin as we had been told and our suspicions were confirmed when we were rushed off the bus at Pitalito and into the back of pick-up truck outfitted with benches and bed cover (known as a camioneta), while our backpacks were unceremoniously tossed on the rugged roof-rack. We were a little annoyed with our downgrade in transportation comfort but we had the truck bed to ourselves and were excited to be nearing our destination. Our bus driver had said he had paid this truck driver for our transport which we hoped was the case and we kept our eyes pealed on the scenery passing behind us and to spot our bags if they tumbled from the roof.
We arrived in the the cute, cobbled streets of San Agustin in a slight rain around 2 o'clock on a Sunday afternoon outside the small tourist information center. After encouraging us to stay at a certain hostal a man who looked to be an employee of the centro touristico led us down to the market to find a ride to Finca Campo Bello. We had been told drivers would know where it was but the first few were perplexed and we started to get a little worried as the rain fell a little harder and our packs felt a little heavier. At last the helpful guy found a driver who was going that way and we hoisted our bags onto the roof rack of his camioneta. Amy went to buy a mango to slurp on (50 cents) in the market nearby while I watched the driver and others load more and more sacks of corn, racks of eggs, and other goods on top and into the back of the truck.
As Amy returned other passengers began piling in until there were seven of us sitting in the back and five men standing on the tailgate as the driver cranked up and pulled out of town. Fourty five minutes of bumping, jostling, and straining to hold on as we crept along a mountain trail we were told to get out. We stood next to a large green house wondering if this was the coffee and pig farm we had signed up to work on for the week. A smiling teenager with glasses emerged from the adjacent house and welcomed us while helping us move our bags inside. We entered and saw a faded Finco Campo Bello logo on the wall and breathed a sigh of relief as we let our bags fall to the floor and took a seat in the offered plastic chairs.

Posted by tltisme 13:25 Archived in Colombia Tagged bus driving transportation motor-vehicles Comments (0)

I Am What I Wear

One of the joys of backpacking has always been low maintenance dress: few options makes it easy to get dressed every day, or to get ready to go out at night, right? Sure, it keeps things simple, but not necessarily fun, and certainly not flattering. So as backpackers, don’t you get away with wearing anything wherever you are? That’s what they say: because you live out of a bag and you’re from some foreign place…

But what does this living out-of-a-bag mean for the traveler herself?

While I often opt for low maintenance clothing at home, dress has always been an important form of expression for me. I have always gotten a kick out of inventing accessories and jewelry to embellish daily attire. In all my past travels, I have managed to maintain something of my own style with what I have packed, but I found myself very limited this trip: I needed insect-shield gear, old work t-shirts, and hiking boots, and no extras, or no more than I could carry a very long distance.

So while I have been very aware of how generally unattractive my daily outfit is, I have been more aware of how generally common it is. Every day, I match a few dozen cargo-style, safari gear-wearing European men. I feel colorless and I notice people not noticing all the flair that isn’t there. I am in my travel uniform and it’s terribly repressive.

But I guess that’s me just being tired of wearing the same shirt and pants day in and day out.

And then I ride the bus with dozens of schoolchildren who wear uniforms all 10 years of grade school, because they have no choice. And I spend a week with Edimer, who wears the same shirt and pants all week because he tends to pigs and their babies day and night and can’t bother with a clean shirt. And his nephew, baby Alejo, doesn’t even wear pants or a diaper because a shirt will do. And a father explains that a school uniform is a godsend because his child’s one other outfit is torn and stained and he wouldn’t want anyone besides the family to see him in it, anyway.

And suddenly it seems silly that clothing was ever a form of self-expression and I begin to question how many other “needs” my self has had all this time.

So I look at my lap, and see how terribly practical my cargo pants really are.

Posted by AmyERichards 15:07 Archived in Ecuador Comments (0)

Talking About Climate Change

For the first five weeks of our trip, climate change has been the buzz word. We haven´t ever needed to bring the subject up on our own, everyone just talks about it here.

Colombia has suffered severely, like so many other countries in tropic zones, from shifts in climate that have caused draughts, flooding and natural disasters that have destroyed thousands of homes and livelihoods. So it makes sense that climate change is a topic of serious interest here, to everyone.

Considering we have been traveling at altitudes of up to 12,000 feet, the sun can be more dangerous than pleasant. Not only are you more vulnerable to the effects of ultraviolet radiation because you are physically closer to the sun, but studies show that Colombia, a tropic zone near the equator, has suffered the greatest depletion of its ozone of any country in the western hemisphere. So the mal-effects of sunlight here are considerably more severe: the immediate solutions of which are frequent sun block reapplications, full-coverage clothing and sombreros. But the long-term solutions continue to be debated, especially by the younger generation here, or the “Climate Change Generation”.

While volunteering at Organizmo last month, the design school for sustainable building, we helped lead a workshop that was being offered to the Colombia’s 2011 Climate Champions, or 20-something’s who have each been working on unique sustainable farming, energy, social projects pertaining to climate change. Throughout the weekend we met young farmers who were repopulating the Colombian countryside with native, near-extinct species of plants, students who were feeding underserved communities by growing vegetables in recycled bottles on green roofs, and young women leading awareness campaigns about the effects of climate change on the valuable “Paramo”s, or the highest vegetative level of life in the world, 70% of which is found in Colombia. At breaks, groups sporting “Climate Change Generation” t-shirts spread themselves in circles to discuss permaculture and solutions to their nation’s greatest ecological challenges.

In Medellin, we stayed with a recent college grad, Laura, whose father worked for Empresas Publicas de Medellin (EPM), the largest public utilities company in Latin America. Years ago, her father presciently lobbied to form a climate change team for the corporation. He has been leading the team for EPM ever since, attending climate change summits for the past 15 years and brainstorming methods to reduce its impact and reverse the process. While out for a drink, Laura was vehement about the need to stay active in the movement to reduce the effects of climate change. She shared her plans to continue studying public policy and sustainable development, in order to work on climate change policy as a career.

Most of all, however, we hear about climate change from the farmers, as they are the ones who are most immediately effected by droughts, floods, seasonal shifts and unreliable weather conditions. Nor are farmers here unaware of the causes of climate change. They are well-informed about the greatest carbon emitters, the persistent abusers a few meridian lines to the north. They are also fully aware of the reluctance of these countries to change. When the crops don’t grow or do, but are then destroyed, their only choice is to try, try again.
Meanwhile, they have little power to change the factors that perpetuate speeding climate change throughout the world.

When the rain doesn’t stop for days during the “dry” season and refuses to fall during the “wet”, the people look up and sigh, “climate change”: a problem that isn’t going away, a problem that we will continue to talk about with both its perpetrators and its victims, that is, everyone we encounter along we meet along this journey.

Posted by AmyERichards 15:02 Archived in Colombia Comments (0)

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