A Travellerspoint blog

February 2012

CouchSurfing in Medellin

“The City of Eternal Spring”

sunny 79 °F
View To the equator and beyond! on tltisme's travel map.

Medellin is an extremely nice city. At just under 5000 feet and less than 500 m from the equator it boasts a perfect climate, basically between 75 and 85 year round (short and t-shirt weather for a Maine boy day and night). The city has an exceptionally clean, modern, straightforward, and popular metro system, the best in Latin America, (allegedly possible through the wealth accumulated here by narcotraficantes) which includes three different metrocable (gondola) lines running up the mountainsides that the city has expanded into in all directions. Over the course of our five days there we rode all but three stops worth of the metro system and made sure to ride all the metrocable segments which were great (and cheap) entertainment. As the six person hanging capsules were whisked along you were given stunning views of the city as a whole while simultaneously allowing flyby perspectives into individual homes and neighborhoods perched on the hillsides. We visited some great parks, cheap restaurants (3 course set dinner for around $4), relaxing gardens, popular bars (my favorite boasted the best michelada, beer mixed with límon and salt, and served endless complimentary popcorn), interesting museums, modern malls (one with a huge aerobic dance class taking place at night that I have a great video of), and markets full of intriguing food, fruit, produce, and crafts. I was constantly impressed by the helpful and friendly people and often surprised by the apparent affluence and modernity.
We CouchSurfed for the first time and it struck me daily how amazing and easy it was. CouchSurfing is an online network of people both offering and seeking lodging and/or social interaction with strangers. Amy and I had made an account this summer offering the cottage on Islesboro but did not receive any requests while we were available. There were many options in Medellin and we ended up staying with a Laura Fernandez (a recent graduate of Florida State University who is back in her home country with her father, applying for masters programs worldwide). Laura's father was head of the environmental and social consciousness division that he had created at EPM, one of the largest energy providers/utility companies in the world. Oscar Fernandez's coffee table and bookshelves were packed full of books by environmentalists, economists, and scientists about climate change and sustainable living and he and Laura had both attended the United Nations Climate Change summit in Durban, South Africa last year. I had recognized an elephant patterned fabric in the apartment as South African made and was intrigued to hear about the summit in Durban (which I had visited briefly in 2005 to meet the senior class trip from Islesboro). Amy and I were given the office/library room with a pallet on the floor for our five days there and allowed to come and go as we pleased. We ate our first dinner there with Laura and her father but mostly we had the place and kitchen to ourselves and considered the free lodging a sweet deal (not to mention the pool access we took advantage of one afternoon). CouchSurfing is larger than I thought and we have found many people listed in towns such as Otavalo, Ecuador. We are encouraged by our experiences with the network so far and will certainly look to continue finding hosts and people to meet along our trip.

Posted by tltisme 16:17 Archived in Colombia Tagged metro couchsurfing medellin botero metrocable Comments (1)

Developments on Colombia’s Development

Upon first glance, it seemed Colombia was cruising down the development fast track, but by the end of our time here we see speedy development does not translate to the high life for all Colombians: the fancy cars, upscale malls and flashy architecture that characterize metropolitan areas belie the story of the rest of the population. Like most every rapidly developing or developed nation these days, Colombians speak openly of increasing inequality. The Gini coefficient here, the index used to measure inequality, is 0.587 (considered high- this is a bad thing) and one of the highest in Latin America. Although Colombia has the fourth largest economy in Latin America, the income ratio between the richest and poorest 10% surges over 80-to-1. The poverty rate here is at 46 percent.

The cost of living, especially in major cities, is very high. In fact, we have been surprised to find that prices for food, alcohol and clothing rival or surpass those in the United States. Beyond cost of living, travel through Colombia is relatively very expensive. Gas runs around $5/gallon, so even bus travel is far from affordable. Travel between major cities is considered a real luxury for most of the population.
While it is expensive to live, workers often make 12-13 mil pesos daily, an equivalent of 7 U.S. dollars. Naturally, the Colombians with whom we have worked are curious about the costs of our trip and how we were able to save enough to travel. A few farm workers inquired about T.L.’s hourly wage in Maine for work similar to their own. We told them around $20/hr before taxes. Of course, it seemed a lot, but they concluded that they weren’t too far behind because their employers often supplied lunch- I was embarrassed to correct them that $20 was not what he made in a day, but in an hour. That he might make in a day what they would make in a month was nearly incomprehensible, to all of us.

A recent “development” in Colombia is the TLC or Colombia Trade Promotion (free trade) agreement with the United States, “won” just a few months ago under the Obama administration. The TLC is modeled after most other Latin American free trade agreements with the U.S. – the basic tenet being to open up markets to competition, to introduce new goods and to promote duty-free trade between the two countries. The reality of such agreements, however, has usually meant the livelihoods of small farmers and business people being crushed under a market flooded by cheaper American goods and produce.

This is exactly what Edimer, a small coffee and pig farmer with whom we had been working, worries for his future. Will the largest Colombian coffee coop with the United States become the only coop here? Will this mean the farm which has supported his family for generations will no longer be able to compete? “We can only wait and see what the free trade agreement means for the people”, is the response I have received from most.

In terms of education, affluent students studying in Bogota boasted that la Universidad Nacional and Universidad de los Andes are stellar universities, among the top three in Colombia. Meanwhile, Edimer, who grew up in the campo, has a different take on education here. Edimer studied engineering and industrial planning at a rural university, but has chosen life as a farmer. He suggests that Colombians make lazy students, and that in general people here are more interested in television than reading. He was unique in his community, as many people never finish school and have no interest in university. He recounts the saying “Hay diez policia por cada estudiante y un estudiante por mil ignorantes” or For every 10 police, there is one student and for every student there are 1,000 ignorant people. Edimer suggests that the people are brainwashed by what they watch on television and that media is largely controlled by the government (he deduces that former president Uribe’s wide support was due to biased media).

Edimer also speaks of corruption, especially among the police here: the fatal mix of drugs and very wealthy, influential criminals has resulted in their perpetuating crime. More than anything, he suggested that money buys the government’s permission to be involved in whatever illegal activity one pleases. Meanwhile, the rest of the population pays steep taxes for a huge security force and military to keep crime down. At lunch one day, he described the “prisons” in which many of the country’s superrich criminals are incarcerated… they sounded more like penthouses. Later that day, an exposé on the news showed the suites the “prisoners” lived in. The criminals dined at fancy tables, while watching movies on flat screens. They might exercise at the Gold’s Gym or lounge in their building to pass their hard time.
Edimer calls it a system of “ricos por ricos”, or rich for the rich. Meanwhile, “vivimos en otro cuento” we, the rest of Colombians, live in another story.

Posted by AmyERichards 15:36 Archived in Colombia Comments (0)

A Safer Colombia

While we've made it to Ecuador, limited internet means blog posts will be a little delayed!

In the eyes of much of the world, Colombia still blazons a scarlet letter. With Colombia’s 60 year-armed conflict, the histories of Pablo Escobar, drug cartels, and the murder and kidnapping records by FARC burning red hot in our memories, it challenges our imaginations to think of Colombia as a place peaceful enough to visit. But, it is: Colombia has been moving away from its violent past, at full speed, for much of the past 15 years. The homicide rate almost halved between 2002 and 2006.

Between Plan Colombia under former President Andres Pastrana and the military efforts of former President Alvaro Uribe, Colombia has reduced the amount of cocaine produced within its borders, as well as its kidnappings and homicides, immensely. Alvaro Uribe is credited with a successful anti-guerrilla and narcotraficante campaign in Colombia, although his “democratic security” strategy has been considered controversial by many. The peace process has demobilized most paramilitary groups and has cut the territories occupied by the guerrillas substantially. Colombia’s current president, Juan Manuel Santos, Minister of Defense under Uribe, has persisted with such policies, and peace continues to fill the new gaps in violence.

While the government cracks down, people here take safety and security very seriously. They regard the petty crime and the violence that still characterize the country as shameful. Riding the metro and walking in the streets here, you will find any number of signs and advertisements cautioning against violence and gun use, in the name of the national movement to promote a more peaceful Colombia. Students wear peace patches and adults’ bags advertise anti-violent campaigns. Trucks are littered with “Colombians for Peace” stickers.

Still, Colombians are weary of their own personal safety: they take heed of potential robbers in most open spaces. All properties are locked day and night by gates and often guarded by private security guards toting automatic weapons. The military and police force are huge (Colombia has one of the highest percent of GDP military spending in the world) thanks in large part to Uribe’s campaigns. Military and police presence on the along the highways is strong: there are patrols and regular car and bus searches on most any road throughout the country.

The FARC is still in existence, of course, and it will be generations before families who have fallen victim to their kidnappings and assassinations begin to forget the ruthlessness of their methods. A friend of ours in Bogota recounted the kidnappings of his father and uncles by the FARC, who had held them for over 4 months at a time: he was nonchalant when talking about the kidnappings…they were just something that happened here, in those times.

In general, however, Colombians pride themselves in their movement away from a past ridden by drug and guerrilla violence. They are candid in discussing the problem behind the drug trade: the constant demand for the illegal white powder in the United States. As almost everyone we have spoken with has declared “estamos cansados de la violencia” we are tired of the violence, and more than anything else “estamos hartos de lo que dice el resto del mundo sobre nuestro pais”, we are tired about what the rest of the world says about our country. They hope that the rest of the world will soon see that it is safe to travel in this beautiful country and that there is far more to Colombia than druglords, kidnappings and violent crime.

Posted by AmyERichards 05:09 Archived in Colombia Tagged military police security violence cocaine murders drug_trafficking anti-violence Comments (0)

Trying to get past stuff posted...

sunny 72 °F
View To the equator and beyond! on tltisme's travel map.

The internet and media uploading has been frustrating. I have gotten some of the most recent photos on the blog but the videos are proving more difficult. I wish I had used the time with internet to relate some of our current travels but I need to get some sleep now, we are hopping on a bus to Quito and onward to Banos in the morning. Ecuador has been awesome so far, we have had amazing lodgings, good cheap food, and moral is very high. I think we may be getting the hang of this travelling thing.

Posted by tltisme 20:52 Archived in Ecuador Comments (0)


vertical gardens

View To the equator and beyond! on tltisme's travel map.

Itamar Sela (one of our hosts at Organizmo) worked for a landscaping company in New York City after he finished his three year Landscape Design degree at the New York Botanical Gardens. The majority of the large companies work in the city was centered around green walls and Itamar was first introduced to them there. After moving to Colombia with Ana Maria he began constructing his own green walls and incorporating them into the buildings they constructed. Itamar experimented with different materials, structures, arrangements, and plants to find what worked best in this new climate and in different settings. Itamar began his own landscaping company that in just over two years employees eight people. A year or so into operation he decided that the business was spending too much on pots and planters so he set up his own concrete forming shop run by one guy churning out planters from various molds. He has also set up a base for business operations in Bogota where he grows seedlings for his projects in a small greenhouse and displays the planters for clients to choose from. Itamar remarked that greenwalls have become fashionable in Bogota and there are more and more requests for them.
From hydroponic systems of timed watering and fertilization in high-class courtyards to stacked planters watered by hand, greenwalls can suit any environment, budget, or aesthetic.
The two basic categories seem to be either pouches or planters. Normal rectangular planters (window boxes would work but they don't have many things made out of wood here) can be stacked in such a way to allow plant growth from exposed portions to form a living pillar, or specially designed walls of angled planters allow plants to grow outward and upward.
One of the workshops for the Climate Champions of Colombia at Organizmo was constructing hanging chains of large soda bottle planters for an even 'greener' effect.
The pouch method involves a fabric or geotextile as they call it here (landscape cloth or filter fabric at home) of two or more layers made into pouches filled with soil and plant material.
Greenwalls are ornamental constructions just like most landscaping and flower gardens but their ingenuity lies in their use of space and ability to provide greenery and life in confined places. The design aspect for planting such a vertical surface turns traditional garden design on its head (or side rather) so that it becomes something more like a composition or living painting.
I have been most impressed by the idea of using this technique for herbs. Both aesthetic and useful, whether for cooking, teas, or live aroma, herb walls can merge artistic design and practicality just as the best gardens, landscapes, architecture, and ceramics do (in my opinion). Picking prime leaves from a wall is simply easier and more space efficient than picking from a bed, pot, or planter. Throw in the novel and often advantageous shielding effect of such a barrier and the ease of watering and weeding, and herb walls seem destined to become a more familiar sight in cities and towns around the world.

Posted by tltisme 20:35 Archived in Colombia Tagged gardens architecture greenwalls Comments (1)

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