Lessons Learned at a Colombian Bus Stop

Not everything about traveling is glamorous and fun. In fact a significant portion of the time is spent being somewhat confused by cultural things that are so normal to locals. There are moments when you just don’t understand what’s going on, no matter how well you speak the language. I don’t mean for these things to sound scary. I haven’t felt nervous or in danger at all in Colombia. I just mean to say that it’s an inevitable part of the experience in a foreign country. For example on the bus ride from Cartagena to Taganga, the driver stopped every hour or so for a police officer to come on the bus (really it was a small van for about 15 people) to peek around a bit from the doorway. It seems that’s their way of being vigilant of…what? I’m not really sure. They don’t ask for identification or really say anything at all. I hear my fellow traveler Ronald’s voice in my head – “This is Colombia.”
Then there are moments of complete shock where you see something you may have imagined possible before but pleasantly lived in denial of its existence in the world. Like today for instance when I met an 8 year old girl in the bathroom at a road side “bus stop.” Her job is to flush the toilets with buckets of water because there was no running water there, and to collect 500 pesos (about $0.17) from every person who stops in. Another girl, maybe 5 years old, passes her buckets full of water from outside every few minutes. Heartbreaking. I got back on the air conditioned bus feeling heavy and confused about how the world can be so cruel to someone so innocent while here I am lucky enough to be gallivanting around this country. 

I apologize to my readers who follow my blog to read about the exciting things I encounter in my travels, but I also believe it is important to acknowledge the realities of traveling in developing countries. I’ve seen some confusing things in my travels, especially in Morocco and Romania, and I’ve observed countless moments and scenes that look very different from my cushy suburban American home, but this girl on the side of the road somewhere near Barranquilla, Colombia has been the most shocking to date. I’m sure something, somewhere, someday will top this one. For now I wish there was something I could do to change her circumstances, like hand her way more than 500 pesos and tell her to run to the nearest school she can find. Since I can’t do that, I’ll silently wish her the best and take it as another gentle sign from the universe that I’m on a journey to make a difference in this world, whatever it may be. 

I’ll end with a quote from the introduction of the safety video on my Delta flight to Cartagena. “The ones who truly change the world are the ones who can’t wait to get out in it.” Despite the confusion and heart wrenching moments, I still feel that way. More and more every day. 

Isla Barú: 36 Hours of Going With the Flow

Everything in Colombia is negotiable. Unfortunately I am not very good at bartering (yet!) but lucky for me, my new friend Carolina is. We tried counting last night to see how much money we’ve saved with all the times we’ve asked for “el precio de amigos,” which roughly translates to “don’t charge me what the tourists pay.” We couldn’t remember every transaction, but it was a pretty significant amount of money. (Side note: the exchange rate from the US dollar to the Colombian Peso is $1USD to $2,897COP. SO confusing! My 4th grade long division skills are slowly coming back to me.)

So the day before we went to Isla Barú, Carolina, Aldo, and I walked down to the port to negotiate a price for a boat ride or bus ticket for the next day. We spoke with a woman named Maria del Carmen who gave us the best price we’d heard – $38,000COP. We had her put it in writing (so important for any of you thinking of taking a trip similar to mine) and got her business card for future reference. Good thing we did all this, because sure enough we showed up at the port the next day looking for Maria del Carmen who was, to nobody’s surprise, nowhere to be found. As we waited we met Ronald (more on him later) and we helped him get the discounted price too, so he was now part of our little group. Finally Maria del Carmen arrived and brought us and two Argentinian women across the street to a little van. We thought everything was off to a great start until we pulled up at a hotel and waited 30 mins to pick up other passengers who never appeared. Well the van driver doesn’t go to the island if his van isn’t full so it was back to the port to combine our bus with another bus. Eyes rolled, people sighed in frustration, but Ronald who was sitting next to me shrugged his shoulders with a smile and said “this is Colombia.” His way seemed the best way to digest the situation.

This is Ronald, 68 years old, incredibly goofy, orignially from China but has lived in California for many years. He started a business there because his daughter wanted to study in the US, so he said to his wife “okay, let’s go.” Now retired and widowed, Ronald travels almost full time and has visited 70 countries. His goal is 100 before he dies. My inspiration! The little card in my hand in the picture is a bus ticket for Mendoza, Argentina that still has some money on it from when he was there. I told him I was going and he frantically dug through his wallet to give it to me. So I spent the hour long ride listening to his insane stories. One of the best was the selfie he took with an iguana in the Galápagos Islands. The angle of the picture made the iguana look bigger than Ronald – “DINOSAUR,” he yelled. I laughed the whole way to Playa Blanca.  

Carolina and I planned to stay overnight so we found our beach bungalow in the very farthest spot from the entrance of the beach, plopped our things down and giddily enjoyed the incredible Caribbean Sea. Ronald continued telling me his stories until he had to leave for the bus a few hours later. Before he departed he gave me one more laugh. “You’re sunburned. I can sell you on this beach. FRESH BOSTON LOBSTER, STILL ALIVE!!” Like so many people I’ve met, his time in my life was fleeting but I certainly won’t forget him.

The best social network is a table surrounded by the people you love most.

When it came time to check into our room, the owner told us they were just finishing up painting the walls. Umm…what? No gracias, we didn’t want to inhale paint fumes all night. Well that was the only room they had, so we went next door to the next bungalow (the beach is literally lined with them) where Umberto offered us a much cheaper and extremely rustic room for $50,000COP. There wasn’t a lock on the door (Umberto added one for us, no extra cost). We would have to share a bed, but no pasa nada. Pictures can explain this room better than words can. 

Yes that is a mosquito net above the bed. No we didn’t use it. The ocean was just a staircase away from my pillow. It was pretty awesome, although I can’t say I slept very much with the sound of the waves crashing all night. Very peaceful, very loud. We woke up (or were we already awake?) for sunrise, and enjoyed a few hours of serious tranquility watching the beach slowly come to life before the day-trippers arrived. We chatted with Isaac for a while, another bungalow worker. He’s 24, from Venezuela and came to Colombia for a better life because of how bad things are in his country right now. He was a little shy but always smiling. He sleeps in a hammock most nights, but loves the island because it has everything he needs. It made me feel like the small amount of things in my backpack is exorbitant. 

The strong Caribbean sun is not being gentle on my pale, winterized skin, even despite the layers of sunscreen I’m applying and the amount of time I’m spending in the shade. One night in Barú was enough for me, and we returned to Cartagena covered in two days of sand, salt water, and sunscreen (showering was an option, but it costs money and you’re allotted 5 liters of water. It didn’t seem worth the hassle to me). I have one more night in Cartagena before I’m off to Taganga and Parque de Tayrona. This was a great place to start my South American adventure!

Off to a great start!

As I got into my taxi at 4am outside of my house yesterday, all I felt was nervous excitement. I’d just said a teary-eyed goodbye to my Mom (the worst part about traveling) and I just couldn’t believe I was actually doing this. But as reality set in, I noticed that the cars and roads around me were covered in ice, and then it hit me – “I’m going to the Caribbean!!” 

One of my strongest skills in life is my ability to make friends easily. I love talking to new people! But even knowing that about myself didn’t stop me from feeling very apprehensive about full-time hostel lifestyle and my ability to find people to pass the time with. My favorite activity while traveling is to sit on a terrace with a good beer or good coffee, people watching and chatting with friends. This was going to be hard to do without the last ingredient. And yet there I was in line to go through customs in Cartagena chatting away with two girls who are here for about the same time as I am. We shared a taxi into the city and made vague plans to see each other again (they’re staying at a different pace). Before I had even taken off my backpack I had already overcome a fear.

Once I got settled (meaning I opened my backpack and the contents spilled out from every pocket – I can’t wait to get control over where I actually put things in there) I grabbed a map and set out to explore the walled city of Cartagena. As I was about to walk out the door, I met a guy who was leaving to do the exact same thing. So we wandered around together for a couple hours, ate some delicious ceviche, and chatted about our travels on a terrace with a beer in a busy plaza. Day 1, and I’ve already experienced my favorite activity. What the heck was I so afraid of??

This morning I met a girl from Argentina who is planning to check out Isla Barú tomorrow. 

“What a coincidence, so am I.”

“Do you want to find a place to stay together?”

“Why yes, yes I do.”

All in Spanish of course! Not a bad start to my trip.

Next Stop: South America!

In 12 days I’ll be heading to the Caribbean coast of Colombia where I’ll be starting a 3 month adventure backpacking around South America! It’s my first time traveling in this way, and for the most part I’ll be doing it on my own. I’ve gotten lots of questions in response to my plans, so I’ve decided to answer a few of them here.

Where are you going?

Colombia, Chile, Argentina, Bolivia, and Peru (in that order).

You’re going alone?!?

Yes, I will be traveling on my own for the majority of my trip. But I’ll be staying in hostels where I expect to meet lots of other travelers who are going to many of the same places I am. I’ve also reached out to my traveling friends, and it turns out that my network of people who were born in/have traveled to/have lived in many of these places is extensive. In addition to giving me lists and lists of recommendations, they have introduced me to their friends, friends of friends, family members, etc. etc., some of whom I’ll be meeting in various places. Super exciting!

But aren’t you scared?

I’m nervous about a few things, mostly because traveling like this is new for me, but I wouldn’t say I’m scared. I speak Spanish, so communicating will be challenging but not impossible. Lonely Planet – South America on a Shoestring has helped me set my expectations and research the places I’m visiting. I’ve been traveling for 9 (!!) years, and each trip has taught me something new about living outside of my comfort zone. I’m excited to see what this trip teaches me about myself and another part of the world.

So you’re not working – how will you be funding this?

Savings. For the past 6 months I’ve been waitressing in Boston and living with my parents to save money. It hasn’t been the most fun experience having a work schedule that’s opposite of everyone else’s, and as lucrative as serving tables is, it’s not my dream job. But it has allowed me to save way more than I need for this trip. I’ll also be living on a very tight budget (I’m aiming for $30-$40 per day for food, accommodation and transportation, which doesn’t include any of the gear, flights, or immunizations I’ve already purchased). This will be more realistic in some places than in others. Some of the people I’ve connected with have offered me free places to stay, and I’m also looking into WWOOFing for a week or so to save a little. I’ll keep you updated on how the budgeting goes.

What are you bringing?

Everything I need, and not much else. I plan to write a post about what’s in my backpack before I leave, but suffice it to say that I’m packing very lightly and will be carrying everything with me.

Where will you be staying?

For the most part, I don’t know. I’m going into this with a very open mind and a very flexible itinerary. I’ll book hostels a few nights in advance, but the reason I’m not planning my every move is because I expect to meet other travelers along the way who I’ll want to continue traveling with. I don’t want to have to say no to visiting somewhere I hadn’t considered just because I’ve already paid for accommodations and transportation. So whenever possible I’ll be waiting to make reservations, but it’s certainly not my intention to be looking for somewhere to stay at the very last minute.

How will you stay connected?

Read my blog! Since I won’t be working, my blog is a big priority for me, and I’m hoping to turn it into something a little more than what it is at the moment – which is a way for the people who love me to read about cool places I’ve visited. I’ll also be posting a lot on Instagram (@curiouskgo). Major shout out to my friend Lucas who is letting me borrow his GoPro, which will most certainly take the documentation of my trip to the next level.

I’ll also be buying SIM cards in each country I visit so I can easily stay in touch.

Isn’t South America dangerous?

Maybe in some places, but aren’t there dangerous neighborhoods/places everywhere? I’ve done my homework and the countries I’m visiting are definitely safe places for travelers (including solo female travelers).

What’s your plan when you’re back?

My least favorite and the most anxiety-producing question. But if you must know, I’ll be teaching at the summer program that I’ve been at for the last 3 years when I return home in June, and after August I have no plans. Of course I have ideas, and the most appealing one came to me just the other day. I’m 28 years old and currently I’ve been to 21 countries on 3 continents. This trip will add 5 more on a new continent as I pass my 29th birthday. This makes it totally plausible for me to visit 30 countries and add Asia and Australia to my list before I turn 30. So at the moment, that’s my plan.

You’re so brave, I could never do that!

This is not a question, but it is something that many people have said to me. My answer is usually something along the lines of  “Yes you could! You just need to buy a plane ticket and go!” Okay, it might not be so easy, and it is true that my unwavering love for travel urges me to continue exploring the world. But as much as I’ve talked about a trip like this (for years!) I never actually thought I’d be doing it. Never say never.