Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Cartagena: Colonial Town

Escaping the pernicious dust and constant hammering that characterizes the hostel at the moment, Miles and I hopped a plane to the coast, touching down in Cartagena. This Caribbean town, the setting of Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s Love in the Time of Cholera, looks as though it could also have been the setting of Pirates of Penzance. In fact, the wall that surrounds the city was built to keep out pirates such as Sir Frances Drake who had a nasty habit of pillaging the area. Unfortunately for residents, the wall took 200 years to build and by the time construction was completed, pirates were no longer a threat.

We arrived after dark and discovered that the streets were romantically lit and perfect for wandering in the sultry heat that lingered even after sunset. Although beautiful, Cartagena is quite touristy with lots of hawkers and not an overwhelming amount to do. We spent only one day there seeing the old city and searching out Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s house. In the evening, we headed over to the fancier Boca Grande strip for massages, a beautiful sunset, and delicious fish dinner. As Miles says, you can’t go to the coast without seeing Cartagena. Check.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

“Operation Sodoma”

I seem to have a habit of arriving in countries right around the time of semi-major but non-threatening unrest. I moved to Thailand within a month of the peaceful coup that ousted Thaksin, I landed in India at the very beginning of the struggle to split the state of Andhra Pradesh in two, and I arrived in Colombia the day after the guerrilla leader of the FARC was killed.

Mono Jojoy, the top FARC commander, was killed in an airstrike of immense proportions, carried out under the somewhat distasteful name “Operation Sodoma.” Jojoy was held responsible for a number of charges related to drug trafficking and holding hostages. He had tens of arrest warrants against him, a price on his head, and an extradition request from the US. No surprise then that all of Colombia seems to be rejoicing at his death. Video footage of the bomb raid and constant updates on how it was carried out have been playing on the news for the past couple days.

Federico described the importance of this event by comparing it to if the US found and killed Osama Bin Laden. I don’t know enough yet about Colombian politics and FARC to know what the further reaching results of this event will be, but considering the other options, I’m glad that this was the FARC-related news accompanying my arrival.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Medellin, For Locals and Tourists

My first excursion in Medellin was to take the gondola up one of the hillsides. The gondola is an extension of the metro and is boarded using the same ticket. Its purpose is to transport locals up the incredibly steep slope to their houses but given the view and the exposure to a distinctively different area of the city it also makes a great tourist attraction.

Another reason to board the gondola is the Spain Library located at the top. Once again, this library is intended and used for local purposes, but doubles as an interesting site for anyone visiting the city. It is a huge structure perched precariously on the hillside and looking out over the entire valley of Medellin. When Miles and I went inside we had to make our way through crowds of children; turns out the Spain Library serves as a childcare center during the day. Unlike the Seattle Library, where the interior matches the sharp, angular exterior just a bit too much, the Spain Library manages to combine an architecturally interesting exterior with a comfortable and functional interior that begs to be used by the community.

The gondola is actually featured on the Wandering Paisa business cards and is the perfect example of the Medellin experiences of which Miles and Brent hope to encourage travelers to take advantage. I already feel that our trip up the gondola represents an aspect of the city that I’m going to love. The Medellin that I’ve been hearing about from Miles and am finally getting to see for myself is not touristy. The areas I’ve seen are not crowded with foreigners and they are not designed to attract tourists but rather to improve the life of locals. It just happens to be Medellin’s good fortune that they have designed transport systems and constructed architecture in a manner so efficient and pleasing to the eye that it is sure to be enjoyed by locals and foreigners alike.

As always, there are two sides to every city, and I know that there are more tourist-centric areas of Medellin, but I’m happy to stick to this one.

Shhh . . . You’ll Give Us Away

For the first time in years, I find myself in a country where I am not obviously a foreigner. Until I open my mouth that is! There’s a whole mix of ethnic looks in Medellin with people who look anywhere between black, Hispanic, and white. Even with my blue eyes I don’t stand out very much. Coming from China, Thailand, and India all of which are much more mono-tone this is quite a change. Not to say that everyone in Asian countries looks the same, not by a long shot, but I don’t even fit into any of the variances.

So, my second day here, Miles and I get onto the metro and ride for maybe about ten minutes before one of us starts a conversation. As soon as the English words were out of our mouths, you could feel a shift in the train car and suddenly, we were the objects of attention/curiosity/speculation. However you define it, there was a marked change, though not negative, as we became “the foreigners.” What was most distinctive about this sensation to me, was recognizing that the atmosphere after we spoke English is what has become the norm for me over past years. It’s mildly uncomfortable, even when the vibe is not negative, to be so aware of yourself solely because of the fact that everyone else is aware of you. I think I’m going to enjoy blending in a bit more, now I just need to work on my Spanish!

Friday, September 24, 2010

The Wandering Paisa

A little background as to why Colombia was even on my radar when it came to picking the next country to explore . . .

Miles and his brother Brent were traveling Colombia in January when they decided to try their hands at business by opening a backpacker’s hostel in Medellin. Colombia is only recently beginning to attract more culture conscious travelers as opposed to the traditional drug tourists and this is the new market that Miles and Brent intend to tap into. Their hostel, called The Wandering Paisa, is the first hostel in the local (as opposed to tourist and gringo heavy) “Zona Rosa” or bar area of the city and will focus on exposing travelers to “the OTHER side of Medellin.”

The Wandering Paisa is a two-storey house in a residential area within walking distance of supermarkets, bars, restaurants, the metro, and the city’s stadium. Miles and I are temporarily set up in one of the guest rooms while the last of the construction finishes and then we’ll move into one of the smaller rooms downstairs for the first month or so while the place gets going.

Opening is scheduled for the end of the month so the real fun should be in the next couple weeks. Although a stressful time for Miles, with construction running a bit slower than expected and having to wait on the decorating, it’s a really exciting time for me to arrive. I get to see the place in an unfinished state with minor construction left to be done and will get to be involved with the creative work in decorating. It’s the stage where the house will transform from looking like a construction site to being a full-fledged hostel.

48 Hours Later

After farewells in Kalleda and Hyderabad, I boarded the first of four planes that would eventually take me to Colombia. This plane was bound for Delhi where I had a thirteen-hour layover, graciously hosted by Nikhar’s parents. I took the opportunity to soak up just a little more Indian history before leaving the subcontinent and spent a few hours exploring Indira Gandhi’s memorial museum and Nehru’s library. After a lovely evening with Nikhar’s parents and my last home cooked Indian meal, it was back to the airport to continue my journey.

Arriving in the Chicago airport early the next morning, I treated myself to what I deemed to be a suitably American breakfast of Dunkin Donuts and waited for my next flight. When I landed in Miami, I was greeted at the gate by Miles, who had come in on a red-eye from LA. We immediately left the airport and bussed into the city where we ate sushi for lunch, an excellent choice for my one meal in America! Then we headed back to the airport and onto the final flight, which landed me, two days later, in Medellin, Colombia.

We arrived after dark and my first view of Medellin was looking into a valley of lights as we wound down one of the surrounding hillsides. After dropping off our bags, we walked to the main street where everything felt immediately different from India: the streets, the clothes, the faces, the language, the music played by wandering mariachi bands, and the fact that nobody was staring at me. In my first few hours in Colombia, I feel more instantly comfortable than on any other move I have made thus far and am ready to start exploring.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Final Days

Today was a wonderful day, my last lazy Sunday in the village. It was spent with Suma, who has been with me from the beginning, and Sophie, recently arrived. Although there are many things I will miss about Kalleda, I will miss Suma most of all. And sharing Kalleda with Sophie and her energy is allowing me to experience those initial feelings of enthusiasm and eagerness all over again on my last days.

Today, we lounged at the junior college (JC) playing Bananagrams over countless cups of chai before venturing out into the village. Sophie and I devoured the village through photographs from one end to the other and were well received by the villagers relaxing on their doorsteps. No worries about any awkwardness photographing people, they couldn’t get enough!

We fixed up a cycle’s tires and gave Suma lesson #1 in cycle riding: walking the bike back to the JC! Then we napped, cooled down, made suntea, explored the Gigapan (awesome photography robot: on the roof over even more chai, and finished the day with a mehendi (henna) session while watching Lagaan (classic Amir Kahn Bollywood).

I feel comforted by the henna on my hands and arms. I am ready to go, but I know that won’t necessarily make leaving easy. This hasn’t been an easy ride but there are so many things I will miss about India and I’m fortunate to be reminded of them in these last days. I can’t wait to arrive in Colombia but I also can’t quite believe that I’m leaving on Wednesday. One more day in Kalleda, one more day in Hyderabad, one more day in India, and then I’ll be on the other side of the world. As I move to that farthest away of places, it’s nice knowing that traces of India will remain on my hands for a few more weeks, as the mehendi slowly fades. And I do know that the less visible, less tangible, but far more meaningful traces will be with me forever.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

¿Habla Español?

I’m not going to lie, I’m a little nervous about learning Spanish. You see, with the last three languages I’ve learned, people were impressed that I could even say “hello.” Nothing brings a smile to a local’s face like “Nihao” pronounced with the right tone or “Sawatdeeka” or “Namaskaram” with the correct hand gesture. Somehow I don’t foresee “Hola” having the same effect, no matter how nicely I say it.

The thing is, people speak Spanish. A lot of people. In a lot of countries. And many of them aren’t even native speakers. That’s a lot of competition! Okay, I know learning languages isn’t really a race or a competition. But I guess being unique in learning a language takes away feelings of embarrassment at potential mispronunciations and broken sentences.

Also, I already know the basics so I’m a little unsure where to start. There are certain types of words and phrases that I make a point of learning first when I move to a country. But since my K-6 Spanish has ensured that I already know these words it looks like I’ll be jumping into something a bit more complicated right away, namely, grammar. I think the easiest way to tackle this will be to take a formal class. Especially because, even after the last months with Telugu, I’m still not used to conjugation and tenses again! Nonetheless, all explanations aside, it’s strange to feel hesitant about what should be my easiest language learning experience thus far.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Dabang: Cop. Lover. Rebel.

I’ve decided that, when watching foreign language movies without subtitles, I prefer the plot be simple to nonexistent and the dialogue superfluous and uninspiring. After all, what I’m really there for is the action, dancing, and slapstick style comedy. Fortunately, the Indian movies in theatres of late have not disappointed, and Dabang takes the cake.

This movie, starring Salman Kahn (one of the three Kahns of Bollywood, and the last one to check off my list) as a no-nonsense cop in an Uttar Pradesh village, was a conglomeration of several movie styles. The film opened with a Bollywood dance number involving a lot of hip thrusting and drawing audience participation in the form of whistles and shouts. It quickly moved into a hardcore fight scene in which the hero dodges flying panes of glass in Matrix style, pausing for a brief dance party every time one of the baddies’ cell phone rings.

Then, the hero meets the heroine and woos her in a clumsy fashion distinctly reminiscent of Inspector Clusoe in The Pink Panther. The requisite Indian moustache helps the association. The movie wanders on for some time with no plot but plenty of hilarious scenes made even more so because they are meant to be serious but couldn’t be more ridiculous if they tried.

The best moment comes at the very end and, unlike my friends who had read the review, I had no warning as to the pure amazingness that awaited. During the showdown between hero and villain, the hero is losing ground until he discovers that the villain killed his mother. This revelation unleashes a whole new level of fury and the camera zooms in on his already sizable biceps and pecs as they bulge and the shirt starts to split. Then a gust of wind sweeps the shredded shirt away, leaving Salman Kahn standing against the sky in a blaze of muscle-bound glory. Whistles galore, of course.

So, recipe for ridiculousness: Bollywood + Matrix + Pink Panther + The Hulk. And honestly, who needs a plot or memorable dialogue when you have all of the above?