Saturday, June 18, 2011

Spice It Up

While visiting the local nursery in search of flowers and plants to brighten up the hostel, Miles and I built up a collection of our own. The first plant we bought was basil. This was very exciting because the basil from the store comes in a big bunch that you couldn’t possibly use all at once and goes bad absurdly quickly. I’d started to feel guilty every time I bought it, already knowing that so much would go to waste. The second trip brought home a rosemary plant, but the third purchase was far and away the most exciting.

We bought a chili plant! And . . . wait for it . . . they’re spicy!!! I flipped when I saw the plant but when Miles asked the lady about it she told us they were decorative chilis. Huh? Does such a thing exist? Then it came out that there was one customer who said she eats them. Good enough for us, we decided to take our chances. Not only are they edible, but they are the perfect spicy chili for the missing half of my Thai cooking repertoire. No surprise though that to a Colombian palate the spice content would classify the chilis as ‘decorative!’

The Friendly Paisa

A constant conversation among guests at the hostel is how nice Colombians and especially people in Medellín are. Travelers observe a distinct difference between Colombia and many of the other countries they’ve traveled through either on their way down or up. Aside from the fact that Colombians have generally not followed the common trend of taking advantage of foreigners, they also go out of their way to help you and ensure that you are having the best possible experience in their city. In Medellín I think that citizens are especially cognizant of their dark history and are eager to ensure that visitors are exposed to the new and improved version. This city has something to prove as it enters the global consciousness as a travel destination rather than the playground of Pablo Escobar.

My favourite friendly Paisa story is a time when Miles and I were searching the center without success for a table lamp. We asked in one store that didn’t have what we were looking for. Rather than sending us on our way, the woman came out from behind the counter and escorted us two blocks to another light shop that she thought might be able to help. Talk about going above and beyond! We hear similar stories from guests all the time and judging by this, I’d say locals are doing an excellent job of promoting their new image.

Sunday, May 29, 2011



Alright, it is finally time for a long overdue blog about T&A, also known as ‘tits and ass.’ The women out here have these unbelievable bodies, I go to the gym and am in awe of the other women working out there. I walk down the street and there’s booty everywhere, and cleavage spilling out of tiny hot pink shirts. It’s hard not to do frequent double takes and it’s easy to see why Colombian women, and Paisas in particular, are renowned for their bodies. However, if I’ve learned one thing after eight months in Medellín, it’s that if it looks too good to be true, it’s not.

First let’s talk implants. Colombia is a top destination for plastic surgery and that applies to breasts and bottoms as well as the usual facelift variety. What do you expect from a country with a long-running TV show called “Sin Tetas No Hay Paraiso” or “Without Tits, There’s No Paradise.” And when they turned the show into a movie they actually gave the actress a boob job as part of the deal! So silicon is big, and is even a somewhat common present for girls’ quiñeras, (15th birthday celebrations). I find that one of the most ridiculous facts I’ve heard down here. Who is done developing at 15?! No wonder my friend who used to work in the ER told me that it not at all unusual to receive female patients with irritated silicone busts or leaking silicone butts. People actually lose legs that way and mortalities are not unheard of.

This brings us to the safer, cheaper, and more accessible option: padded underwear. That’s right, women actually wear underwear with butt pads to enhance their curvature. A favourite pastime of mine is the real or fake guessing game. This is a little greyer than the equivalent game in Thailand regarding transvestites, which was the surgery of choice in Bangkok, because our general rule was if you have to ask, then she is. But here, some women really do have incredibly curvy bodies, the plastic surgery is state of the art, and even padded asses often look proportional, so it can be difficult to make a final call. My trick is to examine the ass to thigh ratio and look out for the ‘shelf effect.’

As amusing as it often is to view such an interesting cultural phenomenon, ultimately I find the whole situation very sad. Why are 15 year olds getting breast implants? In an already competitive world, how are “normal” (read: natural) women supposed to compete with the supermodel and cartoon pinup bodies that are literally created on a daily basis? Why do women feel the need to wear ass pads even to the gym? The US definitely isn’t known for promoting healthy self-images to young girls, but I would imagine that this society could be very difficult for a young girl to grow up in.

Hey, Monkey!

Speaking of offensive ways to get people’s attention, I never wrote about one of the most surprising forms of address down here. This would be when I walk down the street and someone asks me for the time, directions, anything, and they get my attention by calling “Mona!” or “Monkey!” Yup, that’s right, I get called monkey on an almost daily basis. And although my first inclination on hearing this isn’t to turn around with a smile on my face, I’ve learned that there is absolutely no ill-will borne with the word.

It’s not a foreigner/local thing either; anyone who is light skinned will likely be referred to as mona/mono. I have no idea what the history behind this term is, but I did recently find out that Colombians actually use a different word when talking about the animal. And I do think that any Colombian leaving the country should be forewarned that referring to people as monkey will likely not be as well-received elsewhere!

Hey, Woman!

Miles and I finished our night out with empanadas, the Medellín equivalent of hotdogs in Seattle, pizza in New York, and falafel in London. I was so thoroughly engaged in my empanada that I missed the exchange between the woman behind the counter and two customers, which Miles described to me later. Two guys came up to order and yelled “Oi, mujer” or “Hey, woman!” to get the employee’s attention. The woman turned around with an expression that made it clear she couldn’t quite believe what she’d just heard and said “What?” The guy had the gall to repeat “Oi, mujer” one more time. The employee served them but was obviously very displeased at being treated so rudely.

I completely understand how “Hey, woman” would be offensive. Especially given the tone in which it was delivered, reminiscent of a “Hey, woman, get back in the kitchen” type comment in the US. What I find strange is that the polite way to get a female server’s attention is to call out “Niña!” or “Girl!” This is the case regardless of age. Even though I know that this form of address is totally acceptable and expected, I still find myself reluctant to call out “Niña” to a woman who is clearly my senior. But at risk of offending an unmarried woman by calling her “Señora,” I find my hands tied. I do know, though, that based on the woman’s reaction last night, you can be sure I won’t be calling out “Mujer!” anytime soon!

Wednesday, April 6, 2011


Having been in Colombia for six months, I finally made my first visit to the capitol, Bogota. And . . . I loved it. I love Medellín too, of course, but Bogota has a completely different vibe. It reminded me a lot of international capitals and therefore of the west/the U.S. if that’s not too un-PC of me to say. Bogota reminded me of many American cities: the state of the roads, the Big Dig in Boston; the layout of the city, D.C.; the ready availability of culture and music, New York; and the fashion reminded me of bohemians and hipsters.

Our time in Bogota was filled with live jazz, salsa clubs, mouthwatering martinis, international food, a flea market, plazas, museums, and general wanderings. We took a few days from the city to head out to Villa de Leyva, home of the largest town square in all of South America. Although the square was quite big, we were more impressed by the first Colombian wine that we’ve encountered. The Marqués de Villa de Leyva absolutely shamed Gato Negro, which has become our wine of choice in Medellín.

All in all a great trip, and since I didn’t freeze my butt off as expected, I see return trips in my future.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

How Old?!

In all the countries I’ve lived and traveled to I’ve become accustomed to a variety of different styles and fashions. Some of these I reject wholeheartedly: whitening cream; some I give into through lack of alternatives: anti-wrinkle deodorant; and some I choose to imitate: straight, black hair. However, I must admit to finding a current trend in Medellín to be one of the strangest I have yet encountered.

Older women want to appear younger than they actually are. Okay, okay, not that unusual. And younger women want to appear older? Seriously, the fashionable hairstyle among the twenty-somethings is gray streaks! At first I thought they were colored streaks that had faded out, but the phenomenon is so wide-spread that I have no choice but to believe that these girls actually want gray hair. The only reasonable conclusion I can draw is that, in an attempt to differentiate themselves from and rebel against their mothers’ generation, young women are left with no other option than to adopt an older look.

So the reason 20 year-olds must style themselves as old ladies may be because the older ladies have styled themselves as 20 year-olds. They wear the exact same clothing and their hair is long, streaked light brown and blonde, and flipped out in a Farah Fawcett manner. Add to the mix the incredible bodies that Colombians are known for and you’ll understand why, from behind at least, I have mistaken more than one 17 year-old’s mom for his girlfriend. I think this is one fashion trend I will have to give a miss!

Tuesday, March 8, 2011


After 24 hours of searching and worrying, Miles made the prescient statement: “It’s like someone just took her!” He was referring to our 7 month-old kitten Bowie who disappeared from the front of the hostel on Saturday night. Two days later, after plastering the neighborhood with signs that unintentionally looked like old western WANTED! posters, we got the longed for call. Bowie was safe and sound two blocks away.

Apparently these neighbors had seen Bowie on the street, noticed that none of the businesses were open and nobody was up in the houses, figured she was a stray, and adopted her. Hm. I’m so thankful that they called and returned her that I will only state very briefly how odd it is that they did not notice the brightly lit hostel with an open door and music playing from the bar less than 10 yards from where they found Bowie.

It’s fitting that when we went to collect Bowie, the first thing they said was “Your cat is CRAZY!” There’s a reason we were this close to calling her “Loca.” Truth is, Bowie is up in our business ALL the time. She attacks the laundry as I hang and fold it, races under the sheets as I make the bed, sits on the sink while I do the dishes, rolls in the dust as I sweep, drapes herself across my shoulders while I study Spanish, stages surprise attacks from around corners, and nibbles on our feet while we sleep. Needless to say, the apartment felt completely empty without her and I suppose I can forgive her the next few scratches. Welcome home, Bowie!

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

A Little Direction

I always figured I would go to grad school, I just didn’t know what for, and that seemed like a pretty important aspect of the decision. It was actually Miles that made graduate school seem like a realistic option for me. When I met him two summers ago he had a one-way ticket to an internship in Argentina and I had a one-way ticket to a volunteership in India. Our paths seemed similar, aside from that pesky opposite side of the world factor, except that having just completed his Masters in Public Diplomacy, Miles seemed to be one step ahead of me. Well, he is a year older!

Although Public Diplomacy was not my exact interest, it was far closer than the law/medical/business degrees the rest of my friends were pursuing. Not to mention the Political Economics PhD, yes, Nikhar, I think you’re crazy! And what Miles was doing post-degree certainly seemed more in-line with my interests. With this nudge in the right direction and a conveniently timed Nonprofit Grad Fair followed by jumping into the deep end of the grassroots nonprofit world via RDF in India, I found my grad school direction: an MPA in Nonprofit Management.

So, applications are in and fingers are crossed. Send a little luck my way and stay posted for the final decision!

Friday, January 21, 2011

A Final F*** You

It’s our last two hours in Ecuador and Miles and I are enjoying a nice, quiet lunch in a restaurant just outside the Quito airport in between flights. We finish our meal, Miles leaves the table for a few minutes, and a woman asks me a question in mumbled Spanish. As I struggle to understand, she seemingly gives up and leaves the restaurant. I’m still puzzling over the interaction when Miles returns and that’s when we notice the missing bag. Miles sprints outside and talks to the security guard who had been giving a passerby directions and therefore only vaguely aware of someone walking out past him. And just when we thought we’d made it out of the country without our own theft story, we’ve been hit by a three-man sting operation.

Fortunately for us, these Ecuadorian thieves are not as smart as they are ubiquitous. I’m not sure exactly what they intended to do with a backpack full of damp and dirty traveler’s clothes but it’s lucky for us that they opted for that bag. In the end, Miles lost his clothes, gifts, and apartment decorations that we’d bought but retained passport, iPod, camera, and wallet. He managed to remain very Zen about the loss of his material possessions, but I’d say we were more than ready to return to the tranquility of our home in “big, scary Medellin.”

Friday, January 14, 2011

Reverse Reputations

After two weeks experiencing the general sheistiness that characterizes much of Ecuador, while listening to travelers’ ill-informed and negative views of Colombia, Miles and I have come to the conclusion that the reputations of the two countries are completely reversed.

The first indication that Ecuador would be a bit sketchy came from the Rough Guide warning against taking night buses. Having traveled by night buses all over Asia and with no trouble in Colombia, we at first questioned the warning but soon heard several stories from other travelers that confirmed the danger. Nearly everyone we met had tales of stolen bags or belongings along with a few more sinister stories about late night hijackings. I have never seen an in-country reputation put travelers so on edge; we actually saw two girls ride with their giant backpacks on their laps for an entire four-hour bus trip in the middle of the afternoon.

Add in the numerous people trying, and often succeeding to cheat us at nearly every payment, and you can see why Miles and I were taken aback that people happily traveling in Ecuador still expressed wariness with regard to Colombia. It just goes to show how much work still needs to be done on Colombia’s part to move away from the bad reputation still lingering from earlier decades. I know that Miles and I did our part by acting as ambassadors of the new and improved Colombia, and perhaps handing out a few Wandering Paisa business cards here and there . . .

Thursday, January 13, 2011


Quito grew on us. First impression was that it was dirty, ugly and sketchy. However, with a little exploration and excursions into other neighborhoods, we soon changed our mind. The Old Town was loads of fun to walk around, filled with plazas and churches. Following up on a story we had learned about in Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s book The General in His Labyrinth, we visited the museum of Manuela Saenz, the lover and two-time savior of Bolivar the Liberator. From there we chose Compañia as our requisite church and were not let down by the massive amounts of gold covering the interior.

Next site was the teleférico, Quito’s own version of the Medellin gondola advertised on The Wandering Paisa business card. However, this teleférico has a completely different vibe. It’s definitely a tourist attraction as evidenced by the high price, lack of local riders, and sluggishness. Fortunately, the immense height attained at the top makes it entirely worthwhile. We initially disembarked into cloud cover but they soon cleared and while meandering up the slope a ways further we were presented with a series of breathtaking views of the city below us.

No trip to Ecuador would be complete without visiting the Equator, so Miles and I hopped a bus to “The Middle of the Earth.” The site was incredibly tacky and tourist-oriented but we made the most of it, balancing an egg on a nail and checking that we really did weigh about 10lbs less. Then we visited a nearby Incan ruin, my first yet. However, even without having seen the more impressive ruins in Peru, I couldn’t help but think that the pink rocks looked more like a lovely garden wall than the foundations of an Incan prison . . .

On our final day we visited the Chapel of Humanity, a museum site designed by and filled with the works of Guayasamin, Ecuador’s most prominent artist. In this chapel, Guayasamin presents the viewer with a social commentary via paintings of varying states of humanity. They are largely quite gripping and intense, often politically motivated, and sometimes gentle and tender. Beautiful and moving, the museum was the perfect finale for our Quito visit.

Saturday, January 8, 2011


In the first morning, on the road from the boarder, I recognized in Ecuador my previous images of South America. Images informed by a photograph of indigenous Peruvian women wearing bright clothes and men’s felt hats, the callow-lilies in Diego Riveira’s paintings, and descriptions of the landscape gleaned from Isabel Allende’s books and Pablo Neruda’s poems.

Landscape-wise, Ecuador is actually quite a good representation of South America, despite being one of the smallest countries. There are three distinct areas, the coastal beaches, the Andes down the middle, and the beginnings of the Amazon in the east. It was the perfect holiday destination as we managed to cover all three areas in only two weeks while maintaining a relaxed pace. And with Colombia functioning as my home, Ecuador provided my introduction to the South American travel I had imagined.