Colombia Wrap-Up

As promised, here’s the Colombia wrap-up post (finally! I’m glad to be done with it). After 2 months down there, it feels good to be back in the States. I’ve gained a new-found appreciation for American cities: they seem suddenly so clean, spacious, and organized—and the skyscrapers in downtown LA have never looked so beautiful to me before. And the people—they are so diverse! And weird!

My Altered Map o Colombia
I wanted to start this post off with this map, in order to give the non-geographically inclined amongst you an idea of what kind of topography it consists of, and where I have traveled within it. As you can see from my crude, multi-colored route-lines, I’ve only traversed a 1/3 of the country at most. Yet this is about the most that the typical traveler will see of this country, including most Colombians themselves.

The Jungle

The reason for this is that almost 1/2 of the country is immersed in Amazonian jungle, south-east from the Cordillera Oriental range of the Andes wherein Bogotá is nestled. And this is your first clue to the deep, dark, complicated and mysterious heart of Colombia. Even when you’ve traveled across most of the main sightseeing circuit as I have, you are left with some kind of sense of having missed something, that there’s something you didn’t quite grasp about the country and its people. Especially when you consider the on-going civil war and drug trafficking that is so strangely invisible, yet so widely publicized.

And that’s because few travelers (for good reason) venture deep into the jungle, wherein the natives dwell still in their traditional manner, and the birds, insect, and animal life is some of the most diverse on the planet. The jungle that harbors also the rebels and terrorists and drug traffickers.

The Driving

Take a look at that map again, and note that the majority of the populated areas are located within the three Andean ranges that sprawl upward towards the coast. This means that traveling by land is always a harrowing, at times breath-takingly vivid experience. And the few roads that connect the towns and cities are rarely more than two lanes, which means that you’ve got trucks, buses, cars, bicyclists, horses, cows, and people on foot all vying for the same limited stretches of tar. This explains, in part, some of the loco driving in Colombia, because if you don’t drive aggressively and pass at any and every given opportunity, you’re gonna get stuck behind an over-sized truck hauling some industrial machinery.
However, at a certain point, my understanding of the crazy driving ends, and I just think that many drivers in Colombia are just plain horrendous. For example, they don’t have any concept of a middle-ground; it’s either full-speed ahead, or slamming on the brakes. What’s especially ridiculous about that is when they are driving on small city streets with stop lights up ahead, yet they will still achieve full speed before reaching the stop sign, thus assuring the hardest possible braking. This can’t be good for the life of their cars. And yet, oddly enough, all the drivers exhibit the utmost of care and caution when approaching potholes or bumps in the road. They will slow to a crawl and inch over the holes, obviously concerned for the welfare of their vehicle. And then once over it, immediately hit the gas and blast full-speed ahead, until encountering an obstacle, whereupon they slam on the brakes again.

As a pedestrian in Colombia, it is your responsibility to yourself to get the hell out of the way of any approaching vehicles. As in, you will be killed or maimed if you don’t, because the cars will not look out for you. Even the dogs in Colombia understand this, and you will be amazed at the dexterity with which dogs will look both ways and cross the street in high-speed traffic. It makes you realize that American dogs must really be coddled, that they haven’t yet evolved this awareness of the danger of automobiles.

I’m quite thrilled to be done with fearing for my life while walking on the streets. Even when on the sidewalks in Colombia, you still have to be on the look-out for rogue motorcyclists, who will jump the curb at full-speed to circumvent traffic and barrel directly towards you, either skirting you by inches, or forcing you to leap out of the way. This doesn’t occur frequently, but it does happen. Look out.

Sometimes I wonder if the reason everyone is so lackadaisical there in regards to human life and frailty might be due to the great health-care coverage that they enjoy as Colombian citizens. It’s like, hey, no big deal, I just fractured my skull and broke some ribs. I’m covered!

Another thing to mention about the vehicles in Colombia is that they mostly run off of diesel, except for the propane powered engines. You’ll witness buses and trucks belching dense thickets of sun-blocking diesel fumes into the air as they chug up the Cordilleras.

The People

I have read frequently about how clear and well annunciated Colombian Spanish is. Now, some Colombian Spanish is clear and well annunciated. But on the whole, and in general, most Colombian Spanish I heard was most decidedly unclear, nor well annunciated. I don’t know to whom everyone else has been speaking to. It’s been consistently difficult for me to understand anything that people have been saying to me in Colombia, because it’s either been too soft, too fast, or some combination of both. It also doesn’t help that they’ve only been speaking directly to my girlfriend, rather than to me, and she understands even less than I do. Even when I would lean forward and try to enter into the conversation, demonstrating my little tidbit of Spanish-speaking ability, they would continue to ignore me and speak to her. After a while, I just stopped even trying, and let her negotiate the speedy barrage of unknown words on her own.

I have also read many gushing statements on how friendly the Colombian people are. I don’t know that I can be quite so effusive. Now, my extended Colombian family was extremely hospitable—beyond hospitable. But the strangers on the street, the workers in restaurants, hotels, etc, were, on the whole, and in general, more on the rude side of the things.

This isn’t to say that you won’t meet some very nice Colombians in bars and clubs and otherwise. But rather to note that in the many daily transactions (just as in most places in the world, of course), you may be subject to being shoved out of the way, ignored, or having small children yelling in your ear.

Also, there are absolutely no bars on blatant staring down there. I know that I’m freakishly blonde, but I still don’t appreciate being stared at for a half-hour when I’m just trying to eat my breakfast. After a while, both my girlfriend and I would just glare back at people until they got the notion to look somewhere else.

Random thought: could it be that an overabundance of red meat in the Colombian diet contributes to machismo and aggression? Maybe a few more vegetables on their plate, aside from the little sliced tomato and shredded lettuce, might do a body good.

The Food

Waaaay too much fried food, lads, and not even usually fresh nor hot when served, unless you’re in a nicer (i.e. not on the street) joint. Anyone know the stats on the rate of heart failure in Colombia?

I don’t mind eating too much meat for a little while. I just wish the dishes could have been spiced up a tad more. Just a bit more variety. Something that would go slightly above and beyond meat, french fries, beans, rice, and patacones.

But at least, of course, there were the juices. I will truly and dearly miss my jugos de níspero, maracuyá, lulo, and guanábana. And coffee. My favs were the períco—or pintado depending where you be—which is coffee with milk. As opposed to café con leche, which is milk with coffee. There’s a difference. Of course, there’s always just the straight-up cups of tintos, if you want to old-school it, and get with the peops on the streets.

The Sex

Sex seems to be a non-familial issue in Colombia. Colombians are comfortable with their sexuality. So on a long-distance bus ride, for example, the family film for the trip might be “American Pie: Beta House,” Wherein there is a naked sex scene within the first five minutes, continuing with boobies unabated from thereon. Or in a hotel, you might be flipping through the channels and go straight from CNN to GIANT VARICOSE PEEPEE THRUSTING IN VAGINA. This is a hotel where families were staying. Also, sex shops abound in Medellín and Bogotá, with 30 different types of dildos. I didn’t know that many types of dildos existed.
I also am convinced that Colombians watch way too many novelas on television, because they get a little too caught up in moments of passion in public areas. They will not hesitate to stick their tongues down each other’s throats and dry hump in public areas such as in front of museums, or in parks, or next to you in a bar or restaurant, or on street corners. It can be a little gross sometimes.
Colombians furthermore don’t stigmitize plastic surgery nor excessive make-up. You’ll see a number of surgically enhanced boobies, even on men, especially in Cali and Medellín.
There are also a lot of “love hotels” everywhere in Colombia. Make sure you don’t actually stay in one.

The Phones

There ain’t no public telephones nowhere in Colombia, so when you want to make a call, you either go into a place with telephone cabinas, or you pick up a cell-phone from a dude standing on the street with a placard around his neck that says “minutos.” He will have 2 or 3 different cell-phones, one for each different type of carrier, which is made evident by the first 3 digits of the cell-phone number.

If you’ve ever despaired at the general lack of cell-phone etiquette in the United States, then fear not—Colombians are ten times worse. They all have cell-phones with annoying ringtones, and they will happily chat away at full volume in public places. Your bus driver will be chatting on his cell-phone as he whips around a dead-man’s curve in the Cordillera Central at 80 kph. Entire families seated together at a restaurant will be chatting into all their respective cell-phones.

The Businesses

I was amazed at the general lack of business ethics and acumen in Colombia. Overall, most Colombians running their restaurants, internet stores, cafés, and tiendas didn’t really seem all that concerned about making money. I say this because at the time I traveled in Colombia, it just so happened to be concurrent with the time of the year that most Colombians go on vacation, December 15th – January 15th. This meant that many places were just completely closed that entire time, such as restaurants listed in my guidebook. Now, I’m not one to begrudge someone for taking a vacation—however, when you are running a business, I imagine that you are probably trying to make some cash. But most places just go ahead and shut their doors on Sundays, festivos, siesta time, or just whenever they dang feel like it, apparently. It’s rare to find a shop with hours posted on it, but even when you do, don’t expect them to adhere to those hours. It’s just a bit perplexing, because I don’t understand why you would intentionally give up tons of business. On Sundays, for example, there are loads of people walking around in the streets. But little is open. See the market potential there?

A Summation of the Country as a Tourist Destination

It’s a beautiful tropical country. If you are into hiking, cycling, that sort of outdoorsy thing, then there’s plenty for you in Colombia. If you are into drinking a lot of aguardiente or rum, or dancing, or hitting on Latino men or women (or being hit on), then there’s plenty for you in Colombia as well. I sometimes feel like since I didn’t party very much in Colombia, I kind of missed out on one of the defining national past-times.

However, if you are looking for a relaxing, stress-free vacation, most definitely do not come to Colombia, unless you’re set on shelling out the big bucks.

My recommendations for quintessentially Colombian souvenirs: hand-woven Arhuaca mochilas; tropical fruit jams; emeralds—but only if you’ve got some money to spend and an ability to distinguish quality; and finally—of course—a few bags of good coffee.

And Finally

This post is getting a bit over-long, so I’m just going to end it with a brief list of my best and worst times in Colombia.

The Best of Times: gorging on juicy red beef at Andres’ Carne de Res outside of Bogotá on Thanksgiving; chilaxing on my cousin’s finca in Armenia; gorging myself on strange fried meats (such as smoked cow lung) on a rooftop restaurant overlooking the city in Cali; walking back from the Parque Nacional del Café in the pouring rain; dancing and drinking with my cousin and friends in Armenia; trekking through the jungle to Ciudad Perdida for my birthday (I know, I made it sound like a nightmare—but I love that kind of shit); drinking fresh níspero juice on the waterfront in Santa Marta; eating a three course meal in Cartagena, accompanied by 2 bottles of Chilean wine, for Christmas dinner; frolicking in warm mud with the consistency of chocolate cream in a mud volcano, and then getting bathed like a newborn babe by an old woman in a lagoon; walking along the river in Medellín at night admiring all the Christmas lights; eating pasteles in La Candelaria; walking around the amazing rose garden at the Botanical Gardens in Bogotá.

The Worst of Times: the infamous 31 hours in an orange truck from Armenia to Santa Marta (the more I think on it, the more skeptical I get on why a truck would deliver oranges all that way, given the price of oil, and the fact that oranges grow rampantly and well on the Caribbean coast; some questions, perhaps, are better left unasked); getting scammed in a restaurant in Santa Marta; getting sick in Parque Tayrona; the Islas del Rosario “tour” in Cartagena; going to a Botanical Garden in Medellín in which there were no flowers—in fact, just going anywhere in Colombia only to find it was in the process of renovation, or just plain closed; getting soaked to the bone by nasty street water in downtown Bogotá; and finally, the plane ride home.

I hope you’ve enjoyed reading my escapades in Colombia as much as I’ve enjoyed writing about them, and thanks for keeping up, or reading a few posts, or reading just this post. This blog will now cease as a journal of my daily mundane existence, excepting for the scattered updates of my physical whereabouts, as I am now engaged in the act of trying to decide, in an as thoroughly researched and thought-through process as possible, where the hell in the United States I wish to settle down in for the next foreseeable chunk of my future. Tally ho!


Esperando para Los Vuelos a Casa (eventualmente)

I’m sitting here at the airport El Dorado in Bogotá, awaiting my flight to Medellín, where I must then do all the customs crap within the hour before the next flight to Panama City departs, whereupon I then change flights, yet again, for the final long last leg to Los Angeles.

There’s pretty much everything you could desire here at the airport, including donuts de maracuyá at good ol’ Dunkin’ Donuts, artisan stuff, Juan Valdez, and internet (as you can see). I also just got my haircut here at the airport, and it was a damn good haircut! My hair was starting to get pretty ridiculous after 55 days here (i.e. outgrowths and tufts of hair projecting out of my neck and over mine ears), and I had been meaning to get a haircut for a while, but never seemed to find a place open (how typical here in Colombia). It was a hell of a lot better, and cheaper, than the Supercuts haircut I would have received at home.

If you’ve popped over here from Poor But Happy (I just noticed a connecting link to my page was added, thanks to whomever that was!), welcome and please peruse through my various rants and mundane adventures from my trip in Colombia and see if any of my (mis) adventures bear any relation to your own trip, or trip-in-the-making. If you want to ask me any questions or want my opinionated advice, I’m more than happy to share, and thanks for visiting!

If and when I make it back to Los Estados, I’ll post a lil wrap-up and summation of the trip entire. Until then comrades, hasta luego, piiiiigs iiiiiin spaaaaace . . . . .

Thoughts on Money and Poverty: Part II

Thorn Corridor

On my last post on the issue of gentrification, I’d left off with the question of “How can a community expand and develop its wealth locally, while at the same time accepting, encouraging, and embracing external inputs of wealth?” The more I’ve pondered on this, the more I’ve realized that the question is quite a bit more complicated than it sounds. Essentially, what we are really looking at are the root causes of poverty, and considering methods of assisting communities in raising themselves out of it.

The problem with poverty is that there are a lot of differing [mis]perceptions of the issue: the most common one being that of the better off, which assumes that those who are poor are lazy, stupid, or otherwise—that is, if the well-to-do are aware of the issue and consider it at all (it sounds amazing, but having grown up in a well-to-do area, and having worked in the hospitality industry with the extremely well-to-do and their offspring, I know first-hand there are indeed people out there who live in an oblivious bubble, both self-imposed and otherwise). Stemming from this initial prejudice, there are two common perceptions on poverty and the poor: 1) they are an unfortunate and inevitable scourge of humanity, to be ignored, endured, and shut away into their own enclaves; and/or 2) they are to be pitied and supported through the works of charity.

I think what becomes apparent as one examines this issue is that while welfare and charity are quite obviously direly needed by those stranded in extreme poverty, what must be recognized is that charity is ultimately only a temporal bandaid that avoids the root causes that create and sustain the conditions for poverty. What becomes further apparent from this realization is that the poor must be given the structural means to help themselves. In other words, the only ones who can directly and actively work to address the root causes of poverty are the poor themselves. Thus, they require not charity, but a pragmatic and systematic support that hands the money and the tools over to them.

This may at first sound perhaps out of touch with reality or idealistic and overly vague. But this is a concept that has been applied effectively by Muhammad Yunus in Bangladesh starting in the 70’s, when he introduced the concept of micro-credit and banking for those in poverty with his Grameen Bank. Since then, micro-credit has been further applied successively, most notably, in Southeast Asia and Latin America. Yunus founded a bank which extends credit directly to the poor, so that they could gain the means of raising themselves out of poverty through their own hard work and entrepreneurship. This is an approach to poverty that is staunchly capitalistic in its approach, yet underlied by a basic concern for human welfare. Most approaches to poverty are rooted in that initial notion of charity which we just have outlined above, and exist as non-profit donation-based organizations. These organizations generally do little or nothing in regards to helping the poor help themselves. Rather, it is always a matter of the rich helping or giving to the poor. This position, of course, is already rooted in a problematic perception of poverty that does nothing to empower the poor themselves, and rather perpetuates the symptoms.

The problem with micro-credit is that there haven’t been found ways to translate it into a workable and comparable vision in the United States. The reason for this is that micro-credit works quite well in village-based economies, where the poor have recourse to starting their own business in say, weaving kerchiefs, or vending food, and other such small, individual, street-cart type sales. There exists in such cultures many small, micro-economies in which small entrepreneurs are able to thrive. But in the United States, the economy, lifestyle, and culture is different, and small-time entrepreneurs face a number of hurdles before they can break into the world of commerce.

And this is where my thought begins to shoot out randomly in a haze like a flashlight in the fog. This is where I realize just how much more I need to learn. I have already gone from the issue of gentrification to that of poverty in general, thus expanding and deepening the questions on money and poverty. So at this point, I’m going to step back from these questions and look again at the bigger picture. I think what has been changing in my own thought and perception is that I am no longer fundamentally opposed to capitalism—the concept of making money. I believe that we can consciously make money, while at the same time benefitting the environment and combating poverty. And as these changing ideas sink in, my worldview begins to shift on an everyday level, such that as during this trip to Colombia, I have been noting the influence of wealth, and welcoming it.

The Last Days in Bogotá

 Wall in La Candelaria

I don’t really have much to post on about my current activities in Bogotá, as I haven’t been doing much other than eating, attempting to sleep, and drinking hot beverages and imbibing pasteles, but I wanted to post a few pictures. About the most exciting thing in our day is when our neighbor comes back to the hostal at 5:30 in the morning, obviously drunk and probably high, stumbles about his room, falling into the walls, slamming things, shuffling through plastic bags, and then turns on the most obnoxious possible techno music ever made on some tiny, tinny little speakers (which is then left playing throughout the rest of the day), stumbles into the bathroom, which is shared by our entire floor and which we are lucky enough to be located directly next to, and then commences to hurl chunks into the sink and the floor, whereupon he stumbles back into his room, slamming all the doors along the way and leaving the hall light on, and then summarily pukes into his trashcan. We can also hear him talking to himself. He’s obviously an example of what one would politely term a “douche-bag.” I’ve bestowed him also with the nickname of “Techno mouse” because we always hear him scrambling through his plastic bags in the wee hours of the morning, endlessly, as if he’s looking for some stray crumbs somewhere in the dregs (this is what convinces me that he’s on some drugs as well), while blasting his retarded techno, of which we mostly just hear the endless pulse of the 4/4 beat.

Bogotá does have some nice art museums, which we’ve been attending. The Museo Botero is a good one—there’s some world famous paintings in there from artists such as Picasso, Chagall, Monet, Matisse, etc, as well as, of course, a hardy selection of gordos from Mr. Botero. Another good museum is the Museo Nacional, which has some lame colonial crap, but also some great ancient pottery, as well as some nice contemporary Colombian paintings. There’s some Botero in there, as well, but some of his older works, before he’d formulated his infamous fat stylistics, and I actually like those better.


Another place we’ve attended that I would recommend visiting is the Jardin Botánico, which I was a little hesitant to visit after the experience in Medellín, but luckily, these gardens are world-class. The most noteworthy sections are the excellent rose gardens, as well as the tropical greenhouses.

Just 2 more days and then we outtie.

Thoughts on Money and Poverty


Some thoughts that have been fomenting somewhere in the back of my dome have been coming to the fore as my trip winds down to a close here in Bogotá, and I’ve had some more time to contemplate the bigger picture. One item that I’ve been considering is the changing perceptions I have of the concept of ‘gentrification’. I’ve always been critical of the influence of big money on people’s lives and communities. I’m especially critical of the bland and complacent lifestyles of the well-to-do, the ‘yuppies’, the SUVS, the suburban sprawl, the homogenous franchises, and so on. But my experience here in Colombia has driven me to question some of the aspects of gentrification that before I immediately and completely rejected. This has been due to the fact that when you’re traveling on a budget here, you’re inevitably staying in some neighborhoods that aren’t exactly high-end. And as a traveler coming from somewhere else, it makes you all the more conscious of the presence of poverty, wealth, and the types of commerce going on around you. And when you are looking simply for a bite to eat, or a place to get a good juice or coffee at, you are looking for some kind of welcome, however tentative that may be. At the very least, simply the product you desire, preferably sanitary and with a smile. But in some places, these basic expectations have been hard to come by, for the very simple reason that many businesses here are run by families or individuals that cater solely to a small local market, and have little interest in growing or developing their operation. They will close for weeks on end for the holiday season, they will not provide customer service aside from plopping down your plate and taking your money, and there’s often a sense that they could really care less for your business.

In such circumstances, I have discovered a sudden appreciation for the Juan Valdez Café chain. Yes, it is a franchise, but there are a few things that you can count on when you enter into one of these ‘yuppie’ establishments: 1) friendly, efficient service; 2) clean facilities, with a bathoom; 3) an atmosphere conducive to sitting, relaxing, chatting, and reading. These are aspects, as Americans, that I think we often take for granted in our businesses. We expect—and demand—adequate customer service, clean facilities, and proper delivery of the product. We live in the land of franchise.

Now let me be clear about something: I despise franchises, both as a concept and in their usual effect on local communities. However, when else has failed, and all I’ve wanted is somewhere to sit and read and drink coffee, Juan Valdez has been there. This isn’t to say that I haven’t discovered some great local cafés and what not. I will happily circumvent Juan Valdez whenever and wherever I can. But there have been times when there just haven’t been any other places open, or air-conditioned, or quiet or spacious enough to read in.

Here in Colombia, they don’t have the knee-jerk allergic reaction to franchises that many of us idealistic Americans have developed. They love their Coca-Cola and Postobon, they love their Juan Valdez, and while there are certainly Colombians who question capitalism and its accompanying imposition of materialistic values, as well as the influence of foreign investment, overall, Colombians seem quite happy with name-brands and familiar franchises. And that may have had a subtle influence on my experience here as well. When everyone drinks Coca-Cola all the time, it makes you more apt to grab one and sip it along with your fried chicken, patacones, and french fries.

But I’m getting off on a tangent. What I was getting at in bringing up the subject of Juan Valdez cafés is that there can be a positive effect from the influx of outside money and businesses. As a traveler and tourist, for example, I am bringing in money from outside into the country, and this is good for their economy. I understand when people speak disparagingly of gringos, and I have never been one to welcome tourists into my own community with open arms. Tourists are, in general, annoying, demanding, and most of their money goes to big business. That said, however, in the big picture, I believe tourism is a good thing for a country as a whole, especially if the tourism is encouraged to developed concurrently with local environmental and social concerns.

And so I’ve been extending that thought into the more general concept of the influx of outside money into any local community. I think that gentrification is easy to criticize and despise, but I think that what also needs to be considered is that inevitably, a community needs outside input in order grow. Before gentrification, a community is generally mired in poverty, and there is little potential for growth and expansion. Gentrification, in fact, could be seen as an inevitable aspect of growth and development.

I’m going to ignore for the moment the myriad negative effects that gentrification can incur on the local community (such as simply driving out all the prior, poor inhabitants), which I am fully aware of, and rather move onto the parable of hip-hop. The growth and development of this music mirrors quite well the growth and development of any community when it encounters a sudden influx of outside wealth. Hip-hop started, of course, in the restrictive hard-knock life of the streets. It was a revolution in articulation. Suddenly, disenfranchised youth found a creative and positive outlet for their passion, desire, anger, and thought. Much like graffiti, it empowered them in a way that, at first, seemed unprofitable to the outside world. It began simply as a method for those who had been unseen and unheard to express themselves. And as hip-hop developed and expanded into other communities, and eventually across the globe, it inevitably became commercialized and diverged into the mainstream, and glitz and glitter and glamour now are the name of the industry game. It seems to be dominated by a rich and famous elite, who proclaim at every chance they can their extravagant wealth. While this aspect of hip-hop can and will be lamented by those who love it for its roots in self-expression and rebellion, at the same time, it can also be seen as an inevitable outgrowth of the expansion and development of the music as a whole. This is analogous to the development of any artist who is “discovered” and inducted into the mainstream. Sometimes, and oftentimes, this sudden influx of outside money and influence results in pathologies and the destruction of an artist’s original intent and purpose. But other times, it simply extends the power, creativity, and influence of the individual to a broader audience, which is a good thing, if they are doing anything original and inspiring. And they develop their style in accordance with this extension (sometimes, of course, losing some of their original fans in the process).

But such is the process of evolution and growth. Communities, like individuals, are not steady-state bubbles. They are influenced necessarily by external factors, and they must utilize and embrace these factors if they are to grow. They can, of course, choose to withdraw inward and fight off all externalities, but inevitably, they either must collapse or expand.

So to get back to my original idea: I am beginning to think that external inputs of wealth are not completely undesirable. The problem, of course, is that most of the time, none of this wealth ends up in the pockets of the original inhabitants of a community, and they are either driven out, or they are left to fester in small controlled pockets within the newer developing community. So the problem I think that must be addressed, therefore, is not that of “gentrification” per se: the problem that must be addressed is: how can a community expand and develop its wealth locally, while at the same time accepting, encouraging, and embracing external inputs of wealth?

I’m going to get into some ideas and approaches to that question in another post, as this one is getting rather long. I wanted to first lay down the foundation for it, however, as for me these ideas are a new direction in thought. I’m beginning, basically, to look more at such issues in an integral fashion, rather than simply separating the negative from the positive and looking only at one side. I’m recognizing that the idea of money and wealth is not so simple as rejecting the entire concept of monetary gain. Rather, the idea is to unite the principle of natural wealth with that of manufactured wealth.

A Summation and List of Colombian Fruits

If you’ve been bored enough to browse through my travels in Colombia, then you’ve most likely noticed that I’m infatuated with the cheap and plentiful jugos on tap most everywhere around here. I figured that it might be a fun and perhaps useful exercise to detail the various frutas that abound, both in jugo and non-jugo form, here in Colombia:

Guayaba – Ah yes, guayaba. Known as ‘guava’ to us estadounidenses, generally the only form we regularly find it in is a canned juice. Down here, they’ve got guayaba pie, various forms of guayaba pasteles, guayaba doughnuts, and guayaba paste. And of course, jugo de guayaba. The quintessential sabor tropicál.

Guanábana – If you live near some Latin American neighborhoods, you may come across this fruit, at least in juice form. It’s a giant green thing with little spikes on it, and it’s exterior is as soft as dough. On the inside is this slimy, white custardy fruit filled with medium-sized black seeds. The taste is pretty unique, sometimes a little bit weird depending on the state of ripeness. It’s probably best in juice form, but I can tell you from personal experience that picking out all the damn seeds from the fruit is a time-consuming and quite messy endeavor. The juice is reputedly very nutritious, so if you come across the stuff and are malnourished, go ahead and treat yourself.

Piñas – The lovely pineapple, these are pretty much everywhere in Colombia in juice form or sold in carts by street vendors, but for some reason not many of the folk have caught onto using it in their cookery. Gourmands most Colombians are not—but if you stray into a higher-end restaurant somewhere in Cartagena, you may find some entrada with a piña based sauce, such as salchicha en salsa de piña (sausage in pineapple sauce: interesting and tasty, if a bit strange).

Chirimoya – This fruit is the more delicious and voluptuous cousin of the guanábana. It has the same custardy, white interior dotted with thick black seeds, but the taste is much closer to that of a postre than that of a medicine. I fell in love with this fruit in Perú, but unfortunately have not seen too much of it in Colombia. If you ever spot one of these babies, rip it open and commence slurping.

Curuba – You’ll find this in juice form all over the place here. In leche, it tastes kind of like strawberry/banana, but there’s some other strange flavor floating around in it that complicates it, and a grittiness to it sometimes as well. I don’t really like this one very much myself, as that “other flavor” reminds me too much of the wet, muddy smell in the jungle.

Níspero – You’ll find this juice more commonly up around the Costa Caribe. Try this shit in leche. It tastes remarkably like a chocolate malt. No shit. It’s good. One of my favorite jugo treats. It still tastes reminiscent of chocolate en agua tambien. There’s a chalkiness to it that can be disconcerting, perhaps, at first, but just think of it like a malt and concentrate on it’s sweet caramel undertones.

Zapote – This seems to be a favorite up on the coast as well, also common in Medellín, usually mixed with milk. It’s got a subtle berryish flavor, but its taste seems to differ a bit depending where you get it. To me, it kind of has a strange taste that reminds me of the smell of new plastic toys, and so it’s not one I usually order. It’s definitely worth a try, however, as the locals certainly seem to dig it.

Lulo – Ah, lulo. This is another one of my favorites in juice form, and you will pretty much find it everywhere. I generally like it mixed with water, as it has a unique taste that doesn’t require sweetening, and it foams up quite nicely. It has a kind of citrusy, limey kind of taste, with some tropical tartness thrown in that makes it unique and tasty. You’ll also find a beverage made from lulo in the Valle de Cauca region called lulada, and I recommend giving that a try as well; it’s got whole fruit chunks in it, and you get to spoon them out and eat them in-between slurping up its seedy juicy goodness out of a straw.

Maracuyá – This is another favorite, and a regular on the scene in Colombian fruit circles, much like the guayaba. We know maracuyá as passionfruit here in the States. You will regularly find maracuyá jam, maracuyá doughnuts, maracuyá ice cream, etc—and of course, the delicious juice, mixed in water. You can also eat the fruit directly out of the rind with a spoon and some sugar, as it is rather tart. Make sure you try this requisite tropical treat. The taste kinda of reminds me of one of those Big Stick popsicles, which I suppose means that there must be hints of cherry and pineapple in there.

Tomate de Árbol – This fruit has an interesting taste that is reminiscent, as the name suggests, of tomato, but is wilder and tarter. You can scoop the fruit out with a spoon and eat it with some sugar sprinkled on it, or in juice form. I’m not a huge fan of the juice myself, but it’s not bad.

Granadilla – This is a close cousin of the maracuyá, and looks the same, with the same gloopy clump of seeds on the inside. This is another fruit that I’d fallen in love with in Peru. I definitely recommend giving this one a try, just for the experience of eating it alone. You won’t find this one in juice form, but it is plenty sweet all on its lonesome straight out the shell.

Pitahaya – This little weird yellow, spiky football-shaped fruit is a tasty little snack. As I mentioned earlier, it tastes pretty much like a watermelon, but it has a completely different type of fruit—it has this clear, white tinted fleshy fruit with little black seeds in it. I think it is supposedly a diarrhetic as well, so restrain yourself from consuming too many at one time.

Borojó – This is an interesting little fruit. Supposedly it’s got some viagra-like properties when mixed up properly. Otherwise, it’s a zesty and strange little juice that is packed with nutritious vitamins and what not. Try it both in agua and leche and see which you like best. There’s an interesting spiciness underlying its berry flavors that comes to the fore in water, but the berriness come out more in the milk.

Feijoa – Another interesting juice, if you can find it. It’s pretty weird tasting; about the closest way I can describe the juice is that if you took a bunch of the green, leafy tops of strawberries and blended them up together, then you would have a taste similar to feijoa. It’s a kind of tart, woody, grassy flavor.

Limonada, naranja, mandarina, manzana (apple), fresa (strawberry) – These are all pretty self-explanatory, but just a quick word on the jugo de naranja—it’s not the type of oranges that we’re accustomed to in the states (or it may just be that they use them when they are green, I’m not quite sure). Here the juice is much more tart, but I think it’s kind of refreshing in the morning to have that little wake up punch in the mouth.

Papaya, Banano, and Mango – I won’t even bother going into these fruits, as we are already quite familiar with them in the States. Suffice to say that they are everywhere, in the form of fruit, juice, and otherwise.

Coco – Coconut. On the Caribbean coast, you can buy them from street vendors, who will chop off the top and stick a straw into it and viola! You’ve got yerself some fresh coco juice. Nice refreshing snack on a hot day. Also ubiquitous in candies and cakes and such, as it should be. You will also find it mixed in with rice on the Caribbean coast, which is one of the few little tasty variations that the typical cuisine will indulge in.

Fruits which I did not get to try, because I either did not spot them anywhere, or were out of season or something, because the juice places would never have them even though they were listed on the menu (¡Que triste!) – mamuncillo, chontaduro, piñuela, uchuva, caimon, trombolo, and some “p”-word fruit that I can’t recall the name of.

Thoughts On Colombia as a Whole

Bandera Colombiana

If you came to Colombia without paying attention to the news, or if you hadn’t told anyone where you were going and listened to them freak out about it, then you would have no idea that there was an ongoing civil war. Colombians themselves don’t seem too keen on discussing it. I’m quite certain that many of them would rather just ignore it, and remain just as blissfully unaware as many of us Americans are of the increasing divide between rich and poor in our country. There’s also a certain kind of hardened exterior that Colombians have in general, due to the fact that over half their population lives in poverty. Life here is certainly never easy. The cities never seem to sleep, and everyone is running on caffeine or maybe a little aguardiente. Everyone is just trying to get their little piece of the action, whether it be selling tintos, shining shoes, or standing still and pretending to be a statue on the street corner. Many people’s occupation (including children), apparently, is just to walk the streets all day long and beg for money. These beggars are shameless, approaching you with the hand outstretched, the begging face on, the pleading voice, and most of them will immediately curse you out loudly when you deny them money, which doesn’t make you any more inclined to give them any.

You can tell that the economy, at least for a certain selection of the populace, is booming. Just look at how many high-rises are still being added to the already condensed, busy skyline of Bocagrande in Cartagena. But this growing economy is young and uncertain, and is overshadowed both by the United States on one side, with its questionable infusions of ‘drug war’ money, and Venezuela on the other, with Chavez’ seemingly psychotic manipulations of markets. And the ongoing civil war further increases this shredding and upset from two completely different angles: the right-wing paramilitario on one side, and the rebel guerillas on the other, with the Colombian government somewhere in the middle trying to quell the violence, stablilize the economy, and somehow eradicate (or at least make a show of eradicating) the cocaine trade, which is complicated by the fact that cocaine is largely grown and trafficked by both the rebels and the paramilitary. And now that I’ve seen a cocaine manufacturing plant and realized just how easy it is to make the paste, and considering just how easy it is to grow the plant itself, as it grows like a weed, it seems like a pretty hopeless task to continue to attempt to just eliminate the crops. The fact is, as long as rich Americans continue to stuff that shit up their noses and continue to pay high prices for the stuff—even though it’s easy to grow, easy to make, and is cut endlessly with crap (like flour) before it reaches those high-end nostrils—then it will continue to be grown and traded, because it makes some people with guns and connections a lot of money.

So with an awareness of what’s going on here, somewhere, in Colombia, it makes it all the more remarkable just how invisible it all is. As a tourist, you are in absolutely no danger, unless you go into the lesser visited outlying rural regions where the paramilitary and/or rebels are in control. And even then, simply if you act like an idiot and put yourself into dangerous situations. (As they say here, “No dar papaya“, which is a saying that means, “Don’t put yourself in dangerous situations.) Colombia is safer to visit, I would venture to say, then most major cities in the United States. At least here in Colombia, you don’t have to worry as much about some random unhappy Joe with the inability to socialize mowing you down with a semi-automatic. There’s enough official-type dudes with guns standing idly about here to prevent such occurrences. If you’re gonna get shot, it’s probably gonna occur somewhere out in the jungle, not in the middle of a city street. About the most danger you feel as a tourist is that a taxi driver (or a restaurant in Santa Marta!) will rip you off because you don’t know the appropriate price. Or that someone will steal your wallet or I-pod when you’re sleeping on a bus. That kind of thing. I’d worry about that on a Greyhound in the States, too. And in the States, I’d also be worrying about getting an unwanted reach-around in the bathroom at the bus station (maybe even from a US Senator!), whereas here in Colombia, you have to pay to use the bathroom, so it’s not a concern. Which as my girlfriend observed, may be annoying at first, but then you realize that charging to use a public bathroom is actually a good thing, because the bathrooms are cleaner, and more importantly, because there aren’t random sketchy people in there shooting up or trying to hump you as you urinate.

It’s been hard for me to get a handle on any deeper sense of the situation here in Colombia as I haven’t had any deep political discussions with anyone, and because it’s not, as I’ve said, visible in any immediate sense. I do know that the Colombian military isn’t exactly the most scrupulous in the world, as the military boys out in the jungle on the Ciudad Perdida tour sold and smoked pot with some other trekkers that I’d talked to in Parque Tayrona. And considering also that we were told to hide our valuables from them when we were staying in their camp. Not the most disciplined of soldiers, which makes you question as well just where the boundaries between the paramilitary and the military lie. But these are questions I can’t possibly get any insight on myself without some research from other sources. Boundaries are never quite clear here in any sense, and sometimes one wonders if there really are many observed laws at all, especially when there’s money involved. It’s like the Wild West out here in many ways, and not only in regards to the traffic.

At the moment of this writing, Colombia is making a visible attempt to broaden its tourism industry and to beautify its cities and fix up its roads. This means that for me, a lot of Colombia has been closed or in a state of active renovation, which has been highly annoying, but I can tell you that if you came here in a few years, it would probably be much nicer. For example, the Museo del Oro in Bogotá is being renovated, and I really wanted to see it. They have a little throw-away exhibit at another site, but it’s nothing much to look at. On all the major roads, the road is actively being worked on, which has meant a lot of bumpiness and one-way controlled traffic. In Santa Marta and in Bogota, many sidewalks are half-complete, and you have to step around people working on carefully placing colored bricks into patterns. The whole waterfront walk in Santa Marta was being worked on. It looked like it would be nice someday, but while we were there, it was just one big obstacle course. The Botanical Gardens in Medellín were being renovated, and there was absolutely nothing there to look at when I went. I’m sure they will be very nice in a few years. I’m still a little bitter that I had to pay 2 bucks to go into a park where there were no plants to be seen. And on and on. There’s a lot of public projects being done here, which further reflects the rising economy.

So that’s my thoughts and impressions of Colombia as a whole, in addition to the other lists I’ve made of the little details and quirks. I’ll add more thoughts as they arise.