Being Sick in Paradise

When you aren’t feeling good doing much of anything is far from a fun experience.  Especially when it’s the type of sick where your not sure whether the food entrance or exit hole is going to release what I like to refer to as ‘the demon.’  Unfortunately this is a reality when traveling abroad, especially when you love eating street food in third world countries.  A question I unfortunately discovered the answer to during one of my bouts with ‘the demon’ was, ‘Does being in paradise lessen the effect of being sick?’ It’s a reasonable question as being in a gorgeous place makes a lot of situations better, like waking up early or doing boring work. However, I can honestly tell you that unless your paradise is a comfortable bathroom then it does not improve your situation.  The following tale is my experience with ‘the demon’ in one of the most gorgeous places I’ve ever seen.

Tayrona National Park on the surreal Caribbean Coast of Northern Colombia can quite truthfully be called a paradise.  A thick, lush jungle covers mountains for miles, ending in a series of beaches so beautiful you need to rub your eyes to make sure they are real. The coastline is dotted with gargantuan, perfectly rounded grey rocks that look like something of a different planet.  The place has a raw and ancient natural presence where it seems like dinosaurs still might actually live.  Equipped with hammocks my travel buddy and I took off intending to camp in the national park for a few nights.  After an amazing short trek through a dense jungle containing spiders the size of my face and the horrifying sounds of howler monkeys we arrived at a beach so amazing we decided we must sleep on it no matter what the cost. Now technically it’s illegal to camp outside the designated camping areas which cost money, but there wasn’t a soul around, the sun was beginning to set and sometimes adventure means breaking the rules.  Our hammocks were equipped with mosquito nets which were more than necessary in a land where the mosquitos carry dengue fever, yellow fever and malaria.  The jungle was so dense leading up to the beach it was hard to find any trees far enough apart to hang hammocks, but eventually we found two adequate palm trees. The problem was that there was only one good spot to set one up a hammock on the whole beach so we came up with a creative solution, bunked hammocks!!!

As we weren’t supposed to be spending the night on the beach we refrained from making a fire and ate a dinner of canned tuna, crackers and fresh coconut water under the light of a couple headlamps.  We used rocks and fallen coconuts to throw at the fresh coconuts on the tree above our hammock and managed to collect quite a bit of the delicious nectar.  After a restless night sleep trying to get comfortable on the ‘top bunk’ hammock surrounded by mysterious jungle sounds and high winds, I awoke to an extremely distraught stomach.  My travel buddy was experiencing the same phenomenon and the beach didn’t look quite as beautiful as the night before.  As we packed up our gear and set off into the jungle ‘the demon’ started churning our stomachs and we had to take frequent jumps into bushes to do our business.  The walk to the next campsite took nearly the entire day and was nothing short of spectacular from a scenery perspective, but our condition would not allow us to enjoy even a minute of it.  An extremely strong sun, lack of toilet paper and the ‘huge spider web’ phenomenon were all contributing to our extreme discomfort.  This phenomenon is when you are walking through nature and you accidentally run into a spiderweb.  Now unless you are petrified of spiders this isn’t usually such a big deal you usually just brush it off and even if the spider managed to stick to you somehow it’s small enough that you probably won’t notice.  This is simply not the case for Colombian jungle spiders.  These things are literally the size of your entire face, so you can imagine when one of us broke through a web on our way to release ‘the demon’ in the bushes we involuntarily did a dance, screaming “Is it on me!?? ”  After a couple naps on various beaches we made it to another campsite, but not wanting to pay the fee we snuck off deep into the jungle, set up our hammocks once again and tried to ride out another night.

The next morning we awoke feeling slightly better which was a good thing because it turned out to be a strenuous 5 hour hike to get back to civilization.  The funny thing about this adventure is that whenever I’m talking to someone about my time in Colombia they often ask me if I visited the notorious Tayrona National Park and wonder what it was like it.  When I respond that it was absolutely gorgeous, but one of the most miserable experiences of my life people are often confused!  To this day I’m not sure if it was the canned tuna or the coconut water that brought on ‘the demon’ and unfortunately I find myself avoiding both whenever I can…

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Tejo, a Colombian Drinking Sport

Here’s how I think the epic sport of Colombian Tejo originated.  A couple guys were pretty buzzed drinking aguardiente (a famous Colombian spirit) on a Sunday afternoon trying to think of what to do.  One guy suggests they throw rocks into a pit of mud from quite a far distance.  As more and more aguardiente is consumed the competition heightens and one man suggests assigning points to whoever can get their rock closest to the middle.  The drunken male brain is often an easy thing to predict, so the logical progression from rocks, mud, and competition would quite logically be explosions. So when one of the founders of the sport suggested placing firecrackers that explode on impact in the center of the mud pit, Tejo was born!

Modern Tejo has developed significantly since its origination.  All throughout Colombia one can find Tejo courts.  These consist of two square shaped pits across from each other.  They are equipped with a metal ring stuck in the center of the thick mud and a firecracker inside of it.  Rocks have been replaced by heavy weights and there are now tools to flatten the mud after a shot and boards to keep score.  The object of the game is to get your weight  in the mud pit and closest to the circle. There are large bonuses if you get it in the center circle or create an explosion with the firecracker. The distance in which you throw is shockingly far, especially because everyone is inebriated and throwing weights at head level!

I had a number of experiences playing Tejo in a variety of cities throughout Colombia, but one in particular sticks out in my mind.  Down south in Colombia resides a sleepy little town called Silvia where there’s not a whole lot going on.  The town is known for it’s colorful indigenous people who wear bowler hats and come into the city from the surrounding mountains to trade goods.  One evening a friend and I decided to go out and see what the locals of this little down do for fun at night.  After asking around to see if we could find a Tejo spot, we were directed to a shady dark road with a building under construction.  A narrow alley opened up to a large dirt floored area where a number of people were playing Tejo. The games seemed to stop for a moment when these two strange gringos entered, but then some friendly locals came and asked us what we were doing. They were shocked that we even knew what the game was called, so when we told them we were experienced they were quite amused.  We were told we could play a game if we bought a drink, so we ordered a couple beers.  To our dismay when we mentioned beers the guy in charge looked at us as if he’d just caught us in bed with his daughter.  He firmly told us that only aguardiente was to be consumed during Tejo, and that we should purchase a bottle.  We didn’t really have any choice so we obliged and continued to play a couple rounds of Tejo. Not sure why, but two local guys were assigned to us.  One guy held the bottle and poured us shots after every round (while taking one for himself) while the other fetched the Tejo (weight) for us. Tejos were flying through the air and in our case often sparking against the concrete instead of plopping in the mud, but the locals were friendly and tried to give us tips to improve our technique.

Culture Shocked!!!

One day I found myself in a small town in northern Ecuador eating lunch for one dollar in a dirty, little local restaurant, trying to decipher what type of meat I was eating.  A couple days later I found myself eating shrimp cocktails and drinking champagne in a morning suit at a wedding in Great Britain.  After spending nearly the last year of my life living on only the most basic necessities of life, living and traveling in Central and South America, I jumped at the chance to attend two family weddings in both Wales and England.  I’ve done a lot of traveling in my life in third and first world countries, but I have never experienced such an outrageous contrast in culture before.  Let me give you some examples….

Clothing

After living out of a backpack for a long period of time things like wrinkles, funny smells and holes in my clothes were an everyday occurrence.  Doing laundry isn’t always easy or possible so what I like to call the ‘Smell Test’ becomes a regular activity.  This is when you simply smell articles of clothing in your backpack to determine their cleanliness.  When everything is dirty you have to determine what appropriate level of smelly is okay for certain activities.  For example, if I am simply going on a hike with my friend I will wear my smelliest shirt because I am bound to sweat and make it bad anyway.  On the other hand if it’s possible I’m going to meet some chicks at a beach or bar I obviously try and pick the least smelly shirt. My parents brought a suitcase full ‘England Appropriate’ attire with nice, ironed dress shirts and adequate underwear for every single day of the week. With enough clothes and a washing machine in the next door room it wouldn’t even make sense for me to wear the same shirt two days in a row. So  you can imagine my embarrassment when without thinking I found myself smelling the armpits of a dress shirt I wore to a party the night before thinking ‘this isn’t so bad, I could wear this again….’

Food

When you order chicken in London you are given a nice clean breast or thigh.  Ordering chicken in a small mountain town in Colombia you might find yourself with a soup containing a clear broth, a heap load of internal organs and some chicken feet.  How you are supposed to eat the talons of a chicken continues to bewilder me, but this is not the point.  The food in general is much more raw in Latin America, it’s not rare to see dead (or alive) animals just lying on a table outside a restaurant, ready to be cut up or slaughtered for your order!  For this reason and the fact that cheese in Latin America tastes like milk flavored rubber, you can imagine my excitement for some good European food.  Eating brie and bacon sandwiches on a regular basis, never have I felt such an appreciation for rich food before!

Money

When I’m looking to go out drinking for a night in Ecuador, I usually just bring $10 with me.  This should usually be MORE than enough for drinks, food and perhaps a late night snack of some sort.  Going out to in London I found myself spending at least $60 per night on drinks and entry fees alone.  It’s difficult to get used to a couple nights out costing more than an entire week of living expenses in your home country. This made me realize even more why so many people from poorer nations will never, ever have the chance to travel, because it’s just such an outrageous gap in prices!

Luxury

When you are used to sleeping in a hostel room with 9 other strangers, taking cold showers and using a bar of soap as shampoo a normal hotel room seems like a castle.  My first night in a hotel I felt like a king.  After embarrassing myself asking my parents if it was safe to drink the tap water, I found myself just standing under the hot water using all the little soap, shampoo and conditioner bottles I could get my hands on.  Everything just felt so clean and my bed with multiple pillows and zero chance of bed bugs gave me the best night sleep I’d had in quite some time.

What did I learn?

Living the lavish life after so much time with just the basic necessities was a very valuable experience.  I realized how much more I appreciated the simple things after having lived without them.  Before my time in the third world, being excited for hot water or being able to drink out of the tap was completely non-existent.  I took so many things that many people would consider luxuries for granted.  When I’m back home in the US I often find myself wishing I had more things.  Like driving my older car wishing I had something newer, it’s easy to desire the plethora of luxuries our country has to offer.  What’s cool about living without them for a while is that now I truly appreciate how awesome it really is to have a car. I’ve spent more hours than any human being ever should on bumpy buses and just any car would be such an amazing improvement.  Appreciate the things you have, no matter what they are!

The Most Difficult Hike of My Life – Volcano Purace

I normally consider myself a ‘Man of the Mountains’ having grown up literally at the foothills of the beautiful flatiron peaks in Boulder, Colorado. Unfortunately after climbing the tallest volcano in the Coconu range of Southern Colombia I feel like I may have lost a little bit of that manliness.  Volcano Purace resides at a massive 15,256 feet and took us over 5 hours to summit.  Walking at a snails pace through the alien looking landscape of strange volcanic rocks and craters we did manage to reach the top of the beast, but were breathing harder the finals of a Fat Camp jumping jack competition when we arrived.  As we began our descent exclaiming to each other that this was literally the most difficult physical challenge we have ever undertaken, a massive hail and rainstorm commenced.  To our disgruntled bewilderment the already mud path we made our way up had quite literally turned into a river.  Ill-equipped for cold weather and without even a waterproof jacket I waded through the freezing rain river for a teeth chattering 3 hour descent all the while knowing that if one of us slipped and twisted an ankle it could turn into an extremely dangerous situation.  We managed to survive the adventure, but will be more hesitant with the next massive volcano that challenges us!  Below is a video interview at the summit of the volcano with an exhausted Alexplorer…

The Most Northern Point in South America

ImageAnything containing the words “the most” in it is usually something that I’m interested in.  For example if you were to tell me of a place with “the most beautiful girls” or “the most delicious beer” I would most certainly take your advice seriously.  For this reason when a friendly Colombian girl told me about the Guajira Peninsula, a.k.a. the most northern point in South America I knew that it was a place that I must find.  Not only did the simple idea of being at the absolute northern point of a continent intrigue me, but the way in which I was given the advice on how to get there was equally as interesting.  We were given a series of small towns to travel to en route to this enchanting peninsula known for dry, red deserts that stretch out to a contrastingly blue sea.   We were told we needed to take varied forms of transport from buses, taxis and even sitting in the back of trucks with goats and the local Wayuu indigenous people.  With no real expectations we set off on an adventure of the purest nature.  My travel partner and I had a German girl (quite possibly the girl from the movie Run Lola Run) join us and we woke up early to catch the first bus.

ImageBright and early we set off from Santa Marta on what turned out to be a 10 hour journey.  After a taxi, bus and what seemed to be some random guy’s car we found ourselves on a straight dusty road alongside an old railroad track and a line of trees that looked like they had been decorated for Christmas they had so much trash clinging to their branches.  As we raced up behind a truck crammed full of locals and food, Anna (German Girl aka Lola) jokingly said that truck would probably be our next form of transportation.  Funny enough we actually pulled alongside the vehicle, stopped them, and our driver told us to squeeze into the truck bed, as this was the normal transport to get us to the peninsula.  We stopped in a local market to cram even more supplies and people into this small truck, while trying to enjoy a lunch of the local delicacy; fried goat meat.  After a few more bumpy, dusty and uncomfortable hours we made our way to Cabo de la Vela, a small town and strange landscape of desert shrubs and cacti leading right up to the ocean.

ImageJust before the sun dipped below the horizon we managed to rent a tiny wooden shack to hang up our hammocks for the night.  We managed to find a local Wayuu woman’s restaurant nearby who was serving some shrimp and rice to a group of Colombian University students and teachers who had come to study the stars.  The food was not the greatest I’ve ever put in my body, but the astronomy teacher was jazzed to point out all the constellations with a crazy high powered laser for us after the meal.  Being in a desert with virtually no lights and so near to the equator that we could see constellations from both hemispheres made for quite an amazing place to gaze upon some stars.

ImageThe next morning we set out to trek across the desert to a small mountain and beach where we could hang out on the true end of the continent.  A hot, sweaty but amazing journey through a desert full of lizards, vultures, goats and some of the tiniest communities of people living on literally the most basic necessities of life I’ve ever come across.  Tiny shacks with nothing more than a couple wood logs to hang hammocks and a sheet to provide some shade from the abusive sun, these indigenous folks were some serious roughnecks living in the most unlivable landscape imaginable.  All the women had their faces painted black and did not want to be photographed.  After hours of trudging through sand amongst the goats we came across Pilon de Azucal, an incredible little mountain at the end of the world.  We quickly made our way up the mountain for one of the most unique views I’ve ever laid eyes on. Red sand cliffs slowly eroding into an aqua-marine sea that stretched on as far as the eye can see in both directions, the landscape was definitely worth the long and difficult journey.

ImageAfter quite some time enjoying life at the end of a continent we made our way to an amazing little secluded beach where it felt like we were the only people in the world.  As midday turned to afternoon we decided to trek back to our shack, but not before we bought some Venezuelan beers from some local Wayuu’s.  Sunburned skin, tired legs, but an amazing feeling of achievement for having experienced such an amazing place, I took a refreshing siesta in a hammock and awoke just in time for a nice sunset.  We bought some disgusting local homemade liquor (that we later found out is often used for cleaning supplies) from a child and her mom then had some dinner.  Fairly exhausted we headed back to our shack to lie in hammocks, wincing as we sipped the gross alcohol and talked about the differences between German and American dating culture.

The next morning a truck came to take us back to civilization at a bleary-eyed 5am.  Along with a couple other German backpackers and locals there was a man who when approaching our vehicle seemed to let out a blood curdling scream.  I was confused for a moment until I saw that he was lifting a live goat into our truck bed and that sound of a child being tortured was just the animal not the man.  As I tried to get comfortable smashed into a little corner of a truck with a goat at my feet speeding through an open desert I had a brief realization of how wild and awesome this adventure truly was….

Crazy Colombian Carnival

While most people think of Brazil when the word Carnival comes to mind, I’ve recently discovered first hand another legendary location for this wild holiday.  Where foreign visitors are few and far between Baranquilla, Colombia provides the stomping ground for a 4-day booze soaked rager with parades, wild outfits and girls so pretty it hurts your eyes.  Just a stone’s throw from Colombia’s Caribbean Coast, Barranquilla isn’t really on any tourist’s list of places to visit, but when Carnival comes around it is most certainly the best place you can go to “shake it with the locals.”  Fate thankfully placed Carnival in my plans during my time in Colombia, here’s the tale….

Ready to Paartttyyy

Equipped with a “Sweet Sound Makes Good Party” t-shirt, a plastic bag full of money and a copy of my passport I found myself on a bus from Cartagena to Baranquilla around midday on the first day of Carnival.  I’d heard that the area can be quite dangerous for foreigners, especially during Carnival, so I packed quite literally expecting to be robbed by splitting up my money into four separate pockets with no ATM card or anything else of value.  My crew was amped for a fiesta and made up of myself, my legendary travel partner, a funny Swiss guy and a blond German girl.  We got dropped off at a supermarket on the outskirts of the city, bought a bag full of Aguilas (local beers) and took a cab to the party zone.  A dense mob of people crowded as far as the eye can see around a road with a parade, we opened our throats and downed beers while sweating our way through the locals for a good place to hang.  No matter how hard I try my blond hair and blue eyes just can’t pass me off as a Colombian, so everyone wanted to take pictures with us.

Funny Foaming Faces

Little foam cannons are available for purchase to soak your friends and anyone within earshot in a soapy layer of eye-burning foam.  This is a fun beer fueled activity until you take it too far in spraying some local kids and they quite literally almost kill your Swiss friend by filling every orifice of his body with foam to the point where he can’t see or breathe for an unhealthy period of time.  Dancing around, drinking beers, wiping foam out of your eyes, posing for photos and watching a parade of beautiful women in crazy costumes, the party was nothing short of amazing.

Small Urinal - What are you looking at?

Constantly changing locations after repeated trips to the smallest urinal I’ve ever seen that’s supposed to be for two people, something bad happened that filled me with a brief sense of panic.  Everyone started running and screaming like a riot was happening and the locals advised us to get away from where we were hanging out before because there had just been a knife fight.  Surprisingly only fazed for a brief instance at the significant danger that was near us, some crazy local guy in a wolfman costume took us to a street corner where everyone drinks and dances.  Trying my best to shake it with some older Colombian ladies, the beer flowed like water and we quickly got back in the Carnival spirit.  As the sun began to set we ran into a friendly group of Colombians with a girl who loved to give high-fives more than any human I’ve ever come across. They were party organizers for the fiesta and when they ran into us they expressed extreme concern for our safety and told us we needed to get out of that area quickly before it got dark as it would be too dangerous for us.  Surprised because everyone was so nice, but not about to ignore local advice they invited us to dinner then to come party at their house which we obliged.

The Colombians that saved us from unknown dangers!

Drinking a cheap bottle of horrible rum on a local bus with my hand throbbing from sitting near “High-five girl” it was an extremely fun little local experience.  They took us to a restaurant that seemed to specialize in hot-dogs and while we drank cheap liquor and stuffed our faces, the locals kindly took care of the bill.  Next we headed to one of the Colombians houses where everyone seemed to unwind for a while so we all eventually fell asleep on some random guys couch.  Now I should have probably mentioned earlier that there was absolutely no fairly priced accommodation in Baranquilla for the Carnival so we had planned on just partying all night then taking an early morning bus back to Cartagena.  This plan was sort of ruined when we were told it wasn’t safe on the streets at night, so when the locals woke us up and told us they were going somewhere else, but could drop us off at a local nightclub we didn’t really have any other choice.  When we arrived at the club we realized we weren’t really suited for the expensive, high-class spot considering we were in dirty clothes, sandals and smelled like beer foam, so we opted to drink at a little late night food stand across the street.  After a few hours talking about how awesome the day was the night turned to early morning and the food stand closed.  We saw that the nightclub was letting out so we went to stand outside to see what was happening and think of a new plan on what to do with the next few hours of 4am-7am time in the land of knife fights.

The aftermath

As we watched the finely dressed Colombians leaving the club we were absolutely mesmerized by the hotness of the local woman.  As these stacked women stumbled their way out of the club, we wiped the drool from our chins and were so overwhelmed by their beauty it was like watching the sunset over the Grand Canyon.  The club closed and to our dismay none of the goddesses came up and asked if we would like to go home with them for a few hours, so we made our way over to a fast food restaurant.  We weren’t hungry, but we found a back room that was unlocked with a trampoline so we all snuck in and fell asleep on it until we were kicked out.  Fortunately enough time had passed and we made our way to the bus in a delirious state and returned to Caratagena.

Crossing Continents in a Speed Boat

Although North and South America are connected by land there is currently no road that spans between the two.  The border of Colombia and Panama is known as the Darien Gap and it contains one of the densest jungles in the world.  Not only does this natural mountainous jungle create an extremely difficult land crossing, but the region is prevalent with cocaine production and the groups partaking in the creation of partygoer’s nasal powder are known to eliminate anyone who stumbles upon their illegal activities.  So aside from the few crazy souls willing to subject themselves to considerable danger by hiking the notoriously treacherous Darien Gap, a boat or a plane is the only option to cross the continents.

Now in my opinion, flying in an airplane is one of the coolest things our species has ever invented.  To be able to get in a metal tube with wings, drink a few beers, watch a movie then land in a completely different country halfway across the world is an absolutely miraculous phenomenon.  That being said, I also sincerely appreciate overland or overwater travel and to be honest I think it is a more enriching experience.  When you simply take off from your capital city and land in another you miss everything in between.  These aren’t places you probably would choose to see or make an effort to get to once you are in a country, so the only way to experience them is to cross the border on land.

For this reason I decided to cross the Darien Gap in a boat.  Now most boats take about 3-4 days and the options are to either sail or take a speedboat.  Having already spent 3 weeks on a sailboat before I decided to try something new and spend four days island-hopping my way to South America.  The boat was appropriately named the Darien Gapster and we spent three nights and four days cruising through the surreal San Blas Islands going from Panama to Colombia.  These islands are nothing short of spectacular with white sand, crystal blue waters and some of them being so small you can literally walk the entire circumference of the island in 5 minutes.  They are owned by the Kuna Indians and the only buildings you will see if any will be bamboo huts with sand floors and hammocks.   The Kunas are a simple bunch who spend most of their time fishing and climbing palm trees for coconuts, which they have used as currency since they inhabited the islands.  Armed with hammocks, rum, snorkels and the mentality to chill we spent our nights on deserted islands or mingling amongst the Kuna.  Our time on the islands was fantastic, chilling with a small extremely diverse group of travelers sharing stories, rum and just being overwhelmed by the beauty of the area.  Combining rum with coconut water is one of the greater drinks around, but deceptively easy to drink and lead to the only serious negative aspect of the journey.

Playing “Never Have I Ever” until the wee hours of the morning and waking up reeking of rum and with a rotten stomach of a hangover DOES NOT go well with extended, bumpy speed boat travel.  One of the roughest parts of the Caribbean is between Panama and Colombia with surprisingly large swells almost all the time.On a small over-loaded speed boat, the rollercoaster size bumps for hours on end made me have to seriously concentrate so I wouldn’t paint the Swiss guy sitting next to me with a rum and coconut upchuck mixture.  Finally the trip ended in La Miel, Panama where we quite literally just walked up a mountain and across the border to Colombia.  Surprisingly it was THE most relaxed border crossing I’ve ever experienced in my life, as some of the group didn’t have shoes, shirts or even pants when crossing over to South America.