Traveling in Colombia- Thinking in Zones

So after spending almost 2 years in Colombia, and traveling all throughout the country (except the Leticia-part of the Amazon), I wanted to write just a brief summary of recommendations for places to visit and where I might recommend someone go for their stay.  As always, things depend a lot on your interests and your length of stay, more than anything else, but still – I like to recommend routes that are different from the majority of travelers.  And since I was going to write this note, I organized the places via regions because that’s how my mind works.

First off, there are numerous “regions” of Colombia.  Here’s how I would classify them:

  • Bogotá and nearby (Cundinamarca)
  • Coffee region (Medellín, Pereira, Santa Rosa de Cabal, Manizales, Armenia, Filandia, Salento)
  • Pacific Coast (2 areas: near to Buenaventura: Juanchaco, Ladrilleros, La Barra or….near Chocó which I didn’t visit)
  • Atlantic Coast (Cartagena, Tolúm/Coveñas, Santa Marta/Taganga, Parque Tayrona, Palomino, Cabo de la Vela/Punta Gallina)
  • Santander and north of Bogota (Cocuy, Bucaramanga, Cañon del Chicamocha, San Gil, Barichara) as well as closer to Bogota like Villa de Leyva, Tunja, Raquira)
  • Los Llanos (basically southeast of Colombia, but a nice “highway route” with stops would be from Sogamoso to Yopal to Villavicencio with visiting various pueblos in between….I visited Maní and Monterrey while there and just fell in love with Monterrey due to the friendliness and welcomingness of the locals!)
  • South of Colombia, towards the border with Ecuador (Cali, Popayán, San Augustín, Desierto de Tatacoa, Mocoa, Ipiales,

This thinking of clusters has helped me kind of organize the areas of Colombia in my own head, and maybe this will be helpful for you.

Regarding the different clusters, here’s a general overview:

  1. Cundinamarca – Bogota and nearby – Most people will spend at least a few days here because of Bogotá, the capital. I think one could spend 3 days in Bogota to experience a LOT of the city – and there is a lot to see.  I would recommend Parque Nacional (7th Ave and 40) and Parque Simón Bolivar (the largest park with a nice pond in the middle and plenty of sidewalks, snack vendors, etc.) Bogotá also has some famous museums, a nice market in Usaquen on Sundays with nice artisanal goods, el Centro on Sundays is also very popular and full of people wandering around.  They are always busy with things to do and places to see.  The walking graffiti tour is a “can’t-miss” to me, and if you don’t know anything about Colombia, the food tour or even the bike tour can be really nice to get an introduction to the food/fruits/snacks of Colombia.  Nearby the small towns of Cundinamarca are really nice, and whenever my friends visit me, I take them to at least one pueblo outside the city to eat some nice food, see the courtyard, and enjoy a slow pace of life.  On weekends, many of the Bogotá locals leave and visit these pueblos (La Mesa, Zipaquirá, Tabio, Granada, La Calera, and Guatavita would be my favorites).  There are many good hikes here also, so ask around and see what hikes you can do!  HINT: you may need to join up with a hiking tour group because the hikes are not often well-marked.  I did a hike every weekend with a hiking Whatsapp group.
  2. Coffee Region – I lived for 6 months in Manizales and visited the other cities of the coffee region during my stay. I also visited Salento and Filandia, which are famous for coffee tours, for doing the famous Salento hike, and for buying really beautiful artisanal goods there.  My opinion is that Manizales, Armenia, and Pereira are big-cities and have a few things to do (famous areas to visit, some unique drinks or snacks, etc.) but generally, they are “big cities in a small pond”).  One could easily join for one day and then leave – or skip them altogether.  Filandia is a quaint small town that was less touristy than Salento, but Salento has a really nice hike that I recommend before all the trees die (in the next two decades?).  So try to do both, but if you can only do one, I’d recommend SalentoSanta Rosa de Cabal has (expensive) hot springs and very famous chorizo and is a really pretty pueblo, I’d definitely recommend it if you have time.  Medellín is a nice big city with great and accessible public transportation, nice museums, nice zones, etc.  But honestly, Medellín is super full of tourists who want tourist things, familiar amenities, etc. so if that’s you, it’s perfect and if that’s not you, then feel free to skip it.  I went there twice and stayed in a hostel to meet other travelers, and I felt that was a good way to go.  Medellín is also very famous for drugs, prostitutes, and… always watch your stuff.  J  Guatapé, a few hours east of Medellín near Rio Negro (the airport MZE if you fly to Medellín) is one of my favorite pueblos in Colombia.  They have a large rock that you can climb up using stairs and the vista is the prettiest and best lookout, I would argue, in all of Colombia.  If you go to Medellin, do not miss Guatapé.  The food is quite unimpressive for being so touristy, but things are changing and, of course, they sell artisan goods.
  3. Pacific Coast – I would highly recommend visiting the Pacific Coast if you can. The cons: it’s not very developed, poor infrastructure, difficult transportation, not many amenities.  Pros: the best food (fish), gorgeous jungle with black sand beaches, the most friendly and relaxed and non-scamming people I ever met in Colombia, and very few visitors.  If you do it, you will not regret it – go there to relax and have a great time!  Hint:  Take a motorboat from Buenaventura to Juanchaco (super dirty and full of trash).  Arrive, eat some great fish along the water, and then leave (via tractor because the “road” is so bad) to Los Ladrilleros.  Much prettier and barely any trash!
  4. Atlantic Coast – the cheapest diving in all of Colombia is in Taganga, next to Santa Marta and even accessible by public bus (50 USD) and it was alright, but it was nothing extraordinary. Santa Marta was, for me, easily skippable. The beach wasn’t that nice, in December/January is full of “medium-rich” Colombians traveling on vacation and gets super dirty from them leaving their trash everywhere and is quite full, and I was never impressed by the culture, the food, or even the “things to do” there.  Cartagena was great!  It’s expensive, but I loved walking in the center area, walking the city wall, exploring the Cartagena Museum of Modern Art, and the restaurants were alright.  Night life is great, everything is walkable from within the city walls, the city was hopping with good energy, and while the beach was really nothing, it’s close to Tolúm where the beach is much  Parque Tayrona is easily the prettiest beach of Colombia and a national park.  It is a little bit expensive to visit, difficult with logistics since you need a reservation at least a couple days early (see if you can do it online), but once you’re there, you can camp on the beach (renting a tent, etc.) and spend some really nice and relaxing time there.  The beaches are beautiful, and passing through the jungle was also really nice.  Next, if you like goat, I’d say Cabo de la Vela and Punto Gallina are unmissable – it’s a desert next to the beach which is unique in all of Colombia, the food is incredible (goat, lobsters, shrimps) and you sleep in hammocks.  There is enough breeze that the mosquitos can’t bite you and wind surfing is the most popular thing here since there is always some wind.  J  Just bring sunglasses!  Food is expensive at $10/plate but hammock is $2, so don’t eat breakfast and enjoy the unique landscape that is La Guajira.  J
  5. If you have time, I’d still recommend doing Santander. If you’re a hiker and want to hike the Sierra Nevada mountains, Cocuy currently has 3 trails open that go as high as 5300m.  If you don’t like high elevation, skip it, but if you’re intrigued, a 4-5 day trip with 3 day hikes might be really nice. It is costly (120k guide, 170k transport, 15k/meal for food roughly) but you can also divide those costs by up to 6 people.  I’m a hiker, so I liked it.  Barichara is my second “favorite city” in Colombia and is very close to San Gil/BucaramangaSan Gil is the place to be for any outdoor, adventure activities (paragliding, bungee jumping, adventure courses, whitewater rafting, etc.) but I thought the pueblo as itself was boring.  The Cañon del Chicamocha was too touristy for me, but the view of the canyon is as close as Colombia can get to America’s Grand Canyon.  Bucaramanga is my favorite medium-size city because there are nice places to visit nearby (by local city bus), very nice and helpful people, and great weather.  They have a cobblestone street area, a restaurant area, so many parks, and great areas to walk around.  Like I said, it’s one of my favorite cities in Colombia!  J  Raquira is very nice for clay goods (their specialty), Villa de Leyva has the best restaurants per capita anywhere in Colombia by far (and even a nice one-day hike) with cobblestone streets and a very safe, clean atmosphere.
  6. Very few tourists will ever make it to Los Llanos, but it is very different from the rest of Colombia. It’s fairly undeveloped, lots of cowboys with their cattle herds, and just flat (and wet) grasslands as far as you can see.  The landscape is completely unique compared to the other zones mentioned, the people are very friendly and welcoming (and machista), and I stayed 4 days in Monterrey simply because I asked a girl at a print shop directions – who then introduced me to her boyfriend, her boyfriend’s family, her family, and her family’s friends!  They have some nice hikes, waterfalls, and rivers around to explore, but mostly, you come here because nobody else comes here and you want to see some wild grasslands.  In Maní, they told me they hadn’t seen a gringo (white person foreigner) in like 4 years!  The famous Llanera food is basically a collection of meats, but they are famous for eating everything like snake, rodents, birds, and [everything[!
  7. The South of Colombia is perhaps my favorite zone. It’s often skipped by travelers flying in because it’s not part of the “Circle” (Bogota, Medellin, Santa Marta), but it’s my favorite part.  San Augustín had the best tamales and their historical sculptures from thousands of years ago are quite impressive.  You can walk or take a Jeep tour or both!  The Desierto de Tatacoa is the prettiest desert I’ve ever seen, and you can see grey, red, and yellow areas depending on the mineral composites.  I recommend camping here, taking a motorcycle tour with a guide, and even seeing the stars from the observatory (if there are no clouds).  Popayán has an amazing “colonial area” that is small but with really good restaurants, and the entire city is painted white.  Mocoa is great for jungle, many waterfalls, hikes and the “fin del mundo” waterfall (you see from the top looking down) is a must-see, beautiful outlook, if you’re in the area.  Ipiales near the border with Ecuador has a church “Catedral de las Lajas” is the prettiest church in all of Colombia, to me – although the city of Ipiales completely unimpressed me and even seemed dangerous to me past 5pm.  I put Cali here in the south which, as you probably know, is the salsa capital of the “world” (or at least Colombia) and is a really nice big city.  There isn’t as much to do in Cali as in Bogota, and there are many fewer gringos than in Medellín, but as far as help goes, I thought Cali was an amazing city.  Great for dancing, a nice urban zone with restaurants and cafes to stay in, a nice outlook to spend an afternoon, and great people everywhere.
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Cuba (July 26-Aug 5, 2018)

Cuba is a very interesting country.  I wanted to start this blog post with a general overview of some thoughts about the country and then talk about my itinerary – feel free to skip over whatever part is boring for you, but at least this blog will help ME remember!  🙂 dav

What everyone will tell you (at least as Aug 2018) is that Cuba has two currencies: CUC (this is the currency for foreigners that’s 1:1 CUC:USD, and it’s worth something like 25:1 of their local currency) and CPC (local currency). As I understand their economy, most goods for the locals are priced in the local currency (CPC), but for some goods that tourists typically want, they display the prices in CUCs (divided by 25) or they charge certain things (like coffees) 1 CUC whereas they charge the locals something like 5 CPC (or 0.20 CUC). It’s really not a bad solution, since the local economy is heavily subsidized and economically-isolated (through the embargo).  If lots of tourists came in with dollars or Euros, I can easily imagine large disruptions – however the difference in currencies is, at the same time, creating some large wealth disparities because the locals who don’t work in tourism will earn 8-10 CUCs/month, but those that work in tourism can earn way more than that in just one day. Sometimes it makes sense (like those with cars who can’t get new car parts easily, because of the embargo, have to pay a lot of money for maintenance and repairs need to earn very high wages to make it worthwhile) and sometimes others are just profiting off tourism through AirBnB, giving tours in English, or opening restaurants tailored to tourists.

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The second thing I noticed is the complete absence of advertisements. There are so few ads that, as an American who’s now living in Bogota, the difference was really stark. Sometimes there was a name of a business or AirBnB location or hostel….and sometimes nothing! But advertisements to encourage you to purchase their product or service? Almost never. I think I could count on one hand the number of advertisements I saw in 3 cities over 11 days. What we did see, however, were a few signs for government-sponsored propaganda with leftist slogans, phrases, or quotes (usually from Fidel Castro or Che Guevara) – and even then, they stuck out because there are so few posters or signs in general.

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Then there’s the internet – or lack thereof. Basically, the only internet you’ll find is in public parks. Our first AirBnB had internet in the house, but that was definitely an outlier – and we paid 1 CUC/hour for that. Our other AirBnB didn’t have internet in the home, and the all-inclusive resort we stayed at didn’t have internet in the rooms, only in the common area. The irony is that instead of people being on their phones at restaurants or bars or in the street, people were engaged with their surroundings and with others.  They weren’t distracted by their phones like in America.  But at parks, which are surrounded by nature, people were always on their phone! The only internet, really, is at parks!  And internet is super expensive. If you make 8-10 CUCs/month and 1 hour of wifi costs 1 CUC, the poor will never be able to afford internet. So you, again, are having a big disruption in terms of information availability (through the internet) between those who are rich/in tourism and those who aren’t.

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The fourth thing I noticed was a complete lack of homeless people and a very safe atmosphere. I saw people walking around until 2 or 3 (or 4) am , just like me, and everything was perfectly safe. I have never felt so safe in any country I’ve been in, except maybe Indonesia. I think part of this is due to their experience under the Embargo (we all suffer together, so we all stick together and support each other) and part of this is due to their government socialist support (covering mental health issues, for example).  Even in Colombia, a Latin country with a strong family culture, there are homeless, drug-addicts, etc. and it can be dangerous. I’ve been robbed twice in Colombia and I take care of myself after the sun goes down at 7pm!  In Cuba, I didn’t see anyone begging for money, acting threatening or scary or anything like that. I would imagine factors like the Embargo (you just CAN’T get drugs) a strong cultural unity, and also government support in health care are all factors that led to this very different outcome.

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OK, so those are my thoughts so far.  Here was our itinerary.

We flew out Thursday early afternoon and arrived to Havana.  We had a car that was contracted to pick us up for 30 CUC and take us to our Airbnb, and while at the airport, we changed all of our money over to CUCs. We went out for dinner but had an early night.

On Friday, we did a walking tour, starting in Plaza Principal, the oldest plaza in La Habana.  We saw El Capitolio (the 3rd capital building), Gran Teatro (a famous English hotel with beautiful architecture) and then walked down Obispa Street (the oldest street made in the 1500s) to Havana Vieja (visiting the oldest drug store, the first temple/church (La Habana was founded by the Masons, I think!),and passed by el Museo de la Revolucion (with a real tank outside used by Fidel Castro in 1961 against the American invasion) as well as the castles/fortress on this side of the river.  I’m pretty sure that Spanish lost control of the Cuban colony in 1900 and then it would be America-versus-Cuba for the next few decades.  We saw the 3rd largest cemetery in the world where Christopher Columbus is buried, the first aqueduct in Latin America, and then had lunch in a place that was cheap for 12CUC (12 USD) and included two mojitos lol! Great deal!  We tried to do a local brewery but they were out of beer (seriously?) and so continued walking around.  We visited José Martí’s childhood home, went back through the main downtown area, and finished our day at 5pm at a brewery on the ocean overlooking the sea and the ships and went back to use wifi at the Airbnb!  J  Later Friday evening, we did a convertible car tour for 1 hour (it’s fast but that’s all you need…you drive slowly and enjoy the classic 1940s cars who are all doing the same thing), went to a drag show at a club, and then came back to the AirBnb.

On Saturday, we woke up early at 7am to go to Viñales, a nice area/city about 3-3.5 hrs away to visit a tobacco farm. We borrowed a car for the day for 140CUP, got a really great breakfast of Cuban sandwiches on the way, and I totally slept the entire way!  Along the way, we made a quick stop at a small orchid farm (and I got a delicious thick mango juice), and also stopped off at a mirador to take photos of the unique hills (everything is flat, so they stick out).  At the tobacco farm, I learned that they usually take only 2 or 3 leaves, remove the stem which has almost all of the addictive nicotene and throw it out, then they roll it and just like that…done. Nothing added!  Then they put it in another leaf and roll it to keep the form, I guess. The Cuban secret is to dip the cigar in honey and smoke it, but you don’t inhale, just suck it through your cheeks. I haven’t learned how to do it yet. After that, we left (no buying anything), and got lunch. It was a delicious place with so much food, I even saved half my fish for dinner, along with yuca, fried malamba, two types of rice (“Moro”-with beans and chicken) and the guys got bbq pork and chicken. It had started raining, and so we just relaxed and drank beers until it stopped.  Along our way back, we explored a cave in a boat tour (5 mins), and it was awesome!  Even though it was a very quick boat tour through the cave, the rock formations and the nature outside of the cave was really nice.  Unfortunately, I didn’t buy a “Hasta la Victoria Siempre” Che Guevara poster because I thought it was a little expensive (at 12CUC) and then, of course, I never saw it again.  L   Before we left, I asked to do a small hike of about 30 mins up and down a small hill, which the guys kindly let me do while they drank beers and waited for me and then we drove back.   I was so tired that I went to bed super early and got 10 hours of sleep!

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On Sunday, we took a bus from Havana to Cienfuegos.  Grabbing my last espresso of the home, we packed up and arrived at the wrong terminal (there are 2 apparently in Havana) – ugh – and eventually arrived at the correct terminal.  The bus was 4-5 hours, I think, and passed through some beautiful countryside. Cienfuegos is a pretty small town but with nice plazas and walking boulevards with trees growing in the middle with businesses/restaurants on either side and they were very beautiful. The parks/plazas were also very nice, and in the middle of the parks/plazas, as always, there were fountains, trees, and many benches for all those using wifi. I also saw a great art museum here, which had some beautiful paintings! We later walked down to the port area, which wasn’t that nice – we saw kids fishing with string.  In fact, I very rarely saw actual fishing poles, perhaps due to the Embargo.

On Monday, we had rented a car to drive us a couple hours (short distance relatively) to Trinidad, the larger city on the southern coast of Cuba. Along the way, our personal chauffeur drove us to a small pool where there “might” be flamingos (there weren’t) but we went by canoe to the other side, through the mangroves, and then back again. Then we went to El Nicho, a famous and beautiful place (my favorite of the trip) with small pools, creeks, waterfalls – and all surrounded by beautiful nature! We arrived around 4pm in Trinidad which is all uneven paved streets. It was quite difficult to walk because the stones were so uneven, and all the streets looked the same and had names instead of numbers, so I got lost a couple of times. However, we did find an amazing electronic-music cafe/bar with very good drinks. It is a communally-owned cafe where the profits are split among the workers and investors, an idea which I really love. Jarred and Edison went out to party, while I went back home to go to bed. 🙂

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On Tuesday, we split up to do separate things. I walked around the Plaza Principal, went up to the bell tower to see over the city, saw the famous church, had a nice breakfast and lunch, and just generally got lost around the entire city. We met up later that evening at the same electronic-music bar. We went to a restaurant that was famous within Trinidad and recommended to us by a local – the best food I’ve had in all of Cuba. (Although, to be fair, that is a low bar – I thought the food was very plain and boring.)

On Wednesday, we left to go to Cayo Santa Maria (the Spanish translation of “Key” like in Florida’s Key West), for our all-inclusive resort. We had to get a taxi/car to take us all the way (again, another day-trip rent-a-car) which was on the far northern edge of the island, so we had to traverse the entire island back up north! But we arrived at the resort right at 4pm, our check-in time, and after dropping stuff off at the room, went to the bar! 🙂 Of course. We stayed here Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday and left Saturday afternoon at 2pm, so 3 nights. The beach was beautiful with blue/green water, white sand, and a lot of wind! It was very easy to get sand in your drinks lol. I enjoyed going to the beach, alternating between sun and shade, and just reading my books while listening to the waves. It reminded me a lot of Saint Thomas of the US Virgin Islands, although the water here was more green, and Saint Thomas was a pure blue (both with white sand). This was a very relaxing time, eating and drinking all that you wanted, and enjoying the beach or pools (resort) the entire time.

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Saturday we came back to La Habana and after checking in, walked along the promenade alongside the ocean, and then went to a recommended bar to go dancing. We were up until 4am (all of us pretty drunk) when we came back to the AirBnB and unfortunately, I didn’t sleep very late. I think I got up at 9am on Sunday.  Thankfully, Cuba is super-safe, even at 4am and for a drunk tourist!

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Sunday was our last day and our flight left at 8pm at night, so we had all day. We organized a taxi to take us to the airport at 530, and because we wanted different things for our last day, I left around 10 or 11 to go to the museums: Museo de la Revolucion (which I liked a lot and learned a lot about how many bad things the USA did to Cuba to sabotage their socialism efforts) and then going to a famous park. I was going to go to some Art museums also but I wanted to go to a park that I saw on our convertible ride last time. I forget the name, but it was incredible. After waiting 30 mins to get a taxi, I gave up and ordered a hotel shuttle to take me back to my AirBnB where we then packed up and went to the airport to buy our last-minute things (rum, in my case) and get on the flight back! 🙂

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Woo! What a great trip! I did the famous sights of La Habana (Museum of the Revolution, walking tour, and a convertible driving trip), some beautiful parks (El Nicho, mangroves near Cienfuegos, the river park in La Habana), some late-night partying, 3 days on an all-inclusive and beautiful beach resort, the famous tobacco area of Viñales, and even Trinidad and Cienfuegos. The trip was better than anything I could have planned on my own, for sure. 🙂

 

Thoughts on Next Steps

As is perhaps unsurprising, or maybe surprising, I’m still not sure what I want to do, but here are some thoughts for my next few months.

First, I leave Dec 5 to go back to Dallas and part of why I’m going back so early is to run the Dallas Marathon Dec 9!  Woohoo!  I’m only running a HALF-marathon though, so don’t be too impressed.  😊  But yeah, I’m excited.  I don’t think my friend will be able to make it, though, so that’s a bummer – not even to cheer me on!  Bad, Kristin!  Bad!  But things happen and that’s alright.

After that, I will visit my grandmas and celebrate Christmas with the family and bring them back a few presents from here in Colombia and then plan some stuff out!  Basically, “plan stuff out” means “apply for a bunch of options and then see what opens up”.

So, what am I planning?

I want to go back to Patagonia because I spent 5 months there, well, 4 months camping and 1 month doing volunteer work (on a brewery and a ranch and a farm).  It was cool, but I didn’t quite finish the whole area!  I want to do some more national parks, then do the island of Chiloe, and then do San Carlos de Bariloche and Puerto Montt.  I estimate I will be camping and hiking for about 2 months, but who knows.  I go slow, at my own pace, and have nothing but time.  😊

After this, I’d like to spend time in Santiago, Vina del Mar, Antofogasta (all in Chile) and then a little bit in Argentina (Buenos Aires, Iguazu Falls) and I don’t know what else.  Maybe even Uruguay.  It doesn’t matter, but I estimate another 2 months for this, probably interspacing volunteering and traveling and seeing friends that I’ve met from my time in Patagonia.  So that’s 4 months so far!  Then, I’d like to go visit Peru and probably spend 2-3 months working on farms with animals in Cuzco, do the Inca trail, maybe do other trails, and also do the Amazon.  I don’t think I’ll want to stay too long in the Amazon due to the mosquitos, but I think a minimum of two weeks would make me feel like I did it sufficiently well, and working with animals and the Inca Trail(s) in Cuzco will be a really great time!

I think I will finish by the middle or end of June and be ready to come back after my (almost 3-year) trip in South America!  😊  Aug 2016 to June 2019!  Wow!  😊  My plan is to come back to the states and do a research project (two actually) – and my dream is to go to Boston University where I can audit a summer class or two, get access to their library (what I need most of all), work online teaching English to the Chinese kids to support myself, and just spend all day every day in the library.  I picked BU because there is a professor there (Robert C. Neville) who is my favorite still-publishing theologian and, due to his influence, they have a very well-respected Confucianism studies part of their University.

You see, I want to do some research into Process Theology and Neo-Confucianism, so I’m thinking two 35-50 page papers.  In the case of Process Theology, it’s about Theology’s struggle with the new science (quantum mechanics) including new concepts of space/time, and perhaps equally compelling, the goodness of God.  In the case of Neo-Confucianism, it’s about Confucius’ teachings as they had been interpreted since his death and how they interact with Buddhist influences, philosophy, and reasonings.  Both of them, as far as I am concerned NOW, are not correct – but I still feel kind of a draw or desire to research them.  I don’t know why.

No, it’s not to publish – I have left that rat race, thank God – just because I am interested in the topics and have this goal of mine that I’d like to finish.  I definitely think that if I do this all day-every day, I can finish this in two months.  Maybe I can sub-lease an apartment in Boston in the summer when the students go back to their families or do internships (I estimate it would be a great time to sub-lease something) and I also anticipate that seeing Boston in the summer is a great time to see it.  😊

I think I will start a new job in August, but I’m not sure what yet.  My options are generally in 3 locations:

  1. Middle East – teaching English
  2. Japan/China – teaching English or Economics/Philosophy in English
  3. Dallas – industrial electrician or teaching English to immigrants or teaching Economics in a High School

The draw for the Middle East would be the pay.  They give you a free apartment, free flights, and they pay really well.  The con would be everything else.  As of right now, I’m not interested in learning Arabic, nor learning about the Arabic culture, nor really in the area and traveling around.  It would be purely to boost up my savings and feel better about retirement.

The draw to Japan/China would be the interesting culture, my desire to learn the language (learn Japanese or re-learn Chinese), and my love of the area.  The pay is good, so I could save some money…but I couldn’t save near as much as I would in the Middle East.  But my life would be better, I would feel good about learning the language, and want to be more immersed in the culture.

The draw to Dallas would be to spend time with family, especially my Nai Nai (who’s 90 years old), my ability to drive a sports car (which I really miss since I don’t drive now), and being in America.  There is a lot that I feel about my country, but I love it and I care about it and I would enjoy going back, getting involved politically and in a religious community and making friends and be in a place that I feel might be for forever.  The indefiniteness of a relationship or a place/home is something that has a strong draw for me, something that I haven’t had for the past 3 years.  The type of job matters less to me than the place, but options are becoming an electrician (doing something very different from office work in a bank!) since it pays really well, is useful, and would be very interesting to learn…. Or teaching English to immigrants in Dallas, maybe through the government…..or teaching in a high school and I could teach economics or philosophy or religion since I studied those for my Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees.  😊

Anyway, I have a lot of research to do for when I’m back in the states, but I’m looking forward to see what opens up and what I decide to do.  I don’t anticipate that I’ll have clarity in any of these things in Dallas for the Christmas season, but maybe I will feel more sure of things when I’m hiking, camping, volunteering on farms/ranches, traveling, or even living in Boston!  😊  Assuming, of course, that all of that works out as I hope it does.

6-day trip to Cocuy (5200m high!)

I recently came back from a 6-day trip in Cocuy which is located in the Sierra Nevada mountains of Colombia and has the most mountains that are perpetually covered in snow in the whole country.  (There are very few of them, by the way, I think 6 spots?).  Anyway, so me and 11 other people (mostly Colombians but other nationalities also) spent the long holiday weekend there, and I spent 3 days more.  🙂

We did 3 of the currently-open hikes – all are “all-day” hikes and are pretty rigorous due to the altitude (usually starting around 4200m and ending around 4900m).  As context, Bogota is pretty high up (about the Rocky Mountains of Colorado at around 8,500 feet, or 2600m.  So even though I’m used to “high”, this is almost twice as high!

We left on Friday night for a 10-hour bus and arrive to Guican (which is technically closer to the trails of “Cocuy” than the town of Cocuy is.  😊  After arriving around 7am, we ate a nice breakfast, paid for our registration and insurance of the trails, watched a short presentation video, and bought some food.  I was told that we could use the kitchen, which turned out to NOT exactly be true, but we still saved money by buying our own supplies that they cooked for us and charged us for (admittedly, way less than if we didn’t pick up our supplies).

We drove in Jeeps to the cabins where we will spend the night Sat and Sun and do the hike from the cabins there on Sunday.  The transportation was a little expensive for the entire area, being about 70k COP per hour.  But it is what it is!  😊  We arrived and the cabins were beautiful, but it’s downpouring rain.  We stay in the cabin to wait for the rain to die down and then had a tinto (small coffee)/chocolate before we decided to just walk and try to acclimatize ourselves to the higher altitude.  We did a very short trail and it was a beautiful area.

We slept that night without heat and this high up, it gets COLD!  I was breathing and you could see the breath at like 7pm, from inside the cabin.  The “heat” was from a fire and they gave us firewood but once you went to your room, you wanted all the fleece and warmth you could get!

Sleeping for me was fine because I was adequately prepared with fleece and wool socks that I had gotten for my Patagonia (in the winter) trip!  So I was good!  There were others whose body didn’t handle the altitude as well, or who had were cold, and so not everyone slept great, but you do what you can.

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Our hike on Sunday was great!  I think it was my favorite hike of the three.  They called it “RitaCuwa” which is perhaps the closest approximation to the indigenous name “ItaU’Wa”.  Of the three hikes, it’s the one on the left on the map.

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Because we were already at Cabanas Kanwara, our two guides came to us and from the cabins, guided us up the mountain past Rio Cardenillo (which flows from glacier water) and Posada Sierra Nevada until the glacier mountain.  As you can see, we got as close as you could because we are forbidden from touching the snow (they say it’s sacred snow, but who knows what the indigenous people actually believe) but you can get up close and personal!  One person in our group hadn’t even seen snow before so that was fun!  On the way back, it rained about half of it, for the bottom half, and my shoes got muddy (unfortunately, I didn’t plan well and they were the only shoes I brought) but it was a tiring day!  The breakfast was filling and the lunch/dinner (at 4pm) was based on the food we had brought from the town (lentils, rice, hot dogs, hot chocolate, bread).  A really beautiful hike for me, passing by the river at various points, seeing the glacier mountain, and even getting wet on the way back!  It’s all part of the Cocuy experience.

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On Monday, the rest of the team had to leave to go back to work so they bought their bus tickets and decided to head back between 10am and 4pm.  I took the whole week off for vacation because I’m not gonna travel 20 hours there and back to only do one hike!  No way!  So me and a girl Jennifer had decided ahead of time that we would stay until Thursday to do all of the hikes (all 3 of them).  She and I, and then two others, decided to stay and do a hike on Monday because their school was in a strike and not in session!  LOL.

For us, on Monday, we went to Laguna Grande.  We again had a guide who picked us up from the cabins.  We were all packed and ready to go at 430am which is quite early for them but pretty normal for me since I teach English starting at 430!  J  Anyway, besides a mud patch in the beginning of the trail, it was really nice!  I think this was Jennifer’s favorite trip of the 3.  It was pretty flat up until the Valle de los Frailejones where it then, finally, started to go up and kept going.  Eventually, the mountain turned really steep and we crossed an only-rocky area (too high for any plants), but still beautiful from the rocks, until we hit the Laguna Grande (“big lake”) and sat down to enjoy our lunch.  Jennifer and I had brought our lunch (lentils and rice) and the students had made a pasta.  We weren’t that close to the lake, since it was a fair distance down (accessible but why bother) but the wind was fairly constant and it got a little bit cold from that.  I think this took us 4.5 hours to go up and 4 hours to go down. So it was maybe 1.5 hours longer than the previous day’s 7 (and that one could have been done in 6 if we didn’t stop for photos all the time).

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We returned back to the pueblo where the students left on their bus and Jennifer and I stayed in a hotel.  We had full access to the kitchen, so we cooked dinner and had a relaxing day (Tuesday) to not do any hikes!  We went to the hot springs, walked around the town, cooked breakfast/lunch/dinner and even lunch for the next day (which we hiked).

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It was nice to be in a beautiful hotel with plants all around, hot showers, and just not do any hikes!  As I said, we spent the night Monday night after everyone else had left, and left Tuesday night to go to our cabin that’s very close to the third trail.

We arrived a little bit late due to an engine problem, but thankfully, we arrived – and we even had found two Israelis to be with us on our trip!  One got sick but the other went with us and helped split the cost of the guide with us and he was really cool.  His English is good, and his Spanish was also surprisingly good!  He’s very aggressive in seeking out opportunities to practice his Spanish – he’s more extroverted than I am lol.  Anyway, we woke up at 430am (like always), and I slept in my sleeping bag which was superrrrr warm, and we walked the 40 minutes to the Puesto del Control where you then technically start the hike and then we hiked the longest trail of all, all the way to el Pulpito del Diablo and Pan de Azucar.  I don’t recall exact numbers, but it was probably 9-10 hours of hiking.  Very few photos as no one really wanted any (it was our last day after all).  We had a nice filling lunch at the top, and I really liked the Pulpito del Diablo rock.  This was Seli (the Israeli guy)’s favorite hike but he also really likes the Earth element, and there were a lot of rocks and not as much green on this trail.  Again, we got as close as we could to the snow, without touching it, and even passed a few lakes of glacier-water on the way there.

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Pulpito del Diablo

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Jennifer, Sela (the Israeli) and me

Mostly, it was really high up, without any plants at all, and it started raining for us on the way back but we had already passed the descent of the big rocks (thank goodness) so it was just flat and plants/mud for the rain.  And not much of that anyway!  😊  We arrived back and she got a Jeep to take us back to the town (despite showing up 1.5 hours late due to a flat tire) and we made it for the last bus back to Bogota.  It was a really great trip although when I arrived to Bogota around 7am, I went straight to bed where I slept for about 4 hours hahaha!  😊 Apparently I needed the sleep, needed my own bed, or needed the rest from the strenuous hikes!

Anyway, that was it for our trip!  I think I spent about 800k (or 700k? I’m not good with numbers) including everything (guides, food, registration/insurance, transportation, hotels, etc.)  It was a good deal, a great trip, and I really liked the time with Jennifer even though I’m sad that I hadn’t met her earlier.  She would have been a great travel companion because we’re so compatible, we like the same outdoor things, we both are smart and detail-oriented, and we both can easily take time off work.  It’s rare that you find someone with so much compatibility – but, alas, I leave the country in two weeks and I’m not coming back for the foreseeable future.  ☹

 

On the Benefit of Deadlines – and Refocusing Myself on My Goals

I’ve kind of decided that I’m not going to stay in Colombia after this year finishes. I mean, everything is open to change, as always, but I just realized (while traveling in Puerto Inirida) that I feel that I’m not progressing very much. I’m not wasting time, as I feel like this year of teaching Business English to adults is very helpful for my future career possibilities (for instance, if I want to go to Japan to teach English), but I feel like any more time spent here in Bogota would just not be the most effective use of my time.

Now, once I had this realization, it inspired me to reflect on what my goals were for my South America travels.  How else would I measure success or effectiveness?  LOL.

First, I had my 4 main places to visit – these were the main measures of success for my trip. I’ve done two of them.

  1. Galapagos Islands (October 2016) – 16 days, including an 8-day cruise, 2 days of diving, 2 days on the main island, 2 days on Isabella Island
  2. Patagonia (Jan 2017-June 2017) – 6 mos hiking, camping, and hitchhiking, and volunteering at random places including a brewery and a ranch!
  3. The Amazon
  4. The Inca Trail

I also had some skills or experiences that I especially wanted to learn:

  1. Spanish – basically yeah! I made it!
  2. Coffee farm – 2 weeks
  3. Construction work, at least a little – I’ve done some work with bamboo and concrete
  4. Regular farm – 4 weeks
  5. Teaching English – I will have 1.5 years
  6. Teaching in a public high school – did it for 5 mos in Manizales, Colombia
  7. Write a research paper over the Apostle Paul and Subjectivity – finished, 31 pages single-spaced
  8. 100 push ups – I’m up to 60 without stopping, 80 without resting more than 5 secs
  9. Touch my toes
  10. Salsa Dance classes
  11. Chocolate farm
  12. Winery

So, that’s not bad so far! But I also don’t want to finish my trip until I’ve finished a few more things, and I’m feeling ready and motivated to get them done. This has made me refocus myself on my own experiences and goals, and I’ve been feeling much more determined, focused, and self-determining. After all, no one gave me these goals to do – I picked them myself. Also, I’m feeling more constrained about the deadline. I only have 6 mos left here in Bogota, and then … I don’t know how long I’ll take to explore Peru and Chile and Argentina and Uruguay to finish out my trip, but it won’t take too long and I feel the end in sight. I don’t have a fixed date because it’s still open and flexible, but I know it’s there, and that inspires me to keep going, to finish what I set out to do, to not settle for less.

There are a few things that I’m doing with my time here (I have a good amount of free time), besides my teaching online, my teaching in-person, and my gym attendance.

One is learning to use a Pressure Cooker (and learning how to do soups), learning how to cook Indian food and Thai food, learning Salsa Dancing (with a professional teacher), and learning Mandarin Chinese (again). I’m doing the Mandarin online which is awesome! My teacher is really good, and the grammar is so different! As for cooking, I have always enjoyed cooking.  Also, I usually watch the Late Show with Stephen Colbert (it’s important to laugh in these troubling times) and so I can both relax and feel that I’m constantly improving in the skill of cooking.

Anyway, that’s all for my thoughts so far.  🙂

Puerto Inirida

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This past weekend, on the recommendation of my friend Eric Tabone, I went to the tiny town of Puerto Inirida, which is, ironically, a capital of one of Colombia’s departments (their version of US states). I say ironic only because it’s a capital city, and yet it’s so small that there’s only two parks… and no movie theater. There are two flights a day max (Bogota and Villavicencio) and sometimes only one (Bogota). It’s pretty far out for Colombia, on the far Eastern edge of Colombia, right on the border with Venezuela, and there are no highways to that connect it to other major cities like, for example, from Bogota. Your only option is to fly there or fly to another (remote) city and then take a river cruise down. I don’t know current numbers but in 2011, the population was 15.7k (2/3 in the city, 1/3 in the rural surrounding areas) and 47%/53% indigenous/non-indigenous. So about half indigenous communities! 🙂

 

The area is a famous for its flower, La Flor de Inirida, which changes colors, and alternates in blooming seasons, without any care or protection by humans.  It’s also called the Eternal Flower because it never wilts or falls apart (like regular flowers do).  It just loses color over time.

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There are two types: winter (only 1 flower per plant, smaller, less bright colors) and sumer (I think 3 flowers per plant, larger, more bright in color).

I left at 1:30 from Bogota, landed around 2:45pm, and then got into the main city and had a huge fish platter at a restaurant recommended to me by a lady at the airport. Because the sun sets so early, I decided that I would just walk around the city until it gets dark and get a feel for it. The meal was 22k, and cheap hamburgers were about 11k so I figured that it was about 150-200% of the Bogota food prices. The park looked nice, the people are very low-key and friendly.

 

We started off a 2.5-day tour the next day, in canoe to from Cano Ramon to the Laguna de las Brujas. In the rainy season (April – October?), the rivers swell and so the trails are all covered, by about 3-4m of water! It’s a lot! It was a lot of fun, we saw pink dolphins all around us checking us out, and then we came back to have breakfast.

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Then, we got into the Jeep to go to Cerro Vitina where there’s a small outcrop of rocks which you can hike and have a beautiful, expansive panoramic view with an indigenous guide. We also saw the two types of Flor Inirida (the winter flower and the summer flower). This was, for me, one of the most beautiful parts of the trip.

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We came back and had a very expansive lunch. In the afternoon, we took a boat about 1.5 hours away to see La Estrella Fluvial de Inirida, and we hung out in an area callled Rupestre Amarru.

 

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They call it La Estrella Fluvial because it’s an area where rivers increasingly mix. At first, it’s the Rio Inirida and Rio Guaviare that come together. They then meet up with another river, Rio Guainia, and then they meet up with another large river, Rio Orinoco. That area where Guaviare/Inirida, Guainia, and Orinoco happen pretty quickly and so it’s a big mix of colors that, in the summer season (with less water) is more distinct and colored. In the winter when it’s raining so much, the colors are diluted much more and it’s hard to see the pretty colors mixing. So while I don’t have any cool colors, it was at least a very enjoyable boat ride AND we talked about how the water is yellow-colored from Inirida/Guaviare (and less acidic, with more nutrients, etc.) and red-colored from Orinoco/Guainia (more acidic, with a reddish-tint from the rapidly-decomposing branches/leaves due to the high acidity).

Rio Guaviare is more clean, potable, rich in fish, and nutritious for the soil. The indigenous people on this side of the river can cultivate yuca, potato, onion, platano, and bananas. On the other side, Rio Guainia, they don’t clear out the land because the soil is so negatively-affected by the acidity of this “half-river” and they can’t cultivate any crops here. So actually, it is more full of trees and looks more lush. It’s so funny – the “healthy” soil area has so much grassland (for cattle) and small cultivated plants/crops that the other side seems so much more lush and just full of plants.

This is basically in Venezuelan territory, so I can now say that I’ve been to Venezuela, even though nobody stamped my passport and it’s all closed indigenous communities who don’t care at all about tourists along the border. 🙂 We came back and passed through Sabanitas, a nice little artesanal-selling community with a few trails nearby that I would later return to.

That’s a lot for one day!!

Anyway, the next day we woke up very early again to take a motor boat even farther than before, about 2.5 hours each way to the Mavacure Hills. These are the “famous mountains” (they’re not mountains) in the area, and the highlight of any trip this far out. It’s a pretty long ride, so we were all very ready to get out of the boat when we finally arrived! The mountains are beautiful, and very steep with striaces in the rock from the winds and rain. When you arrive by boat, they stretch to the sky because everything is so flat all around. They are three hills that form part of the Guainia Shield, and they are collectively called “Pajarito/Mono/Mavicure, 712m, 480m, and 170m respectively. They can only be accessed by river (duh) and are sacred according to the local indigenous populations. They are three granite monoliths, but while they don’t appear so, they are actually one giant rock that’s been carved, hewn, and eroded over time to give the impression of three giant hills bisected by a river. We can only climb up the small Mavicure Hill, which we did, and we have a nice view of the largest hill (called “Pajarito” or little bird) because there’s a window-looking area in the rock that, according to legend, is where the sacred Princess would stay and a bird would fly to her window. 🙂

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We hiked up the small mountain (which is still a fairly strenuous hike) and then back down the slippery granite face to spend the night with the indigenous community. Our lunch/dinner was delicious fish, and then I had a really nice sleep in a hammock (with a mosquito net!). There’s no electricity past 8pm, and they had no showers either. People just bathe in the river when they need to.

After this, we came back to Puerto Inirida the next day (Sunday) and arrived around noon. Our tour was finished! After a nice lunch, I traveled to Coco Viejo, a small indigenous community located about 15 mins away, and just hung out with the locals for a few hours. I also hung out near the river for a bit. The next morning, I got up at 5am to go do a hike in Sabanitas (which has like 5 hikes all around them!) but I only had time to do one. With all the rain, it was slow-going and a very long trail, so I came back to the hotel, took a 45 min nap and packed up, and then I left the hotel to go to the airport.

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It was a great trip overall because it’s such an isolated and remote area. It’s full of small indigenous communities that sometimes even have another matching community on the Venezuelan side. For them, country borders mean nothing. Based on what the few people I talked to told me, it seems like you’re either a part of their local community (on either border), or you’re not. It’s very interesting to entertain this provincial mindset, of a very strong “in/out” identity. I tend to have more of a layers of identity mindset, like “Dallas/Fort Worth” then “Texas” then “southern” then “American” – although while traveling, I tend to associate more with the American identity than any other identity. For them, it’s very stark.

Unfortunately, I didn’t have any interesting conversations about the after-life or their religious practices, but I did hear that the communities near the Mavacure Hills don’t do any dancing or drinking alcohol because of the Baptist missionaries that converted them. I thought this was tragic, and our guide did too. He said that they had lost so much of their knowledge of local plants, (including hallucinogenic plants), rituals and dances associated with these plants and a tight attachment to the land, etc. that others, the very very few who were hostile to the Baptist missionaries, have maintained over time. For our tour guide, the (majority) communities who were converted to Protestant Christianity had lost tremendous amounts of their history and culture that they are now largely undifferentiated from the Colombians that have moved to the area (except that they still live in huts, with limited access to running water or electricity).

My new life in Bogota!

I’ve been in Bogota for a little over two weeks now, and since so much has happened in my life, I figured that now is a good time for a blog post!

Life in Dallas

First, my time in Dallas, TX was great. I had a really wonderful time with my Granny (Dad’s Mom) and Nai Nai (Mom’s mom). I stayed with each of them for 4 days which made sense logistically (since I didn’t have a car) and because I wanted to get a LOT of time with them! We mostly just spent time talking about my travels, about their own travels, or just hanging out.

 

Now that my life is much busier, I find myself fondly reminiscing of my time with them because it was so calm and tranquil. I didn’t have anything to do for pretty much any day, and it’s nice to live like that! If I was retired, I think I would want that. I might have to have a rule like only 2 things max per day to do!

The other thing I’ll mention is that they both (and my parents too) showed me so much hospitality. What I mean by hospitality is that they went out of their way to specifically bless me when I came to visit their “place”. They got me my favorite fruit, cooked me my favorite meals, got me my favorite chips (chex mix, goldfish, and bbq chips), bought little coffee keurigs even though they don’t use them, had super nice bathroom supplies for me (that I would never buy for myself), and, to a large extent, adapted their time schedules to mine and what I wanted to do (like teach English!). It was incredible and humbling and something that “hit me” for some reason. It made me want to do my own hospitality practice here in Bogota for Couchsurfers, for those of you familiar with the website. (Update: already done it!!)

Life in Bogota

I really like the city of Bogota. It is full of people and with a population of 8 million, it’s their version of New York – except with less-good public transportation. The TransMilenio (kind of their version of express bus, because they have their own lanes) is not bad, and it’s affordable. I mean, my bike is free, but sometimes I have to travel like 45 minutes to the person’s house and instead, I just take the bus.

They also have regular buses, but those kind of suck because they compete with cars in those lanes and are always stopping to pick people up, etc. So what do you get when you have a city with a huge population? Trash. People who mind their own business. People who want to connect but are hesitant to rush into that because they don’t trust you. Congestion. People who are living their day-to-day! You get different neighborhoods all over the place! Side note: I’m in a good area but 1 block away from a “not great” area lol.

I love it!

I don’t think I realized how much I love big cities until I lived away from them for a long time and yeah, they’re quite different. I just love the realness of them, with the trash and mess and people in a hurry and people too busy to spy on you and don’t give a crap about your personal life. Also, if you need something, they are there for you. I haven’t had really chemistry with fellow foreigners, but I have felt connections with Colombians!

As you may know from facebook, my studio apartment is superrrrrr nice. I did have to put quite a few expenses up front like my visa or stuff to live in my apartment (my studio had literally nothing in it except a half bar of soap and a broom).

I’ve felt a little stressed about money because of that. I’ve been feeling all the feelings when you drop a lot of money – not buyer’s remorse, but like a feeling that I’m living too extravagantly, that I overextended myself with this lifestyle that I’m now stuck with until December, that I’ve trapped myself into a very costly way of life, that I’m now dependent on my (two) jobs and that’s irresponsible.

I’ve only gotten 11 hours of teaching so far, and I’m supposed to have 22 hours/week. I understand that in the beginning, they’re still trying to confirm with people about scheduling classes and such, so I expect to be getting my “full schedule” of about 22 teaching hours a week, but even then, people cancel and it’s not a big deal – for them. It’s kind of a big deal for me since I don’t get paid if I don’t teach, and I need that money! LOL.

Luckily for me, I am able to teach English online which pays pretty well. Without it, I would be sooooo screwed monetarily! I am very grateful for this opportunity to teach online and I think I do a good job. My feelings regarding my teaching English jobs go in waves, as probably all of my feelings do, but one thing that’s consistent is my gratitude.

My life has been good here. I have a bike, which I love. I’m all settled into the apartment. I have a nice hot-water shower and a super nice gym membership! All my clothes are put away, and I clean the apartment every day. I’ve enjoyed my few classes teaching with Bogota Business English and am making enough money to survive thanks to my online English classes. (Still not saving though, sad face.) I am taking 3 hours a week of individual Spanish classes and am about to move that up to 6 hours a week. I’m still doing linear algebra, but that may change soon. I even work out at the gym 5 days a week, and I’m that guy who records everything in my handy-dandy gym notebook! 🙂

I’m still learning things, and I’m not only talking about Spanish or linear algebra or how to teach English better. I’ve recently branched out in my cooking by doing Indian food for the first time (the spices were ridiculously expensive, but it’s been on my mind for a few years). I’ve also been utilizing my blender by making my own sauces. I made a mango salad dressing (never done salad dressings before and didn’t have a vinaigarette dressing lol) and my own margarita mixes (a strawberry mix and a classic lime mix, both of which were fantastic). I continue to make my own fresh fruit juice. I’ve perfected my guacamole and expressed my delight for it by spending an obscene amount of money (comparatively) on avocadoes. More than I spend on any other food item!! I’ve even given up on coffee in the mornings and chosen instead to do tea. (I sometimes do a 4 oz tiny coffee cup in the afternoons lol.)

I recently had the pleasure to host 2 couchsurfers and to practice hospitality! They are lovely people from Germany and Argentina, and we have enjoyed just hanging out in the evenings. I really like having couchsurfers, at least polite ones. 🙂 And as they’re my first ones, they have set a very positive tone for me for CS!

My main focus/intention this year is still developing my Spanish and everything else kind of falls into place around that. I have my commitments, which are teaching English; I have my discipline routines (Spanish and gym); and I think I’m doing good on taking care of myself regarding naps, errands, and healthy eating. For instance, I haven’t gone to a restaurant in over two weeks! 🙂

That’s basically my life in a nutshell, at least for how I feel right now. I am doing really well and hope you are too!! 🙂