Monday, July 11, 2016

Cartagena Colombia

My last trip to Colombia was mostly about hanging out at Diana's mom and dad's house and going to doctor appointments. It was nice but not as fun as past visits like when we went with her folks to the coffee area. We decided that this trip would be different and we wanted to go somewhere new (for me) to have some fun. With Fidu and Juaco back to their former farmer-strength selves, we chose Cartagena. A day after arriving in Bogota, it was back to BOG for a short flight with mom, dad, and one of Diana's brothers and, voila, we were in the Caribbean!

Cartagena was founded by the Spanish in the 1500s and part of the old town is inside a fortified wall. From the top of the wall looking towards Boca Grande where there's a lot of newer high-rise hotels and apartment buildings:

There were two different events going on the week we were there that gave it extra flavor; the anniversary of the founding of Cartagena and the Copa America futbol tournament. There were yellow jerseys for sale everywhere as well as on lots of people.

Fernando Botero sculpture, La Gordita, in one of the plazas in the old part of town:

Old town has two faces; during the day, it's a mix of locals going about their daily business and tourists taking it all in. We had fun checking out the old houses, public buildings, churches, and plazas but, it was hot! And humid! It's in the evening, after the sun went to bed that it was way easier to walk around to enjoy the relative peace and quiet and lovely scenery.

The historical part of town is divided into two, one inside the wall and another nearby but just outside the wall. We came across a plaza where they were celebrating the city's birthday with a musical variety show. It reminded me a bit of the first evening I lived in Merida, Mexico, and I watched the Noche Mexicana show, which was probably the single moment when I fell in love with traveling.

The Getsemani neighborhood (outside the wall) had a much more hippy feel to it. Lots of college students, most sounding like they were from the United States, hanging out in the streets smoking pot and drinking beer. It was like a fraternity party had been brought in for the evening.

So, if you still have any doubts about visiting Colombia, it's time to get over them and go visit this amazing country. It's safe, so safe in fact, that the discount travel folks have found a way-cheaper and more-authentic locale than the likes of Cancun. Until Cuba's open to us U.S. passport holders, we'll have to (happily) make do with scenes like this one:

...and this:

Our second day in town, we spent the morning at the Castillo San Felipe de Barajas, which is a large fort complex overlooking the city and bay.

Even after visiting the fort, I have my doubts if it was built on top of a hill or if the hill is the result of building the fort. My guess is that it was a hill first and they covered with what you can see. It's the impressive (and massive) series of tunnels, storage, barracks, and water tanks you can't see that give me my doubts.

Don't let the clouds in these photos fool you. Like I said earlier, it was H-O-T hot! We stopped for frequent breaks and drank way too much water. Here's Diana's mom and dad taking advantage of an old canon, which was used as winch point to bring supplies up to the top, during one of our stops. Note Fidu representing Philadelphia by rocking the Phillies hat my dad gave her when he came to Colombia a couple of years ago. Way to go Fidu!

While we were at the fort, Diana's brother hired a driver to take us to our next two stops, the first of which, La Popa, is Cartagena's highest point. There's a monastery, which is nice, but it's the view of all of Cartegena, the bay, and the ocean beyond that takes the prize. If you look at the photo below up close, you'll see the Castilla San Felipe de Barajas, which is beyond the yellow building above Diana's head, and the old walled city just beyond that. Nice view!

We wanted to eat some good fresh seafood and the driver recommended a place he knew out at La Boquilla, which is a narrow island just north of the city. You get there by driving, along with basically all the other local traffic on the sand just up from the water. Lining the entire way is a series of covered "restaurants" that really aren't much more than tents where you can get some food made in nearby houses. As good as that sounds, our meal was just okay. We had better in town for pretty much the same price.

What made the visit worthwhile though was the setting. Diana and her family went in the water while I took photos and enjoyed the locals going about their business. At one point, a fishing boat came in and I watched the maybe twenty guys pushing the boat up onto the beach, bring in the haul, and tend to the nets. While all this was going on, a series of vendors sold mangoes and other snacks to the most-likely freshly flush fishermen. What a great experience! And the view's pretty nice too!

Another day trip was over to the beach at La Boca Grande, which is the more modern side of Cartagena. I'd imagine that most of the tall buildings have been built in the last few years with many still under construction. The beach itself is full of rental beach chairs and umbrellas, small restaurants, and an army of people trying to earn a living from anyone who's not a local.

We ate lunch at a place that had the appearance of being made from leftover lumber and may have lacked indoor plumbing. Depending on your style this may not sound appetizing but I can tell you that the view from the tables on the sand were first-class and the food. Well, let's just say, like when we ate on the streets in China, it was the best meal of the trip. The fresh fish was the size of my thigh and my pina colada, which was made with fresh coconut and pineapple by the nextdoor business, was also super yummy and I'd go back in a second! And, as a bonus, Diana and her mom got massages at the same time!

And about those views...

Diana and her family wanted to take a boat ride out to the nearby Rosario islands, which is supposedly one of the must-dos when visiting Cartagena. We woke up extra early one day and headed over to the docks full of energy.

That is, until I found that it was like four-plus hours in the boat between coming and going. If you've been reading my blog before, you may have seen I'm not the biggest fan of boats. It's not that I'm at all afraid or anything. It's just the idea of being on a boat for four hours is not my idea of a fun day. So, I opted out, gave some goodbye hugs, took photos of the dearly departing, and happily headed back into town to enjoy some alone time!

After stopping back at the house to drop off my stuff, I went to the highly promising Museum of the Inquisition, which is located in an old colonial-style palace inside the walled city.

A quick side story before getting into the museum. When we were kids and often when the whole family was gathered together like at Thanksgiving, my dad would lead a game he called Torture. Although I'm still not clear on what the rules were, it involved all of us jumping on him while he acted as the torturer. As games often say on the box, it was fun for all ages.

I fully expected a museum version of this game. Maybe a bit more hardware, a lot more raw flesh, and gobs more crying. With the exception of the display below, it was surprisingly short of torture. In retrospect, I foolishly confused "Museum of the Inquisition" with "Museum of Torture", which I'm sure exists somewhere I haven't yet gone.

Having said that, it was a good museum and I learned a lot about a topic that I probably slept through during my schooling. A nice extra was a few rooms filled with some more modern art done by (very talented) local kids. It included drawings of daily-life experiences like random things seen while riding the bus, times at school, and even family-time. And, no, there was no Torture game artwork. Maybe like comedy, the game doesn't travel well.

I'll often have moments when I'm hyper-aware of the setting and me in that setting. I've tried writing about it before but I've never been able to really capture what I meant. As an example, I recently found myself standing and waiting on a street outside a post-wedding party I had just attended. The variety of people I was surrounded by, the number of languages being spoken, the setting of the street I was standing on, the random people passing by were mesmerizing. It was so much in such a compressed time and space that it really struck me and made me reflect on what path got me to that random spot at that random moment.

Other times, I'll be in the middle of something that could be a scene out of one of those movies where the director focuses on all the micro details of what's going on (like I said, this is a bit hard to explain). While we were walking around a random Cartagena neighborhood, the moment captured in the photo below, I had one of these hyper-aware moments.

The amount of traffic passing by, the mini buses packed with locals heading wherever, the guy talking on the phone at a way-too-high volume, the people selling items at the stand, the palm trees, the heat and humidity of the day, the smells of food cooking on the street, the modern shopping center, all the random folks walking by or just hanging out, and even the "mototaxis" between the bus and the curb (mototaxis are a lower-cost version of a taxi). It was all a bit surreal and made me stop and wonder for a moment how I had arrived at that specific moment.

I wonder if this is how people feel when the meditate; an awareness of everything all at once. Or maybe it's the opposite as meditation might be the hyper-awareness of nothing at all. In any case, it's moments like this when I can be found in one of my happy places.

The scene in the next photo was a surprise. While walking through the Parque del Centerio, old-town's Central Park, we came across a bunch of local kids practicing inline racing. All the kids had racing skates, spandex outfits, and the track was in great condition. I've been to Colombia before and have spent almost nine months in various parts of the country. I know it fairly well and I'm very comfortable there. But, this scene made me realize that, for some reason, I have some biases that are still embedded deeply in my brain.

Let's try something. Close your eyes and think about the idea of Colombia. What images flash into your mind? I can almost certainly guarantee that this is not one of them. All that other stereotypical crap, yeah that may have existed (and maybe somewhere still does) but this is real:

One of the more popular pastimes for locals and tourists alike is walking along the top of the city wall. Diana and I walked it at least once a day. It was a great place to people watch and just relax.

At one point along the wall, there are a series of openings that might have been where canons were placed. In the evenings, each of the openings would be filled with a single teenage couple pawing at each other while looking out over the sea. I joked with Diana one time that we should come early, stake out a place, and then sell our spot once all the others had been filled by sweaty teenagers in love. She thought it was a good idea, or so she says, and we spent maybe an hour one day just "hanging out" in our own little nest.

Another random Cartagena thing I enjoyed was the Portal de los Dulces, which is a small market area where people sell local-style sweets. There's lots of coconut and tropical-fruit-flavor candy some of which appears to be handmade and others that are definitely factory items. Diana and I stopped by one day to buy about $20 worth of candy (and sample another few dollars worth!) to take back to Bogota and Barcelona. Worth a visit if you're ever in town.

Our last morning in town was spent at the Naval Academy visiting with a friend of Diana's brother who is a naval officer at the school. We got the full tour, ate some coffee and sweet bread, and took a bunch of photos. It was interesting to see the facilities and learn about the history but, humorously, the thing I remember most is the cadets cleaning the statue below and the surrounding plaza. Some of them were hand cleaning the bricks and others were polishing the statue. It was hard work and it, again, was hot, hot, HOT in the sun!

Oh, and I need to mention that we stayed at an amazing, five-bedroom house that had a rooftop deck and a small pool in the courtyard. The house is colonial style with all the first floor rooms open to the courtyard, which is open to the sky. With the air conditioner on, it was very comfortable and pleasant to lounging by the pool drinking some Argentinian wine. This is the life!

Dinner on our last night in town:

It was nice to be back in Colombia with Diana's family and to be able to spend so much time with her mom, dad, and brother in such a beautiful house and city. Plus, it was way better than refreshing my knowledge of the Colombian medical system!

Sunday, June 19, 2016

2016 Nike Barcelona SLS Skateboard Contest

When I was maybe eight or nine years old, I started getting seriously into bicycle riding. It started out innocently with a BMX bike that my parents gave me and, over the years, moved into more and more higher-end bikes and got to the point where I spent almost every waking hour when I wasn't in school or working riding with friends. To pay for my addiction, I started peddling (ha - punny!) newspapers when I was ten and later other jobs included selling, doing repairs, and so on in bike and skateboard shops.

My biking "career" spanned the last couple of years of grade school, through high school, and even some time at university. A lot of it was racing BMX but, by the time I was in 10th grade, our group of friends started "doing freestyle", which was stunt riding on BMX bikes. It was right around then that we also got into skateboarding. Some of the same spots that were good for freestyle lent (and still do lend) themselves nicely to skateboarding. Plus, when it rained or snowed, the bikes stayed home; we were limited to skateboarding in Center City Philadelphia parking structures.

About half way through university, a friend from high school moved to San Diego to work in the skateboard industry. I went to visit him for a week or so one summer and, within a couple of hours of landing in Los Angeles, I was hooked. Right after university, I was off to California where I spent the next 19 years. The whole time I was surrounded by friends who worked in the skateboarding, snowboarding, and surfing industries. I was even lucky to work in the bicycle and snowboard industries for a while.

One those friends, John John, who managed what so many dream of doing - turn a love (of action sports) into an amazing job and lifestyle, recently messaged asking if I'd be around as he could get me tickets to the Nike Street League Skateboarding Pro Open contest.

I told John John that, of course, we'd love to go! When the day arrived, Diana and I took the train to the Skate Agora skatepark in Badalona, which is the next town north of Barcelona. We grabbed our V.I.P. bracelets and set in to enjoy watching pro skaters from around the world compete on the newish, well-designed, beach-side park.

Since moving away from California, I've only been marginally aware of the industry and sports that occupied such a majority of my time on this planet. Barcelona has its own (fairly big) skateboarding scene, the mountains are close, and you'll even see the occasional surfer at the beach but it's just not the same intensity as it was in Oceanside. It was nice to be back in the mix, even if just as an observer.

Thanks for the tickets John John! We had a great time (vicariously) reliving my youth. Maybe when you and the family come for a visit, we can roll around the park for a bit!

Saturday, June 11, 2016

Edinburgh Scotland

Never saying no to an opportunity, Diana and I were lucky enough to take a surprise, last-minute weekend trip to Edinburgh, Scotland:

The trip was almost exactly ten years since my last visit. Back then, pre-whereisdarrennow, I spent a couple of days in Glasgow, maybe four or five days driving up to Inverness and then back down to Edinburgh for a couple of more days. Here's a shot of me (with my hair just starting to grow out!) looking for Nessie at Loch Ness:

Being that it had been ten years, I couldn't remember exactly what Edinburgh was like. I think it was partially due to having visited Glasgow, Inverness, Edinburgh, as well as a few other towns along the way, which made them all kinda' run together. But, once we arrived and were walking around, many details came back.

The Edinburgh castle as seen from the King's Stables area:

We arrived in time for a late-afternoon pub lunch, which consisted of some kind of meat pie, mashed potatoes, and, of course, gravy. I'm generally a wine drinker but, when visiting England or Ireland, I like trying the different ciders. Sometimes they're really good and other times they're waaaay too sweet. It wasn't until going to this pub that I learned that there are different sweetness levels and that I could ask for a "dry" cider. Yummy food, yummy company, AND yummy cider!

We spent the next six or seven hours walking around town. Even after living in Europe for over six years, I'm still impressed by the architecture and walkability. Yes, I know that U.S. cities like Philadelphia, Boston, and New York can be similar but there's just something about buildings and places that have been continuously inhabited for hundreds, if not thousands of years.

I'm guessing that demographics and culture are changing in Scotland like they are in the United States. Near where I grew up, some churches and catholic schools are closing down due to a lack of local parishioners including my grade school. Walking around Edinburgh, we came across churches that had been repurposed into museums, theaters, restaurants, and even night clubs. I've always wanted to live in an old firehouse including being able to go downstairs in the morning using the pole but I had never considered an old church before now!

We walked up to the castle to take in the city view. Looking out towards the Salisbury Crags (the hill off in the distance - more below), I remembered this scene very well from my last trip.

It was fairly late in the day by the time we reached the castle so we decided it wasn't worth it to go in for only an hour. Plus, I had done it before...gotta' love that hair!

On our way back to the apartment, we stopped to take some professional portraits overlooking the city:

...and mine (Diana's definitely a better photographer!)...

Okay, so a bit of a random digression. Why is it that if you try to use "Scottish" pounds in a London shop do they look at you like the money is fake but when using "English" pounds in Scotland it's no problem?

In the photo below, you'll see two ten-pound and two five-pound notes. The middle two were issued by the Bank of England, the top one by Clydesdale Bank (a Scottish bank), and the bottom by the Bank of Scotland. Regardless of where the money is issued, it's worth the same; a ten-pound note is always worth ten pounds, or at least I'm told. I just know that I'll probably have trouble trying to use my leftover "Scottish" money during my next trip to England.

One last thing; if you look at the two middle notes, both have similar (the same?) picture of the queen. But, and it's probably just me or maybe even the fact that the five-pound note is more wrinkled, the queen on the five appears to be pensively looking out to her right while the one on the ten-pound note seems to be looking at us with an almost sexy stare!

Our second day in town started with me eating a Full English, which is like a U.K. breakfast Bandeja Paisa. As with its cousin from Colombia, there are eggs, sausages, (baked) beans, ham (bacon), fried mushrooms, toast, and white and (my favorite) black pudding. All that and a cup-o-Joe and you're all set for a good day. Yummy!

Our big bust out for the trip was taking the Underground City tour, where you go below what is now the city chambers to see old dwellings. When the building was built, they removed the top floors of housing and left the bottom few floors as foundation.

They do a great job of setting the scene for what life was like in the city during the late middle ages. The housing of the era could be up to maybe nine floors with the distance between facades of maybe five feet apart. There was very little light that got to the bottom floors where the poorest people lived in their tiny, low-ceiling, one-room dwellings.

I'd imagine it was quite lovely walking down Mary King's Close (the name of the street below) especially considering the residents would dispose of their waste, including human, out their front windows twice a day. There was no sewer system to speak of, other than the rain - bombs away!!!

Apart from the thought of the "black rain", the guide told us about how the plague impacted the city. Much like Barcelona and other European cities, the flea-borne disease decimated the local population.

Many cities had doctors who would go out among the victims to try to help them and to also provide accurate counts of the dead. These "plague doctors" wore heavy garments and masks as protection from the evil spirits that brought the disease. The masks sometimes looked like a bird's beaks due to their long "nose" where the doctors would place herbs and other aromatic materials. It's now believed that these heavy garments provided some protection from flea bites, which helped them to not (always) get sick.

I took a photo of the Doctor Rae exhibit (Edinburgh's famous plague doctor) in one of the rooms where people used to live. I'm not sure what happened but the LED lighting must have confused my camera resulting in this unretouched photo, which I really like!

After the tour, we walked the rest of the way down the Royal Mile with a plan to hike up to the top of the Salisbury Crags, which is a large hill and rock formation in the center of town.

We stopped for a bit to enjoy the views and to watch some kids playing in a fountain. I laughed because it was maybe 60 degrees (15 C) and the kids were in shorts, some with shirts, and all having a fun time splashing around. The reason why I found it funny was because in Barcelona when it's that temperature parents have their kids (and most likely themselves) bundled up in winter clothes and would never imagine their kids playing in water at that temperature. But, much like when we lived in Germany, a 60 degree day is summer in northern Europe!

The Crags are lovely natural backdrop to the city and offer a 360-degree view of the whole Edinburgh area. It took us about an hour to make it to the top and we hung out and enjoyed the city and water views for another 30 minutes or so.

We were super lucky that the weather was great while we were in town. Locals told me that it was 16 days straight without rain, which ended the last morning we were in town, when it rained lightly.

Diana and I had a great time and really enjoyed the city and, of course, the food! A special shout out to some friends who made our last evening in town extra special with a nice dinner out. Thanks for the fun Scotland!