Friday, December 31, 2010

Dora, Diego, and River Dolphins

River dolphins? If you're like me, you've never heard of them before. But when I told my sister that I had been out to see some local river dolphins near Puerto Inirida she said "Oh, it's just just like in [the TV show] Dora." Here are two scenes from the "Diego Saves the River Dolphin" episode from the Dora-spin-off TV show "Go, Diego, Go" that she's referring to (Diego is Dora's cousin):

I have to be honest that I didn't know that I was going to see the dolphins before I actually saw them in the water. I thought I was joining the group to go for "just" a boat ride. (Note to self: must get better at Spanish...or listening...or both.) The boat left from the port in Inirida and headed up river about 20 minutes before stopping at an inlet between an island and the shore. We waited about three minutes and then up popped at least two dolphins.

***Warning - Getting decent pictures of dolphins is only slightly easier than photographing the Loch Ness Monster or Bigfoot.***

It turns out that there are four species of fresh-water dolphins (five until recently when a Chinese dolphin was declared extinct). One of them, the Amazon River Dolphin, is found in several river systems in northern and central South America including the Inirida River. Having seen lots of dolphins while I lived in San Diego, they were instantly recognizable.

Compared to what I'm used to, they are lighter gray with a pink hue to them (they are sometimes called Pink Dolphins too) and instead of a fin they have a hump on their backs. If you look closely at this photo, you'll see that there are two dolphins next to each other.

Two days later, I snapped a photo of these two nutrias (also known as perros de agua or water dogs) about five minutes down river from Inirida. They looked suspiciously like the seals you'd see in the ocean.

Who'da guess that I'd run into dolphins and seals in a river in the middle of the South American jungle? I guess I'll need to catch up on my Dora and Diego shows so I'll know what to look out for...or maybe I'll just ask my sister. She seems to know a lot about this stuff.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Puerto Inirida

Before I tell you about my trip to Puerto Inirida, I think that it might be helpful if I showed you a map of Colombia so that you can get your bearings. This map, conveniently enough, was painted on the side of a school in Inirida. I added names and arrows for Bogota, Chiquinquira, Inirida, and the Coffee and Amazon areas, which I hope to go to while in Colombia, to show the relative locations of each.

What you'll notice right away is that Inirida (in the Department of Guainia) is way off on the eastern edge of Colombia right up against Venezuela and a bit north of Brazil. As I mentioned in my Air Colombia story, you pretty much can only get there by air. I took this photo of the "entire town" and river from the plane. The port is on the river just to the left of the wing and main street extends out to the left of the port:

The town of approximately 11,000 (this number is official but seems way too high to me-they must include areas outside of the center of the town) is located at the intersection of the Inirida and Guaviare Rivers. Here's a shot of main street looking towards the river:

I loved the little, three-wheeled, motorcycle-cars that are used as taxis. From what I could tell, they are made in India. A ride across "town" costs about 3000 Pesos ($1.50 U.S.) and going "all the way out to the airport" costs about 6000 Pesos ($3.00 U.S.). The reality is the town is so small that, unless you're carrying heavy items from the store, you can walk pretty much anywhere in less than 15 minutes (and the sightseeing is better).

The rivers serve as the main transportation arteries between the villages in the area. If you hang out long enough at the port...'ll see pretty much everything and anything being loaded or off loaded. The people in this boat are from another village on the river and were in town to sell fruit and fish and to go shopping:

The most common method for navigating the river is in a "Bongo", which is a large wooden boat that can hold quite a bit of people and stuff.

It's amazing to me that they're made from ONE piece of wood! They're carved out of one super large tree trunk. We just don't see trees that big in the United States except maybe for the Redwoods or something like that. I've personally seen 24 people and all their stuff in one of the Bongos. To give you some perspective, this is me sitting at the back of one:

The area is tropical-very hot and verrrrrry humid. During the day, people are out doing things but it really starts to come alive in the evenings. Main street is full of families shopping, eating, and just hanging out. It's a surprisingly fun place to visit as the surrounding area is full of amazing sites like rivers in many different colors (like this red one-no, it's not polution)...

...large unusual rock formations for climbing, fishing and boating (and dolphin watching!), or just hanging out enjoying sunsets:

It's fairly difficult to get to but I definitely enjoyed the trip. I did a lot while there so I have at least a couple of more stories to post from the area. Stay tuned...

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Flying Cargo - Air Colombia

When I was younger I frequently heard stories about how you could fly as a courier on commercial airlines and others where you could find cheap seats on cargo flights. From what I remember of the stories, as a courier you would pick up documents in one city, go to the airport and get on a (free-for-you) flight to another city, and then drop off the documents when you got there. The cargo flights supposedly had "a few seats" that sometimes were available depending on the load the flight was carrying. They both sounded too good to be true so I never really looked into them.

Well, I guess some urban legends are true... This is my ticket for a cargo flight leaving Villavicencio, Columbia bound for Puerto Inirida, Colombia at a cost of 300,000 Pesos ($150 U.S.):

Puerto Inirida, which I will write more about later, is on the eastern border of Colombia with Venezuela. It's so remote that there's (almost) no way to get there other than by plane. Also, the town is so small that only about three or four flights per week go there, two of which are via this Air Colombia DC-3 (note my orange luggage below the wing of the plane):

That's correct, a Douglas DC-3, which was designed in 1935 and built (most likely in Santa Monica or Long Beach, California) in 1943! The plane was originally purchased by the U.S. Air Force, later sold to the Royal Canadian Air Force, and has been owned by Air Colombia since 1982. The DC-3 revolutionized commercial air travel in the U.S. by making it possible to fly coast-to-coast in as little as 15 hours. Interestingly enough, my outbound flight was on December 16th, one day prior to the 75th anniversary (December 17, 1935) of the first DC-3 flight!

The plane seemed to be in great condition especially considering its age. The interior was bare except for some canvas seats that are bolted to the walls. Here's a view of the first-class cabin on this Air Colombia flight:

...and here's how you don't get to the bathroom (yeah, just past the fruit trees, boarding stairs, two crates with dogs in them, passenger luggage, and assorted other packages):

Both the outbound and return flights were great and the lack of any in-flight entertainment, food, drinks, or snacks on board are very familiar to anyone who has flown in the last few years on a commercial airline in the United States. As I mentioned, Puerto Inirida is WAAAAY out there. The scenery out the windows is basically jungle with the occasional river thrown in:

The flight stops both ways in the tiny town of Barrancominas, which looks like there are about 500 residents. One local told me that the town doesn't even appear on a map of Colombia. Here's main street Barrancominas looking towards the "airport":

The stopover on both of my flights was to drop off and pick up both passengers and cargo. During the outbound flight the cargo that was dropped off was mostly Christmas-present-looking stuff, but...on the way back...FISH!!! Lots of fish! You can see a couple of the metallic bags with fish in them in this shot baggage-handling equipment pulled up to the plane:

All in all, Air Colombia was a great adventure. The flights were smooth and the folks who own and operate it were super nice and always very courteous. I felt surprisingly safe at all times. Even with the load of fish on the return flight, I wouldn't hesitate to take another trip on this piece of living history. Maybe I can get a job as a courier here in Colombia and get to fly with them again...

Friday, December 24, 2010

Christmas Lights In Colombia

In the spirit of Christmas, I've been taking photos of some of the Christmas lights that I've come across here in Colombia. This first one is in Plaza Bolivar in the center of Bogota where they have an ice-skating rink and other holiday stuff set up. Note Mr. and Mrs. Shreck in Santa clothes:

This one was taken on Calle Septima (Seventh Avenue) also in downtown Bogota. They were having a street festival one night with lots of lights, music, and food.

This one is of a random street somewhere in Bogota:

On this street they had put lights overhead and along the sides. They were spraying bubbles from each pole that made it look (somewhat) like there was light snow on the ground.

In this park in Bogota there are tons of lights and displays that you can walk past:

Another photo from the same park as above:

...and yet another park with lights in Bogota:

This one is a park built around the Puente Boyaca, which is where the battle was fought granting Colombia independence:

I particularly liked how they "covered" the stream that runs through the park with blue lights to simulate water:

This is the main plaza and cathedral in Villavicencio:

Yes, that's a giant ant next to a Christmas tree in the main plaza in Puerto Inirida:

And, finally, this display is inside a shopping mall here in Bogota. I couldn't pass up the chance to climb over the ropes and create my own Juan Valdez Christmas scene:

Merry Christmas, Happy Holidays, Feliz Navidad, Happy New Year, Feliz Año Nuevo, and even あけましておめでとうございます to everyone and thanks again for stopping by at my blog. I hope to see both of you sometime very soon.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Mobile-Phone Entrepreneurs

I've read a bunch of stories about different parts of the world, especially in Africa, where people with mobile phones have started businesses by charging people a set, per-minute price to use their phones. Here in Colombia you can see this type of entrepreneurial business everywhere. What is different in these photos is that the phones are literally chained to the owner while the customers are using them.

I understand why this is the case. It would be relatively easy for someone to walk off with one of the phones while the owner is distracted with another customer but (to me) it looks kinda' funny. When I saw them I immediately thought about that executive-looking guy in the airport pacing back and forth while yelling into his phone and how frustrated he'd probably be by the chain.

The per-minute prices that I've seen are usually somewhere between 100 and 200 Pesos (approximately $0.05 to $0.10 U.S.) depending on where the owner is and how much competition is around. Both of these photos were taken in downtown Bogota within a couple of blocks of each other and their prices are both 150 per minute.

I've gotten to the point where I don't even need "minutes" in my mobile-phone plan anymore. 95% of my "phone" usage is data now and when I do need to make a call, I use Skype Mobile probably half the time. I'm sure that I'm not alone in this trend. Imagine you're out and you need to login to facebook to send that important message or unfriend someone special but that you're out of data in your contract. How long will it be before someone offers a price-per-kilobyte to people in the street? The sign might read "minuto 150 / kilobyte 02".

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Milking Cows

Today was a big day for me. I woke up very excited after a fitful night's sleep. Yes, I was going to milk some cows! I know that for some this isn't really a big deal but if you're like me and grew up in a city, the closest you've probably been to cows is at a county fair or in the meat aisle of your local market. This was big. Chiquinquirá, cows, and me...a trio made in heaven!

As you can probably guess, I didn't do the 4am milking shift. I'm not that crazy. I opted for the more pedestrian 2pm shift. First step in the process was to mount the donkey...with the cart that's used to bring the cow food, supplies, and milk cans back and forth to the field. Outside world, meet Pepe the donkey:

I think that the cows are as excited to be milked as I was to be doing the milking. When they see Pepe they actually come running over to the milking station. It's obvious that there's a pecking (mooing?) order since the most aggressive cows were the first into the station. I hadn't seen this much pushing and shoving in line since I left China.

Once the cows are in the stalls metal bars are locked into place around their necks so that they can't back out. A rope is tied around their legs to help prevent them from backing out or trying to kick someone.

Two scoops of yummy Purina Cow Chow is mixed with one scoop of cow supplements. (I think that this is where the cow excitement comes from.) Milking commences at this point. The milker (?) sits on a small stool and proceeds to work away.

After about 30 minutes of observation, it was time for my big moment. I got on my stool and began frantically to grasp, yank, pull, and push like a 16-year-old boy trying to undo a bra. I can't say that I was very good but I did manage to get some milk into the bucket. Each cow seemed to give about two gallons of milk; I managed enough for this week's coffee...

It started to rain really hard about five minutes after the above photo was taken. I used my Scooby sense to figure out that the milkers wanted me to move along so that they could get done and get back home. I stayed around for a bit watching them work. Did I mention that it was raining? Hard.

After all the cows have been milked, everything is loaded back onto Pepe's cart and taken over to the house to be put away. The milk cans are placed at the end of the driveway to wait for the milk truck to come. It's a tank truck that has a vacuum hose coming out of it that they use to suck up the milk.

When I told my dad that I had milked a cow, he immediately asked me if I was sure that it wasn't a bull. Thanks Dad. Here's the video of me milking A COW:

Overall it was a super experience. I had a great time, made 19 new (cow) friends, and found a different exercise to increase hand and forearm strength. I hope that I get some more seat time with the cows in the future. Until then, I'll have this photo to help me remember my glory day...

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Chiquinquirá - Not Just For Dinner Anymore

Chiquinquirá? Sounds like some sort of chicken dish, doesn't it? Well, it's not. It's actually a small cow-ranching town in the mountains a couple of hours north of Bogota. "Chiquin" is the name of the town and "quira" means town in the indigenous Muiscas language of the central-highlands area of Colombia.

I spent the weekend on a working ranch and had a great time hanging out with the local folks and cows. But.......before I could become a serious cow hand, I had to stop by the market in town to pick me up some proper boots. This is the front of the central market of Chiquinquirá where you can find pretty much everything you'd need to live. They've got fresh meat, veggies, stuff for the ranch/farm, and, of course, footwear.

While inside, I tried some lines out on the local women. Here I am trying the "would-you-like-some-papaya?" routine (just kidding, she just happened to walk into the photo but I ended up liking it anyway):

After checking out the produce, it was time to look for some dinner meat. How's this for fresh chiquin...I mean...chicken?

I'm always entertained when buying shoes since I have giant, size 13 feet. As I was unable to buy shoes in Barcelona, I figured that I'd have no luck in the middle-of-nowhere Colombia but, wait, what's this?

Yep, size 12 (close enough) calf-high rubber ranching boots-they're all the rage here. Cost? $13 (U.S.) SCORE!!! Now I was ready for some serious man-on-cow action! With boots in hand, I went out front to my awaiting limo:

The limo driver took me out to the ranch. This is a photo of the house from the road out in front (beautiful, huh?):

The house is fairly small with six rooms in total. Three are used as bedrooms, one is a bathroom, one is a kitchen, and the last is used as a store room for animal feed and supplies. It's fairly rustic in that it was built over a hundred years ago and only has running water in the bathroom and outside. There's a cool old wood burning stove that's used for cooking that I really liked. The next photo is a view taken from behind the house towards one of the grazing fields out front. I'd like to be there when the cows are just outside the bedroom window.

Morning comes early on the ranch. The cows need to be milked twice a day so the people who milk them show up for their first pass at 4am. If they don't wake you up, the donkeys or roosters will soon after. If you know me at all, I'm not really a morning person. I like getting up between 8 and 10am when there's no alarm clock. To be honest though, there's not much to do once the sun goes down and you're pretty tired from chores so it's off to bed by 9pm. Yes, I said chores. Here I am washing the dishes using the old-fashioned method:

By day three, I was ready for the big time: Milking The Cows! You'll have to wait for my next post to see how it turned out but here's a shot of some of my future victims out in the field: