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You Gotta Fill Those Reservoirs!

Parque Los Angeles, between Parque Tayrona and Santa Marta.

Parque Los Angeles, between Parque Tayrona and Santa Marta.

This morning we woke up in paradise.

“I feel like I’m hatching from an egg every time I get out of that hammock,” Ash said, struggling free of hers, slung in a line of four.

We ate the oats that hadn’t spilled through my backpack, with water and bananas.

Breakfast of champions. Oats. SIN AZUCAR!

Breakfast of champions. Oats. SIN AZUCAR!

A great part of Colombia is the iguanas you can spot perched in trees.

A great part of Colombia is the iguanas you can spot perched in trees.

We hung around (literally) in hammocks talking smack at our campsite. I relished the energy of these three great ladies.

Ashley- The oldest in our quartet, with some delightful life experience up her sleeve. Running on German time, topped with good humour and utterly settled into herself. Whatever you need she probably has in her backpack. Nail file, sardines, pack of cards. Choosing to really live in Colombia (not just say she did, while only talking to other foreigners)- with a Colombian family in a small town down south, taking Spanish lessons and saying “yes” to most cultural opportunities that come her way. My partner in crime while we learned scuba diving, always up for a dark ale. A proud Newfy. Constantly bemused by Fiona.

Fiona- A Ugandan/Boston glamour with a whacked-out view on the world who makes me laugh at least once an hour. Often times more. Youthful, inquisitive and refreshingly strange. In a word, unique. Looking wistfully into the horizon she will declare, “Logic is the greatest threat to imagination,” before laughing at herself. A total babe, often found posing bikini-clad, with beautiful black skin, against scenes of ocean, coconut trees and bunches of bananas, so every time I glance up I‘m confronted by a postcard. More to her than you first garner – perseverance and enjoyment for life, and some street smarts. Going to live an interesting life.

Meg- The calm energy that flows through our group. Unflappable, caring and with a laid-back Aussie humour that makes me ache for home as though I’d just had Vegemite. Patient as a hunting hawk and far more mature than her age would normally dictate. A real giver and over-packer. Brought more shoes to Colombia than I put in storage at home. A definite island of sanity for me in the wash of loud, strange experiences that is Colombian life. Known to prefer bike or skateboard to feet. Heart of gold.

There's even dishes in the jungle. Sigh.

There’s even dishes in the jungle. Sigh.

Last night we’d built a failing fire on the sand. Green kindling the only at our disposal. Bear Grylls would have shaken his head, then asked his camera-man for some kerosene.

Our fire failed slowly as we spoke Spanglish with three chicos from Bucaramanga. They worked in hospitality, they told us, offering around rum and mandarins. They taught us some cool slang to say to our students, and were impressed we already knew ‘chichipato’.

We had beers and salad for dinner. Like all good athletes.

The next morning I caught the aggressive little waves, scrambling free before they pounded my head into the pebbles and shattered baby shells that made up the beach.

I met Juan Stephen from Medellin who was there with his surfer girlfriend. What a place for romance. He had a nipple pierced and an assortment of random tattoos. Probably the look I’d create for myself if I were a young, Colombian surfer bro. Good on you mate.

I was due to meet my housemates in the desert that evening. Little did I know how many forms of odd transport lay ahead of me.

It was April Fool’s Day.

I tried to text them; “Won’t make it, just jumped off a bus before he’d stopped properly and have broken my ankle. On way to Santa Marta hospital L Battery almost dead. Call later.”

No service. Dammit paradise!
And April Fool’s Day runs out at midday.

Blissed out reservoir filling.

Blissed out reservoir filling.

A beautiful sight. Helping hand when a friend can't swim.

A beautiful sight. Helping hand when a friend can’t swim.

I lay on the beach with Meg. The rainbowed threads of her Mexican blanket mirrored my mood. Amazing what good company can do to the spirits.

Red toenail polish, chipping off, poking through white sand. Blue and white waves biting the coast. Palms and peace and nothing but.

It was perfect here. And perfect doesn’t find you that often in the average week.

A guy was trying to surf in the 3m stretch between the breaking waves and the shore. I hoped he knew what he was doing. They were the kind of waves that enjoy snapping boards and necks.

I scouted out a green coconut, shook it for milk. It sounded just perfect. A hombre at the little juice bar on the sand cracked it for us. Hammering his machete down in expert blows. Ending with all his fingers still attached, sweet coconut water and a stack of the white fruit.

I sat in utter delight munching that white flesh.

Lunch for next month.

Lunch for next month.

A great guy told me something a great girl told him; People have reservoirs. We need to fill these reservoirs up with the good stuff, so we can drink from them in the shitty times.

Two days of the great conversation that female friendships are made up of.

Fiona regaled us with tales of her kingdom and Queen from Uganda. Whose name she didn’t know. We traded ridiculous banter. We talked about how Ash and I had made each other laugh underwater until we had to swim in opposite directions, lest our instructor refuse to certify us for scuba. Meg patiently corrected my Spanish.

I walked out to the road just after 1pm to flag down a bus and begin hoofing it up north to the desert. My reservoirs full to overflowing.

Never put up with bad people in your life. There are too many good ones out there.

Location of paradise: Parque Los Angeles, circa Parque Tayrona, Colombia.

Go there!

Go there!

Missing Ide!

Missing Ide!


Colombian Life…So Do You Get It?

Performers in Barranquilla's Carnival parade.

Performers in Barranquilla’s Carnival parade.

In Colombia time does not really exist. There are clocks sure, to decorate the walls.

My students wander in 15 minutes after class ‘officially’ starts, and cluster in groups catching up on the multitude of events that could have happened since they last saw each other… yesterday.

The fantastic women I get to teach English to.

The fantastic women I get to teach English to.

In Colombia events start an hour late, and people do things based on the general feeling for what time is right – rather than the actual time being right.

If you are supposed to meet somebody at 6pm and your cousin drops by for a coffee, you can happily show up at 7pm – no questions asked. No judgement passed. No explanation offered to your amigo… who was probably only showing up at 7pm himself anyway.

In one way it’s the most frustrating thing I have experienced. In another way it’s a return to the primal; the dividing of a day based on the slow unravelling of events – the feel rather than the obligation of things.

It certainly takes some getting used to, after coming from the time-based Western society. It is certainly still driving me nuts at times…..but I am getting used to it.

Having lived most of my life as the person who is 15 minutes late (as my friend Pip will attest to), it’s probably a good lesson to get a dose of my own medicine.

The only possible way for a FOP (Fresh off the Plane) to keep calm under such circumstances is to have nail polish or a book…. or even some mail you need to reply to, in your bag.

Anyway, Colombia has so many fantastic distractions for you while you adjust to the time warp, that it doesn’t really matter.

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Jugo naturales (natural juice), available everywhere, and one of my favourite things about this country.

Siesta: anytime, anywhere.

Siesta: anytime, anywhere.

Sitting in a plaza while you wait for your late friend/ students/ acquaintance/ Spanish professor offers up a visual smorgasbord.

The homeless man’s dog has a new puppy. It is loving life, trotting around the flower market, where its owner lives on a piece of cardboard.

Pirate puppy, one black ear flopping over one black eye, comes over to play, full of feistiness already, which will come in handy in the life that lies ahead of him.

Our local flower market, where they spray-paint some (yulk) in gaudy hues, and leave others to their natural beauty.

Our local flower market, where they spray-paint some (yulk) in gaudy hues, and leave others to their natural beauty.

Fat male pigeons puff their chests and fan their tails in courtship, chasing around the long-suffering ladies, much like the human scene taking place all around them.

A woman with a voice like a banshee and toes similarly blessed pushes a fruit cart, screaming her wares across the unsuspecting public. “Papayaaaaaa.”

She is wasted as a frutadora; she could have sold voice recordings for emergency evacuations or car alarms. If I had better Spanish I’d let her in on this money-making brainwave.

A little boy destroys a plastic cup with a seedpod, dancing backwards on his toes like the best of the three musketeers. He is under the impression, in that wonderful space of the imagination, that the cup is fighting back.

In Colombia if you visit the same juice lady she greets you with “Hola, mi amor,” (Hello my love), and tops up your glass for free when you’ve downed the first giant beverage.

Oscar the fruit man sells you seven limes for a mil before he knows you, and ten for a mil each time after if he decides you are ok.

Fruit and veges from the streets, much cheaper than the super market.

Fruit and veges from the streets, much cheaper than the super market.

Cartagena's famous clock tower (Torre del Reloj).

Cartagena’s famous clock tower (Torre del Reloj).

As I trot off happily to work, past the sleeping dog on the red stoop, past the screaming green parrot above the clock tower – which stands witness to all who enter its yellow walls, just as it has for centuries – past Jimmy, who sells garbage bags and shakes my hand every morning, I think to myself how lucky I am to be here.

What a place! Life abounds.

Lollie lane…..dangerously good.

Lollie lane…..dangerously good.

The lollie vendors haven’t set up at 7am, but the man in the yellow shirt is always there, newspapers arrayed on his table.

He is usually doing an ineffective form of exercise I like to call the ‘touch your toes almost-squat.’

“Buenos dias Mon,” he says to me each day.

Mona: someone with light hair. Faded red with brown roots seems to fall into this category also.

Life has a busy feel to it sometimes, a lazy feel at others. The people enjoy life. They seem to have that elixir everyone else is chasing. They also seem to work hard for little reward.

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Industrial Cartagena, a different vibe from the walled city.

Industrial Cartagena, a different vibe from the walled city.

On the buses I catch to another suburb, twice a week, I see a whole different side of Cartagena. Here it is industrial. It’s gritty. Sweat pours off the guy who jumps aboard our bus selling water.

“Agua, agua, agua frio.”

Beads run down his cheek and hit the floor. The driver swerves to the right, narrowly misses a motorbike rider, the water seller stands on my foot, a baby wobbles on a fat knee, the bus swerves again, the people slide uniformly to the left, a slither of breeze gets through the window and is quashed instantly by the heat within.

The bus driver is insane. He leans on the horn. He cuts people off and speeds up to clearly stationary things like cars, humans and carts pulled by sad little donkeys, so that we are constantly hitting the brakes; the 40 passengers pitched forward like eggs from a slingshot.

A girl in front of me is sick out the window. I hand her a lollie from my backpack, for the taste.

My spine tries to break out through my skin each time the ‘loco’ conductor hits the skids.

I think about strapping a pillow to my back like a turtle for tomorrow’s ride. For the first time in my life I crave back cleavage.

It’s hot and crowded and I love it.

It’s noisy as hell and I hate it.

That’s the thing with Colombia, you can’t choose which bits you get. It’s the whole package. To feel alive like this you have to have the heat and chaos and irrational spontaneity of it all.

In the staffroom at the other end of the bus-ride-from-hell a male professor tells me I have beautiful eyes, in front of many professors. It’s very awkward and unprofessional. Sleezeball. I narrow the ‘beautiful eyes’ to little Voldemort slits, because I don’t know how to say “shut it mate, that’s not appropriate in a staff room.”

I promptly turn away from him and begin a conversation with a pregnant female professor who wants to know when I can teach her English. I can’t…it’s above my pay grade.

Another professor is helpful and friendly in the way of many Colombians. He insists on making the cleaning lady and me a coffee, and when he finds out I have no food for the return bus-trip-from-hell (1.5 hrs in alarming traffic) he fetches a banana from his locker and wraps it in paper for me.

“For a bus,” he says in English.

Every day in this country I meet someone to restore my faith in humanity. Every day in this country a man checks me out, hisses or says something about my appearance. Sometimes he does it in the middle of a call he’s taking on his mobile, or almost crashes his pushbike. I’m not Miranda Kerr, and I find the level of built-in perversion quite surreal.

It is a strange mix of machista, romanticism and people who seem (thankfully) not bound by this incessant need to interact with the opposite sex as though we are at a meat market.

I did learn one lesson however. Don’t retaliate.

The Irish half of my blood boils. I have to bite my tongue.

The local beach.

The local beach.

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At the local beach the other day (we are the only ones who wear togs there) a group of schoolboys continually yelled stuff at us. I stood to shake the sand from my towel. Whistles, woops, cries of “hey baby!” and most infuriatingly…HISSING. Like a snake. Like a pack of snakes. Like a pack of bad mannered snakes who need their bottoms smacked.

Seriously I thought? You guys are not long out of nappies.

I gave them the finger. Yep, flipped the bird their way.

First and last time!

They erupted! In delight. Cheering and laughing. It served to only make me madder.

Lesson learned……rise above.

“Qanta anos tienes niño?” I asked one who was nearby in the water.

(How many years do you have little boy?)

They were seventeen.

Sad that at that age they’ve already learned to be chauvinists from other men they see.

Good training in patience and restraint for me I suppose. Grrrrrr.

On the plus, I have met respectful men and boys over here also. So it just goes to show there’s choice alongside cultural norms. And respectfulness can be a part of any personality/character, no matter what you are raised in the presence of.

After class that day I call past our friends’ new apartment for dinner.

The traffic has died down for my return home at 8:30pm so I pay 7mil to jump on the back of a moto taxi.

The helmet he gives me is a snug fit……for someone with two heads.

Rounding a bend a huge gale blows it right off my face; it hangs behind me on its chinstrap like a bonnet. Safety first in Colombia.

I think of Ryan’s face laughing, calling me pin-head. I miss home and him. Then we scoot out of the way of a bus and I hang on and hope I make it through to 28.

The 1.5hr bus route takes 20 minutes on a motorbike, without traffic. Amazing.

I stop at Oscar’s fruit cart as I walk back to my house, to pick up the usual dinner supplies; eggplant, carrots, avocado and papaya. He gives me a warm smile as he slips an extra carrot in the bag now that we’re regulars.

Everywhere there’s colour, people socialising, too-tight pants, noise and movement. People cooking at their little restaurant stalls under the huge fig trees, with roots that remind me of the Newfarm Park treehouse playground in Brisbane.

A street clown has a huge crowd, getting one guy to walk like a prostitute, the whole crowd roaring with laughter. I’m sure I would be too if I understood Spanish better, or the imbedded cultural jokes.

The streets are busy. Families chat on the plastic chairs outside their houses, making the most of the elusive breeze. There’s that great evening buzz, and I love my new city once more.

The next day my English class is interrupted mid-way for a woman to run a presentation on HIV prevention and management. As I lister to safe-sex delivered in Spanish, she hands around condoms for my all-female class.

“One for you teacher,” she says with a laugh and plonks an apple-flavoured one on top of my notebook.

There is no prior warning for the interruption. Like most things over here. Go with the flow. It’s usually a pretty amusing one.

I think about giving my apple-flavoured condom to the homeless man to blow up and use as a pillow. The thought of explaining this to him in broken Spanish while brandishing a condom makes me laugh.

Colombia you strange, fantastic place.

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Wednesday Night…Out-Of-Body

Levitaatio

A year seemed like a good chunk of time. A chunky chunk. One not to be looked over like six months. Skinny, wishful ‘six months,’ who talked a lot, but who nobody really took seriously.

Well it was only 11 months really. But it was a faraway place and that was the most important part of it all.

In a world where everything seemed to me it had been done before. You could barely conjure an idea without some smug pair of lips babbling how they spent a year doing that very ludicrous thing when they were 22 and had left a long-term relationship.

“While I was living in Nicaragua I was taken in by a one legged healer and his wife. We ate nothing but tomalis and I didn’t check my Facebook for months, that’s right months, at a time. It was a really hard time in my life, and it’s changed me for the better.”

Oh shut it.

It seemed to me at times I had been born too late. We knew it all, we’d tried it all. We had investigated the magic of everything so thoroughly that we had scientifically gotten to the bottom of it. And that is the indisputable best way to kill magic.

Burke and Wills had had the life. Underprepared, unguided; setting into the great unknown to die with urine in their bellies and lips blistered into bubbles like the fine, lifting skin of a dead lizard, swollen under the Australian sun.

Enshrined forever in the glorious doom of the true adventurer.

Now you had to go to more and more extremes to touch foot on virgin trails. You had to buy a motorbike and drive backwards through continents on one wheel, or sell your house on Ebay and move to places nobody had heard of.

Once I read somewhere, “you don’t have to move to India to find yourself.”

I tried to live by this for a little while. Tried to look inside myself, straight through the freckled skin of my chest, past the throbbing little veins that shot blood throughout me, deeper than the clockwork physical, to focus my eyes to persistent green slits and stare into the existential soul of myself.

But in the end it didn’t work, and I decided that maybe I did have to move to India. Only the rapes in India made me cry, and instead of the spiritual heart of that country and stunning landscapes, I thought only of hurt women holding their knees. And my childhood longing to visit evaporated. Poof. Into the Queensland sky.

I decided on Colombia instead, the second friendliest country I had visited.

But I was not a fool. I knew this move alone wouldn’t quiet the mind that whirred at night, a million miles an hour like a plastic windmill stuck in a chain-mail fence. Spinning in glinting pinks and silvers, all that energy expended, yet going nowhere.

I had to do something, I had to challenge myself. With a language, with a culture, with new work and foods and people. But I also had to allow for internal mechanics to loosen, to reform, to rust and take on a new beauty.

I had figured out, finally, a small truth. And it had only taken me 27 years.

It was helped along, as always, by the words of Mary Oliver.

“You only have to let the soft animal of your body

love what it loves.”

Mary Oliver, Wild Geese

I had only to let my energy unfold. Slow as a green fern unfurling. Gentle and fresh and probing. Or bold as a buffalo calf kicking its way free of the birth sack, and into the arid, dangerous world of the African plains.

I had only to let it be. My will was strong, but my harmony needed the room to move, the chance to stretch out, test itself and perch, balanced, at its rightful equilibrium.

Part letting it be. Part letting conscious decisions guide your trajectory.

Existentialism: “A philosophical theory or approach that emphasises the existence of the individual person as a free and responsible agent determining their own development through acts of the will.”


Returning To Colombia, Because It Called

S.A. CALLING: Typical street scenes in Colombia.

S.A. CALLING: Typical street scenes in Colombia.

The Scratchy Side of the States

“Some of the centres you’ll be teaching in will have no resources, so I suggest you bring as much material as you can fit in your luggage.”

These were the scary words of our coordinator for the teaching English program.

‘Great!’ I thought, visions of myself with a half-stick of chalk staring back at a blank class of 30 university students. Gulp!

Three op-shops later I set off to sneak my way through airport baggage weigh-ins, approximately 3kgs overweight with books.

In the blur of small talk, security checkpoints and bad food that is travel I hit my first stroke of fortune……

I was merrily walking around Los Angeles airport, killing time, when a security officer came up to me.

“Are you Lisa?”

“Ah…yeah…how did you know that?”

“Are you missing a laptop?”

“Oh shit!”

To my great luck, the security team had opened the forgotten laptop at the end of the x-ray conveyer belt to discover my spare ream of passport photos.

“My boss said to just go find you,” the grinning security officer said.

She marched me back to security like a trophy.

“How good am I!” she yelled to a team of about seven, who all turned and gave a shout of hooray. How embarrassing.

THANK YOU Los Angeles security people! I wouldn’t be typing this blog without you.

That night I stayed in the tackiest place I have ever been (and I’ve travelled South-East Asia!).

It was called, ironically, Backpackers Paradise, located in dodgy old Inglewood, a suburb not far from the airport.

Tubes of party lights wrapped to the top of palm trees, there was an Egyptian gift shop on one side (the owner told me I’d be worth 100 camels in the old trading), little tables clustered around while people smoked doobs or had pointless arguments about topics they didn’t really know that much about.

The swimming pool reflected back the whole depressing scene.

I chose it for the free airport shuttle and free shuttle to LA’s best beaches. It was just a bed for a night after all.

It was about 11pm. Rude receptionists (“I just wanna get home and watch my shows” “Did you hear what he was telling her that night!?” “Here’s your key…anyway”), a free glass of champagne (gross pink stuff) upon check in, and a room including three women who lived there permanently.

The bartender finished an argument with her boyfriend on the phone before she got around to serving me. She was from Slovenia and a toilet-installer from South Carolina and I spent the next while teaching her words like ‘rekindled’- you need to rekindle your love with you man- and ‘disposition’ – you have a very saucy disposition.

Everyone I met at that place was bizarre. Most of them lived or worked there. I couldn’t wrap my head around this scene being a daily sight.

A guy named Robert walked past with a coke-can bong.

“You’ve gotta watch ya’self round him,” said the toilet-installer.

“I’ll probably be gone in the morning before you’re up, guess I’ll never see you again.”

“Guess not,” I said, wondering what the point of that statement was.

“Yeah I’m from the south,” he continued, as though we’d been talking about it.

“Just a regular old redneck. My work takes me everywhere though, everyone needs a toilet!”

When I walked down the street to buy an adaptor the next day guys yelled “Ooh look what just got in! How you doin? Looking good.”

I replied automatically then stopped very quickly.

The ladies I passed were all nice, and said hello, beaming from under cornrows and buoyant fringes.

Still, I’m glad I stayed there. It showed me a very different side of America to the one I’d seen as a tourist three months ago. This was the side Obama tried to fight for with his healthcare legislation. And boy did it need it.

Cleveland the Cricket Loving Jamaican

On my flight to Bogota I had the pleasure of sitting beside an elderly Jamaican gent.

He was a real gent. He helped pass my stuff across the seat, had a chequered kerchief in his pocket, and tipped his hat and said “shpank-you!” with a hearty laugh whenever he cracked a joke.

Cool frames, a leather cap and the refined manner of an educated man.

“Australia. Now there was a guy killed there from a cricket ball to the throat right?”

“Oh you mean Phil Hughes. To the back of the head while batting, very sad, the whole country was so sad.”

Cleveland was a huge cricket fan. He’d played in Jamaica and spoke with reverence of an Australian fast bowler (name escapes me) the West Indies team faced in the days of Bradman.

“Our first mon, Allan Rae (Jamaican batter, son of Ernest Rae), took da pitch, and ‘e was good.”

“But ‘e ‘it ‘im on da hand!”

“Our second mon took da pitch, and ‘boom!’… ‘it ‘im on da arm.”

“Oooh ‘e was fast!”

Cleveland was one of those people that give me my kick in life. The kind you can sit down with as strangers and leave as friends.

He thought in a few years Colombia would legalise marijuana. He told me how his friend had seen in planted between coffee rows high in the mountains.

“’e said to me, “mon those buds, they leave a tar on yo hands.””

He held out two fingers to show the size of Colombian buds.

Surprisingly it still wasn’t legal in Jamaica. Old Cleveland had never smoked a cigarette in his life, and didn’t smoke pot. But he did have a useful remedy for stomach troubles.

It involved taking some marijuana, putting it in vodka and storing it for a year or more.

“Yo stomach giving you trouble, take a little sip, and mwa!”

He kissed his fingertips in the manner Italians used.

We got to talking about the cancer he’d had.

“Where was it?” I asked.

“In da anus,” he said without blinking.

“Dey told me I have tree to five years, and that was two years ago.”

“I think you’ll live longer,” I said, and meant it.

“You’ve got that spark. Lots of people don’t have that.”

“Thank you. Thank you,” he said with emotion.

He’d lived a great life. He’d schooled in Connecticut, where his parents had also made him learn the dreaded piano.

Like me, he hated the cold (an obvious position for a Jamaican) and moved to California to study business at university.

“Dey gave me money to continue my piano, and I took that money and had a good time!” he chuckled.

He’d been everywhere; Africa, Europe, America, Australia, you name it. He knew the president of Jamaica and would tell him frequently to legalise marijuana so the people could make a better living.

He’s worked as a business consultant at government level and gave me his address to post my first copy of my book to. “Make sure you write it,” he said.

A rasta walked past to use the bathroom.

“See dat guy,” Cleveland said in his too-loud for a plane voice.

“Yeah?” I yelled back (he was slightly deaf).

“’is Dad was the finance minister for Jamaica. ‘E’s a famous musician. You like reggae?”

When the plane landed he called his mate.

“Yeah mon, we landed, but we still on da plane.”

People tried to push past while Cleveland got slowly out of his seat. I blocked them with my large posterior until he was finished and shook his hand goodbye.

You can’t silence paint- Bogota’s Graffiti Movement

The real start to 2015 for me.

Blocks of 5pm light sat in golden fullness on the dormitory wall. A cat on the terracotta roof tiles yowled mournfully into the chilly afternoon. Hello South America. I was back, and it felt wonderful.

Touchdown in Bogota and I had already been ripped off by my taxi driver. The rookie error of not researching how much a trip to your suburb should really cost. Live and learn!

Still, Alejandro had provided me with a good warm up for my Spanish before re-entry into the fast paced world that is Colombia.

Not far from the airport we passed a stunning seven-storey mural of a couple hugging. I was to learn about this the next day.

Alegria’s Hostal (cnr Carrera 2 and Calle 9 in La Candelaria) was all I’d hoped for; quiet, wanker-free, comfy bed with good blankets, and a homely atmosphere with friendly staff.

Vivianna insisted we speak Spanish and told me I could be fluent in 3 months. Ambitious, but possible she said.

She said I’d be a good teacher and laughed at the offer to come to Cartagena and be my Spanish professor.

She pretty much laughed at everything though, so it wasn’t a good measure of how funny you are.

The next day I woke in time to seize the last breakfast croissant and a cup of coffee (many SA hostels have breakfast included). I was happy as a pig in mud, full of good energy and enjoying flying solo for now.

SWINGIN: This shop in La Candelaria, Bogota, has been painted in Cuban style, with a jazz twist.

SWINGIN: This shop in La Candelaria, Bogota, has been painted in Cuban style, with a jazz twist.

I set off for the Bogota Grafiti Tour (sign up here http://bogotagraffiti.com ) just a short walk away.

I’d missed it last time I was in town due to partying with a local who didn’t care to differentiate between night and day.

Running 2.5hrs and costing tips only (20,000 to 30, 000 pesos is courteous) it was the best walking tour I’ve been on.

The Bogota graffiti scene has been around for 20 years, really exploding in the last 10, and solidifying itself as part of the national identity in the last five.

It has a similar concentration of talent in the one city to Sao Paulo or Rio de Janeiro in Brazil.

The flyer given out by our guide Ray stated the importance of graffiti as social commentary and cultural expression during “La Violencia” and the height of Colombia’s ten-year civil war.

“With a growing middle class and a drastically improved political system, modern taggers have removed some of the preach from the paint and continue to focus on creating artwork that showcases their skills rather than on a cause.”

Ray was an artist himself and a general mover and shaker in the Bogota Grafiti World, sourcing commissions for artists and walls for them to showcase their works.

While La Candelaria by night involves a fair amount of hassling from its many (persistent) homeless, it is a true pleasure during the day. Bursting with life and colour, this old historical centre draws tourists just as much for its modern graffiti murals as for its old cobblestoned streets.

First up was Bastardilla, a Bogota woman making her skilful mark in a male-dominated scene.

She draws from poverty, feminie empowerment, the effects of violence, pain and nature.

FINE DETAIL: Here Bastardilla used a rubber cut stamp to create a wheat paste paste-up.

FINE DETAIL: Here Bastardilla used a rubber cut stamp to create a wheat paste paste-up.

WALL OF COLOUR: One of Bastardilla's larger murals serves a brilliant backdrop to children's play equipment.

WALL OF COLOUR: One of Bastardilla’s larger murals serves a brilliant backdrop to children’s play equipment.

Father and son duo Rodez and Nomad also put up some impressive paint. Papa bear prefers to work in arylic. He has more than 30 years experience and has put out more than 60 children’s books.

His work is characterised by abstract line work and multiple eyes.

Keep one of yours open as you traipse around Bogota and Rodez’s presence is not hard to spot. He also has a paints a unique signature on his work, including date, location, time, other collaborators and even the names of passers by.

LOOK OUT: Rodez's work is characterised by multiple eyes.

LOOK OUT: Rodez’s work is characterised by multiple eyes.

SLICE OF TIME: A Rodez signature includes the names of passers by.

SLICE OF TIME: A Rodez signature includes the names of passers by.

His son Nomad prefers spray paint as a medium. A little more expensive but much faster when putting up a large mural.

The two often work together and Rodez is now teaching his younger son.

Bogota’s street artists are now coming out to paint during the day in hopes of making themselves identifiable as artists and removing the stigma of street art as a form of vandalism.

IN THE FAMILY: Nomad, while learning from his father, has developed his own style favouring spray paint.

IN THE FAMILY: Nomad, while learning from his father, has developed his own style favouring spray paint.

Needing mention is street crew Animal Crew Collective (also know as Animal Crew Culture). They have a big presence in Bogota, and you can see their APC tags everywhere in the city.

Venture into the more forgotten suburbs, off the tourist trail of La Candelaria and you will see some of their more extravagant work. They are constantly replenishing their crew, and artists rotating in and out of it.

APC had claimed this wall for some time, but it was recently painted over in green by city authorities.

STREET CREW: Animal Crew Collective is one of the most prominent crews putting up work around Bogota. This wall was recently painted over in the green, visible.

STREET CREW: Animal Crew Collective is one of the most prominent crews putting up work around Bogota. This wall was recently painted over in the green, visible.

Since the artists’ appear more in public Bogota’s public has developed an almost protective nature towards their favourites.

In this beautiful piece by Guache, commissioned by the building owner, you can see white paint on the left of the piece where the police tried to paint over it.

Citizens saw what was happening and rushed out to stop it. The repaint was happening due to no permit being acquired by Guache for the work.

CITIZENS UNITE: The bottom corner shows where authorities attempted to paint over this piece in white, because the artist did not have a permit. Citizens intervened to save it.

CITIZENS UNITE: The bottom corner shows where authorities attempted to paint over this piece in white, because the artist did not have a permit. Citizens intervened to save it.

Not all business owners are so happy to have their walls adorned, however. The owner of The Platypus Hostel was so sick of graffiti that he invested in paint that can simply be gurneyed clean each morning. Expensive, but effective!

A Mexican artist named Pez has coined his own ‘happy style,’ featuring fish (pez in Spanish) and gaining him rapid notoriety as an artist.

This wall was valued at $20-$30,000 US dollars were it to go to auction. Not bad for a guy who started out with a simple ‘pez’ signature that he gradually grew into the happy fish characters pictured.

RISING VALUE: This piece by Mexican artist Pez has an estimated auction value of $US 20,000 - 30,000.

RISING VALUE: This piece by Mexican artist Pez has an estimated auction value of $US 20,000 – 30,000.

Rounding a corner you come to the elegant, Escher-esque tessellating birds of fellow Mexican artist Gilberto Perez.

LET'S TESSELATE: Gilberto Perez brings a little taste of Escher to Bogota.

LET’S TESSELATE: Gilberto Perez brings a little taste of Escher to Bogota.

This piece, artist unknown to me – but tagged with PCK, evokes the ancient spiritual culture of South America through Pacha Mama images (the hands, earth, plants) as well as the use of hummingbirds, known as the messengers of the underworld.

CULTURE DOSE: The spiritual side of South America, captured on its busy streets.

CULTURE DOSE: The spiritual side of South America, captured on its busy streets.

A fun artist to spot around town is Mr Troll. This sculptor/artist places a plastic like material on cookie trays and bakes it in the oven to achieve his bright, hardened wall mounts.

CHEEKY COLOUR: Keep an eye peeled for Mr Troll's quirky works.

CHEEKY COLOUR: Keep an eye peeled for Mr Troll’s quirky works.

SPOTTED: Mr Troll, take two.

SPOTTED: Mr Troll, take two.

Another artist whose works deliver a burst of delight if you happen to look up, out of the ordinary periphery, is a recently deceased paper mache master. Unfortunately our tour guide did not know their name, but their work was some of my favourite around Bogota.

ARTIST UNKNOWN: A paper mache maiden fishes for a banana above eye level.

ARTIST UNKNOWN: A paper mache maiden fishes for a banana above eye level.

Here the shoe shiner’s box doubles as a bird-house. Shoe shiners are one of the common staples around Plaza Bolivar.

STREET CHARACTERS: The sculptures provide a snapshot of life lived on the bustling streets.

STREET CHARACTERS: The sculptures provide a snapshot of life lived on the bustling streets.

A unicycling juggler stands as a monument to Bogota’s large circus and performer culture. Jugglers have in fact performed on this very wall.

BOGOTA DREAMING: Performers, artists and musicians all contribute to the increasing arts scene.

BOGOTA DREAMING: Performers, artists and musicians all contribute to the increasing arts scene.

It is a strange week in Bogota if you don’t see street performers performing tricks in front of traffic for money, or in the La Candelaria plaza.

At the end of my three days of freedom I caught the bus with 150 excited (and exhaustingly chattery) volunteers and headed to our two-week classroom prison. Fourteen days sitting and learning….it had been a while. It required a lot of coffee.

I felt good to be back in South America, and excited about the year ahead. Each day of training gave me further insight into the challenges waiting ahead.

“I had one kid who lit a fire in my classroom,” the lecturer said.

“But it was only a little fire.”

2015 here I come!


A creep, a hot tub above the sea and the redwoods

I should mention while we were on the west coast of the US we also stopped in to the lovely Pigeon Point Lighthouse.

 

We stayed the night simply to use the famous hot tub that looks out over the ocean. Be prepared for an additional charge for this, not included in the hostel room.

 

We got it for free (because half my blood is Irish and fortune often follows me), but at 5pm we mostly baked in the sun and had to bail before we overheated. It would have been great naked at midnight.

 

Later that evening a wicked wind picked up and battered the foreshore. We stood with all our clothes whipping us and watched seals (or sea lions? Hard to tell from that distance) playing.

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That night I stayed up late writing, savouring having a space as big as the common room to myself.

Not for long.

 

The strange ‘artist’ who had shown us his not-that-good paintings, and was living partly in the hostel and partly in a van came out of his room.

 

After getting himself two loooooong glasses of water he struck up a poor conversation.

 

“My friend sent me this thing on Facebook that’s MRI scans of vegetables. It’s pretty cool.”

 

One thing you have to do when travelling is be mean to weirdos so they get the point. I’m usually not very good at this. In the beginning I would smile at anyone I made eye contact with, out of habit. I learnt pretty quickly that can get you in trouble.

 

This guy was just a strange loner. Though I suppose they’re the ones you should watch out for.

 

“Oh yeah? That doesn’t seem to have much purpose,” I said.

 

The air was thick with tension and annoyance.

I kept typing.

 

Undeterred, he poured another glass of water and took up the stance of a poet surveying the brooding sea for inspiration.

 

“It’s a full moon tonight,” he said mystically.

“Do you want to come and check out some rock pools?”

 

Nah mate. I prefer my neck non-strangled. Thanks.

After many long minutes and conversation shut downs he went to look at his rock pools alone.

 

Thank god for separate dorms.

I put a plastic spoon and a hiking boot within grasp that night just in case.

 

The Dutch couple were up early the next morning. Full of life and rosy-cheeked after seeing a pod of whales. They were older, but still grabbing life by the balls in that Dutch way!

 

We needed some green above our heads so we embarked on a forest hunt.

 

The Beach Boys crooned “Little surfer, little one. Make my heart come all undone.”

“Do I love you, do I surfer girl?”

 

Harmonious music for a group reported to have fought like rich kids over a will.

 

Boots on. That invincible feeling. We took the 8km trail to combat all the sitting of a road trip.

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The towering redwoods of Butano State Park looked down, ancient and hushing.

“Be quiet,” they whispered, “and listen to us breathe.”

“For we were first here. And we understand it all.”

 

I walked tiny beneath them. My legs stretching as far as they could on the steep paths. My heart beating out its pathetic, tiny rhythm. No more than a bug worrying the undergrowth to these red and green giants.

 

I felt like I was learning from them. I just wasn’t sure what it was.

 

There was a splash of bright yellow and we found a huge banana slug. Looking like something out of Avatar, is slurped slowly across its log.

 

We discovered with glee this fellow is the mascot of the University of California, Santa Cruz. Now who could defeat a team with a slug as its masthead!

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At the top of the trail our Californian redwoods dissolved and the sun beat down on us. This is what Burke and Wills must have felt like….almost.

 

I looked over the tops of trees for kilometres and felt like I could see the world. Pretty much every time I find myself at the best end of a great view I feel I could drop dead – then and there –and die a happy woman.

 

Later we wound through the trails of Año Nuevo State Park. A marshy, grassy area that led to the beach. Across the water a decrepit house stood, and in front of it lounged hordes of sea lions.

 

The point was actually a viewing platform for the local elephant seal colony, but the house was far creepier and more interesting. A ranger told us sea lions were found in the bathtub on the second floor, and regularly climb up and down the stairs.

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We ran over dunes and spotted blue-bellied lizards too quick to catch. I tried.

And that was about the last of our Cali-coast adventures.

 

 

 

 

 

 


Escaping Reality

Refreshingly frank


The split personality of Venice Beach

I really wanted to buy a juice….just not from any of the people on this strip.

We hit Venice Beach on a weekday and thought it was pretty quiet. We went for a swim – as is our rule, no matter how cold – and then lay under the lifeguard stand so our pale friend didn’t fry.

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There was a family beside us in the shade, one woman lying like a huge clothed Buddha in the sand. She lay on her side with her monstrous stomach spread around her like a group of friends.

Her sausage dog named Sister put up a ferocious display as we settled down next to them.

“Come here mama,” giant woman said to Sister.
“Come sit down back here, you not scaring anybody.”

Sister sat back down and the woman spilt some of her Bud Light on the ground and then accidentally rolled into it. I stretched out in the beaming sun to work on my tan.

The beach was beautiful, the pavement buzzing with cyclists, roller bladers and joggers.
We went to check out the rest of this famous slice of coastline…..and then we hit it.

The land of scab-rats. Wtf Venice Beach.
All along the main strip/street (once you left the gorgeous beach) were suss people selling weird stuff. We made our way along the strip like bug-eyed school kids.

Three guys were sitting on a bench with a sign up saying ‘fishing for nugs- any lil bit a green helps.”
“Hey big guy,” one yelled out.
“Help a brother out.”

Another guy held a sign saying “fuck you, give me money,” and another’s simply said “need money for weed.”

There were shops selling tacky everything, from shirts to hot pants with terrible sayings scrawled across the butt. There was a ‘green doctor’ with signs up saying no photos, and, obviously, the smell of weed wound its way down the street.

People everywhere tried to sell you stuff, or give you copies of their CDs. Others stood around, bludgeoned into oblivion by the grind of daily poverty.

An attractive lady was standing in the middle of it all banging a bongo drum.
“Real live spoken word for you, right here on Venice Beach,” she said in her cool, lazy accent.

I wanted to stop and listen, but we were on a pretty tight budget and the others thought she looked cracked out.

The whole thing reminded me of the tourist strips in Thailand. Tacky.

Venice Beach

Homeless people stretched out under blankets in the shade of the palm trees.
It was sad and sobering.

Further up at the famous outdoor gym, Muscle Beach, an ultra tanned older man who looked like he could use a good ironing worked out shirtless.
Some guys played basketball and people just generally hung out.
It was a mixed vibe.

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There was a graffiti park with tags everywhere and a bunch of skaters ripping up the skate park, and then that was it. We were out.

Catch ya never Venice Beach.


A privilege at sea.

While I was staying at Newport Beach I had just enough time to epilate one leg and pluck one eyebrow. Luckily they were both on the same side of my body, so depending which way you approached….I was looking good.
Or at least half good.

Anyway, I thought it was a healthy dose of realism for Newport Beach, where bad looking people were deported.

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We visited Mary’s work and headed out on the research/educational boat she calls an office.

“Now if you look very carefully we might be able to see some sea birds, and maybe even some other animals,” the instructor was saying to the field trip.

Then boom! Chaos on deck.
They had spotted a whale and 25 squealing kids ran to the front deck, Iphones in hand.

Iphones!!! At tweenhood. Bloody hell. Pretty sure I was still campaigning for my own room at that age.

A gray whale and her calf were closer to shore than I would have believed. We stood on the top deck and looked in wonder.

26 years on earth and today I was seeing my first whale. It was amazing. She surfaced to breathe, spouting through her blowhole, the little calf sticking close by her side.
Mary told me they will always position themselves between a boat and their calf.
It was magic, and I felt a great sense of gratitude to the Sea Shepherd crew, and a great sadness that anyone could hunt and kill these animals for an unnecessary food source.

I thought of the long, beautiful calls she must be making underwater. Echoing as though through a cathedral. I thought of her baby, surrounded by blue, and with the thing it loved most in the world.

I’ve always loved the ocean, and Dana Point turned on a cracking day for us.

I learned that the white rocks making up the stone pier/ship wall thing were actually white from years of bird shit. No longer evoking the whitewashed romance of Greece! Baha.

The crew dragged up a shining mass of kelp, vibrant green and khaki tangles; wild as sea witch hair.

I loved the stuff. It slid and slopped against the side of the boat as the marine bios hacked some off to sample.

kelp

I could feel the sun smiling down on me, polishing my shoulders into two brown bulbs, warning my nose of its Rudolph potential.

A burst of laughter, and they brandished the algae sample towards us, floaters swirling through the plastic container.
One of the kids had vomited overboard, and the sample had caught nothing but that. The best kind of funny is always the gross kind.

That night we got burgers and I fought the urge to run into the streets, throw up my arms and scream, “show me the salad America!”

I never knew I would miss you this much lettuce, tomato, cucumber and baby spinach.

I fell asleep in mattress land in the loungeroom, surrounded by people I love. This is what it must be like to be a kitten in a litter, I thought.

In the morning we woke early and softened the blow with mugs of the good black stuff. (Not Guinness, the other good black stuff).

The one bedroom apartment that had diligently housed all five of us was being surrendered back to Matt, Mary and their three thousand surfboards, and it was sad.

Mary wrapped me in one of the hugs only kind spirited people can give, and I felt a little fist close around my heart. I hoped it wouldn’t be so long between visits. I vowed to try everything to get across the five countries separating me from her wedding in August.

We hit the road north.

I was going to eat every piece of salad between here and San Francisco.


You don’t need those eyes. You’re a sea lion not a see lion.

All the hipsters are in Cali, and they’re eating great tacos.

Listen up hipsters, if you’ve got a skill of some kind then Ocean Beach, San Diego has your name all over it. You can even get one of the bird OB stickers for your car.

We headed to San Diego to visit another old uni friend, and hit town spot on time for lunch.

Her car took us begrudgingly down the main street, its gear box groaning as it endured the corners.

Everywhere there were cool people. It was like the pavement was sprouting hipsters, but with a more street edge to them than Aussie hipsters.

They all seemed to have a skill of some sort. There were tattoo artists having a cigarette break below their parlours, surfers hoofing it towards the beach and skaters with great hair skating, chatting or just generally standing around like tattoo parlour adverts.

Yep, OB was cool. More than hipster cool though, it was laid back and had an atmosphere crunchy with fun. Everywhere there were happy nobodies enjoying happy lives.

It was a toss-up between the two storey bar on the corner (with good drinks and ocean views) and the local favourite, Oscars taco shop (both on Newport Av).

Good food won out and after parting with a tenner we sunk our teeth into the best thing I’ve eaten in a while.The surf and turf torta. God bless you Mexico. 

San Diego was nothing like I expected. We got killer weather for the two days, so a big sun basted us all day before the winds picked up in the evening and the temperature dropped, consistent with a dessert climate.

The geography was some of my favourite. Rugged dessert beauty; dry arid looking cliffs, dropping off to a smashing blue ocean.

We picked our way along the bottom of the Sunset cliffs, birds wheeling above. Dedicated surfers were paddling out over rocks at the bottom of the staircase to catch a tricky wave that spat them out close to the sharp rocks.

Back in the clunking car we chewed bitumen for 20 minutes up to La Jolla Cove (pronounced La Hoiya) and were met with the overwhelming stench of a community of sea lions.

They were fantastic and wild and played like dogs. 

They were not so loved by local business owners, with a group called Citizens for Odor Nuisance Abatement filing a lawsuit against the city of San Diego and state of California for the economic peril the mammals were wreaking/reeking on the area.

Some members of the group included restaurant and hotel owners, who I’m sure were losing customers.

I thought watching these sleek and seemingly spineless creatures (fluid in the ocean, bulbous on land) fight and flop across the rocks was the greatest thing ever. Humans and nature. We built on their home, I think it’s important to remember.

An article in the San Diego Reader, 2013 made me laugh particularly hard.
It referred to a post from the lifeguard log at La Jolla Cove which read:

…. “seal nuzzles and mounts woman off beach, [lifeguard Mark] Feighan in on board to assist and chase seal away.” 

Full article here.

http://www.sandiegoreader.com/news/2014/jan/15/cover-la-jolla-cove-sea-lion-cesspool/#

Anyway, one of the first things I saw after recovering from the smell was what I thought to be a brave seagull, waltzing up to a baby sea lion. Turns out the baby was dead, and the gull proceeded to peck both its eyes out. Oh nature.

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That night we drank beers around one of the concrete fire pits that pepper the beach. The moon was bright and wonky, still a few days from full. 
Every time we got cold we threw more wood on the fire, and every now and then some free-spirited soul would wander up to say g’day.  It reminded me of our camping trips at Saunders beach in Townsville, where everyone curled up in the sand to sleep by the fire, their one uni blanket over them.

“It’s not that hard to be happy,” the guy beside me said. And I was glad someone had reminded me of that. 

Waves crashed, Peanut the dog sniffed along the sand and the city lights prickled like gems on the mountains behind us.

Kenny Rogers drifted randomly through my head, singing (incorrectly) “San Diego midnight moonlight, tropical stars above,
San Diego midnight moonlight, the perfect place to fall in love.”

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Avocado Tears

consentI’ve had to develop methods for not crying in public, though they don’t always work.

In my occupation I ingest a lot of media, and inevitably take in many murder, domestic violence, rape and sexual abuse stories.

Each one is like a punch to the stomach, and I feel bruised for each woman I read about.

Last night I went out to my backyard avocado tree, to pluck the green fruit and ripen them beside browning bananas.

I have always loved being outside at night; everything moving around you, possums weighing down branches overhead, and freshness breathing over the whole earth.

It gives me perspective.

I felt among the branches in the dark, plucking the fattest fruits by touch.

The moon was nowhere to be seen, and the neighbour’s dog growled low at my movements.

I turned to walk back into the house and was struck by an out-of-character fear. The mass of darkness behind me.

Thinking of Sophie Collombet, the moment she felt that person’s presence near her.

The moment she would have known it was too late.

I fought every urge not to sprint back into my house.

I sat down on the lawn and cried, tears hot across my shirt.

She was only 21. And she had done nothing wrong.

I thought of my visit to France, where people cycle and walk everywhere. Like she was doing that night.

I thought of her parents sitting down on their back lawn and crying hot tears, because there were so many miles between them and the shores where their daughter was killed.

And I thought of every chauvinistic joke I have ever heard, every time women are marginalised or sneered at, and how each tiny instance contributes to the death of beautiful, innocent people every day.

Gender inequality has a lot to answer for, and so do those who perpetuate it.

It may seem like a joke to you — well fed, safely housed, detached.

But you don’t know what it feels like to be gang raped, to be stalked, and to worry about all the women you know, because somewhere out there freaks like Sophie’s killer are told it’s ok to think women are less than men.

Inequality perpetuated leads to real crimes. Real abuses of liberty.

Walking at night doesn’t cause rape. Rapists cause rape.

I hope in France they know that there will be plenty of men and women shedding tears for their girl, way across the ocean, in backyards and parks and river rotundas.