From the TMI Department

DSC07123For those of you who pine for Partout to occasionally ditch the reportorial voice and dive into the down and dirty of how Doris and Louis survive living out of suitcases for months on end, this one’s for you: the sickening, the creepy and the refreshing.


The Sickening

We traveled five months last winter without either of us having even a sniffle. This adventure has not been nearly as perfect, mostly for Doris, who developed a mysterious and icky case of chronic nausea about half-way through our four-day train trip.

When it started, we assumed the ick was motion sickness (to which she is prone) but, more than a week after leaving the train, she was still waking up nauseated every day. Since morning sickness was not in the cards, she began googling possibilities like “nausea as a symptom of mosquito-borne disease” and other dire explanations.

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“West Nile Virus”?!? YIKES!

One morning in Cuenca, we went on a walking tour that coincided with shaman day in the central market. Catholicism put down roots in South America without completely squeezing out pre-Columbian beliefs and practices, including shamanism (“belief in an unseen world of gods, demons, and ancestral spirits responsive only to the shaman”). In Cuenca, on Fridays and Tuesdays, curanderos from the countryside take up position in the public market so customers can bring their ills to be cured.

The process begins with the patient (many of them the children of worried parents) being beaten lightly all over with bundles of medicinal herbs. Next, a raw egg is rubbed all over the body to locate the unseen agent causing the problem.

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After this, the egg is broken so the shaman can identify the source of the problem. Satisfied, the curer spits on the customer to expel the source of infirmity. Voila (for lack of a translation). All better, though, ideally, the process requires three applications.

Doris seriously considered giving it a try but was put off by the spitting part. A few days later, she was tempted again in Quito by a variation that started with the herbal beating but ended with a cup of tea made from the herbs. This sounded much more appealing, but we ran out of time. Until the next shaman, she soldiers on, self-treating with motion sickness pills she buys from local pharmacies for 20 cents each and mostly improved without the spit. Still, a drag.

Also under the heading of “sickening” for some of our fur-loving friends: We did consume the obligatory guinea pig in Ecuador, a treat for which families keep dozens, even a hundred of the creatures, on hand at all time. Even Doris, whose pet history includes Elvis the guinea pig, found the critter tasty.
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The Creepy

Five earthquakes in eight weeks feels like a lot, even to Doris, who grew up in California. The last one was the biggest of either of our experiences: 7.5. While it was maybe a couple hundred miles away, it still seemed to go forever. Having arrived at our mountainside perch well after dark, Doris especially fretted about the possibility of our cabin being shaken off its slope into the void.

Blessedly, earthquakes being what they are, everything was back to normal within two minutes, other than the bananas that were still swaying in the windless pre-dawn outside our door.

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Bananas that registered the 7.5 shock to our mountainside perch after the dawn

Creepier was word that a Russian tourist was murdered by robbers walking with his wife from dinner to their hotel in Quito on the same night we were there before leaving on the train. We have been unable to learn exactly where or under what circumstances (e.g., whether the couple was wearing bling, flashing money, resisting demands for their valuables). Louis, who has ducked more bullets and bombs than some soldiers, tends to shrug off news like this; Doris, the fretter of the duo, gets creeped out. Not enough to stop traveling, mind you, but enough to be happy to say goodbye to big cities for a while.

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This guy might have crept but was not creepy at all


The Refreshing

People sometimes ask how we manage to live together 24-7 for months on end without killing one another. In all honesty, it can be a challenge. You know all those annoying little (or not-so-little) habits your dear one has that you can escape at home? Escape is not so easy on the road.

Our first resort is laughter. A lot of what seems annoying can be funny if we can stop being annoyed long enough to find the humor in one partner coming unglued over the surprise of paying $20 to print a boarding pass (?!?) or the other going into a frenzy about running late when his watch stopped telling time accurately weeks ago.

The second resort is that tried-and-true parenting trick: time out. One or both of us will wander off in different directions for a few hours to return with a refreshed take on the world, including each other.

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“Time out” takes on new meaning four miles uphill from civilization

Keeping company with others is also a great antidote for too-muchness and just plain fun and enlightening. While in Cuenca, we reached out through our house exchange site to two fellow sets of home exchangers, who both graciously met up with us for drinks, dinner and even a custom hike through the nearby national park. We are still savoring those memories.

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Hiking with and among new friends in the Parque Cajas out of Cuenca

When none of these completely do the trick, we know it is time to put on the brakes, get off the road, put sightseeing on hold, take a deep breath, recenter. That is what we have been doing for the last five days in our hillside retreat. This is what the respite looks like, if you haven’t seen the pictures on Facebook.
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This is what the respite has done for Doris’s resting heart rate.

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Hearts don’t lie. Nausea (the 72-point) is stressful; Vilcabamba (64) is oooommm

Doris has an old friend who used to be an ultra-marathoner (technically more than 26.2 miles, but his ran more like 50 miles). When she asked him how he held up for so many hours, he used to say, “If you don’t mind, it doesn’t matter.”

Ultimately, that’s the best motto for living out of suitcases for months on end, maybe for even more.


FROM THE PARTOUT TOOLBOX:
Making friends on the road turns out to be the travel trick that enriches. We went through Homeexchange.com to find friendly folks in Cuenca because we know home exchangers have common interests and tastes and these guys looked interesting. In Medellin, we found an expats meetup group. After our shaman walking tour, we went to lunch with a delightful young international couple. For all the occasional creepiness, the world is mostly a friendly place.

TOP TIP:
The internet makes it surprisingly easy to connect with fellow travelers of all kinds if sharing the road makes it more enjoyable, even for the occasional hour.


COMING SOON: Jewels of the Crown (and Others)

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The day that began with the earthquake ended with this rainbow. Best reminder ever to stay calm and keep moving. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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The Little Train That Does

steam.jpegEcuador is about half the size of France, yet Partout is spending nearly six weeks rattling around in it. That means we are moving pretty slowly, sometimes glacially.

Nowhere was that more true than on our 446 km train trip (276 miles) “luxury” train trip from Quito to Guayaquil. The one-way trip took four days, an average of about 70 miles a day. We could almost have walked faster since it was nearly all downhill.

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One of the four cars on our TrenEcuador “Train of Wonders”

But everything is relative. When the Guayaquil-Quito rail link opened in 1908, its trains traveled at the equivalent of warp speed by cutting travel between the two most important commercial centers in the nation from days to 12 hours. Towns sprang up alongside the tracks, and telephone lines followed. Businesses opened. Highland producers were able move perishable goods to the lowlands and vice versa. Farmers and communities throve. Travelers reveled in high-speed travel.

Alas, over time, the train came to seem as glacial as Partout. Freight and passenger travel dwindled and eventually evaporated. The rails, engines and coaches fell into disrepair; in some cities, people even built on top of old train tracks. Eventually, the only sections still in operation were the ones that foreign tourists rode – the famous “Avenue of Volcanoes” through the Andes and the infamous “devil’s nose,” where the route takes a vertical drop of more than 1500 feet on a sheer rock face.

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We could have touched the rock face of the devil’s nose from the historic wood cars of the train

Enter former President Rafael Correa, a charismatic US-educated leftist who campaigned and governed Ecuador on a platform of reform. He vastly improved standards of living nationwide before reportedly succumbing to the temptations of power and money. Fortunately for train lovers everywhere, he restored the old Guayaquil-Quito line before fleeing the country to avoid being prosecuted for kidnapping a political opponent. (He remains in Belgium.) Except for the stretches where recent landslides have covered the tracks and we shifted to buses, these were the rails we rode.


In another country, this story might end with the good fortune the train’s restoration has brought to glacial tourists like us and all the oohing and ahhing the trip inspired, but it doesn’t. Whether intended or unintended (we never quite figured that out), one of the consequences of the train’s resurrection has been nourishing some of Ecuador’s oldest cultures along with the tourists who ride the rails.

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A mother at market in Guamote

An estimated 30% to 40% of Ecuador’s population is indigenous – people who never intermarried with the late-coming Europeans or Africans and who retain their traditional language, customs and culture. They are people like Miguel Andrango in Otavalo, one of the last weavers in Ecuador to make tapestries and rugs on pre-Colombian backstrap looms, and Baltazar Ushca, the last man in a centuries-old occupation of ice merchandising. Ushca still chips glacial ice out of slopes of Mt. Chimborazo and musters it to market by donkey, but it is now made into designer ice cream instead of being indispensable to cooling meat and fish like it once was. They are men like the last embosser in Cuenca, still making art as they learned from their fathers half a century ago.
MOLDIV-002 copyThey are women selling live chickens in the open markets, the ancient who could speak to us only in her native Quichua (not Spanish) and the cowherd making the daily trek with his two milk cows up and down pre-Incan paths high in the Andes.
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They are communities like Palacio Real, a village of about 80 households. Women there have organized an association that operates a restaurant where they serve delicious local food cooked over wood fires and operate a tiny shop where they sell exquisite goods woven from the wool they have sheared, dyed, spun and woven from the llamas they raise. When clothing items are sold, 50% of the price goes to the woman who produced them and 50% is reinvested in the association projects, like their museum of llama culture. Our train stopped in the nearest station, and we walked half an hour to visit them. The goat stew and bounty of vegetables were delicious; the shopping time not nearly long enough!

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Christine in the lower left knit the scarf she holds. Doris supported the community by buying it.

They are individuals from subsistence cultures that benefit from TrenEcuador’s employment of them to demonstrate their dances and serve their foods to the likes of us.

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The dances on board by masked devils have their origins in indigenous protests against Spanish occupation.Treats like ceviche of chocos and folkloric dancing were served at the stations.


They are also people like Christian, our local guide at Sibambe. In excellent English, Christian demonstrated the conch shell his community has used for 200 years to call citizens to meetings and emergencies. Before the Spanish, conch shells were currency, and they still are valued today. He explained that the beds villagers sleep in above pens for guinea pigs and rabbits are designed both to protect the stock and to warm the humans overhead. He showed us cooking pots in use every day that look just like the ones in the anthropological exhibits of the Pumapongo museum in Cuenca.

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Christian’s American wife was not interested in the life of an indigenous Ecuadorian. Now he stays in touch with his 5-year-old son by Facetime.

Christian lived in the United States from the time he was 14 until he was 28, moving around the country as he worked his way up in the construction trades. He married an American woman and had a son. Then he was stopped for a traffic violation, found to be in the States illegally and deported. He returned home to his Andean village of 2,500, where he tells train passengers like us about local traditions before hiking the hour and a half over a peak back to his village. TrenEcuador helps sustain him now, too.


It is not all one big happy welcoming party on the rails. Indigenous communities around Guamote once banned outsiders from their Thursday markets, where inhabitants of different villages have converged for centuries to socialize, buy what they cannot grow in their own communities and indulge in local delicacies.

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Minus the water bottles and power line, this shot could be from another century

Now they tolerate passengers from TrenEcuador wandering among them, admiring their produce and snapping photographs. Louis was in street photographer heaven.
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The different colors of the ponchos and embroidery of the hems signify different village origins


One of the richer countries in South America because of its resources and self-sufficiency, Ecuador is undergoing the urbanization common to developing countries everywhere. Traditional cultures that have been under pressure ever since the Incas arrived shortly before the Spanish are experiencing new challenges as youth brought up on Netflix and YouTube reject rural life and eschew ancient practices. Some ethnic groups survive only in pockets of a few hundred or few thousand people.

But survive they do. For some, the resurrected train through the Andes is one of the survival strategies.

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Old meets new when indigenous women sell produce in front of a Cuenca shoe store


FROM THE PARTOUT TOOLBOX:
One of the best – sometimes the only – way to get off the beaten path (or to do a deeper dive into the beaten path) is with tours and/or knowledgable guides. No matter how much we read or study, we can’t duplicate their depth. Our TrenEcuador excursion proved this point, but we usually are happy with more modest sources. We Google “free walking tours” as soon as we hit each new city and choose the top-rated one. They can be hit and miss (they are, after all, “free”), but they never miss entirely; even the mediocre ones orient us to getting around and provide some background. AirBnB has added “experiences” in some cities that provide out-of-the-box insights (that’s how we found our “violence to transformation” day tour in Medellin), and GetYourGuide is a personal favorite for the quality of their paid tours. We found a guide to the Incan ruins of Ecuador by walking into a local travel agency. Always, Doris scours traveler forums for the names and contact info for guides others have found superlative.

TOP TIP: If there is any sight, culture or experience you really want to see that is under environmental, political or social challenge, go while going is still an option, however you do it.


Coming Soon: Jewels of the Crown (and Others)

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Bucay cloud forest from a TrenEcuador window

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Valentine’s Day Bouquet

Rows of colorHappy Valentine’s Day from Ecuador! In honor of the occasion, we offer today a rose story with a dash of chocolate.

The Chocolate Dash

Once upon a time, in a show of ill-advised friendship, Aztec king Montezuma served a drink made from the coca bean to Hernán Cortés, who could recognize gold when he saw it. The conquistador took some beans home to Spain where a foodie monk mixed the bitter bean with sugar and, voilá, an addictive family of eats was born. The church’s response of labeling liquid chocolate the “food of the devil” (because it fed the “desires of the flesh,” an early nod to serotonin stimulation) initially depressed the treat’s popularity. But, after an influential paper praised its benefits to cognition in the mid-1800s, there was no turning back.

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Coca nuts on the tree and the beans inside the nut. Sucking the raw beans is yummy!

Because the coca bean only grows within 20 degrees north or south of the equator, Ecuador (named for the self-same equator) was prime territory for the bean’s commercial cultivation, and cultivate it the Spanish and their successors did.

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Fields like this once filled the countryside

By the early 1900s, coca beans constituted 90% of Ecuador’s exports. Some coca haciendas were so vast and profitable, they printed their own currencies and operated like postage-stamp states.

Fast forward into the 20th century. A fungus invades the coca plantations. World wars disrupt the sea lanes to Europe. The coca leaf (source of cocaine) gets a bad name and is widely banned. Ecuador spirals into economic crisis. Oil, today the country’s biggest export, has not yet been discovered in the Amazon basin. The nation is forced to diversify. And diversify it does.

In the lowlands, out go the coca beans, in come bananas.

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The banana bunches are bagged while still on the threes

Coastal entrepreneurs begin cultivating shrimp.

And, in the Andes, growers plant roses.


Coming Up Roses

Today, Ecuador is the biggest exporter of roses in the world. If you give or receive Valentine’s Day roses, they very likely came from the soil Partout has been traipsing since the beginning of February.

Roses thrive here and in other equatorial countries because the sun delivers a reliable 12 hours of daily sunshine year-round at favorable radiation levels leavened with lots of rain. Vast swatches of the green Andean hillsides from north of Quito through the province of Cotopaxi are flocked with the plastic roofs of greenhouses, where they are grown indoors to prevent the birds and bees from doing their thing and spoiling the fidelity of the colors.

Under these conditions, roses can grow 10 feet tall and ramrod straight. We saw these giants with our own eyes on a rose plantation we visited en route from Quito to Guayaquil on our four-day “train of wonders” trip.
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With Valentine’s Day barely a week away, the plantation was in high-season gear. For both historical and practical reasons, most rose workers are women. Historically, men in the countryside have migrated to cities for work, leaving their women behind to keep the home fires burning and form a large and willing work force. Practically, it turns out, women distinguish color better than men so they are better suited for the color-sensitive work. As our guide told us, there are nine varieties of red for women. For men, one.

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Roses are sorted in racks by color before bunching. These all look red to us.

Appropriately for Valentine’s Day, the process starts with a couple – he measuring the length and size of the stems, she clipping and bunching the blooms. Once clipped, stems are soaked in water for and hour or two to steel them for the sprint to our vases.
img_7696.jpgThus hydrated, the blooms are wrapped and the stems sent down the assembly line to be labeled by color.

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Colors include Tiffany, Leonidas and Iguana

After labeling, it is into cold storage for 1-2 days of chilling before the beauties are loaded onto special rose flights immediately after sunset and flown overnight by the hundreds of thousands of pounds to markets all over the world, each batch bar-coded to identify its source, color and harvest data.

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Roses are cultivated with their markets in mind. Because Russians like to display their roses in six-foot pots, they get the 10-foot stems. Americans like shorter stems with bigger blossoms so that’s what goes their way. Blooms not exported are sold in the local markets near the plantations for about $5 for three dozen, given to employees to sell on their own for extra income or composted.

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The dump truck looked like it could be composted, too

In the happiest of endings, each rose eventually brightens not only Ecuador’s economy but someone’s day, on Valentine’s Day or any day.
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Sent with all our love.


FROM THE PARTOUT TOOLBOX:

Ever wondered how to keep your roses fresh after you use up the little packet of plant food they come bundled with? Every two days, change the water and cut the stems at a 90-degree angle. The angle is important because it facilitates both hydration and cleansing. Mix 1 tsp of vinegar and 1 tsp of sugar into the fresh water, the vinegar to clean the water, the sugar to feed the blooms. If outer petals begin to droop, carefully peel them away to expose the fresher, inner blossom.

TOP TIP: Make someone happy. Give roses on Valentine’s Day. Who knows? We might have been there to see them growing for you.


COMING SOON: The Little Train That Does

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Adios, El Dorado

Colombia hatLouis and Doris have moved on to Ecuador and it is time for Partout to catch up. But before saying adios to Colombia, we can’t resist sharing a few of the more curious, haunting or memorable sights and impressions from our four weeks in the land of El Dorado.

À la David Letterman, here you go. . . .


#10 – Futbol. It’s not just for weekends.
From all appearances on bar and restaurant TVs, there is a soccer game going on somewhere on earth, every hour of every day, and you can watch it in Colombia. To experience the national obsession ourselves, we attended a futbol game in Bogota, where nobody ever sat down, everybody chanted litanies led by drums the entire game, and the Jumbotron showed commercials, not replays. Go SantaFe!
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#9 – Football. The other foot-ball sport. 
We were able to watch all the NFL playoff games we wanted in Medellin sports bars, which turned off futbol long enough to accommodate football for norteamericanos and assorted non-US gringos who showed up for the fun. This is what led to Louis being hosted to rum shots by a bunch of drunk Austrians who then embraced him with a rousing chorus of “Oh, Canada.” What happens in Medellin stays in Medellin – and that’s a good thing.

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Official staffing at Ay Wey, our favorite Medellin sports bar


#8 – Breasts. AKA “chichis.”
Breasts are big in Cartagena and Medellin. Really big. Eye-poppingly big. We were told in our Spanish school the trend of melon-sized breasts began with the narcos, for whom the augmented chichis on girlfriends were a status symbol, the bigger the better. Now even the store manikins have big chichis. Women of a certain age who sport them are known as “chichibarbis” (yes, old Barbie dolls). Doris no es chichibarbi!

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This would be a bra for the small-chichi’ed woman


#7 – Love hotels. The “perfect and safe alternative.”
Dingy ones with dodgy entrances, snazzy ones that could have passed for Hampton Inns. In the words of a MedellinLiving title: “The Love Motel: A Fun & Practical Solution to Sex in Colombia. “While it is difficult for a Westerner to accept the idea of taking his/her girlfriend or boyfriend to have sex at a motel for two hours, here in South America, the notion is quite different. . . . When you are from a country where most adults live at home until they are married and there is no privacy to explore intimacy, a love motel becomes a perfect and safe alternative.” Full disclosure: We only saw them from the outside!

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In downtown Medellin, romance by the hour is humble


#6 – Sleeping dogs. More flea-bitten than love hotels.
Dogs are to South America what cats are to Arab countries and the Netherlands. Ubiquitous. Never out of sight or ear. The old saw about letting sleeping dogs lie? They have taken it to heart down here.

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Group dognapping in the historic main plaza of Tunja


#5 – Sex tourism. The dark underbelly of sex in Colombia.
A multi-page spread in the nation’s leading news magazine describes the practice of recruiting and selling virgins 12 or 13 years old to foreign tourists. Nearly every hotel room contains a sign with a telephone number to report the sexual exploitation of children and adolescents. Below is an airport poster warning women that if they arrived in Medellin on a free ticket with a job offer, they are at risk. #EsoEsCuento is a national campaign to stop sex trafficking in Colombia. Godspeed.

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#4 – Venezuelans. A demonstrable border crisis.
The current Venezuelan crisis is rippling across South America in waves of hungry, desperate and sometimes violent refugees, perhaps nowhere more than in next-door Colombia. Athletic young Venezuelans breakdance, strum, juggle, and perform acrobatic feats in intersections to earn handouts from drivers. The less able beg, sleep on the streets and, according to locals, increasingly victimize the public. This will be another of those humanitarian crises that doesn’t reach most American radar screens, but it is already real, and it is growing.

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#3 – Smiles. The universal language.
For all its violent history and current challenges, Louis’s lens found Colombia to be a land of ready and radiant smiles, even when braking a load of recyclables downhill on foot.

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#2 – Cheap Ubers. Wheels have never been cheaper.
Big Colombian cities like Medellin and especially Bogota are notorious for taxi scams, but getting around on foot is not always a safe option. Though officially illegal, Uber has come to the rescue, taking root fast as the go-to wheels for locals and visitors alike. Never have we gotten around cities so cheaply. In four weeks in Colombia, we took 48 Uber rides for a whopping total of $104.52. For us budget-conscious travelers, that was a very grand total indeed.

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A top 8% tip added about 16 cents to the fare


#1 – Vive Símon Bolívar!
The liberator of six South American countries died at 47, broke and broken, convinced that the long and bloody war he waged to free the colonies from Spain and forge a United States of South America was sending him to his grave a pariah. Time has come to his rescue. A full 95% of Colombia’s central plazas bear Bolívar’s name today, streets everywhere are named for him and his generals, and it is impossible to spend a day anywhere without seeing his likeness. If there is a New Granada in the sky, El Liberador must be smiling at last.

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The birds may have no respect but history does


FROM THE PARTOUT TOOLBOX

Even more indispensable than the Uber app on the road is WhatsApp. For locals all over the world, the free data-based service is the primary means of texting and talking, including video talking. As travelers, it is how we communicate with our AirBnB hosts, guides and anyone else who is not in the US with a US phone number. At home, it is how we stay in touch with our loved ones outside the continent.

TOP TIP: WhatsApp – don’t leave home without it. Don’t even stay home without it if you ever need to call a friend, hotel, guide or anyone else outside the US.


COMING SOON: A Valentine Day Bouquet

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It was bling like this in the fabulous gold museum of Bogota that kept the Spaniards (and many others) in the hunt for El Dorado – Colombia’s Lost City of Gold.

 

 

 

 

 

Cartagena: Colombian Eye Candy

colorful streetPartout likes to dive into the issues, questions and puzzles of being all over the place, but sometimes the essence of a place is simply how it looks. That would be Cartagena.

Like many Spanish colonists and Caribbean pirates, we made our first landfall in South America in Cartagena. Though famously hot and humid, the city is supposed to be the most beautiful colonial city in the Caribbean and reeks of history and romance. In other words, it’s unmissable. We booked three nights.

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Balconies everywhere? Dead giveaway we are in a one-time Spanish colony.


Surfing through our lodging options, we chose the neighborhood of Getsemani as our base in the city for one reason: To save money. Compared with everywhere else we are going in South America, we found Cartagena lodgings expensive, at least during the month-long holiday when the whole country (except the tourist industry) vacations while kids of every age are out of school.

As it turned out for us, Getsemani was vastly more appealing than the old city on the other side of the wall. Cartageneros still live in Getsemani, their living rooms in full view through front door grills opening right onto the sidewalks.

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A Getsemani resident looks out the front door grill

El Centro is Disneyland. In August. Getsemani is Knott’s Berry Farm, in the old days. (Okay, okay. For non-Californians, El Centro = Manhattan; Getsemani = Brooklyn ungentrified.)

To escape the heat, Getsemani residents lounge on their doorsteps, play dominoes on sidewalks and gather in the neighborhood’s plazas to eat, drink, flirt and perchance to nap.
Version 2Strolling the neighborhood, we see a teenager donning her makeup outside her door, a woman checking her cell phone under a pirate parrot, a sidewalk cobbler repairing a purse, a man contemplating … photogenically.
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The streets are narrow and colorful, some overhung with sparkles, pennants, even umbrellas, each street’s decor different.
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Cars and trucks still make their way through, competing with donkeys and hand carts.
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Whimsical statues populate the plazas.
Processed with MOLDIVMurals showcase the work of local artists and famous names.

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Marquez is the famous one.

Color is everywhere. (Doris finally feels she belongs.)

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Even the hemlines are photogenic

Partout is unlikely to return to Cartagena, even if it is the loveliest colonial city of the Caribbean. It is too hot and humid even for Louis, who has been heard to say he can never be too hot. But for a generous helping of eye candy? Unmissable.


FROM THE PARTOUT TOOLBOX

One of the most indispensable travel tools Doris uses for long-term travel are traveler forums, the online communities where travelers and others in the know exchange practical information. The best ones are essentially message boards where anyone who is signed up can post a question and get real-time answers from other travelers or helpful locals.

For information typically of interest to travelers who are more comfort- than budget-oriented, she mostly relies on TripAdviser forums, broken down by country and city. That’s how she found a Bedouin to lead us through the forts and deserts of Jordan and an Ecuadorian to take us into indigenous craft villages in Imbabura. For down-and-dirty intel from backpackers and other seasoned road warriors, she relies on Lonely Planet’s Thorntree. Trying to decide whether it was advisable to travel after dark from the Quito airport to a destination 90 minutes away, Doris posted the question on Thorntree’s Ecuador forum and had five knowledgable answers within five hours. Recently, she joined a community of world citizens called InterNation that also has a forum. When she needed an emergency dental appointment in Bogota, she posted a cry for recommendations, preferably English-speaking, and had the names and numbers of three dentists within the hour.

TOP TIP: Before hitting the road, sign up for at least one forum where in-the-know contributors routinely give real-time responses. You never know when a filling will fall out far from home.

COMING SOON: Adios, El Dorado

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Even the paint was photogenic

Do Not Read While Hungry

ArepaWe had many expectations when we set out for South America. Delicious food was not one of them. We had both spent way too much time eating rice-and-bean combos in Latin American countries to leave home expecting much better.

Half of our big fat Colombian surprise proved to be just how wrong our preconceived notions were. On the sidewalks of Cartagena (the arepa at the top of the blog), in repurposed colonial homes in timeless Villa de Leyva, on side streets of Medellin, in our gritty boho neighborhood of Bogota, we ate – and drank – very very well and often for astonishingly little money.

Consider this fish plate we lunched on at The Abuella – “The Grandmother” – a hole in the wall in our Alto Chapinero neighborhood of Bogota. Yes, it is fried on the outside but hiding inside the most moist, succulent, perfect white fish ever.

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Price: $4 per plate, including soup and fresh fruit juice. Yum.

Less humbly, this artisan coffee was brewed from single-hacienda beans grown by a generations-old family enterprise that also picked, trucked and roasted the beans (with a Dietrich coffee roaster from Sandpoint!) before brewing them in the ancient Usaquen neighborhood where we drank this Joe. Price: $3 per cup.

There were drinks made from fruits we had never tasted before, ceviche stewed in every possible juice, tonic delivered to G&Ts via a wand to keep the bubbles under control, hot chocolate Louis declared the best of his life. We found wine stores that could have been air-lifted from any trendy US neighborhood.
Processed with MOLDIVWine
We skipped the fried ants and tripe soup and never found time for one of the 10-course culinary spectacles served in the gastronomic temples, but we sampled other local specialities like paisa and ajiaca and learned to make the Colombian staple, patacones, in our Spanish school, stomping and turning the green plantains flat with our feet before they were cooked into rich thin pancakes that we smeared with salsa.

We ate and drank on the streets, on rooftops, in ancient colonial haciendas repurposed into modern restaurants and tasted fruits we had never even seen before.

Guayathings

One night, we dined with eight other random travelers in a chic Bogota penthouse apartment, thanks to an AirBnB “experience” that lasted five hours and introduced us to eight other globetrotters including a professional chanteuse from Buenos Aires and a Parisian businessman running the Colombian factory of France’s oldest glass company.Culinary experienceDSC04447

 

 

 

 

In short, we ate and drank and ate and drank until the other half of our big fat Colombian surprise was that … uh, we left Colombia feeling a bit like the Botero paintings we also enjoyed so much.

Which would be the other half of our big fat Colombian surprise.

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Maybe there is a reason Medellin native son Botero’s subjects are always so voluminous?


FROM THE PARTOUT TOOLBOX:
The companion food expectation for Doris upon setting out for South America was that she would experience more than her share of Atahuallpa’s revenge, the Incan counterpart to Monteczuma’s payback for European invasion. Lifelong, her very worst cases of traveler’s diarrhea – including one that required emergency medical care – took place in Latin America.

In an effort to avoid what felt like the inevitable, she took the Pepto Bismol plunge described in this New York Times article and detailed in this 1985 paper in JAMA (with thanks to Jeannette De Wyze for the heads up). Yes, this did require stockpiling 420 bismuth subsalicylate tablets for the 77-day trip just for her (Iron Belly Louis took a pass), but Target online came through with bottles of 40 for $1.99 each, which make great forms to keep packed shoes in place.

Halfway through the trip, so far so good.

TOP TIP: Don’t drink the water. Don’t even brush teeth with it. Travel doctors and experienced travelers swear this is the best technique for avoiding touristic intestines. If that doesn’t seem safe enough, take a look at the bismuth research.

COMING SOON: Cartagena – Colombian Eye Candy