Dynamite Dean at Last

Friday, February 26, 2010

In a country where transport between places is almost always an 8-12 hour excursion, it's tempting to take advantage of the night bus. You hop on, sleep, wake up, and you're there. Admittedly you are not liable to sleep as well as in a hostel, but at the same time you also save a night's accommodation. The problems only become apparent when you are on a night bus that is raided by guerrillas (much more likely than in the day though still pretty unlikely) or when you look out the window on a drive from Bogota to Armenia in the daytime. The scenery was spectacular, reminding me at times of northern Laos and at other times of Guatemala, both of which rank simply as stunning. So, with music playing, the 8.5 hours to Armenia passed relatively quickly. I was there primarily to visit a friend of mine, Katie, from something called Pacific Challenge that I had taken part in a few years ago running across New Zealand and Australia. She is now teaching in Colombia for a couple years and I was looking forward to the chance to catch up with her again.

I had her address in hand and got in a cab at the bus terminal then got off at her apartment in the nicer area of town. It's a funny feeling climbing the stairs several flights to find a familiar face from a long time ago looking at you and looking exactly the same as when you said goodbye in Sydney a few weeks shy of three years ago. It's crazy how time flies but we had no problems chatting like old times and discussing them as well. Two of her friends, Andrea and Shauna, a fellow Oregonian and Canadian respectively, came by and we drank tetra-packed wine and ate Colombian-style pizza while refreshing the website with the most up to date score on the Canada-Germany Olympic hockey game. It was a nice and relaxing evening and much needed after all the running around with Phil throughout February. The next day I contemplated an excursion to nearby Salento and the wax palms that grow in the clouds there but vetoed it when I left my room and saw NOBODY. A place entirely to myself (Katie was at work) was too good for a traveler to pass up and I spent the day relaxing around the house and, if truth be told, trying to find a way to stream the next Olympic hockey game live.

Katie came home around 5 PM and I had not succeeded in my task but it had been a great day nonetheless. We headed out for Mexican food with Andrea and her husband, Jon, who I understand is a mad Simpsons/Curb Your Enthusiasm/Seinfeld quoter, but the only quotes I heard that evening were from his students. There was a lot of talk about the school and the students which might sound exclusionary but was in reality quite fascinating. Things are definitely different here. For example, the parents are upset that in this touchy-feely culture the foreign teachers are not affectionate enough with their children. And then the very lurid exploits of a stereotypical Colombian male acted out by an 11-year old with a homemade strap-on... well, you get the idea which was completely acceptable by local standards. The differences in discipline, and even the sorts of things the kids endure from kidnapping and violent crime to transient families and more. I would love to have Katie write a guest post about her experiences here but I'd be having my own soon enough. Anyway, back to dinner, it was delicious, spicy, and again a very nice way to finish an already great day.

The next morning I headed off to Salento, right in the heart of the coffee region (Zona Cafeteria) for a day trip. Katie had said it was about a 30 minute walk and because of my usual walking pace I estimated about 20 minutes but I'd forgotten to whom I'd been talking. The walk took me almost an hour and had me doubting myself at every step. Is this REALLY the way? Soon enough I found the bus and hopped on, enjoying once again the beautiful scenery in which Armenia and Salento even moreso are set. I arrived in Salento around 11 and looked around the town plus walked up the hill to an outlook before grabbing lunch. I probably shouldn't have taken lunch just then for, delicious though it was (trout fresh from the nearby farm) I missed both the 12:00 and 1:00 jeeps into Valle de Cocora which is the heart of the wax palm forest high in the clouds. Quite surreal I hear. So, despite the late-growing hour and the darkening clouds overhead, I decided to amble around town for an hour and catch the 2:00 "Willy" jeep there. I wandered, decided it was a nice town, and all of a sudden I see a familiar face walking down the street: Raj from the Hike From Hell in Panama. We chatted for a bit and I walked back with him to his hostel for free coffee, still undecided about whether or not to take the trip. More visiting there and suddenly my watched revealed it was 1:58 and I said a hasty goodbye and ran out the door.

I turned the corner just in time to see the jeep leaving behind a trail of black exhaust and heading up into the sky. Next Willy? 3:00. Forget it, I'll have to come back which was becoming an anthem for Colombia, I hopped on the bus for Armenia and got home just before Katie did. That night they had big plans for me: an introduction to a Colombian game called Tejo (Teh-HO) which involves throwing iron 'stones' at a metal ring similar to the game of horseshoes. The key difference here is that instead of wrapping the shoe around a pole, the goal here is to land the stone on the metal ring, thereby exploding the 'dynamite' or gunpowder packets that are placed on top of it. Sound fun? It was! It took us a lot of time, several beer, and a healthy portion of Aguardiente before we gave up trying to do it from afar and got close. The Aguardiente was needed to summon the stupidity to stand close to exploding things but nobody's ears were seriously hurt. After this we retired to drinks but I refused to give up and continued my attempts from afar. At last I hit it, the only one of us to explode something from that distance, and earned my nickname of Dynamite Dean for once and for all. I should mention in fairness that Katie was kicking our collective butts at the outset but soon gave way to Andrea's beer-infused skill which even included two direct hits that didn't explode. Shauna on the other hand, was a lot of fun.

I was leaving for Cali to visit with Phil for his final days in South America the next morning but first there was one major thing to do: visit Katie's school. I got up relatively early considering the night prior and grabbed a cab for the school after a magnificent shower. Katie's school is out of town and is really more of a compound, set in the hills with many buildings and beautiful vistas everywhere. I'd arrived during the equivalent of house leagues, a week filled with competition within the school in various events and it seemed the big day was saved for last: Friday, which happened to be the day I was there. The kids were divided into colours and had to carry water balloons around all day as they climbed ladders, surfed across the field on a piece of plywood hoisted by their peers, ascended a slip and slide, ran laps, and finally crawled through a mud trench to victory. As a result, neither Katie nor Andrea had to teach that day and it was pretty much a chance to sit outside and watch Colombians doing crazy things. Which is exactly what we did. I met some of the kids, including a couple that had recently moved with their families from Ottawa and others with varying degrees of English skill. I overstepped my bounds when I attempted to invent a new chant for the poorly-named "Naranja" team that went "Na-na-naranja" and received blank stares and raised eyebrows for me effort but otherwise was quite welcomed there.

Of course the best part was a visit to Shauna's first grade class where I was thrust to the front of the class to answer questions and attempt to keep the kids somewhat orderly. Their excitement made that impossible, or I would have thought so, but Shauna had any number of methods of instituting order that impressed me immensely. The questions were everything from predictable "Why are you here?" to out of left field. For example, I have never really considered a favourite shape before. I answered triangle, because of the pyramids, and it so happened that the student in question was actually heading to Egypt for a vacation in a few weeks. One girl fell in love with my turtle chain and another asked for an autograph and overall I loved every minute of it. Thankfully I didn't have anything important to impart to them or the lack of order would have been a problem. When it was really out of hand, Shauna would step back in the room and save the day. Afterwards, we grabbed some pizza (thanks to the school for the free lunch!) and it was time for yet another goodbye. I got a lift on the back of somebody's motorbike to the highway and walked along for a kilometre or so until I figured out which bus to stop and managed to bus my way back to Katie's.

I did the dishes, cleaned up a bit, and packed my things up, doing the computer last as I'd found somewhere to grab some of the Oscar-nominated movies I wouldn't be seeing down here. As a result I managed to receive the message in time that the Iguana hotel was full but that Anabella was in town and had invited Phil and I to stay with her at her dad's house. I called them on my arrival and we decided to meet up at Iguana anyway so the next step was a cab (it was after dark and I wasn't bussing with everything I own on my back). It wasn't that far and the cab agreed to take me for 2000 so I hopped in and began immediately to regret it. He started talking about being able to get me 'girls' and he paid off some vagrant that did nothing but say to me, "Iguana, yeah" and point at the cab I was already talking to. I was getting ready for anything but we arrived there without incident until he asked me for 12000 for what was definitely not more than a 4000 peso fare. See, "dos mil" is 2000 and "doce mil" is 12000 and I definitely know the different but he tried. So I went into the hostel and asked how much it should cost and the lady told me 5000 at the MAXIMUM. I didn't want to pay him but I gave him 5000 and got rid of him then waited. Soon, or rather a fair bit later, the lady from Iguana called and said I had somebody waiting. There, outside, were Phil and Anabella waiting to take me to a part of Cali I'd probably never see on my own.

Armenia and Salento Photos

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