Colombia, the only risk is wanting to strangle your neighbours

I hate vallenato.

There, I feel better for admitting it. Despite how much I’ve tried tell myself “but this is Colombian culture, you’re not open-minded enough if you can’t embrace it” I will always intensely dislike this incessant, squeaky, loud, monotonous music that is only ever blared out of oversize speakers at a decibel warning level.

How did I finally come to confess this you may ask. Well, my day started like this:

Ahhh, Sunday, you beautiful sleep-in of a day with only relaxing things to do. Oh, except that I have to take D to a soccer game that starts at 7:50am. And we can’t go on the motorbike because it is waiting for my brother-in-law to fix it with his magical mechanic hands. So we’re up early. Although the funny thing is I didn’t need an alarm clock because the neighbour two doors down started the music up at 6:40am. Did I tell you it is Sunday?

Normal people (ie not costeños) would think twice before spinning the volume dial on their music up until it spins no more. Even more so you would expect this consideration when you live in a laneway that isn’t even 2m wide and every house is a terrace house, wall beside wall. But our fabulous neighbours have instead brought out their mega speaker to the front terrace, aimed it in the direction of our house and found the limit on the volume dial. Playing vallenato. That music I hate.

I couldn’t hear la suegra talking to me across the lounge room, and it wasn’t even 7am. I couldn’t even hear myself think. My brain started to crackle and frazzle with the fast accordion scratch and grate. Ooops, here arrives my bad mood.

I went to the corner store to buy breakfast supplies and my face withered into a sour, glowering scowl as I passed the neighbours sitting out the front of their house with their ears pressed up against the mega speaker. Perhaps the sound isn’t as loud as it is in their terrace as what it is inside my house. Maybe I should invite them to our lounge so we can shout at each other from the couch to the chair and continually repeat “que?

Unfortunately for me vallenato is the most popular music in Santa Marta. It screams at me from bars, shops, buses and of course the neighbours’ stereos. I long for a bit of Latin pop, the other neighbour’s old time ballads or even ranchero, Colombian country music mi novio sings along to badly, but the vallenato is escapable. Like the bad mood it brings on. I detest it so much I can’t even bring myself to search for a song to link to so you can experience it yourself and really know what I mean. Sorry but you’ll have to do it yourself (don’t worry, it won’t matter what song you find because they all sound the same).

I’m in serious need of a coping mechanism for dealing with the obnoxious sound, but can’t seem to find a calm space while it vibrates in my brain. I tell myself that if it is played at a normal volume it wouldn’t be so bad, but that’s never going to happen and I have to resign myself to living with vallenato.

Do you have any strategies for how I can accept vallenato and not end up strangling my neighbours? Or what would be the best annoying music for me to play at max volume on the terrace (assuming I had a super mega high wattage speaker)?

*Disclaimer: I don’t actually want to strangle my neighbours – it’s just a figure of speech – because except for the inconsiderate vallenato they are nice and always greet me with a buenas or adios when I pass with a non-vallenato-soured face.

A long distance love affair

I last saw mi novio in person five months ago.

I jumped on a plane leaving my heart in his hands in Colombia. I didn’t have an exact date as to when I would next see the love of my life, but every confidence that it would happen and we would overcome any challenges that distance imposes on a new relationship. We had made plans to be together, and I knew returning to Australia was just a short-term pain for a long-term gain.

I had spent the last couple of weeks we had together in an emotional frenzy. All at once I was glad to be with him and yet missing him already for the time we would spend apart. I feel like I cried more times in those weeks than I had in my entire life. (And still he wanted to be with me!) Our last day together was strange and stressful as the cable guys arrived to install internet access to his house so we could Skype each other, a blessing that cannot be underestimated in a long distance relationship of any sort.

I look back on the past five months with the satisfaction of knowing there is only one more month to go until we are together again in person. It has been like the five-day trek to Ciudad Perdida where we met, only elongated. There have been tough climbs to reach the top, exhausted with the effort, but happy that once reached, the terrain would change again to be easier. You marvel at the magnificent scenery and pause to take in the incredible views. Then unexpectedly, the difficult and treacherous passages would appear again and require delicate maneuvering to pass the obstacles. Heavy rains would come and make the path even more treacherous, making it slippery and muddy so you had to step with care so as not to go sliding down the mountain. But the jewel, the reason for the hike is reached, and it is beautiful and rewarding and a very happy moment. I’m looking forward to that jewel moment in just one more month. I’m nearly there!

I commented to a work colleague that one of the unsettling things about being in a long distance relationship is that you don’t know how you are going to feel about the situation at any given time. One morning I could waltz into work, happy for having spoken to mi novio and feeling comfortable in our situation and then by lunchtime I could be feeling an ache in my heart because he’s not physically present and I can’t go home to a normal life, just to a Skype screen. There is no rhyme or reason for this see-sawing. There’s nothing he’s doing or saying that causes me grief or irritation, it’s just a giant Wheel of Fortune spinner whirring away bringing the good and bad feelings at random.

In a moment of clear headspace I had an insightful conversation with myself. It went something like this.

Inner Voice: So Camille, where do you really want to be?

“In Colombia with mi novio.”

IV: Then why aren’t you there now?

“Because I didn’t have the money to go back straight away after my commitments back here.”

IV: But you’ve already met those commitments, so what are you still doing here?

“It’s really important for me that mi novio comes here to meet my family and friends and find out where I’m from before I move to Colombia indefinitely.”

IV: So?

“Money is a factor, you know how much the airfares are. And I need to have money to buy things for my new home in Colombia.”

IV: When has money ever really stopped you before?

“Yes but it also takes time for mi novio to get a tourist visa, so I’m working in a temporary job and dealing with the time apart from him so I can have it all.”

IV: Okay then, appreciate the journey because you will get there. Stop feeling hard done by, because this is your choice.

My inner voice is right of course. I need to enjoy the journey, enjoy the time I get to spend with just me before it is the two of us and appreciate that distance is making our relationship stronger.

Are you in, or have been in, a long distance relationship? How are you coping or did you cope with the distance?

A couple of things happened while I was away

And I’m not referring to any of the local and family tidbits my mum shared with me while I was on the road.

Window signs
There's not really room for three of these LCD signs in this Ascot Vale shopfront.

There are two things I saw while in America that made me think to myself “Look at that. I’m glad we don’t have that in Australia!” It wasn’t banking related, or anything nearly as important as healthcare. But they were:

  1. Family stickers on cars that include all family members, pets and the kitchen sink
  2. Flashing LCD signs in store windows saying “Open”

Every time I saw one of these things I would have a slight inwards gloat that we wouldn’t be that cheesy back home.

So you can imagine my surprise, my disgust and my feeling of foolishness when those two things haven’t just taken America by storm but Australia too.

I think the first time I saw a car back home with a family sticker emblazoned on it, I actually said “Nooo” aloud in disbelief. I struggle comprehend why people feel the need to display their whole family, cartoon style, on their vehicles. I guess we’ve moved beyond “Baby on Board” signs and bumper stickers telling people to back off if they can read it. Do we blame Facebook for this? Are people wanting to extend beyond their online social network and instead post about themselves and their family in a moving billboard style? I’m not sure what to think, I can only shake my head.

I justified the flashing LCD open signs in the US when I realised that this would be helpful for people during a snowstorm. Like Laura Ingalls Wilder leaving a light in the window to help Pa find his way home in a blizzard in the Little House on the Prairie books. However that logic does not apply to Australia where there are really only a handful or two of towns above the snowline. Here these signs are just tacky attention grabbers from DIY marketers.

To remind myself that yes, I am really back in Australia, I have indulged in sausage rolls, meat pies, pavlovas, Vegemite and regularly catch the tram.

Back on the bandwagon

It’s been a little while. Six months actually. And I’m slightly embarrassed about this. Why? Well, at the end of 2010 I signed up to write a post a day, and after six months of daily blogging, I suddenly stopped with as much enthusiasm as I started.

I got caught up in my adventures and didn’t have the time or resources to dedicate to my blog. I had ideas in my head, but they never got typed out. Perhaps the promise to blog daily was a little too much, but at the same time, I’m pretty proud that I got that far. Normally repetitious things slide off my radar much more quickly. The other day I inspired a colleague to start a blog, and hating to be a hypocrite, I decided I needed to get back on my blog bandwagon.

“When you feel that you have reached the end and that you cannot go one step further, when life seems to be drained of all purpose: What a wonderful opportunity to start all over again, to turn over a new page.” – Eileen Caddy

So here it is, another starting again for 2012.

Next destination, Colombia

Words cannot begin to express how excited I am to be going to Colombia.

Firstly there is the yearning for travelling in Colombia that I’ve had since April 2004 when I was in the tiny jungle border town, Leticia. I made a vow to come back and now it is finally happening. Initially I told myself I wasn’t removing the red, blue and yellow wristband I bought there until I returned, but after going home and getting a professional job, that had to come off. But has been with me all the time hanging from my keychain. So as you can imagine, I’m really excited to see that dream come to life.

Secondly, I have had my fill of the US. After 6 months here I am desperate for some new scenery and culture. I think the longer I stay here, the less I like being here. Despite all the wonderful people I’ve met, and the places I’ve enjoyed as I crossed the country, I just don’t like being in America.  It’s a strange feeling that’s hard to describe. There’s something that makes me feel uneasy, and then there’s so many things to appreciate about Australia that you only pick up when you speak to people about how it is here, like annual leave, maternity leave and health care.

Whilst I feel like this now, I also know that I will be back and travelling in the this country in the future because I want to revisit the friends I’ve made and also see the things that I missed on my planned return leg like Niagara Falls, Chicago, Mt Rushmore, Yellowstone, Glacier National Park, Olympic National Park, Seattle, Crater Lake National Park, Portland and Yosemite. It’s just that next time will be for a much shorter period of time, and hopefully with a friend.

Damn you Larry Crowne

You know when you want to see a film because it sounds like it should be good but you remain unconvinced by the previews and also harbour a dislike for one of the lead actors? That was me with Larry Crowne.

With two big drawcard leads in Tom Hanks and Julia Roberts, Larry Crowne was billed as a summer feel-good flick. It is the typical kind of film you see Tom Hanks shine in, and he had the added pressure of co-writing and directing it. Julia Roberts brought the same character she’s played for many years to the film and despite her boringness and shade of Cameron Diaz’s Bad Teacher, didn’t ruin it for me. However I think Bryan Cranston really stole the show with a brilliant performance.

I left the theatre with the requisite bubble of good vibes, but also with a pang of nostalgia and dash of yearning. I was romanticising.

I was thinking about how exciting it is to live in LA and wondering whether I had been too hasty in making my departure from the city and the film biz. Perhaps I should have stuck it out a bit longer. Did I really give it a chance?

It could be the hardships and solitude of the road that has caught up with me as I am also dreaming of the day of having a real job again back home and how I will take advantage of the delights of whatever new city I find myself living in. I really must be dreaming. What dedicated traveller ever fantasises about, and counts down the days until, they go back to the rat race?

So two months into my roadtrip, Larry Crowne has come in churning up feelings and thoughts I had buried deep down in the mud. I guess I need to sift through them and polish up the golden ones.

Mammoth waste of my time

“I wonder if the rangers need to be accredited?” was a comment I head a young woman ask her partner as I was following a hundred Americans through Mammoth Cave in Kentucky.

I almost snorted out loud.

Maybe my attitude was tainted by the little sleep I’d had the night before and the subsequent drive, but this tour was interminably boring. Since you can only see the cave on a tour, I selected one that described the difficulty level as ‘moderate’ hoping it would weed out the old, feeble, very young and unadventurous. However we still had all of the above on the tour, as many people seem to overstate their abilities.

Perhaps my ‘tude also came from being told by the long-haired, red necked ranger that I couldn’t take my bottle of water even though I’d been told at the ticket booth that water was allowed. Apparently it had to be in a see-through bottle. Thanks for telling me earlier instead of in front of 100 waiting Americans.

On the bus to the cave entrance, an old yellow school bus that this time I was not excited to ride, I decided to close my eyes and take a little nap. I was interrupted by the small children in front of me saying “look Grandpa, she’s sleeping”. Grandpa replied “Oh no, she’s just pretending.” So when I did open my eyes to glare at them, I caught 3 pairs of little eyes watching me like I was a Wiggles DVD. Grandpa received my sleep status update with a whisper.

I probably should have cut my $12 loss on the ticket and walked back to the visitor centre from there instead of following a bunch of painful people through a largely unimpressive cave.

The last cave I was in was at Waitomo, New Zealand where I abseiled through two waterfalls and got to rock scramble. That was exciting. The cave before that in Margaret River, Western Australia was incredibly beautiful and full of formations.

This dry cavern wasn’t particularly interesting, even less so when you are traipsing behind oohing and aahing Americans in a conga line that’s enough to make someone claustrophobic.

Thankfully the last little bit of the tour took us through the only patch of stalagmites and stalactites in the 300 plus miles of Mammoth Cave, the biggest in the world. That was interesting, but sadly my enthusiasm had completely disappeared and I needed to get away from the herd.

Now I’m hellbent on avoiding anything that is “family friendly”. I need more excitement than those type of activities can muster up. Or maybe I just need to be more tolerant. A situation greatly aided with a good amount of sleep.

Adrenaline of fear

I met some English guys at the pub in Louisville and in the pouring rain I drove two of them to Wick’s bar where were going to get pizza and party into the night.

I half-heartedly conversed with them as my concentration was required on the roads which were like rivers, and were it seemed to take an eternity to drive the two miles there.

My knuckles whitened and gripped Esmeralda’s steering wheel harder as a weather warning for tornadoes came over the radio. No sooner had we driven past the bar did I hear the tornado sirens wailing in the streets.

I quickly parked Esmeralda behind a bank and post office, not caring if it was a towaway zone and said to the guys “We have to get out now!” and jumped out. The two Poms didn’t understand my haste and ten metres from the car I screamed at them to get out of the car so I could lock it.

“These are tornado sirens, we have to get inside NOW!” I bellowed like a fishwife.

I was petrified. I had visions of the tornado raging through the water-filled streets sucking me up along and slamming me with debris.

I ran about 20 metres to the street corner and barely checking the traffic, crossed the streets at a sloshy run holding my hands up in a ‘stop’ command to any vehicles thinking of crossing my path. I didn’t stop until I got to the safety of the bar and then turned to see the guys still standing on the other side of the street, bewildered and looking lost.

We asked a couple in a booth eating pizza if they were tornado sirens in the street and they were so nonplussed as they said “yeah” with a shrug of their shoulders. I was still packing shit. My legs were jittery from the adrenaline that had pumped through them in a state of fear just moments before.

At the counter I asked a girl about the sirens, my voice incredulous as it asked “Is that a tornado warning? Is there a tornado?” My eyes were wide with fear and she laughed it off and said oh-so-coolly “Yeah”. I asked if we were going to be okay and her reply was a not particularly comforting “Yeah, if it gets really bad we have a big basement.”

The guys clearly weren’t afraid as they were more worried about getting drinks. We had to go through to another section where you got all the beer and pizza you wanted for $10.75. The tornado warning and sirens were still on my mind and I ended up having a big conversation with the bouncer checking IDs about it. He finally calmed my nerves as he gave me all the info I was after. Apparently the tornado had touched down in Louisville earlier that afternoon (while I was in the safety of my motel room) and had taken the roof off a sports stadium. He said the danger was over and the rains were just what follows. Only after this conversation did I start to feel less shaky.

I think, even though I wasn’t right in middle the storm, that this is the most scared I’ve ever been.

The Kansas City pavlova

Kansas City has reinvigorated my roadtrip. I was lonely, tired of my own company and bored. I had never planned on coming to Kansas City, but desperate for company, I took Hiker Buddy Brian up on the offer of his couch so I could have some good conversation and resocialise myself.

It was such a great decision to make as cruising around in Hiker Buddy Brian’s Mustang convertible, riding mechanical bulls, sharing meals, making new friends and having great conversations was exactly what I needed at this halfway point on my way east.

Whilst it is nice (and essential for me) to have time on your own to reflect and whatever, too much can drive you crazy. The alone time has made me appreciate my friendships so much more because without friends, my life would be interminably lonely. And I’m too much of an extrovert to cope well with long periods of solitude. I don’t think I quite thought through this solo roadtrip very well and certainly didn’t think I’d be doing it all on my own. I thought it would be easy to meet people going the same direction as me, although it turns out that if the people I met weren’t nutty, they were going west. I’ve discovered that travelling in America you need to throw out the travel manual you use in other countries or continents. It just doesn’t work the same way.

So I showed my new friends my appreciation for their company and the fun times they showed me by baking a pavlova, the first one in six weeks.

Seeking something spiritual

Atop Bell Rock
Atop Bell Rock

Sedona is a kind of Mecca for New Agey types.

In the mid 80’s it was discovered that this red rock area deemed sacred by Native Americans, had a number of vortexes, where energy flow can be detected. I hadn’t actually heard about the vortexes until I was in Flagstaff, so I decided I’d like to find out for myself.

The Bell Rock trail is quite easy, a wide, flat, maintained path however under the midday sun I looked with an incredulous eye at the people setting off with half a bottle of water between two and no hats. It’s not an uncommon sight to see under-prepared people hiking trails.

Climbing to the Bell Rock vortex is not so easy. At first I didn’t think I would make it as it looked too taxing. After refuelling my energy tank I started the climb up, ascending a smooth, steep rock on all fours, negotiating a path across the rockface. I came across a woman coming down and asked if she’d felt the vortex and she described it as a spiralling tingle in her fingertips. I was excited and I wanted my fingertips to buzz too. This gave me the last bit of motivation I needed to get to the top.

I found a little place to rest towards the top, breathed in deeply and waited.

I waited while I listened to two guys talking about the climb.

I waited while watching a woman get her crystals  out and meditate.

I waited while absorbing the landscape around me.

I waited without reward.

I didn’t feel the vortex. Not even when I pressed my fingertips into the rock and closed my eyes. It was disappointing.

I continued to wonder about this as I climbed down, and as I was walking the trail back to the car, decided that I would go to see a psychic to have my tarot read in order to feel some kind of spiritual connection.

There are lots of psychics and the like in Sedona. I chose Madam Bonnie for the cute little location and walked in to have my palms and tarot read. I had never had my palms read before, so it was interesting to see what they had to say about me. There were some really accurate descriptions of things that have happened in the past and some curious predictions for the future.

Madam Bonnie could tell that I was restless as, apparently, my chakra was all over the place. She said she could do some chakra healing, and as I was in a “let’s just try things out” frame of mind, I took her up on this.

When you pay for a chakra healing, you are not paying for the time they spend doing this, rather for the process. It involved three stones being placed on or under my body and then having my body touched with a stone 10 times. Each time the stone would knock on a gong three times, kind of like cracking an egg, then a vibration would sound and Madam Bonnie would press the stone in each of the chakra places on my body.

I felt calmer and more relaxed when I got up, but as chakra healing isn’t instantaneous, I have to call Madam Bonnie in a week to talk to her about how I’m feeling. I’m curious to see whether there is any difference.

So whilst I didn’t get the free spiritual connection at the vortex, I did get a spiritual experience from Sedona.