Would you like a side of crazy with your order?

I had the opportunity to spend a couple of days in San Francisco last week for work to visit my colleagues based there.

It was the first time I’ve spent anything longer than an airport connection in the US since the six months I spent in LA and cross-country road tripping in 2011, and my first time in San Fran since it was part of a two-day stop on my year long travels in 2004.

As is often the case when I’m in an English-speaking country again, I found myself speaking to people in Spanish, especially at the airport when they would ask me something and I would respond “Sí”. I also started speaking to my colleagues in Spanish at some point and had to go back to the beginning and start again in English.

I shouldn’t have been, but I was surprised at how many people I heard speaking Spanish in the streets in San Francisco. I’m guessing there were lots of tourists visiting as I saw lots of families shopping heavily (because I spent all my spare time in the shops too!), but then the cleaning ladies at my hotel were speaking Spanish and the doorman at the office building greeted me in Spanish after he learned I live in Colombia. My first night was the night of the Copa America match where Colombia unfortunately lost to Chile and I saw people in yellow Colombian fútbol shirts pass by in the street.

I was surprised to find that in summer the weather was going to be around 18 to 20 degrees Celsius, the same as Bogota’s year-round temperature, but unlike Bogota where the four seasons in one day stays on repeat, it was bright and sunny (unusually lovely weather according to my friends in San Fran).

Anytime I go home to Australia or visit other Westernised countries now, I always feel guilty about putting toilet paper in the toilet instead of the bin. I’m not really sure how come in Latin America the plumbing system fails when a small wad of paper enters it, but it takes awhile to break that mentality and I always end up thinking about it for a few seconds every time I go to the bathroom.

I also suffer from nervous tipping syndrome. I’m not sure how to calculate the tip and how to avoid offending. Again, I had forgotten that in the US the published prices exclude tax, and that also needed to be taken into consideration. I couldn’t just pull out a $1 note to pay for the magnet which cost 99 cents because the final register price was $1.08. Americans must be excellent at maths with all these calculations to do to figure out the real price of something.

But I would have to say that the most confronting part of being in San Francisco, was seeing the sheer number of homeless and mentally ill people in the city streets. I was overwhelmed by the number of people talking to themselves or with someone not visible to everyone else because it would have been every second block or so.

In Bogota there are a lot of beggars, a lot of homeless people and a lot of mentally ill people in the streets. While I don’t see it often in the area where I live and work, I see it frequently in other parts of Bogota. On my last two visits back to Melbourne, I also noticed a larger number of people begging and living in the city streets than I ever recall seeing when I lived there.

But I have never seen a person shooting up in the middle of the day in the middle of the city. I have never seen a person taking a dump beside a small plaza of people eating their lunches. They were things I saw during the two lunch breaks I had in San Francisco.

On my final evening, I had dinner with some friends of mine who I hadn’t seen since I was living in Los Angeles, a friend from my hometown and his fiancee. She is an emergency room doctor at a hospital in downtown San Francisco, and when I mentioned the number of crazy people I’d seen and how shocked I’d been, she explained that San Francisco is a sanctuary city. It is where many people from across the states who are living with mental and drug abuse issues come due in some part to a more liberal and tolerant society.

My friend said that she will often see patients come into emergency who had literally just gotten off a Greyhound bus and arrived in San Francisco. And there are others that she sees on a fairly regular basis coming in and out of the emergency ward. It’s really sad.

Returning to Colombia I told Edwin about what I had seen on the streets of San Francisco. He couldn’t believe what I was describing. He hasn’t been to the US yet, so his perceptions are those that are typical for Colombians based on what is shown in the media. He has this perception of the US being clean, organised, full of opportunity, without corruption and without the poverty issues that Colombia has, with a far more advanced society and with access to programs and support for vulnerable communities.

I’m not sure if destroying Edwin’s image of the US is a good thing or not, but one thing is for sure, there is the good, the bad and the sad in all places.

Chinatown in San Francisco
Chinatown in San Francisco

A lesson in leaving Colombia with a minor

Desierto de Tatacoa, Colombia
It’s not quite Central America, but a new experience nonetheless. Desierto de Tatacoa, Colombia

Leaving Colombia and getting an exit stamp in the passport of a Colombian minor isn’t a straightforward process. Colombia has very stringent laws in place for travelling children, and rightly so to keep them safe from kidnapping or trafficking.

We  understand that our situation is a little more complex than some others as when a child leaves the country with only one parent, there are a lot more forms and processes to follow. Given that D’s mum doesn’t live in Colombia, matters are further complicated as we can’t get her to sign the Migracion Colombia permission form in the presence of a notary when we plan to travel.

With our sights set on taking D on international holidays, Edwin organised with D’s mum to get an escritura publica signed at the notary office when she was last in Colombia. The escritura publica is essentially a legal document that says that D can leave the country with Edwin for tourism purposes until he turns 18. Since it’s within D’s mum’s rights to annul this document and retract her permission at any time, we knew we had to get a copy from the notary’s office within 30 days of our departure date, which we duly did.

Rules, regulations and laws are prone to changing frequently, so rather than rely on our understanding of the requirements, Edwin went to the Migracion Colombia office in Calle 100 and spoke with a childen’s lawyer, showing her the documents we have. She said that all the documents were in order and that we would have no problems leaving the country with D. Edwin asked again if there was anything else we needed, and she said no, the escritura publica and his birth certificate were sufficient.

But it wasn’t.

After checking into our Christmas Day flight to El Salvador and lunching at Crepes and Waffles, we approached the immigration booth to get stamped out of Colombia, handing over passports, boarding passes, the escritura publica and D’s birth certificate. We knew something was up when the officer moved away to an office with our documents, and we started to get a sinking feeling.

When he came back he said we were missing a section validating the escritura publica and led us out of the quarantine area to the Migracion Colombia office beside the check in section of the terminal, handing over our documents to another officer.

We weren’t the only ones there in that office, and it appeared that all the cases were regarding children.

The officer explained that what we were missing was a nota de vigencia, a seal from the notary’s office saying that there was no amendment or annulment on record for the escritura publica. She showed us a copy of another traveller’s documents to explain what that was. What we had was a photocopy of the document from the notary’s records, and a notary’s authentication of that document. But no nota de vigencia.

The sinking feeling deepened into dread.

Edwin explained to the officer that he had gone to Migracion Colombia in Calle 100 just 10 days prior and was told his documents were in order by a Migracion Colombia official. Still there was nothing we could do, and the only thing the officer could do was include his claim in the report on the incident and encourage him to make a formal complaint at the office he had visited regarding the incorrect advice received.

So we were denied departure to Colombia because when we’d gotten the copy of the escritura publica, the notary hadn’t added the seal. Or maybe we were supposed to ask for a nota de vigencia instead, I’m still not clear.

With heavy hearts we left the office, spoke to the airline regarding our tickets and luggage and when we found out that the plane had to leave before we could get our bags, we took a taxi home to think about our options.

Before returning to the airport and after being able to process what had happened, we had devised a plan B. Given that it was Friday, we wouldn’t be able to get a nota de vigencia from the notary in Santa Marta until at least Tuesday, which would reduce the days we had to travel, and it would cost an extra US$150 per person with the difference in fare and the ticket penalty. We had our bags packed already so we decided to do a roadtrip instead, taking advantage of our time off to visit the South of Colombia which none of us had visited before.

The reality hit poor D – who was very excited about our trip and getting on an international flight – when we went back to the airport to collect our bags and he was glum until we got to our first stop at Desierto de Tatacoa the next afternoon.

I would hate for this to happen to you and ruin your holiday or travel plans, so here are my tips for reducing immigration heartache in Colombia with Colombian minors, which we will certainly be following  next time.

  1. If possible, check your documentation ahead of your flight with your port of departure. Next time we will be going to El Dorado Airport in Bogota to check our documents as they are the people that see these cases every day.
  2. Carry a copy, or even better multiple copies, of the child’s birth certificate. This is because the officers need to know who the parents are. We overheard another case in the airport where a 15 and 17 year old were travelling with both their parents and they didn’t have their birth certificates to prove that the two adults were their birth parents. The officers were prepared to accept scanned copies saved in an email, but the family didn’t have that either.
  3. If you are visiting multiple countries, take a copy of documentation to travel with the child for each country as Migracion Colombia keep the copies of your permission form (the per-trip authorisation by both parents – the Migracion Colombia website should have a template for download) or your escritura publica. I think they also keep the copy of the birth certificate.
  4. Make sure if you have an escritura publica authorising the child’s travel with a particular parent, that you get a nota de vigencia from the notary as well.
  5. As I’m not sure of the process if you are travelling with non-Colombian minors, you should check with Migracion Colombia what they need.

If you have any other tips or have a Colombian immigration experience to share, please feel free to leave a comment.

An Enduring Travel Friendship

We just got back from what was my fourth visit to Argentina in 10 years, to celebrate the wedding of the friend I met and travelled with from Quito, Ecuador to the Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia in mid 2004.

It’s funny how travel friendships are solidified. Emily and I met sharing a hostel dorm in Quito after I’d spent a week studying Spanish there. She was at the very beginning of her 18 month South America, New Zealand, Australia and South-East Asia trip and I had already spent four months travelling in the US, Brazil, Northern Peru and Ecuador. We both had the same vague plan and decided to travel together for as long as we could stick it out. Two and a bit months and the addition of another travel buddy later, we parted ways with sad hugs and promises to keep in touch as she went to San Pedro de Atacama in Chile and I went back into Bolivia to make my way to Paraguay.

Little did we know that that was just the beginning of a long-standing friendship as when I returned to Australia I met up with Emily twice and then she came to live with me in my hometown for a bit. Five years passed before we saw each other again when I took my mum on a trip to Latin America which included visiting Emily as she had moved to Buenos Aires with her Argentinian boyfriend.

Another two years later, mi novio and I stopped in to visit them in Buenos Aires on our way back to Colombia. Leaving our two boyfriends to speak Spanish together, we laughed and joked about how we never would have imagined that we would both end up living in South America with Latino boyfriends. It was just too many stars aligned.

We are now just two months away from the 10 year anniversary of when Emily and I met and I know we’ll be friends forever. That meeting at the Posada del Maple in Quito and that first daytrip to the Otavalo markets was the beginning of this long-standing friendship that has withstood a lot of distance and dozens of home bases.

As I am a travel buddy from far-off lands, I hadn’t met any of Emily’s family or friends and her wedding was the perfect opportunity to meet them. Her family greeted me like some kind of adopted daughter they’d never met and her friends were all so fun and friendly and also eager to meet her South American travel buddy they’d heard about. It was the most perfect experience and we got to spend a few days together with her family and friends where they became my friends too.

It got me thinking about what is the secret of travel friendship longevity. I have quite a few friends on Facebook from that year of travel in 2004 and I love to see what they’re up to and how their lives have changed in the past decade. Those that I’m not in touch with via Facebook, I still think about as I recall my travels and the many wonderful experiences I had. So much so that one of them could contact me out of the blue saying they will be in Colombia and I would go out of my way to help them or offer them a place to stay.

If I had to explain what makes a travel friendship work in the long-term I guess it’s similar to my thoughts on making a long-distance relationship work – you have to plan to meet up again. Once you see a travel buddy outside of your trips, you are more likely to maintain closer contact with them. If they visit you or you visit them, you have additional shared experiences together in a more homely, real-world setting, and your stories span multiple time periods and give you more of a platform for the friendship.

It’s also important the amount of time you spent travelling with someone. The more time you spend together on the road, the better you get to know someone, and the more you know about a person, the greater the connection and the friendship will start to bloom as the connection is more emotional and less geographic. If you only have a short amount of time travelling together, but you maintain that friendship with numerous visits or phone calls, that will also help preserve the friendship beyond the life of your passport.

There’s something about travel that helps you to open up and share things with people that you might not normally do. Perhaps this is because we may never have to see them again, or perhaps it’s the conviviality of a mish-mash of people all just trying to get by in a foreign country where they feel at sea in a small lifeboat. Sharing the experience is what bonds you, but sharing more of you is what helps bind you to others.

One of the things I’ve found has helped cement my friendship with Emily and others that I’ve met on the road, in addition to the above-mentioned, is that we don’t live in the past. While we have wonderful shared experiences of the road and of course those stories come up regularly, that’s not all we have because we are interested in what our friends are doing now. These friendships live in the present and we have the expectation that they will continue into the future regardless of if we communicate frequently or not. Like any good, true friendship, time nor distance do not diminish the friendship.

Do you have any long-standing travel friendships? How have you kept these friendships alive post travel?

The Photo Vault: The Birthday Tradition

 

The interactive and informative museum on the equator
The interactive and informative museum on the equator

Quito, Ecuador, May 2004

As my 25th birthday approached, I started coming up with ideas of where I would be to spend my quarter of a century. As I was travelling, the options were pretty much endless. I´m not sure where the idea came from, but I decided that visiting the equator and jumping backwards and forwards from Southern Hemisphere to Northern Hemisphere and doing a tip-toe balancing act on the equator would be an awesome way to celebrate my day.

I was travelling on my own and hadn´t met anyone else at that stage who wanted to tag along to the various equator attractions in Ecuador, so I went on my own. I visited the small, interactive site which is on the actual equator and did all the cool things like balance an egg on a nail head and watch water swirl down the plugholes clockwise, anti-clockwise, and straight down (over the equator). I tried my hand at shooting a blowdart into a cactus leaf and generally had a great time.

I then went to the official equatorial monument, a large and bland site, that is just slightly off calculation and therefore not on the actual equator.

Back at the hostel I went out to dinner with some others and when they found out it was my birthday they ordered me a cake and a sparkler. It was a great day.

Ever since this birthday, I´ve always done something interesting, different, or just gotten away from it all so that I could spend my birthday doing something that would make me happy because in my early twenties, I realised that my birthday is only special to me, so rather than rely on others to make it a great day for me, I had to take it into my own hands. Since then I´ve hiked in national parks, gone parasailing and kitesurfing, rafted through the Grand Canyon, visited Angkor Wat, biked around Rottnest Island, climbed the Sydney Harbour Bridge and hit the beach in Mexico.

This year, I´m back in South America for my birthday, just over the mountains a bit from Ecuador where the birthday tradition started. So today, for my first birthday in Colombia I went tubing in the rapids of the river in Minca, not far from Santa Marta. I never really expected to start such a tradition as I stood on the equator, but I love it and I´m keen to see what exciting things I do and interesting places I go for the birthdays to come.

* If you are interested in more information about the museum at the equator, The Souls of My Shoes blogged about her recent visit and more fun activities that can be found at the equator.

The Photo Vault is where I will be sharing my favourite photos (and their stories) that deserve better than being lost in the depths of my iPhoto never to be shared.

The Photo Vault: Bogotá Street Art

 

Street art in Bogota, Colombia

Bogotá, Colombia, September 2011

Having just come back from a quick trip to Bogotá where there was no time to sight-see in amongst the errands we had to run, a striking piece of street art took me back to the 4 weeks I spent in Bogotá in 2011 before travelling to Santa Marta and meeting mi novio.

One of the things the most notable things in Bogotá is the street art. I saw it everywhere as I wandered the streets of La Candelaria and I wanted to find out more. The street art in Bogotá is particularly striking because it is more design and imagery and less simple tagging. To me this is art.

I stumbled across a flyer on the pinboard at my Spanish school for a graffiti tour and managed to talk two classmates, including a girl who has also produced her own street art in Switzerland, into going on the tour with me.

We met with Christian, an Australian expat and the man behind Bogota Graffiti Tours, at the Parque de los Periodistas for the tour and learned that they were in their first few weeks of operating the tours. Christian took us around La Candelaria and then further afield to see major street art pieces by well-known local and international artists and explained the many techniques and signature styles of the work. It was fascinating.

Seeing walls like the one in this photo make me happy. It feeds my soul. All of Bogotá is a gallery and these pieces have their place in time. From the moment they are completed the murals begin to change and evolve with weather and other factors. But this also is accessible art where you can get up close to, touch and photograph the pieces without a security guard telling you off.

For me, the street art in Bogotá was the first sign of a cultural smorgasbord waiting to be discovered in the city. I can´t wait to keep discovering more.

The Photo Vault is where I will be sharing my favourite photos (and their stories) that deserve better than being lost in the depths of my iPhoto never to be shared.

Must visit beach: Bahia Concha

When you put together the words ´Caribbean´ and ´beach´ it conjures up an image of beauty, tranquility and absolute relaxation. That´s what all tourism marketers behind those glossy holiday brochures want us to think. Colombia has 1,600km of Caribbean coastline and clearly has many opportunities to live up to the stereo-type.

My Spanish amiga raves about Bahia Concha. It is her favourite beach in the area, and so one weekday when mi novio was kind enough to cover my hostel shift for me so I could join my friend on her day off (he really is an awesome catch) we decided to spend the day there.

We´d sent messages via WhatsApp to arrange our self-catered lunch plans and meeting times. At the last minute, just as I was nearing our supermarket meeting point to pick up some more snacks, mi amiga called me and told me that we were able to take a van leaving from her hostel with some backpackers on their way to Bahia Concha. This option was far more economical than a $40,000 – $50,000 taxi fare because there is no public transport to this beach.

Whilst not far from Santa Marta, you travel through some suburbs on the outskirts where in place of leaves, trees have flapping plastic bags strung to their branches and along a bumpy dirt road between arid hills to get there.

Bahia Concha is technically part of Tayrona National Park, but it doesn´t incur the huge entry fee, instead you pay just $5000 to cross over the strip of privately owned land to a huge curving beach fringed with scraggly trees that provide relief from the hot sun.

There´s just one restaurant on the beach, conveniently at the entry point where you will be met with a menu to order lunch in advance to be ready at your time of choice, and few beachside vendors who won´t be as pesky or bothersome as the hundreds roaming the beach at Rodadero on the other side of Santa Marta.

Amigas Bahia Concha
Making the most of a quiet beach

The wide sandy beach curves around a bay bigger than the main bay at Taganga, but not as big as Rodadero. The sand slopes down into to the water and is gently washed with smallish waves. The aqua clear water quickly gets deep meaning it´s not the best to take toddlers for a splash at the water´s edge.

Politely declining the lunch menu, mi amiga and I set off to the right along the beach and nearer to the end of the beach we found respite from the wind and a nice tree to stay in the lovely dappled shade during the sun´s strongest rays.

I´m not normally much of a beach lounger, but with plenty to catch up on with mi amiga, we managed to spend the whole day chatting, turning over on our sarongs, cooling off in the refreshing water and snacking on the lunch we´d packed until late in the afternoon, when the light turned to magical dusk and it was time to take the van back to Santa Marta.

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Want to go to Bahia Concha?

What´s there: A beautiful curving bay flanked by mountains with a wide sandy beach. There´s one restaurant on the beach (freshly caught fish plate of the day approx COP$25,000)

How to get there: From Santa Marta or Taganga hire a taxi (COP$40,000 – 50,000 one way) and make a time for them to come pick you up as there is patchy mobile phone reception or ask at your accommodation for a shared van service, which should be more economical. It takes about 30 minutes from Santa Marta.

When to go: There will be fewer people mid-week and the busiest times of year are Christmas to mid January and Semana Santa (Easter week)

Entrance fees: COP$5000 per person

What to take: Sunscreen, sunglasses, bathing suit, bottle of water, towel or sarong. Take your own snacks or lunch if you are visiting on a budget.

The Photo Vault: Brazilian Coastline

 

A slice of Brazilian paradise
A slice of Brazilian paradise

Itacaré, Brazil, 2004

The small town of Itacaré between Porto Seguro and Salvador wasn´t listed in my Lonely Planet Shoestring Guide to South America. I ended up here tagging onto a group of travelling Brazilians and one Swiss guy who had joined up to form a sizeable group of eight people. Nine including me. One of the Brazilians spoke good English, and of course the Swiss guy, but I communicated with the rest of my new friends with exchanges of smiles, laughs and gestures and just followed them like a little lamb. It was fun!

Brazilians are great travellers in their own country, especially at Carnaval time when they will take a month off and travel. I loved this attitude and vowed to take this idea back home, where we usually plan out our domestic trips carefully and save the random wanderings for other countries.

I never would have discovered a string of breathtaking beaches and this coastline had it not been for my Brazilian friends adopting a little lost Aussie. I also wouldn´t have learned how to wear a Brazilian bikini, confidence most definitely required but any show of butt crack is unacceptable so instead you should forget about trying to modestly cover your butt cheeks and allow your bikini bottoms to creep into a wedgie.

This photo served as my screensaver on my old computer for many years. It is a beautiful coastline and it always makes me think about the friends I´ve now lost touch with, but who I will always remember for their openness, sharing and vivacity.

The Photo Vault is where I will be sharing my favourite photos (and their stories) that deserve better than being lost in the depths of my iPhoto never to be shared.