Saturday, November 28, 2009

The container arrives...

The long-awaited phone call signaled “action,” which in campo-style means rounding up a few more hands and the dust on the roadway indicated the truck was heading our way. One of the regular workers called out to me to show me the dust cloud and within a few minutes the truck was in sight.

It was around 2 o’clock and after taking over a week to fill the container, we were both a little anxious as to how long it might take to unpack it. You see, they don’t have a 40-ton tow truck to lift 27,000 pounds of cargo, so we had to get back to basics - lifting just the container itself which weighs about 4,500 pounds - empty. But the “many hands make light work” ditty certainly was true in this case. Nine men and a little boy (a second-grader who is the son of the full-time gardener/handyman) emptied the entire 8 x 8.5 x 20 foot cargo space in one hour and a half and 30 bottles of beer!

Jey-hu was the “inside” director and I was the “outside” director. He guided them on which items to take off and cautioned them in sign language (his Spanish lacks the full capabilities for detailed instructions) as to weight and fragility. I guided them to the ‘kenai,’ an outside, covered building with sides but no windows or doors, and showed them where to place the items based on use - books in one corner, kitchen supplies in another, tools and garden implements over here and personal gear over there. My Spanish was barely up to saying ‘a qui,' and “gracias” over and over due to incredible fatigue from sleeping on an air mattress for 10 days that simply could not stay inflated.

One of the most exciting parts of this adventure has been living without refrigeration for these past two weeks. Getting our refrigerator here and carried down the hill to the dining hall was more than exciting... it was a total pleasure to have a drink of cold water today!!!

One of the worker’s wife and his children came to watch the excitement, and there were other family members who were not involved in the moving watching with interest everything that came out of the box. The antique oxen yoke caused great hilarity, the exercise system brought puzzled looks, and all the boxes of books caused great shaking of heads as to why anyone would have that much to do with those things.

Two “cerveca” (beer) breaks helped smooth the way and the next step was getting the container placed on the site where it is going to stay.

We were fortunate that our host’s wife’s father knew someone in San Gil who could tackle the problem. But when he showed up with a 1960’s version of a two-tonner truck, we were not sure what the outcome might be. Still, you can see from the pictures here, just how accomplished the two drivers were and how successful the whole operation was.

It was Jey-hu who said later, “If I’ve learned anything today, it’s to get out of the way of these Colombians when you set them to do a task. They may not do it the way we would in the U.S., but they find a way and with their particular tools, and they get it done safely and quickly.”

And today, when we gave them a bonus for their efforts, they were grateful and pleased over what amounted to $20,000 pesos each... or approximately $11 per man. That will get them at least 10 beers or two or three meals, their choice. Below you can see the group of workers watching all the action.

By 5 p.m. all the excitement was over - probably one of the more interesting things to watch in Barichara recently - and both trucks were headed back down the hill, one to San Gil and the other to Bogota, six hours away. You can see our community all stopped work on this little casita in order to watch events unfold. This house is a "rammed earth house" a common sort of construction here. The walls are almost 2 feet thick keeping the house cool during the day and temperate in the evening. More on this in another blog.

As everyone headed home, we were left with boxes and boxes to re-organize, unpack and find places for things. And we were also left with a curious sense of family because it was due to all the families involved that we were able to realize the dream of having the container arrive here, get set down here and have all the pieces fall into place safely - for everyone.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

We are thankful...

For many things... including the arrival - tomorrow - of our container. And for our friends, new and old, and for the incredible opportunity this adventure is providing to grow in many ways. And - to be in the country and the state where the award-winning Santander chocolate is made!
This photo of a woodpecker was taken by Jey-hu with his fabulous zoom lens. He is enjoying having time to take walks and find these lovely little birds perched on the cactus. While the area where we are is really green, it is also limited in the amount of rain it gets, so we have a curious mixture of greenery from a more lush area and what is normally found in some desert climates as well.

Here is my shot of a recent sunset. The clouds over the mountains are constantly changing, making each day a photographer's dream. And there are so many beautiful views to be found as we negotiate various villages and cities in our search for plumbing materials.
This is what the road to Bucaramanga looks like as we descended along the Rio Chicamocha canyon, heading toward the city. There are about one million people in population and thousands of them ride "motos" everywhere. It's not uncommon even to find three people riding on one motorcycle!

If you want to buy groceries in Barichara, it is like going into the front parlor of someone's house where they have shelves and shelves of canned goods, flour, sugar, beverages, etc. and a few fresh items stacked up and then behind the counter is the door to where they live, usually quite modestly. The lady who sells ice is just across the street and she puts water in plastic tubes, freezes them and you can get four tubes of ice for about 1500 pesos (75 cents).

So you want to be a millionaire? Come to Colombia and go to the cash machine. Take out $500 U.S. dollars and you'll have one million pesos, depending on the exchange rate... then you can go to dinner at the most expensive restaurant in Barichara and your meal will be about $6 USD with plenty of great food to eat. What's not to like?

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

It's worth a second look

Colombia -- the name brings up all kinds of anxious comments from friends and family about drug lords and guerillas and conflict. But the Colombia we are seeing is serene, beautiful, charming and welcoming. But stay away because we don't want it to change... This is the village of San Gil, not far from where our 'campo' is located.

But there are challenges... it isn't easy to find plumbing fittings, there are frogs, ants, and large flying beetles in the only bathroom that is operational this week, the kitchen hasn't been completed yet so we are still cooking meals for all on a two-burner gas stove, fruits bats fly by your head on the way to the banyo (bathroom) and there are almost exactly 12 hours of daylight - year round.
You can see the path we walk to get to the dining area and the bathroom. It was cloudy when I took this, but we've had some wonderful sunshine. Except for our drive into town, we walk all day, all around the 'campo' doing various tasks - weeding the garden - collecting fallen mangos, limes and lemons - watching the hummingbirds - moving things, although the container has not arrived as of yet.

The road to the right is the driveway up to the finca (farm) and it's about 2 kilometers, some of which is cobblestones and some is dirt, unless it rains and then we're told it's slicker than ... well, it's messy. Directions in case you want to get here from town: Drive until you reach the sharp turn and start up the 45-degree incline, and there are no other houses or farms after that, then make a sharp left to nowhere, followed by a quick turn to right to 'where-the-blank-are-we?' and just when you think you can't go any farther, you'll see the little casita (above) on the right. There is literally a cow path at the end of the road. See ya!

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

A First Look at -- Colombia!

As I write this, I am sitting outside looking across a deep valley at cloud-covered mountains and the workers at our finca (farm) are busy putting cane on the roof of a little casita to the music from their native radio station. At 4:30 this morning I couldn't sleep and took a short walk to the banos to the accompaniment of roosters crowing from several counties.

I thought about the day before and our arrival in Colombia...
The hotel where we stayed overnight was as expensive as any in the U.S. or Panama, but the accomodations were considerably less lavish. But the breakfast was better than average.

Our drive from Bucaramanga to San Gil took longer than usual since we stopped to overlook the Chickamocha Canyon and the newly opened national park with a gondola ride over the gorge carved by the River Fonce seen above.

The drivers all fight to pass as if they are on the racetrack, the problem is they are on a mountain pass and in some cases, a mistake will mean a fall down thousands of feet... but they still pass on the curves.

And our driver, our host, gives no quarter whether it's a bus or car - only to large trucks. Jey-hu sat in front and I tried to keep my gasping and sudden intakes of breath to a minimum in the back.

Then we were in San Gil, a really sweet little town where we found some truly amazing ice cream, except they were out of coffee flavor because it was a holiday country-wide. What I loved about it is that I didn't have any kind of lactose-negative response to it.

The population of 18th century San Gil is growing due to its increasing popularity as the "extreme adventure" sports capital of Colombia. If white water rafting or bungee jumping or thrills of similar nature appeal to you, make the trip here.

Very similar in feeling to the central plaza in St. Augustine, Florida, the Parque La Libertad in San Gil across from this cathedral is a reminder of the influence of the Spanish Conquistadors and the Catholic Church's conversion of the natives. In fact, some of the buildings are so much like those in St. Augustine that I felt curiously "at home" here.

We headed on to Barichara and after a quick stop we were at the campo/finca.... more on that another day. This is the countryside where I am now situated... more pictures and stories to come. And that includes a few horse shots for Jey-hu's daughter to prove they have them here!

Saturday, November 14, 2009

A Partial Transit of the Panama Canal

Although the sun was shining at 8 a.m., by the time we arrived at our "put-in" spot on the Canal, it was mixed clouds and sun, but still warm - in the low 80's. This first picture is a view looking westward, the direction we were headed for a partial transit of the Panama Canal. The vessel we were on is called Pacific Queen and they regularly offer a "three-lock" journey from the portion of the Canal that is nearest the Pacific Ocean.

Jey-hu got this great shot of a huge tanker which shared the lock with us. We were told that the ship had only 24 inches on either side of the hull. The electric 'mules' are on rails on either side and attach to the vessel by steel cables to guide it into the lock, then those operators follow the pilot's instructions as the ship either is raised or lowered in the lock chamber. Once the vessel is at the level required, the 'mules' release it and the pilot continues to the next lock.

Every vessel, large or small, must have a pilot on board to transit the Canal. The two sailboats, shown below, each had a pilot and at least two line handlers. This is the only
time a captain is required to release his command of the vessel. Once the ship has cleared the Canal controlled areas, the pilot gets off and the captain takes back the command. Even the ship we were on had a pilot and we watched him leave once we entered the Pacific Ocean.

Our transit took almost six hours, and we were only on the western third of the Canal. The average time is 15 hours to go through all the locks and some of that time is spent waiting for one's turn to get into a lock. Once in, the lock can be drained or filled in about 15 minutes. We watched the water levels drop 32 feet in 10 minutes! The gates in the locks are the original gates... built 95 years ago and still working well today.
Shown above are the San Miguel locks, which is followed by the Miraflores, just one mile further along. The 48-mile long Canal was completed in 1914, but the idea for it began to percolate as early as 1819! The French tried to make the project go first, but they were unsuccessful. You can read more about it here. The jungle is still very evident and while the water in the Canal is mostly fresh water from a man-made lake, it is not advisable to swim anywhere because of the caymans (nasty creature from the crocodile family),
and although we heard about a fellow who did swim the entire length of the Canal, no permission like this will ever be granted again.

During the 1960's there were a lot of conflicts in connection with the Canal, but in 1977, a treaty was established to make it a neutral international waterway, with a guarantee of passage for any vessel even during war. The treaty also was the beginning of the hand-over of 'ownership' from the U.S. to Panama which was completed on December 31, 1999.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Friday the 13th in Panama

It does not appear that Panamanians have any concerns about Friday the 13th other than getting out and enjoying the mall. There is a very large mall close by our hotel so we had a chance to walk around, have lunch and observe. The picture to the right is the view from the Eighth floor where our room is. Jey-hu had, from his previous travels, earned a couple of free nights in this hotel chain, so that's how we're affording to stay here.
The mall activities are just like those in the U.S. the weeks before Christmas. The photo to the left is in the "Food Court" of the mall, not far from where the movie theatres are. We decided to go and watch "2012" and fortunately, since our Spanish is still limited, it was in English with subtitles. It was very much like "Deep Impact," the end-of-the-world story about a comet hitting the earth - interesting that both had 'Presidents" with dark skin and "arks" for saving certain people and pairs of animals. And both had a last moment turn of positive events.

But disaster movies tend to leave one feeling sort of disempowered, which is why I generally don't elect to see them. And "2012," even with the hopeful ending, was definitely a canned storyline. Although the special effects were interesting, especially seeing Mt. Everest as beach-front property, the message, and the delivery of it, was not unique.

You can see the half-decorated tree inside the mall. Even with temperatures in the mid-80's, the commercial trappings of Christmas are being installed in preparation for holiday spending. What we noticed is that most of the women in Panama City seem to wear their hair below shoulder length. If they want to have a sleeker or cooler look, they tie it up, put it in a bun or ponytail. I am definitely in the minority with my blonde, shoulder-length hair. And Jey-hu noticed that men do NOT wear shorts in the mall, or anywhere else that we went.

Another observation is that furniture and accessories have a much brighter color trend here. This red plastic table and translucent chairs would be very appealing in an all-white kitchen. Some of the other displays were equally as intense, modern and bright; quite different from what is normally seen in U.S. stores.

This is the winter season in this part of the world until May, when summer starts. There are really only those two seasons here. This is also the rainy season, so it often rains after noon. The temperature and humidity are pleasantly balanced so that even when it rains, it is not as oppressive as I have found it in Florida. Lots of locals carry umbrellas, which I found surprising since even as rainy as it got in Florida, I seldom saw people using umbrellas for protection.

Spanish is the dominant language, but the residents are friendly and patient as I struggle with my Spanish. It's been a great day decompressing from the stress of trying to get here and on to the retreat in Colombia. In this picture from our hotel room you can see the Caribbean. which we tried to walk to see, but it was an impossible task with all the freeways.

We have plans tomorrow to go and see the Panama Canal. More pictures!!!

Last Day in Seattle - for awhile

As I've been running around and going past this tree on a regular basis, I've been watching it change colors for several weeks. I never seemed to have my camera with me, until on this day, but I have to give credit to my passenger for taking it. He took several and this was the best one. It is hard to leave this area with its rich seasonal tones for the unknown, but the Northwest tugged at my heartstrings with one last look at its glorious sunny and mixed clouds, a mild day as a send-off.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

A few more hours

In a few more hours, we will be getting on the plane and heading east to Atlanta, GA, then south to Panama City, Panama and then east again to Bucaramanga, Colombia to begin our journey. (If you click on this link, you can see some fabulous pictures of Chicamonga Canyon, Colombia's "grand" canyon.) Hard to believe that only a couple of weeks ago we were at the tip of the Baja and now we're about to head even further south.

When we first started researching the country, I was surprised to learn that, first of all, it is in the Eastern Time Zone. And, joy of joys, they do NOT honor Daylight Savings Time. In fact, the country is so close to the Equator that the difference between summer light and winter light is about 20 minutes. Our "campo" director was telling us that when it gets dark, it gets very dark as there is little ambient light contamination from the surrounding area, and they simply pack it up and go to bed, because morning light starts about 5ish... when the birds in the region wake them up.
past and future
moon phases

I am looking forward to seeing the night sky down there... we hear you can see millions of stars, something I used to see a little of when I lived in Arizona and traveled up to the mountains and before that, when cruising in the Bahamas we could truly navigate by the stars. I will try and get some pictures to show here.

It's been exhausting to try and pack suitcases, get last-minute jobs completed, spend time with Jey-hu's family (His father's birthday and his fell within a few days of each other and it was decided to make it a joint event - sorry: no picture of Jey-hu blowing out the 'recycled' candles from his father's cake.) see a few friends - and to John and Tiffany: thanks for the dinner invitation which Jey-hu discovered a couple of days ago when he finally got around to listening to his messages. Please, please do not take it personally that we never responded!! Enjoy Elksnout and plan to come and see us in S.A.!!

Perceptions of Colombia tend to be based on the drug cartel activities of years ago. Things have been cleaned up considerably, and where we will be is not a hotbed of illicit activities in any event. Still, we are smart enough to be cautious and to follow guidelines to avoid risky situations.

Sunday, November 1, 2009


We had the delightful experience of meeting some people at our garage sale on Saturday who are involved with the Historic Everett Theatre and we were invited to attend the closing night of "Oliver!" put on by Northwest Savoyards, a community theatre group. What a charming delivery this group provided of this Broadway musical! I snagged a picture from their website showing the old theatre because this is how it looked tonight. This is a short post because we have been moving stuff all day and I'm weary. Having the social time of a musical and dinner afterwards was a great relief from being a drudge and a workhorse... I truly hate garage sales for the nickel and diming that we have to do, but I loved this one because we met some fascinating folks and caught up with a couple we have been meaning to see... hopefully they will come and see us in South America!