Monday, December 20, 2010

Doing Good Works

Quite by accident I was invited to go along to St. Anthony's "Casa de Hermanas" (House of the Sisters) and given my limited Spanish I accepted without any idea what I was agreeing to, but I am always ready for a new adventure.
St. Anthony's is one of five smaller churches in the
Barichara 'metro' area, but it also has a facility for the aged.

It turns out that I was agreeing to help my Art Teacher distribute cheese, cake, the Colombian equivalent of a saltine, along with hot soup and hot chocolate at the local center for the aged and infirm. It is staffed by an order of nuns from the Catholic Church and quite regularly people from Barichara offer to provide an afternoon 'tea' of sorts, but hot chocolate is the beverage of choice for these elders.

Another woman had joined the two of us and she was equally new, so the two of us were given a tour by one of the nuns while the Art Teacher did some of the preparations. The facility is very clean and is quite likely as old as some of its residents. It is divided up into one section for elderly men and one for elderly women and another section houses both men and women in a sort of paid retirement home which allows this last group to be as active as they choose to be.

Over 84 residents are staying here, some in various stages of dementia, aging or infirmity. There is a nun who is a nurse on site, there are rooms to isolate very ill patients, and of course there is a large and functional kitchen and dining area. The activity room across the way gives the patients a place to gather for various events.
I am standing to the left of the nun in the back, watching to see if 'los
hombres' need a refill of hot chocolate.

What struck me was how welcoming those who were alert were to our appearance on the site. I was a great curiosity with my blond hair and blue eyes and being significantly taller than the Colombian woman (I never thought of myself as tall because I had such a tall father and two tall brothers!) they wanted to shake my hand and talk to me... and all I really had to do was smile and nod my head a little and the next one along the way wanted to grab my hand and talk to me. (In the photo where I am standing with the Colombian nun you can see I am easily nearly six inches taller than she is.)

The men sit at one table and the women sit at another and they actually did not even speak to each other while I was there. But they were appreciative of the food, if they even were aware of where it came from, as they slurped their soup and hot chocolate with the cheese in it. This is not unusual for Colombians because they love their cheese to melt in the hot chocolate... I am not that crazy for it, though.

So I did my "Good Works" for this month albeit inadvertently. I really don't limit myself to one-a-month, but this was my first public one in Colombia.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Ten Tips for Traveling Solo

After reading the two remarks from readers about my safety, I thought I might write a little bit about being a solo woman traveler to those who may be thinking or dreaming of going someplace farther away than the next big city alone.
And I am sooooo appreciative of my reader's concerns... and it is because of those issues that I took this subject today and offer my Ten Tips for Tight-Assed Traveling... mostly for women, but men might find this helpful, too.
There is always a lot to see in a new city or country; take
time to do your research before going to enhance your trip.
First, I think it is essential if one is planning to travel solo anywhere, by car, plane, train, bus, ship or NASA moon rocket to have some kind of itinerary mapped out which is shared with several people who will be receiving your calls, text messages or e-mails along the route.
Second, an agreed-upon phrase to use which will indicate there is a problem and thus some kind of plan of action worked out. It is comforting to know that when you carry a cell phone it is like a homing device for the authorities. As long as it is on, it will "ping" various cell towers in range and you can be tracked in that way. (So if you plan to have an affair and don't wish to be found, leave the cell phone behind.)
Third step is to make plans so that when you arrive someplace you have a car, taxi, or hotel van ready to meet you after customs or baggage delivery. This is required if you arrive after dark
If you are driving on a trip (such as across the country as I have done more times than I care to discuss), make it a rule to stop before dark. If possible, call ahead to reserve a room. These places along highways are less security conscious, so if you are at all concerned and feel the room offered doesn’t provide the kind of security you want, ask to have it changed and that’s why you make sure you arrive before dark!
TIP: Those GPS systems are worth their weight in gold for finding the lost motel or hotel in a strange city in the dark!
I didn't take my own advice on this: After getting up very early in Florida on Thursday, I arrived in Bogota that night about 8 p.m. I was concerned that the hotel I had reserved for the night would not know my flight information and would not be at the airport for me because I couldn’t remember when I made my reservation on line if I had told them I was arriving by plane. Guess what? They must be psychic! They were there; I just didn’t know it. (More fool me... an American woman arriving in Bogota for one night is very likely to be arriving by plane. How did they know which one? Do you really think you are traveling incognito? That’s a fiction.)
But I got assistance from the nice folks at Avianca (airline I flew in on) to find out if there was a hotel shuttle - there was - and to help me locate the representative. The Avianca arrival location at Bogota's airport is away from the regular arrivals so that was another part of my concern. But my name was on their hotel list and they whisked me away and got me into my room by 9 p.m.
Most of the international modern hotels today are very secure and don't do such foolish things as hand over a key and announce in a loud voice, "Here you go, Miss, your room number is 1234 and it's the single room you asked for," as happened to me in Denmark 35 years ago, resulting in a room invasion. That's a story for another time and although I was married, I was traveling alone, going on ahead to wait for my husband.
In fact, arriving at a hotel in Bogota, Colombia is like arriving at a G-9 summit meeting with armed guards, police dogs and undercover agents watching as people move about the lobby.
Have a camera handy if you enjoy capturing light and colors as I do.
The Ar Hotel Salitre is brand new (open only three months), very modern and charming at the same time. There was live music in the bar, the staff is sharp and professional and helpful, and even though the airport is close and the hotel is in a busy section of the city, most noise from outside is greatly diffused. And the hotel food was delicious, which is more common than not, at least in Colombia.
Security is top notch, with guards at the entrance, a para-military structure is in place with a dog patrolling the entrance outside along with its keeper, and all the rooms are only accessed by a card and you must have the card to access the elevators and other facilities - they have a fabulous spa and 'soaking pool' for guests; something I will hope to enjoy during my next visit.
I have written about Bogota before, but if you want to get some of the details and see some photos (I am usually here for such a short time and usually arriving in the dark, so I don't get the best ones.), then please click on the link.
Fourth on the list: Have currency for the country you are going to visit in hand when you arrive. There is nothing more risky than having to get money changed upon arrival and there are LOTS of people watching you when you do this. Most of the larger and international banks can get you some initial funds (equivalent to $200 USD, let's say) for taxi rides or tipping or meals. I make it a point also, to have small bills in a small wallet for these purposes and never, never show larger bills from that wallet. I keep the larger bills in another location in my bag and when I go to the loo, I transfer what I think I will need into the small wallet.  This avoids any big display of money when getting in or out of cabs, vans, or busses when you are really at your most vulnerable to pick-pockets, etc. I also try to have a tip amount tucked away in a pocket so I can just reach for it, knowing ahead of time how much it is.
When buying souveniers, remember that most sellers do
not have change for large bills and you will draw
attention to yourself unnecessarily.
Fifth point: Savvy travelers (men or women) dress to impress or dress to be invisible. I have learned I am more comfortable dressing to blend in and also to be comfortable. Long flights in tights are in the past for me, thank goodness! I wear Patagonia ‘sweater-things’ with zippered pockets ensuring tip money won’t be easily removed or lost and they are wonderful in multiple temperature zones. I wear black pants with a bit of elasticity so they give and don’t show the dirt. Then when I arrive I don’t necessarily look like I’ve been put through a travel wringer, though I occasionally feel that way. The last aspect of this point is that when you travel and are comfortable with how you look and how you feel, you have an air of confidence that tends to put Sneaky Snakes (apologies to Tom T. Hall) off to look for more vulnerable hits.
Sixthly (just kidding): Take your jewelry with you to wear for that special event you are going to, but limit what you wear. I wear a pair of simple gold hoops, a band on each ring finger and a simple silver or gold pendant (sometimes). Although not married, the wedding ring finger band discourages unwanted conversations and the other band seems to add enough confusion that I just continue to do it.
Number Seven: Never, ever take more luggage than you can handle all by yourself! Depending where you arrive and when you arrive, there may not be any porters or other service people to assist you. So all that rolling stock, ladies, better be able to be stacked, wrapped, hoisted or heaved onto your existing bags or your back... and the new baggage rules are 50 pounds per bag - absolutely - no wiggle room. Avianca even limits the weight of the carry-on to 10 pounds now. Spend $7 at some department store and get the baggage weight thing that tells you how much your bag weighs. Oh, and weigh it as well if you are taking it with you.
TIP: If your trip requires more than one bag and more than one stopover, choose one bag to be the one you open at the hotel and leave the other one alone until you are at your destination. This ensures you don’t mess with the weight of each bag by packing and unpacking at all your stops along the way and also makes getting up and out the next day a little bit easier.
Eight down, two to go: Do not tell strangers your life story while standing in line or at the gate. You do not know who is going where and what their agenda is. If someone asks you where you are going or who you are going to see, just change the subject or ask them those same questions. BE PRIVATE. It is possible to be friendly and still be very private. If they persist, be courageous enough to tell them it is none of their business why you are traveling. I am sure I have offended some people by telling them that, but I also ensured that the Sneaky Snake farther back in the line was not going to find out my plans.
Ninth: After arriving, don’t let your guard down. Pay attention to the people around you. Listen to your intuition. Even if you are going to be in a hotel with a group, don’t forget that there are people watching you. Some are hired to do that by the hotel or facility, but there are others who are looking for a chance to improve their situation by messing up yours. This doesn’t mean you have to be paranoid about everything and fearful - not at all. It does mean that you make plans to do things with an eye to your own safety.
Remember: if you have an agreement to call someone upon arrival, please do what you agreed upon. When I was in the U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary, the biggest number of calls we dealt with were people who were called in, by concerned friends or relatives, as “missing” but they were actually those who failed to call in that they had arrived at their destination and were safe.   
Obviously... (amazingly not so obvious to some people) don’t leave jewelry, computers, other valuables like mp3 players lying around the hotel room... that’s why they have wall safes. Use them.
Last - Number Ten: The biggest reason for traveling alone is that you can sleep late if you want to, you can see what you want to see, you can stay as long as you want at the museum, have a massage or go shopping. There are a lot of joys to traveling alone. I met several really interesting people on my recent train and plane trips. I laughed, I enjoyed a meal with one of them, I got some good tips on new books to read and shared photographs of my travels with someone who is never going to be able to do what I am doing. She said, “I am not envious because I am too old for that. But you have made this old woman’s day of travel one she won’t forget. Thank you!”
That’s my reason for traveling... to share, to care, to listen, to talk and discuss, to learn something new, to have fun. I hope your next trip is successful and that you get out of it everything you expected and for those things that are not, may those surprises be wonderful memories.

Monday, December 13, 2010

First days in Barichara

My hotel room in Bogota was the best for the money I've
found so far... there is a shower behind that artfully
carved glass and it had hot water, too!!!
The trip from Bogota to Barichara seemed longer than usual and I guess it was because I was both excited and nervous to be returning solo. So much of my life I have had a “significant other’ (husband, boyfriend, fiance) in it and my experiences have been colored by those people. This time it was going to be all on my own shared only with those who care to read this blog.
Also, I was uncertain what kind of taxi driver I might get in San Gil and would he be understanding of my lack of his language? Would he be uncooperative at the other end about driving up a grassy driveway? I need not have been worried because I found a garrulous young fellow who was excited that I even tried to speak Spanish and he was exceptionally willing to be helpful at the gate. What a relief!
I arrived as the sun was setting so there wasn’t much time to get the bags dragged inside and get lights on. I unpacked quickly - easy since much of it was stuff for the cosina (kitchen) and most of the rest could be stuffed into a drawer.
Happy to be “home,” I put my teapot on to boil and puttered about while the water was getting hot for my first cup of tea. Suddenly I realized I didn’t have much in the larder and nothing in the refrigerator except a soda. Then I remembered I had some crackers from the couple of days I spent here before leaving and perhaps they were not stale and I had brought peanut butter back with me. Sigh... a feast as I listened to the quiet night sounds... I fell into my bed exhausted from two days of traveling and concentrating on a new language.
My casa faces to the east, so I am always going to get early morning
light, provided it is not cloudy or rainy.
Here is a shot of the first sunrise. I was up early and there was no power. My current attitude about these things is that if I wait, it will either come on or I will get information about the situation and getting upset about it is unproductive. So I prepared to take photos until it got light enough to see in the cosina.
Since I only have cold water anyhow, a shower wasn’t a consideration until the sun got higher and the temperature got warmer. I hope to fix that with the installation of a solar shower, either permanent or transportable. I cannot imagine that anyone would pay $600,000 USD for a house with only one bathroom that has only cold showers - that is the asking price for this place I am renting.
There is another problem - more serious than cold water. The mold in the third bedroom has gotten worse since I was away. I have no reason to be in there except to sweep now and then, but the mold has spread. I spoke to someone about it and was told they were planning to whitewash over it. I said sternly, “NO, that will not be sufficient. It will have to be dug out of the wall and rebuilt. Whitewashing over it will be a temporary fix and will not solve the problem. The dirt is contaminated and is permanently damaged.”
I spoke with Randy from Corasoma and they have a mold issue in their sleeping quarters as well. He is now sleeping someplace else until they resolve the problem. With all the rain that has been assailing Colombia, the mold issue is rearing its ugly head for the first time. A doctor friend of mine and I talked at length about the health issues of mold and she said there has never been so much moisture and so she has not seen any health-related issues connected to mold ever before but she was going to do some research as she suspected the rain (lluvia) was going to continue for awhile.
The view of Barichara as seen from La Loma where
my casa is located. You can see the clouds still lie
heavily on this northern section of the Andes and
brings the cooling wind up in the afternoon. Evenings
are still somewhat on the chilly side, for me at least.
The solvable problem for the first days was getting the car started. That was how I ended up in conversation with Randy as he came down with the magic battery charger and we started up the car without any difficulty. I have to find a way to leave the car and not have the battery draining while I am gone. It is a new battery, but the alarm system on the car pulls all the juice out of it if it is not started once a week.
When I woke up this morning it had been raining through the night - not hard, but still wet. But wet conditions do not stop the roosters from announcing at 4:30 a.m. that the sun is beginning to rise. I do not need an alarm clock here.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

AMTRAK rocks... mostly

It was my first train ride in a long, long time. And for the most part, it was not a disappointment. I got on in Jacksonville at a very early hour, thanks to my friend Tobe who was either kind enough or foolish enough to get up at 4:30 a.m. and come and pick me up... I think he was kind.

The Silver Service starts its run in New York City and ends up in Miami, Florida some 15 hours later, if I figured the time correctly. It takes about 5 hours to ride from Jacksonville to Tampa and slightly longer if you choose the Atlantic coast route to get to Miami.
Dr's Lake is south of Jacksonville and it was cool to see
the places I saw when driving up and down I-95
from the relaxed comfort of the train.
This photo is near where I once sailed on my boat, and I've driven I-95 (the bridge you see) many times.

The only caveat I have about the train is that it is not  as clean as it could be, should be! And especially the windows because the whole point is being able to SEE out of them! Bring your own food and only buy drinks since the cost of the food is outrageous and it's not very good.

Several of the train stations where we stopped were very clean and bright and others were so raggedety as to be offensive. The service providers were helpful and professional and I found most of them pretty agreeable as well.

Orlando Station for AMTRAK has a Spanish motif.
So, I will do the train again and perhaps the next time I will even try a longer trip.