Medellín to Santo Domingo

Last stop on the tour…
And I’ll be honest, the only thing I’m thinking right now is, “How short a period of time is it reasonable to be back at home before I start planning to go away again?”

The stomach bug in Havana was a bit of a speed bump but hey, it gave me something to write about at lest. Otherwise it’s been an amazing trip. It just seems to get better and better and I feel so blessed to have this opportunity to travel and see the world.

I didn’t write much in Medellin… Everything went incredibly smoothly without any incident. It’s a great place for an urban vacation. Among Medellin’s many virtues is the incredibly laid back, low stress and mellow vibe of the city. I put that down to the fact that pretty much the entire population of the city is stoned… But hey, I’m not judging nor saying that’s a bad thing. And as the taxi driver on the way to the city from the airport said, “Medellin… Mucha rumba!” And he wasn’t lying. For the last five days or six I pretty much lived without a conscience… Partying like there’s no tomorrow and eating as if obesity, cholesterol and heart attacks didn’t exist. But hey… I lost weight and I feel great! It makes me think I’m doing something wrong with all the brown rice, celery juice and Bikram Yoga I do at home.

The flight to Santo Domingo went well, except that the guy at the Avianca counter who checked me in must have been on his first day on the job, or he was stoned, or both… It literally took 30 minutes to check in. He made me change the flight because he didn’t think I’d have enough to to transfer. 90 minutes seemed reasonable and the airline allowed me to book it anyway. Despite the fact the time keeping is not the Colombian person’s forte, Avianca run an incredibly tight ship. Then he studied all my onward tickets for ages and had to call other staff members over to inspect them as well, like he had never seem a ticket before… Anyway, finally everything was ok and I was off.

The flight went well and landed in lovely Santo Domingo at about 5.30 p.m. Out of all the cities so far, Santo Domingo has by far the “heaviest” entry procedure. You get the full narco-pedo treatment… Photograph taken, all ten fingers fingerprinted, luggage sniffed by dogs and then everything x-rayed again. It was smooth sailing though and once I got through Kénol, the guy I’m renting the apartment from, was there waiting to pick me up. 

I only chatted to him briefly in the car but he seems like an incredibly nice guy. He’s from Port-au-Prince in Haiti and is in Santo Domingo studying medicine.

We arrived at the apartment in about 30 minutes. This is my street for the next nine days…
The apartment is fabulous…. Two bedrooms plus lounge and dining with a gorgeous dining room table.  

 Kénol has a Haitian friend who has offered to be my personal chef, (for a price of course) … I’m thinking of taking him up on the offer just so I can feel like Madonna for the next nine days. And I’m in love with the dining room table!

I only arrived a couple of hours ago and just had a quick walk around the hood. I’m staying in the Colonial Zone, which incidentally was the first European settlement in the new world… It looks nice but out of all the places I’ve been to so far… and this is just my first impression… it has a bit more of a dodgy vibe than the other places. Anyway, we’ll see.

I’m always comforted when I see this sign…


Getting into the Christmas spirits

I’ve been getting into the Christmas BIG TIME over the last few days… I mean literally, getting into the Christmas spirits, like rum and aguardiente. I wasn’t a huge fan of aguardiente when I tried it first in Sydney, but I’m slowly coming around. It’s anise flavoured and there’s one in Medellin that’s sweetened with sugar so it goes down very easily. And staying so close to the alcoholic Disneyland of Parque Lleras, it’s difficult not to partake. It’s legal to drink in the streets so you can just buy some drinks and sit in the park and get happy!
And hey… In Colombia it isn’t a party until the accordions come out…

Paisas are REALLY strong drinkers… I mean REALLY REALLY STRONG… I met up with some friends that I had made on my last trip here one year ago…

From left to right: Robinson, Andres, Martin and Carlos. We went out to a bar the other the night in Centro Medellin. We went through two bottles of aguardiente until the bar closed at 4 a.m…. Then we came back to my apartment along with a whole bunch of other people we invited from the bar and ordered two more bottles. This city is really cool…. They have liquor stores that deliver to your home at any hour of the day, even at 4 in the morning! We continued going till about 7.30 in the morning… And I kid you not, they all went to work afterwards! I don’t know about the others but Andres started work at 8 a.m. I don’t how on earth they managed it but they did! They’re my heroes!

As for me… the partying, all the deep fried food and the constantly having to communicate in Spanish is taking it’s toll on me a weeny bit. My usual energetic, calm and tolerant self is feeling a bit fatigued and cranky. I had a little run in with this little chica the other day. I admit, it was possibly my fault…

Anyway… With service here, for me, I feel a bit of a cultural gap. Particularly in supermarkets and smaller, cheaper shops the staff seem to be on a mission aiming for the lowest possible stress factor, which is not a bad thing as long as you take a book along to read. And often, they don’t seem to acknowledge your presence in any way when you come up to the counter… Maybe the custom here is for the customer to just call out to them. I don’t know but it’s different to what I’m used to and my Spanish isn’t good enough to do it politely.

That shop is a kind of mini-supermarket, liquor store and cafe all in one. I went there the other day to buy a pineapple but when I go there I decided to have a coffee and bunuelo before entering and embarking on said pineapple purchase. I must have waited at least ten minutes at the counter and she continued about her business just ignoring me. Again, I don’t know if I was supposed to shout out to her or what but it felt a bit weird. Finally another staff member came to serve the customers but she served the people behind me first. So, eventually I gave up. I decided I didn’t really want a coffee anyway and went off and bought my pineapple. I may have accidentally let out a slight groan, rolled my eyes and flicked my nose in the air as I stamped my feet and walked off. Unintentionally of course. After I bought the pineapple I decided I DID want that coffee after all… I went back to the cafe part and this time just called out Un cafe Americano y bunuelo por favor”… This time she made eye contact… She looked me in the eye AND JUST SCREAMED at me. I don’t know what she said but she got the coffee and bunuelo and then walked off and wouldn’t accept the money. I left the money on the counter but it was a weird experience.

And that’s about it.   


Beyond Parque Lleras

Now that the diarrhoea has dried up, toilet time is happy time… I haven’t been ambushed by any psychotic Latin women either, so I feel like I’ve got absolutely nothing to write about. I’m warning you in advance… In order to keep up my blog writing, I’m going to have to resort to the thing I hate most… The lunch photo. As I said before, if your mind has exceeded it’s bandwidth, turn off right now. You won’t lose anything by not reading this.

So anyway, today I thought I’d try and make it beyond Parque Lleras and went and met my good friend Luis and hung out with him. First we started off with lunch in the restaurant where he works. I probably could have studied the menu a bit longer and made a more sensible choice, but hey what the hell, I threw caution to the wind and ordered this little puppy…

It was seriously good, but there’s really no deluding yourself that there’s anything even remotely healthy about it: French fries slathered in beef and onions and lots of salt. I licked the plate clean.

We decided after lunch to go to Parque Arvi, which is “1761 hectares of pine and eucalyptus forest located in Medellin’s eastern mountains in the Santa Elena district.” We took the metro from Poblado station …

to Acevedo station and then took the MetroCable up to Parque Arvi.

It’s a large park and it was getting late so we only saw a part of it… But the part I saw was indeed very beautiful, peaceful, clean and fresh (and all those sorts of things).

I channelled my inner Von Trapp family child and went and ate some fresh berries…

After the park, we headed to good ol’ downtown.. You know… The lights are much brighter there. You can forget all your troubles, forget all your cares. So go DOWNTOWN… Things’ll be great when your downtown! Last year, the big Christmas lights display was along the river and it was seriously SPECTACULAR!! Apparently this year there are roadworks near the river so they couldn’t hold it there… You’d think they could have timed that a bit better! So they moved it to the downtown part. I’m sorry if I offend any Paisa, but compared to last year, this is a big let-down. But nonetheless, I had fun.

And finally, off to inspect Medellin’s new little baby… their version of the light rail, the Tranvía de Medellín.


Lovely Medellin

My plan was to write a blog post every day while I’m on this trip but I’ve missed a couple of days recently. There have been a variety of reasons for that but the main one is that it’s a lot easier to write when some disaster happens… But since leaving Cuba and Lisi’s truck loads of lard fried goodies, things have gone spookily smoothly.

Landing at El Dorado was a joy. All the airport staff are really helpful and friendly and even the immigration officers are nice. I had stood in the wrong line… Apparently I was in the line for Colombians and not for foreigners… When I went to the counter the immigration officer says to me, “You know you’re in the wrong line”… I apologized, started to go away and stand in another line and he says, “No problem, stay here… Just so you know for next time”.  Can you imagine the same scene in Sydney?

The flight to Medellin went smoothly as well. Avianca is a really nice airline. The cab driver drove like a racing car driver from the airport into Medellin. This time I didn’t make the mistake of staying too close to downtown. I realised two things last time by staying close to downtown: 1. Downtown Medellin particularly at night is not for the feint of heart and 2. I am feint of heart. So this time I headed straight for El Poblado. I have a beautiful duplex in a tree lined cul-de-sac 5 minutes walk from Parque Lleras with it’s ever-so-helpful chewing gum sellers and you can walk the streets at night safely. Parque Lleras is basically like an alcoholic Disneyland… It’s a one-stop shop! As soon as the taxi pulled up to the apartment, the security guy called out, “Are you Martin?”… He opened the gate, handed me the key and I was in! And there were no overly dramatic women crying over broken washing machines!

It’s a really beautiful two level duplex apartment. I did a quick tour of the apartment when I got in and there was for a second that “You know you’re in Medellin when…” moment when I opened the kitchen cupboards to see what there was and amongst the herbs and spices was a large glass jar of marijuana… And not even leaves, but buds! I would post the photo but I’m scared it will come back to haunt me one day.

El Poblado is really nice. It’s a vastly different scene to the other side of town. There’s no reason to leave… and I haven’t for the past three days. The people here are extremely nice. I went to the shopping mall the other day and the security guy personally escorted me to the shop I was looking for when I couldn’t find it! People gave up their seats for me in cafe the other day because there weren’t any left… Maybe I just look old and they felt sorry for me!

I had a bit of “You know you’re NOT in Sydney when…” moment when I invited some people around on Saturday who I had met last time. We were on the balcony at 4 a.m. drinking aguardiente, blasting music at Mardi Gras volume, calling out to passers by on the street… And no-one complained, called the police or threatened to sue. Life went on.

The food here is really good. It’s a bit more “American style” than anything else but really nice. I’m enjoying things that I don’t usually eat like this wickedly delicious Peruvian “Sanguche de lomo saltado con papas”…
And just a couple of snaps from Parque Lleras … 

And Parque El Poblado…


Leaving the island

I didn’t want to leave Cuba again with that same “Get me the hell outta here” feeling… It was a lot better this time but still I breathed a HUGE sigh of relief when I left. It was a relief but at the same time a strange feeling. I felt good because I COULD leave but bad because 11 million Cubans are stuck there and sense of shame that I lived for 9 days like a king (relative to the rest of the population) and still that drove me crazy!

People in Cuba are REALLY, REALLY poor. The more I spoke to the locals, the more I realised how bad the situation is. Doctors make 40 CUC a month, which is absurd enough but a lot of other people working regular jobs make only 10 CUC a month. Prices in Cuba are cheaper but they’re not THAT cheap… Surviving on 10 CUC a month in Havana is like trying to survive on $100 a month in Sydney. It’s no wonder that everyone is out on the streets hustling.

Cuba has a tourism fuelled economy. There are other industries… Clearly the beer and rum industry is huge… But at times it seems that tourism is the ONLY money spinner and the heat is really on the tourists to support the economy. If you’re the type of person who has a heart in is sensitive to the needs of others, it’s hard not to get affected by it all. One night I gave a guy a few CUCs (in Cuba they pronounce it like “cook”) to buy some food… I bumped into him the next night and he was gushing gratitude because I had done this. I was happy that I could help in a very small way but it makes me sad to think that these people are so desperate that they have to beg strangers for their daily food or to buy them a beer or water or whatever. It’s hard to put it in words but it’s saddening.

I was happy that I could help the people I came across in a small way but at the same time I would be lying if I said it didn’t drive me crazy. It’s not about the money… The money I gave away has no affect on me whatsoever but just to have all these desperate people relentlessly hounding you for something is tough. But of course, it’s tougher for them.

Anyway, finally it was time to leave the island. I had already lined up Lisi’s husband, Ronaldo to take me to the airport. He’s is a nice guy… He also doesn’t have a regular job but is also hustling for work. The flight was in the afternoon, I had packed the night before and I had just the right amount of money for transport and some food and water at the airport, so no dramas there. I just had to wait for Alejandro and Karmin to give them back the keys. They didn’t show up in the end… They sent Karmin’s mother Milagros instead. Milagros means “miracles” in English but the only miracle there is that no-one has ever slapped her (maybe they have?) because she’s a bit of an old grouch. It turns out it’s her apartment.

Ronaldo is not a licensed cab driver… Obviously! I don’t know exactly what the law is there but it seems I couldn’t be seen handing him cash at the airport as I was getting out of his car, so Lisi kept drilling me all morning, “Don’t forget to pay Ronaldo the money BEFORE you get to the airport!” Sure no problem. We were standing out the front waiting for him to come by with the classic American car when Lisi says to me AGAIN, “Don’t forget to pay Ronaldo BEFORE you get to the airport”… So I thought I’d give her the money there and then. “Here it is.” I gave her 30 CUC … 25 CUC is what a taxi would cost plus 5 CUC tip. Suddenly something got lost in translation and she thought it was a personal tip for her. She hugs me and gushes, “Gracias mi amor. Te amo!… Now don’t forget to pay Ronaldo for the transport BEFORE you get to the airport.” Oh Dios! And then Ronaldo arrived with the car. The money wasn’t a problem except that it was all the money that I had and now I had no money to pay Ronaldo for the ride to the airport.

I got in the car and asked Ronaldo to stop at the ATM. There are very few ATMs in Havana but luckily there was one just round the corner from the apartment. There are two machines there… I used it twice and walked past it a few times. Both machines were always functioning and although they were constantly in use there was never more than about one or two people waiting. Of course in situations like this, Murphy’s law always applies. We got there and one machine was out of order and there was a queue for the other one so long it was like Leningrad in the eighties. I begged some of the women to let me queue jump… They were ok with it so I went to use the machine. Just as I’m about to insert my card into the slot a completely psychotic Cuban woman jumps out of the queue and starts screaming hysterically like I had just raped her daughter or something…. “THER’S A QUEUE AND YOU GET TO THE END OF IT”. A bit of a struggle ensued …. I exchanged knowing looks with all the other woman. You know, that look that says, “She’s psycho, right?” Anyway, we let her use the machine and then I used it after her

Back in the car, I paid Ronaldo the money and we were off. Normally it takes about 20 minutes to get to the airport but it took him close to an hour. I don’t know if he was trying to dodge the police or wanted to do a lap of honour but it seems like we drove around most of the island before we go to the airport. Eventually we did get there but time was a little tight now.

I saw the Avianca sign in the distance as I entered the departures area. I rushed up… It was a beacon guiding me to the promised land… I felt like I had been wandering the wilderness for forty days and forty nights and suddenly here was my oasis. It was the most beautiful sight ever. I checked in and then it was off to immigration control.

The scene is Immigration was crowded and chaotic, to say the least. There was an airbus load of hysterical Russian women, running late for their flight Aeroflot flight to Moscow screaming, “Time! Time! Time!” It wasn’t a pretty sight and there must have been a sale on home hair perm solution in Moscow before their trip to Cuba. I like to think of myself as an extremely non-judgemental and unprejudiced individual but the truth is that I am a bit judgemental and prejudiced. Had it been any other nationality wanting to queue jump I wouldn’t have had an issue. Even though I had been in exactly the same situation only an hour beforehand, I couldn’t help but pretend that I didn’t understand what these Russian women were carrying on about and made it a bit difficult for them to get through

All’s well that end’s well… We all made it for our flights. I was the last person to board mine and it was one of those phot finish boardings… I raced up to the gate and straight away they called out, “Are you Martin Koskins?” Anyway, I was through and on my way to the promised land.

It was a long and tiring day but once we touched down in Colombia it was smooth sailing. Colombian people are so nice and even airport staff are really nice and helpful. I’m staying in a gorgeous little cul-de-sac in El Poblado, Medellin just five minutes stroll from Parque Lleras. It feels like Paradise! I never want to leave.

The view from my room…