San Blas Islands

Oh, San Blas…Imagine a little boat with bench seats of people covering themselves with garbage sacks as it flies over the open ocean rising up with every wave and crashing down so hard that your back cracks, water sprays, and you swear you’re about to die…for about an hour, I laughed in near hysteria as we traveled to Isla de Diablo…or Devil’s Island, our destination for the next few days. This is after waking up at 4am to be picked up by a fully camouflage 4×4 vehicle and winding through the jungle for a few hours to reach our “port” on the Caribbean side of Panama. When I could open my eyes every couple minutes after wiping the saltwater and perhaps terrified tears from them, I looked out over the ocean and saw little bits of land and palm trees popping up everywhere. The archipelago of San Blas, also known as Guna Yala, is made up of more than 365 islands, only 49 of which are inhabited. Some are so tiny that they have only a few palm trees, while others have entire villages.  It is picture perfect paradise.

My friend and I originally had wanted to do the multi-day boat trip from Cartagena to Panama passing through San Blas, but the dates didn’t work out. Instead we found a tour through a company called San Blas Dreams that visited the Cayos Holandeses amongst other islands that lasted for 3 days and would ensure we were on an island for Christmas Eve and Christmas morning. The payment was a bit complicated, as there’s a deposit to the company, then a part you pay to the driver that picks you up, then some to the boat drivers at the port, and then the rest to the Guna Yala family that hosts your primary stay island (ours being Diablo). As things typically go when you travel, not all worked out as planned. Upon arrival to the island, we found out they could not take us to Cayos Holandeses the following day because it was too far away and the weather had been so windy the past few weeks that it was too dangerous to go there in our boats. This led to a lot of debate since part of our payment was specific to visiting those keys. Luckily we negotiated that they’d take us to different island instead.

Lodging on the islands is primitive, and you have to be willing to rough it for a few days! I was pleasantly surprised to find working toilets and even 2 showers in the shared bathroom building. Of course it was just a pipe that shot out cold water, but it was great when I finally decided to rid myself of all the salt water and sunscreen accumulating on my body (yes, I may have only showered once while there…don’t judge. The ocean is a natural bath!). The sleeping accommodations were literally shanties with a tin roof and slats of wood slapped together with a mattress on top of a wooden frame inside and a single lightbulb that was connected to a solar energy panel. The floor was the sand itself, so sleeping those few nights was not the most comfortable, but taking naps on the beach in the sun more than made up for it!

The first afternoon, they took us and some people who were just day tripping to the islands (which seemed to me really far to travel if only coming for an afternoon!) to the island of Chichime (pronounced CHEE-chee-may). This turned out to be my favorite island of all and the one we requested they take us back to the following day. The most pristine water and sand that you can imagine, with all the shades of blue as you looked out to sea. If you have a chance to go, I highly recommend making this island your primary stay! Later, we stopped at a “piscina natural”, which was literally a sand bar and island in the making in the middle of the sea. Again with water so clear you can look down and see all your toe nail polish!

The following day, we lounged on Chichime again where there was hardly anyone to be seen besides the boats docked nearby that must have been passing the Christmas holidays on a yacht through the archipelago (#goals). That night was Christmas Eve and we were served lobster! Now, I probably didn’t clarify this enough, but basically each island is owned by an indigenous Guna Yala family (though our island was bigger, so there were two families). This family is in charge of the lodging, food, and so on and it is their entire livelihood. There were only a few other people overlapping with our days there, so it was pretty private. Earlier that day, the father of the family had asked us if we liked “langosta”. I couldn’t remember the word in that moment, so I just answered “yes” assuming I’d eat whatever it was. Afterward, my friend and I debated and tried to remember…I knew “langostino” are the big shrimp, like crawfish, and I thought langosta was lobster, but I thought surely they won’t be serving us lobster when we’re only paying them less than $200 for all the trips, food, and lodging. Sure enough, later that day a friend pulled up on another boat and made “deliveries” which included some freshly caught lobster. There were several throughout that day and Christmas day as friends from other islands connected with the families on our island for the holidays. Lots of cases of beer, food, and so on as it all has to be delivered by boat. (I even rescued one boat from being taken out to sea as I saw the waves pulling it off the sand and I jumped off my towel and ran off to grab the rope and try to pull it back before its owner saw and ran to help me.)

Christmas Eve dinner included SO much food, as we got our full dinner and then they bring us another plate with the strangest mixture of food I’ve ever seen in my life…fried rice, candies, egg salad, cake, and grapes. Apparently some of them are common Christmas foods and the cake was because it was the owner’s daughter’s birthday that night! We all sang happy birthday to her and then sat playing cards with some of the local kids for a few hours. One gal named Kay came over from the other family’s hut and made friends with us. She taught us some card tricks and shared her independent travel stories that she’s been doing since the 60s. She was quite the inspiration to us to keep doing what we’re doing and living this incredible life we’ve been fortunate enough to have.

On our last day (Christmas day), we visited the island across from us called Perro Chico (Little Dog). This was quite a hopping little island with lots of visitors, especially because there was a “barco hundido” (sunken ship) right off the island that you could swim to and snorkel around. There were tons of fish, anemones, and coral growing in and around the ship. Our return trip that day was less bumpy than the trip out to the islands and besides getting major motion sickness on the 4×4 ride back to Panama City, we arrived safe and sound and ready for a real shower!

This was one of the top island trips I’ve ever had and highly recommended to anyone willing to get off the beaten track. I’m still hoping to do the Cartagena to Panama trip at some point in the future!

101 Things to Love About Colombia

I’m cheating by stealing an article from another blog again, but it matched perfectly on so many levels that I had to share! People have asked me why I like living here. Oftentimes it’s hard to put into words because it’s not any one thing….it’s all the little things that add up. 

Without further ado…enjoy!

Day-to-Day Happenings

As promised, I said I’d give more information about what’s been going on when I’m not in school. I’m embarrassed to say I’ve already forgotten things I did just a week ago, thus the necessity for me to blog more frequently to help my own memory!

The weekend before school started, there was a brief social at school with all of the staff during which (gasp!) there was beer drinking and salsa dancing. Some staff members even kicked around a soccer ball. There is both a men’s and women’s staff team here at the school. No, I will not be joining. Also, that Saturday night, a few expat teachers that were here last year threw a get-together on the roof of their apartment building. We attempted to cook some meat (using magazines to try and get the charcoal burning in the windiness) and shared some food. It was nice to get to know some of the past teachers in a new setting because I felt like I’d only gotten to know the other ones that are new this year (there are nine of us, which is a lot!). 

Throughout the first week of school, I kept pretty busy trying to rearrange my plans and rethink some procedures because, as I mentioned previously, nothing was working, including all the things I’ve used before with great success. I did manage to get in a run outside, which was pretty terrible since you are dodging traffic, broken sidewalks, people, random dogs, and plants the whole time. Plus, there are only so many places to go around my house. Afterward, I thought I would stop in the little “basement gym” of my complex. As I began to do some lunges using the free weights, an awkward conversation ensued with the porter as he kept telling me I needed “guantes”. Well, I later figured out need GLOVES to use any equipment. Definitely not a fan of this policy (or the cap in the pool for anything). I stopped by a mall today to look at prices, and they cost around 50,000 pesos (about $25). UGH. I still haven’t been able to get a gym membership either because I’m still waiting on my official cédula identification. I’m getting antsy and needing to work out, so hopefully this comes soon.

I also started salsa lessons! That was probably the highlight of my week, even though it was incredibly hard. The lessons are one-on-one and given by the elementary PE teacher at school, who apparently dances salsa competitively with a group. He started off basic until I think he realized it was too easy and I wanted to do harder things. But then it got REALLY fast and hard. There are many stylistic techniques specific to Colombian salsa that do not come naturally, so I need to keep practicing. We have class again tomorrow (Tuesday). Without air conditioning, we were both dripping sweat in the empty room on the top floor of my house. Learning to spin was my favorite, although I definitely got lost a few times or had difficulty following his lead! 

Friday evening after school, I left fairly quickly (with convincing) to get a few drinks at a hole in the wall place. That night, a group of us went into Bucaramanga to hit up a karaoke bar! It had a nice patio where we had some drinks while waiting for our room…it was one of those places where you get your own room and then choose your own music. It’s nice because you don’t have to listen to anyone else sing ballads or just sing terribly….oh wait, I probably would be included in that. Anyways, we sang a mixture of Spanish and English songs and just had an absolute blast!

On Saturday, a group of us were supposed to go to this lady’s lake cottage in a town about an hour away, but plans fell through. Instead, a few of us went for manicures/pedicures at a place in town. While waiting, we were served coffee and got to enjoy their little patio. After waiting nearly an hour, we finally had ours done, but it still was soooo slow. But it was actually great in the end because we got talking with a girl who worked there and another girl that comes every week, both of whom are about our age. Neither speak any English, so we’ve talked about meeting up every week or so at the nail salon to practice our English/Spanish and get our nails done! This is totally fine because, get this, the mani/pedi was only 20,000 pesos which is like $10!!! Total! One of my new goals for Colombia, totally unrelated to language or teaching or culture, is to get my nails to grow to a normal length and not look like little kid hands anymore. J The lady who did my nails even put on this bad smelling and tasting top coat for me when we discussed how I bite them when I’m stressed or working. hahaha. Then my roommate and I went over to these other teachers’ places and made dinner together…it was a great time!

Random assortment of dinner items with fellow teachers.

Random assortment of dinner items with fellow teachers.

Since our original plans fell through, yet we were still itching to go somewhere (and especially since we had Monday off), three of us decided to just take a bus trip somewhere and go with the flow. Our goal was La Mesa de Los Santos, but we weren’t sure exactly how to get there or even what to do upon arrival. Well, after taking one bus and then a different one, we were in a town south of us called Piedecuesta. Luckily a nice woman who was heading to the market walked us through the busy centro and to another “bus station” where we could catch a bus to La Mesa. I use the term “bus station” lightly because it was actually just a giant garage. We literally never would have found it on our own…just a giant hole in the wall with zero signage and people milling about everywhere. (Sorry, no pictures…I don’t like having my phone or camera out in any busy areas.) This kind woman helped us get our tickets and waited with us until the bus we needed was ready to go (again, no signs so we probably wouldn’t have gotten on the right one). 

We were lucky to have gotten our tickets early because we got to have seats on the bus. It was incredibly old, hot, and smelly. As I sat in my seat crowded next to an older man with people (and a dog!) lining the aisle next to me, I seriously thought I might get sick from all the humid smells overtaking me. Luckily, after about 15 minutes, the bus finally took out and the air from the windows helped. Throughout the course of an hour, the bus kept stopping and dropping off/picking up people in the most random areas…literally the middle of nowhere. I still don’t know if these were assigned bus stops, or the people just waved the bus down. We got to see a lot of rural homes and deep poverty…something I had not seen too much of in my neighborhood near the school. At other times, we were on the edge of a mountain and when I looked out the window, my angle only allowed me to see straight down to the valley…we had to have been super close to the edge and I’m glad I couldn’t see any better. 

After about an hour, the bus stopped at what appeared to be a giant market with lots of people milling about, flying kites, and so forth. We weren’t sure if this was where we were supposed to get off, but it looked cool so we did! The worker who takes the money on the bus told us it wasn’t the pueblo of La Mesa yet and was asking us where we wanted to go. But as we are trying to communicate with him, the bus is honking at him to get on and starts pulling away. He banged on the side of the bus and tells them to wait….which they do for about 7 seconds, then they start driving away without their worker! He had to run after the bus and hop in the open door. (This seems pretty common here…busses don’t make stops. They do “roll bys” and you better be quick!)

Turns out this market was really neat and we were happy we stopped! Tons of little connected stalls that looked like mini-huts selling traditional foods they made right there, sweets, meats, clothing, handmade goods, fruits, vegetables, and so much more. One was a little organic coffee place where the man, Don Jerito, grows, roasts, and sells his own coffee from the Antioquia region, known as the coffee growing region. I was so excited to find true Colombian organic coffee, not the instant stuff that they drink here. (All the good stuff is exported to, yep, the USA.) We were starving, so we went to find some food first. I got an arepa typical of the Santander region, served in corn husks. It’s basically like corn bread or corn casserole smashed into a pancake shape and this one had cheese on it. It was sweet, hot, delicious, and filling! I also had a handmade sausage from the same stand…it was a little fatty for me and filled with things I wasn’t so sure about, but it still had good flavor. Afterward, some strawberries with fresh cream for dessert…nom.

The arepa and sausage cut up and served in corn husks.

The arepa and sausage cut up and served in corn husks.

Then we headed back to the coffee guy. He ended up doing all sorts of demonstrations for us using different methods and then we got to taste them! He even spoke some English, which was an added bonus. We got talking quite a bit, and he sat me down to tell me some different stories. According to him, we know more about coffee in the USA than those here in Colombia and we know how to drink it better, too! We also learned about a self-sustainable Eco Hostel located outside of Medellín that one of his friends runs. Check out their website: …sounds super neat, and we’re talking about going for a couple days over our October break (and doing a couple days in the city of Medellín, too). He even OFFERED US HIS CAR!! We said we still wanted to see the pueblo of La Mesa and asked how to get there, but he said it would be easiest for us to drive and told us we could take his car. Obviously we didn’t, but wow, how nice! I got some ground beans from him and promised to be back again. He even delivers all around for no charge, but I think it’s more fun for me to go back to the market anyways. 

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This picture doesn’t do it justice…we’re up above on this monument thing, but the market has little connected huts in the buildings to the left. You can only see about 1/4 of it. Again, I haven’t been taking very many or very good pictures. Apologies.

After wandering around for a few hours, we decided we should figure out how to head back. Turns out this was a good idea because we had to sit on the side of the road for about 40 minutes before a bus came rolling by. (We sat next to the man holding his chickens…not sure if they were for sale or what? And a man selling his pineapples.) It was a different bus company than before and it dropped us off at its last stop in the middle of Piedecuesta…we had no idea how to get back to our city, so we hopped on one that appeared to go to the right neighborhood. Note to self: the busses here are confusing and don’t go where the signs say. We ended up way too north of the city and finally just got off (another hour later….) and took a cab back to our place, where I walked the rest of the way home in the pouring rain. This day took it all out of us, so I napped for a bit and headed back over to their place for dinner and to watch “Good Will Hunting”. RIP Robin Williams.

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It’s hard to tell, but this is on one of the public city buses as we’re driving on the highway…door wide open ready to “roll by” a random spot in the middle of nowhere so someone can get on or off. I would love to see a map of actual bus stops, if they exist.

All in all, a good last week or so. I’ve made friends, learned some new words, found good frozen yogurt (clearly all that’s important in life :)), experienced the public transportation, visited a new place, and learned how incredibly nice and helpful many of the Colombian people are. There are so many instances than I’ll ever be able to remember of people helping me or a group of us out when in need. ¡Mil gracias a los Colombianos!

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One of our neighbor’s cats who literally scared the s*** out of me as he comes waltzing down OUR STAIRCASE. He walked on the roof over to our balcony, came in the balcony door (we always leave it open for some air flow), and then came down the stairs where I was working in the living room. He glared at me (has that angry fact 24/7) and wandered back out the front door. Earlier that morning, the neighbor lady herself had knocked on the door to tell me that her cats had pooped in the little “garden” strip on our balcony and she came over to clean it up. Turns out he’s on our balcony quite a bit and I’ve just never noticed!

Bye, bye giant jar of JIF…

Yes, sadly the pompous staff at O’Hare security has confiscated my giant jar of JIF peanut butter. Indignation and anger first crossed my mind as he dug through my backpack and pulled it out, then sadness, as dreams of pb&j’s and bananas with pb slowly floated out of my mind. I refused to throw it away myself (being difficult, naturally) and he rolled his eyes at me while taking it away. Stupid airplane rules. The seal was still on and everything! L

I’m heading back to….PAUSE. I would say “reality”, but I’m not quite sure that’s the right word for this, but I can’t think of a better choice, so UNPAUSE…..reality, as I sit at Gate K19 waiting for my flight to Madrid. As most of you know, I surprised everyone by coming home for Christmas. The holidays were absolutely amazing and worth every penny. I made the rounds all over the state of Indiana and into Chicago to visit friends and family. Thanks to all of you for making it fabulous!!!

I assaulted several of you with questions regarding my future during my stint in the states…there are several things I have been considering, but I’m not quite sure which is right for me at this time.  I appreciate everyone’s advice and I’ve decided I’ll simply see how I feel in the next few months before I make any decisions.