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!

Ciudad de Panama / Panama City

In order to catch up on all my travels and have my own online journal, I decided to go in backwards chronological order, so I’m starting with my recent trip to Panama and Ecuador over the Christmas holidays 2017…

Upon arrival to Panama City, I was immediately taken aback by the following:

  1. How very Americanized the city was
  2. The interesting architecture
  3. The HEAT

I’ve been in Colombia so long now that sometimes I forget what the US feels like. Being in Panama City brought it all rushing back as I saw US chains like Baskin Robbins and

browsed through the massive, 24-hour grocery store (something that does not exist in Bucaramanga). My friend and I may have just walked up and down all the aisles gaping at the wide variety of brands and types of food. It was almost overwhelming, as I’ve had to get creative and cook a lot more from scratch in Colombia (not a bad thing, of course).

 

 

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Way too excited for a big grocery store.

We were only in Panama for a few days before taking off to the San Blas islands, which I’ll discuss in the next post, so I didn’t do a whole lot in the city itself. For me, these were the main highlights.

The Panama Canal

I’m embarrassed to admit this to whole Internet world, but I never actually understood what the Panama canal was. I imagined it as literally just a cut through the land across Panama and boats flowed through it. This is why I never truly comprehended when people spoke of the great “engineering marvel”. Now, after visiting and seeing it for myself, I’m rather impressed.  The most popular locks to visit from Panama City are the Miraflores Locks. They’re about 20 minutes outside of the city and cost around $10 to get there if going by Uber. You can also take the public bus which only costs 25 cents, but you need the 3-in-1 bus/metro card to do so. However, I returned to the city this way and didn’t have a card yet, so I just asked someone if I could use their card and pay them. (Random act of kindness! They didn’t even accept my quarter.) Entrance for non-residents is $15, which felt like a lot since it was in dollars!

At the Miraflores Locks visitor center, there is a video you can watch in either English or Spanish that lasts about 30 minutes and several floors of a museum where you can learn about the history behind the canal, as well as ecological impact and how they continue to protect the habitats in the area. Depending on your museum habits, the museum could take an hour to go through. I tend to read almost everything and was in there awhile!

Of course most people want to actually see the ships go through the locks, but there are only certain times that you can see this. Generally, you need to get there early in the morning as ships will pass between 9 and 11am. Otherwise, be there late in the afternoon as ships passing from the other direction come through after 3pm. Unfortunately, I was there midday and didn’t actually see any ships! But there is a coffee shop on one of the terraces and you can sit and enjoy the sunlight.

Visit the Old Town (better known as Casco Viejo)

If you’re not staying in Casco Viejo, I recommend walking the path along the ocean called the Cinta Costera. In the evening, it’s a hopping place filled with bicyclists, families out walking, and more, but we were there in the middle of the day and heat of the sun, so we saw almost no one. There’s a fun Panama sign to pose with, some parks for kids, and plenty of benches to sit and take a break. Within the Casco Viejo, there are plenty of small streets to explore with souvenir shops, restaurants, ice cream shops, and boutiques. Of course there are tons of old buildings and monuments, but I’ll admit, I’m terrible with the history and names of things when I travel. I prefer to walk around and take in the ambiance, so you’ll have to research those elsewhere. 🙂 There are also many of those free walking tours where you just tip at the end, but we didn’t have time to do it. In one of the plazas, there was a small market set up with different souvenirs. Some of these are the same as you’ll find in the shops, but we found their prices were a bit better. And don’t forget, you can bargain a lot! In fact, they expect it, so even as a gringo, don’t be afraid to ask for lower prices or start to walk away until they offer you a better price.

Cerro Ancón

I did not actually go here, but my friend did with her parents and it’s a nice getaway from the city, while still being in the city. It’s basically a giant hill that overlooks Panama City that you can hike up and maybe see some wildlife. Go early in the morning before it’s too hot.

There is more to do in Panama City, but not a ton. I’ll admit, it’s a great stopover city for flying and the canal is interesting, but I don’t imagine myself spending a ton more time there unless it’s to transfer to another place. Such as San Blas, one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever been….working on that next!

 

 

 

 

 

 

Dealing With Theft

Learning life lessons is rarely fun. Feeling taken advantage of is not fun either. Now I don’t mean the taxi driver tried to charge me too much, as they frequently do. Unfortunately, I’m trying to deal with the fact that someone stole my much-loved iPhone last Wednesday while I was in Cartagena for Semana Santa (Spring Break). Much of this post may make me sound like a spoiled brat from the USA. It may sound like #firstworldproblems. But I work hard for my belongings and I take good care of them, so I feel the need to complain a bit.

What I’m still shocked about is how they did it without me noticing. My phone was in my small black cross body purse that I take every time I go out. My friends and I were out at a block party-esque thing in Cartagena. I was in one of the bars dancing, as I do so frequently. I went to the bathroom, checked my phone, came back out and danced some more. Maybe around 10 minutes later, I reached into my purse and noticed the flap was open. My phone was gone. Naturally, I freaked. After lots of yelling, tears, frantic searching, talking to cops, and calling my phone repeatedly only to have the thief answer and pretend to the be the “national police” that needed my password in order to unlock the phone (yeah right), I realized it was hopeless.

This may sound ridiculous, considering that it was just a phone, but I literally have felt all the stages of grief as I come to terms with it being gone. (This is in no way trying to lessen the very real stages of grief that come with loss, disease, or major life-altering events; it is simply a connection I have made about my own emotions in this situation.) On WebMD, which we all use to self-diagnose whether we should or not, I was reading about the different stages:

When I first realized it was gone, I went through a denial or shock period. I felt like I was living in a dream world and I kept feeling my purse to see if it really was empty. Then I became angry. When it comes to being a fighter or lover, I tend to be the former, and I swear if I had found the person who took it, I would have given it to them bad and nobody could have stopped me.

Should have tried a version of this message.

Should have tried a version of this message.

The next few days passed in a mixture of bargaining and “depression”. I use the term depression lightly here, not to be confused with the real illness of depression. My bargaining stage was evident and is still evident sometimes in how I’m constantly thinking of the “coulda, shoulda, woulda” scenarios. When we kept calling my phone and they answered, I should have offered them money. I should have used the GPS on the Find My iPhone app IMMEDIATELY. Instead I waited until after they had already tried asking me for the password over the phone and then they turned it off. (That one still kills me. Why didn’t I think of that in the moment??!) I should have been on the street with the others, instead of dancing. But then there’s that hopelessness of the “depression” stage, reminding me that I could be the most careful person in the world (which I typically am), yet it still could have happened. Unfortunately, thefts like this are all too common here. Another teacher had her iPhone stolen right out of her backpack while getting off the bus a few weeks ago as well. Shit happens.

I’ve started to reach the acceptance stage. It is what it is. I’ve got to face it, look into my options for a new phone, eat the cost, and take it as a lesson. Of course, I still have that anger inside me when I think about what kind of person does this….but we’ll just hope I never run into the person that took it, or I may be seeking bail from a Colombian jail. 🙂

On the bright side, I had all the pictures on my phone backed up besides the ones I had taken in the first few days of our trips. The things I didn’t have backed up were all my contacts, including the many people I have met since coming to Colombia, and my notes, which is sad because it had a long-running list of all the words and expressions I’ve learned in Spanish…most especially all the bad ones! Haha.

So people, if you can learn from me in this…remember you’re always vulnerable. Back up your entire phone, tablets, computers, etc. And if something like this happens, know that it sucks. It sucks a lot. But, similar to most things in life, dwelling on it won’t help you get over it. Move on and find the silver lining in your next moment.

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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!

http://discoveringice.com/2272/travels/101-reasons-to-love-colombia.html

I heart.

As teachers, we have some of the most peculiar and most wonderful things happen to us, often in the same hour. I’ve had students poop down their pants and leave it for us to find on the floor. I’ve had more kisses and hugs than I can count, and not always in the most appropriate of places. I’ve had chairs thrown at me. I’ve had “I love you” and “I hate you” notes from the same child within 5 minutes. I’ve had insect attacks in our classroom. I’ve had tricks played on me and I’ve played tricks on kids. We’ve had laughter, tears, pain, and anger. But most of all, we’ve learned and grown together.

There are times when I feel like I nailed it…you know, said exactly the right thing at the right moment. Man, those moments feel good. There are other times when I screwed it up. I reacted without thinking first, let my impatience show, or simply said the wrong thing. How I wish I could go back and fix those moments. But then along comes an instance when I realize how rewarding this job is and how it is worth all the time, energy, stress, frustration, and regrettable moments.

One day this week, we were at closing circle and sharing the best part of our day. Students are not required to share, but since we’ve started it, it’s been amazing hearing what they enjoyed the most and really reaffirms my decision to be a teacher. Even if 40-50% of the time, they say recess! J One of my more difficult children raised his hand and in his broken English where he repeats “I me” a lot, he went on to say that he hearts his school…he hearts his friends….he just hearts everyone and everything. It was not related to a best part of the day at all, and I started to redirect him, but then realized how impassioned he was and just let him talk. As he continued to go on, I gave our “me too” silent signal and so did many other students. It just warmed my heart. It made me smile. It made me laugh. Especially since he literally said “I heart _____” rather than “I love”. And If I’m being honest, I got a little teary-eyed.

As I went home that afternoon with emotions still running high and thinking about what it is that “I heart”, I couldn’t help but reflect on my experience thus far in relation to the culture shock continuum I posted 7 months ago.

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At about 6 months, you finally get to the At Home phase. I’ve definitely felt all of the above emotions, though it hasn’t been such a smooth down and back up…rather, it’s more of constant ups and downs like a roller coaster, but I feel that it’s typically been higher than lower. I can’t explain where I am right now because it’s not on the continuum. I feel at home here, but what’s more is that I feel HAPPY. Even when I was “at home” in Indianapolis, I didn’t feel happy. Working 60-80 hours a week and having zero time to take care of yourself physically, mentally, emotionally, and socially doesn’t allow room for happiness. Now I’m only occasionally taking work home or doing it on the weekends (except this weekend because I’m behind). I go to the gym. I go to salsa classes. I go to tumbling classes. I watch a TV show when my internet is working. I practice a new language. I cook. I go to the pool sometimes. I read books, though fitting in time for adult books is still hard. I travel to new places (Bogota last weekend. The coast for Spring Break is booked. Hopefully Peru and Bolivia this summer.) I spend time with friends. I do things on the weekend. All of this was unimaginable for me when I was home. Is this what makes me happy? Activities? Time to do what I enjoy? I don’t know…probably.

People say to me, “Oh, you’re living the dream.” Not quite. Remember that most people only post the positive things, myself included. Shit still hits the fan here. Work is still stressful. Drama still exists. Miscommunications happen frequently. I’ve cried, yelled, and felt crazy. Problems of all sorts still occur. But let me be cliché for a moment…what I’ve come to learn is that it truly IS how you respond to the situation. It’s all about your mindset. A few quotes that echo what I’m trying to say…

http-::dailyquotes.co:happiness-is-a-choice: http-::dougleschan.com:the-recruitment-guru:inspiration:quotes-about-happiness-that-will-make-you-happy: http-::www.quotesdump.com:love-life-happiness-quotes-8: (Click on photos for sources.)

And my favorite, which used to be my phone background as a reminder to keep growing, keep taking chances, keep challenging myself…

http-::www.floatinglemons.com:2013:02:text-design-george-bernard-shaw-quotation.html

So many people get stuck where they are because they’re AFRAID. Stepping outside your comfort zone is terrifying. Believe me, I know. The night before I left for Colombia, I was physically ill and couldn’t sleep. The unknown is scary. But you know what’s scarier, at least in my opinion? Settling for a life without ever trying to figure out what really challenges you and what fills your heart. Living your entire life with a “what if”.

Now, I’m not saying traveling and living internationally is for everyone. Not at all. Even for me, this is what makes me happy at the moment, but come 3 years, I might be singing a different tune. What I’m trying to say is that you need to be responsive to what you are feeling at this point in your life and not try to sweep it under the rug. If you feel a yearning, check it out. Big or small. Go for it. You’ll never know how it turns out until you TRY. Figure out what it is that you “heart.” And really, can the result be so much worse than living a life full of “what ifs”?

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