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Posts Tagged ‘Colombia’

Read Part 1

We waded in knee-deep water for a while, then the cave seemed to expand and the ceiling was suddenly 40 feet above us. The river had done a masterful job of carving its way through the cracks in the rock over the millennia. In this expanded section, we stepped around small pools of water and slide down flumes of slick rocks a few feet at a time.

The cave got narrower and the water deeper. If you turned off the flashlight or moved out of the path of the light, the darkness was absolute. I directed the flashlight to light the way for Lina ahead of me. The person behind me did the same.

Jesus started describing some of the inhabitants of the cave. Most notably the guácharo birds that roost in the cave walls near the ceiling.

We slid down an especially well-designed rock flume, and as people began to mill about, Jesus directed the flashlight beams at the ceiling. Unseen birds suddenly came to life. A number of them screeched in protest. A couple of the cavers that hadn’t followed the flashlight beams jumped in surprise. They laughed nervously upon discovering it was only some fat, roosting bird and not a menacing cave monster.

Jesus continued talking, his tone serious now. Not close enough to understand, I saw him leap backwards and disappear. A quiet splash could be heard over the agitated guácharo.

The nearest cavers stepped forward and peered down. They didn’t look too satisfied. One person jumped. Then another.

When it was my turn, I peered down into a sea of lights. As my eyes adjusted, I saw a small pool about 12 feet below. So this is how it ends? My body shattered by some unseen rock just below the surface. Brilliant.

I jumped. It was surprisingly deep, my feet did not touch bottom.

Once everyone was treading water, we swam towards a fast moving chute of water. It projected us down a few yards into a smaller and narrower pool.

As I waited, I flicked the light around and noticed an especially dark crevice in the wall. A trained beam into the depths of the gaping hole, revealed a large, angry crab, orange pincers ready. It dawned on me that this whole time I had been sharing these dark pools with all his fighting buddies. I suddenly felt an urge to get out of there, sure there was a fleet of surly crabs aiming for my tender parts at that very moment.

The group continued down the descending river, with nary a report of crustacean attack. Relieved, I zig zagged steadily from deep pool to deep pool, never pausing long enough for the crabs to hone in on my location.

We journeyed in silence for a time. The dark gradually lost its absoluteness, and a faint glow gained ground. There were no other huge leaps, but we did have to repeatedly sluice and slide down rocks with short bursts of momentum.

A final large pool came into full view. Beyond it was the exit with such light you could see the ceiling 30 feet above and a lip of a cliff that was the only way to leave.

The entrance was below the edge of the cliff, so you could not see out. Only the light came in. Maybe another leap of faith was in order.

Someone must have felt sorry for us, because they had built a chain/rope ladder against the cliff face. Peering over the edge, you could be forgiven for finding little reason to be impressed with their craftmanship. It was a solid 20 feet down. Next to a roaring waterfall. Jumping was not an option, as one sharp boulder and her family occupied the exact spot your flailing body would strike.

The Rio Claro was directly below us. Swift and gorged and not at all merciful. The strategy was to climb down the ladder, hop across a fierce channel a few feet wide and grab the sharp boulder. From there, two permanent ropes stretched across the width of the river, which you would use to pull yourself across, while the current did everything in its power to take you from this world.

Jesus said a few things and headed down the ladder. I was among the first to go down, Lina ahead of me. As I fought the wet, awkward rope ladder for the reward of staying on it, I intensely studied the cliff face and didn’t look down. Hopping across the channel was difficult only because everything was wet. Reaching the bottom you alighted upon another slick rock that did not want you there.

The two people ahead were already putting the rope crossing to the test, while Lina and I made it to the boulder. Just behind us, a women slipped while transferring from ladder to wet rock and plunged into the river. Without thinking, I slide into the current and grabbed her by the life vest and pulled her back. One less victim to mourn.

We crossed with little fanfare, although exhausted when crawling up the sandy beach. Other people were swimming and milling about, oblivious to the dangers we had faced and the fact we had just survived a journey to the center of the Earth (well, at least underground through a tunnel carved out by a river).

Alex was waiting on the river bank, and after a short debrief, he affirmed his decision to stay behind. Probably wise, as he would have made excellent crab bait.

We hiked back to the main lodge, and finding nothing of note happening, we drove to a nearby restaurant on the main road.

After devouring a healthy-sized repast of bandeja paisa, we made it to our cabin and got comfortable (me with a hammock) for the evening.

Wednesday

  • River rafting
  • Pablo Escobar’s resort and dinosaur park (Hacienda Nápoles)
Survivor

Survivor

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Rio Claro Hotel

Rio Claro Hotel

Prologue

As the cave walls echoed splashing water, a deep unease set in. This river was getting faster and deeper. Our frenzied flashlight beams bounced off the slick stalagmites and stalactites, barely penetrating the oily darkness. Suddenly, terrifying shrieks from above drowned out any thought of retreat. Our guide stopped, turned to us to yell unintelligibly in Spanish, and then leaped backwards into the darkness.

Tuesday morning

We departed Medellin, Colombia early for a 3-1/2 hour drive to the Rio Claro nature preserve. Located along the Rio Claro (or Clear River), the Reserva Natural Cañon del Rio Claro El ReFugio is designed for the adventure set to play. Whether its river rafting, caving, swimming or something else, they have your poison.

Our plan was to spend two days to relax and partake in water activities. After checking in to our mini-cottages by the pool, we went to explore the options at the main lodge a few kilometers away.

It was afternoon and the only activity left for the day was caving. Sounds like fun. We met our guide at the main lodge and introduced ourselves to the 10 or so other brave souls.

Armed with waterproof flashlights, helmets, life jackets and stuff to get wet in, we hiked upriver for 20 minutes to a crossing point. I use this term lightly. The standard practice, contingent on nature’s mood, is for the guide to swim across the river with a rope and tie it off on the opposite side. Hand over hand, we would then pull ourselves across the river, fighting the clawing current. Yet nature’s mood was to weep the previous few days. The river was swollen and perilously swift with the dirty run-off of too many tears. The river did not live up to its name today.

Our guide (let’s call him ‘Jesus’) waded out to a large protruding rock, then leapt from his perch, rope in hand. He swam with determination to the far shore. The river pulled and dragged him downstream. Only a few strokes from the tie-off point, he let go of the rope. The river was too wide. The rope would not reach. He swam back across.

Jesus presented his charge of potential spelunkers two options; forget caving completely or swim for it without the safety of a rope. Be disappointed or be swept away because you lack the strength to cross. Go home or try to survive the merciless river. Live or die. We chose to die.

Jesus began describing how to get across and where to start the swim. He indicated how quickly you needed to move yourself to avoid hearing a chorus of ‘Adios, vaya con Dios!’ from the group. He was very clear. You must move your ass. Everyone seemed in good spirits and ready for the adventure. All except my friend (let’s call him ‘Alex’) who lacked confidence in his ability to swim the mighty river. Alex decided that his quest had ended the moment Jesus spelled out the truth of the matter. It was up to me and his wife (let’s call her ‘Lina’) to carry on with the others.

Jesus spoke in a hard to understand English, so quickly he established that most people could understand Spanish well enough. English was scrapped.

Jesus waded out to the rock and crossed again easily enough with his practiced strokes. The next person stood on the rock and watched Jesus wave for him to jump. He did with a huge splash and made it across only a few feet further down the river than where Jesus was waiting to pull him in. One after another people waded to the rock, jumped and swam for it. One woman didn’t quite have the strength to get across quickly enough and zipped past the reaching hands. Jesus jumped in after her and managed to drag her to safety before the river could claim her.

Then it was my turn. As I waded to the rock, the water shocked me into full alert mode. I stood on the rock and watched as everyone already waiting waved me on. I made a mighty leap and then swam like I’d never swam before. It was a good 50 feet of angry river to cross. I put my head down and gave it my all. I could see the outstretched hands swiftly passing by but with an extra burst I was there. Safe. Now the real adventure begins.

With no river fatalities and only one person left behind, we set off into the Colombian jungle. The rainforest trees loomed over us. Mossy vines hung within arms reach. We picked our way up a muddy trail, gingerly stepping over the swathes of ants with mandibles poised to do harm. Jesus stopped at one point to pound on a huge buttress root as if it was a gong. The booming sound surely alerted the most dangerous predators to our location.

After 45 minutes of sweaty uphill trekking, we came to a 100-foot cliff face. We scrambled down into a rocky creek-bed. A small river disappeared into a dark hole in the cliff.

Jesus stood outside the cave entrance and gave us some additional instructions in rapid-fire Spanish. Not understanding much of it, I figured we’d walk into the cave, explore for awhile, get a little wet and come back out. Wrong.

Here began the caving (spelunking) part of our journey. Jesus was very adamant. You must stay with him at all times. Based on his tone, I assume they were still looking for the bodies of those that had wandered off in previous trips. We pulled out our waterproof flashlights, tightened our life jackets, adjusted our helmets and stepped into the shallow water flowing into the cave. The first 20 yards of the cave ran along the base of the cliff. The ceiling was only about 8-10 feet high at any given point. Parts of the cliff face had been worn away by the river, so there was plenty of light.

As the darkness got more pervasive and the flashlight beams became the only illumination, I thought of the horror movie The Descent. I just hoped we were the only living things down here.

To be continued…

 

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Welcome to the beginning of another annual Christmas letter. This is like the fifth in a row. Sorry about that. There is still time to avoid any unnecessary reading of said letter. Point your curser to the ‘X’ button above, click it firmly and then go do something productive.

Still here? Hmmm, your choice…so take a load off, get comfortable (although I encourage you to leave your clothes on unless you have a webcam), grab some coffee (or tea if you’re British or confused), put on your reading glasses, and let the year 2010 flash briefly before your eyes.

I’ve decided this time you need to feel real emotion while reading this letter. I’ve set my sights as high as possible, so I’ve picked boredom. It’s the best chance you have at any intense and meaningful emotion. This letter has been treated accordingly. Wit? Excised. Rollercoasters of adventure? Simplified. Flourishes of indelible insight? Clarified. Word choice? Focused. Overall length? Increased. If you do not feel real, abject and soul-crushing boredom, then I have failed you. I apologize in advance.

Boring or more boring, let’s crack open this nut of a year and pick at the contents until we find something worth chewing on. Spit out the shell, we don’t need you choking while you wallow in boredom.

Cities – I found myself, as Alice in Wonderland might have, in many strange and mysterious rabbit holes throughout 2010. A cornucopia of cities had the pleasure of my presence. Such metropolitans as: Amsterdam, Nairobi, New York, Johannesburg, Washington, D.C., Chicago, Milwaukee, Minneapolis, Cape Town, Medellin, Taganga, Las Vegas, Tijuana, Tacoma and Portland. What went down in all these cities? Remember, this is the boring letter, so you may never know.

Snow – 2010 saw record snowfall in the D.C. area. As the locals affectionately dubbed it, Snowmageddon came in February and snowed the city under 20 inches (amounts may vary) of pristine, white snow (colors may vary). It was good enough for snowball fights, snowmen, tackle football in the snow, shutting down the city for days, overdressing for trips to the local pub, and the trapped, frustrated feeling one gets when your car completely disappears. Luckily I don’t own a car. Hahahahaha. I also went skiing in the powdery snow of Pacific Northwest.

Water – I spent an unhealthy amount of time in water in 2010. Whether it was taking hot showers after playing in the snow, spelunking through a maze of caves carved by a tributary of the Rio Claro, scuba diving with sting rays along the reefs of northern Colombia, river rafting down the Rio Claro, sailing the Potomac and Anacostia rivers, boating through Milwaukee via the canals and river, taking the river taxi down the Chicago river, wading in cool streams while hiking, taking cold showers, riding swiftly through the vast Amsterdam canal system, watching the Christmas light/water fountain/musical spectacle (Los Alumbrados) in Medellin, or singing in the Pacific Northwest rain (off-key), I was moist about 22.44%* of the year.

Air – I also spent my fair share of time in the air. Whether it was paragliding (parapente) over Medellin, flying all over the world in 34 flight segments (e.g. 34 take offs and 34 landings), extracting my head from the clouds on numerous occasions, or simply gulping down my share of the atmosphere, I was high about 30.76%* of the year.

Giraffes – Minding my own business, while jogging near the retreat center we were staying at in Kenya, I found myself surrounded by 14 wild giraffes. They were all looking at me expectantly. What was my next move? Run? Hide? So I simply sat down and watched them cross the road. Boring. I was not kicked in the head (by them at least) nor battered by a swinging neck (witty comment excised). The next day we went on a safari to Nairobi National Park and saw many more giraffes, including two practically on top of our van. Eventually they bolted when our allotment of photo ops was exhausted.

Meat – I am not a vegetarian, but I can appreciate eating less meat overall should you so desire. However, if you do have the opportunity to travel to exotic places, you should by no means limit what you are willing to try. Many cultures are meat obsessed and I found myself in the thick of such obsession. Whether it’s the epic bandeja paisa dish in Colombia (including sausages, ground beef, and the not-to-be-missed chicharrón), an all-you-can-eat bonanza at the Nairobi restaurant Carnivore (including ostrich and alligator), sancocho (a soup with vast chunks of meat displacing all else), chicken mole in Mexico, burgers of all shapes and sizes (including the In N Out burger animal-style), fish soup on the beaches of Taganga, foot-long hot dogs during a baseball game, a blue crab feast on the Eastern Shore (Chesapeake Bay), bratwurst in Milwaukee, Italian beef sandwiches in Chicago (fully dunked in beef gravy), street tacos, and much else, I failed to convert to a vegetarian.

Wineries – Whether it was a day trip to four wineries in Northern Virginia, or a day trip to three wineries in the Stellenbosch region of South Africa (near Cape Town), I kept my sipping muscles busy with a (word deleted) of epic wine tastings and cheese offerings. I cannot express how beautiful and relaxing it is to explore the countryside and wineries. So I won’t.

Breweries – In my lifelong quest to consume the adult-friendly liquid of hops, barley, water and yeast, I toured and loitered in many breweries in 2010. Whether it was the Heineken Brouwery Experience (Amsterdam), Miller Brewing Company (Milwaukee), Brooklyn Brewery (New York), Goose Island Brewing Company (Chicago), Sprecher Brewery (Milwaukee) for a beer/cheese pairing, or any of the other half dozen or so brewpubs I acquainted myself with, 2010 was a banner year for beer. Much like all previous years ever, dating back to 1994.

Flag Football – I started playing flag football in Washington, D.C. as part of a University of Washington Alumni team, along with alumni from 51 other universities. Our coach quit three days before our first weekend of play, so I opened my mouth to ask ‘now what?’ and became the ‘point of contact’ for our games. This of course morphed into me as the new ‘coach’ for the whole season. Word of advice: Don’t ask questions. Luckily this was the UW’s expansion season, so hopefully I can be acquitted of our less than stellar season.

Road trips – Whether it was driving down to Tijuana, Mexico from LA; or driving around Illinois, Wisconsin and Minnesota; or taking a detour down to Portland, Oregon while in Washington state; or taking the bus from D.C. to New York a couple times; or being a back-seat driver along the coast of South Africa, I spent loads of time in vehicles listening to music, taking in the sights, or getting tickets for not seeing that stupid toll booth.

Bicycles – I haven’t been on a bike in awhile, but in 2010 Washington, D.C. started a Capital Ride Share program that lets you use bikes from dozens of stations around the city. I have taken full advantage of these Radio Flyer Wagon Red, 3-speed, adjustable seat bikes. If you almost get run-over by a red blur while crossing the street, it wasn’t me. I would have definitely (word deleted) you. I also rented a bicycle for a day in Amsterdam. I zipped along the bike lanes and cobble streets, past the medieval style buildings and canals, until my (word clarified to ‘seat’) asked for a break. Then I rode some more.

Hammocks – After liberally slipping uninvited into multiple hammocks in 2010, I finally bought my very own. (You can too: www.colorcloudhammocks.com. If you say ‘Jeremy sent you’ nothing will happen.) I spent at least 5.14%* of my time being lazy in one.

Cape of Good Hope, South Africa – If you’re interested in the wildlife or the scenery, a road trip down the coast of South Africa is not to be missed. If you want nature, you can visit the beach filled with jackass penguins braying like donkeys and mating, you can narrowly avoid running over the ballistic baboons, or you can scamper up the cliffs of the Cape while avoiding stepping on the fuzzy rock hyraxes. You can also expect stunning vistas, (phrase deleted), lighthouses at the end of the world, and sand between your toes.

Lollapalooza (Chicago) – Surprisingly, this is the first time I made to it this annual music festival. I should have gone to one way back in the 1990’s when it first started. Oh well. This new incarnation restarted about 6 years ago and the 2010 version saw over 150 bands playing over three days. I went to two of the days. My main goal was to see Soundgarden – and they rocked! I also saw such bands as Green Day, Phoenix, The National, Mumford & Sons, and many more.

Music – Not usually one to intentionally send you away, but I put together some boring music lists on my blog:  A 2010 Music Retrospective

Movies – Might as well stay away to look at the list of best movies too: 11 Best Movies of 2010 (and 5 worst)

Baseball – My quest to see a game in all Major League baseball stadiums continued in earnest. I visited five new stadiums with no fanfare. Chicago (Cubs and White Sox), Milwaukee, Minneapolis and New York (Yankees) all failed to roll-out the red carpet for me. I also got no love as I watched the Washington Nationals play a bunch of times, including the Major League debut of rookie pitching sensation, Stephen Strasburg. He destroyed the competition with a record 14 strikeouts. Then he got injured later in the season, had surgery, and is out for all of 2011. Sad. The nachos at Nationals stadium, however, were not sad.

Television – Plenty of good TV shows in 2010. Fringe had a great year. Dexter ruled. Community got funnier then anything else. And The Daily Show and The Colbert Report brought us wit and an insane Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear in D.C. attended by 249,999 people + me. 

Books – The best books I read were: The Lost City of Z by David Grann and The Passage by Justin Cronin.

Medellin, Colombia – I managed to storm Colombia twice in 2010. Once for a wedding where I acted surprised as the best man and once for the (phrase deleted). I spent most of my time in Medellin, avoiding drug cartels and the FARC. Aside from visiting Pablo Escobar’s hacienda (three hours away), sauntering around the city and shopping malls, climbing El Peñol, giving wedding speeches, being lazy in hammocks, eating all the food feverishly, playing as part of an impromptu band, and other things you might have read about above, I dare say I should really go back soon.

This is the end of the Christmas letter. Did it make you long to watch paint dry? Did it drop you into a deep pit of boredom? You’re welcome.

* Figure painstakingly calculated by picking a random number and typing it.

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Whenever I eat while traveling (a daily occurrence), I feel like I should take photos of the various foods I try.

Why? Well, when I see travel and foodie shows that flaunt their delicious and mouth-watering images like its some kind of food porn, I want to join them.

Yet, despite this, I am always somewhat embarrassed to take the actual photos. I look around to make sure no one is watching (and judging me). Some people are shameless and snap those tasty shots without thought. But not me, I always try for sly and avoid eye contact with anyone in my vicinity at all cost. The flash always gives me away.

Here is a sampling of some of my poor quality, badly lit, guiltily taken food photos over the years that represent categories of sustenance that will surely cause a heart attack. I also threw in some beer and wine shots. Because I can.

I am not responsible for any salivating or queasiness that may result.

Squid ink pasta in Venice

A lunch repast in rural Mali

Mofongo in the Dominican Republic

Okonomiyaki in Japan

Sliders in Washington, D.C.

Cocoa beans in Zanzibar

El Presidente in Dominican Republic

Fish amok in Cambodia

Enjoying a ballgame

Camping with a freeze dried ice cream sandwich

In N Out burger and fries in LA - animal style!

Lots of wine in South Africa

Chicken mole in Mexico

A Jucy Lucy in Minneapolis

Red wine in Northern Virginia

Fuju in Tokyo

Frites drowning in mayonnaise in Amsterdam

Zingerman sandwich in Ann Arbor

Kobe beef in Kobe

Cheese and beer in Seattle

Nasty fruit in Cyprus

Wedding cake in Washington, D.C. (yes, it is)

Ostrich meat balls in Kenya

Bandeja paisa in Colombia

Goose Island beer in Chicago

Burp.

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(Originally sent via email January 2, 2008)

I trust you had a fantastic year and are just about ready to wrestle this new year, 2008, into submission. I simply ask that you keep your New Year’s resolutions child-friendly. Forget it, no one ever listens anyway.

Once again, I give you exactly what you didn’t want, another biased, self-absorbed Christmas Letter (albeit now after the fact). You can run, you can hide, but why bother? Like a scab, you just have to pick at it. Since you probably have a ridiculously short attention span and more interesting things to do, I have used bold letters and words a 5th grader can follow (no research went into this claim). So here it is, a graphic, untamed sampling of my experience that was the year 2007. No minors allowed.

Butterfly Farm (Georgetown, Malaysia)
Hot and steamy… this is not the opening of a romance novel, it is simply the environment butterflies like to pupate, grow and burst forth from their cocoons. They seem to be quite happy flitting about their flower gardens, babbling brooks and koi ponds, that is until a net flashes from below and they find themselves pinned behind a framed pane of glass in your plastic shopping bag. You just had to ruin it, didn’t you? A writhing pit of large, obsidian scorpions stabbing each other with mammoth stingers is also a good way to enjoy the wonders of nature.

Northern Virginia Wineries (USA)
On two occasions I spent the day touring wineries and quaffing the various offerings. My pretentious wine awards go to:

  • Best winery name: Naked Mountain
  • Best hot tub wine: Moonrise (from Gadino Cellars)
  • Best use of fake guns and fake beards: Civil War Re-enactment (at Gray Ghost winery)
  • Best T-shirt slogan: Drink Naked (from Naked Mountain)
  • Best wine: Mediterranean Cellars’ Sweet Lucia
  • Best documentary: My thrilling, timeless expose of an inchworm’s quest for the meaning of life (42)
  • Best view: Rolling farmlands – everywhere
  • Best Sommelier: Me

Top Songs
The best songs I heard this year…..drum roll please…….. “Bubbly” by Colbie Caillet, “Starts With One” by Shiny Toy Guns, “Time” by Chantal Kreviazuk, “LDN” by Lily Allen, “Love Song” by Sara Bareilles, “Sugar, We’re Goin Down” by Fall Out Boy, and “Champagne From a Straw” by Andrea Corr. If you haven’t heard any of these songs, hmmmmmm – why do I even bother

Cliffs of Bandiagara (Mali)
Intertwined within a dusty, heat drenched cliff face, village ruins (former home of the Dogon people) overlook a tree-scattered landscape that almost touches the Sahara Desert. Climbing up and around narrow paths, ladders, random paintings and dark rooms passing off as homes, you finally reach the town meeting place, a narrow, cave-like hollow that one cannot stand in – so one cannot jump up in anger during the tumultuous town meetings.  No women allowed. Why didn’t corporate America think of this? (well, the first part)

McMenamins Kennedy School (Portland, Oregon, USA)
McMenamins has a tendency to convert old buildings, theaters, schools, frankly whatever they can get their hands on, into brewpubs serving their various beers on tap. The Kennedy School just so happened to have been an elementary school early in its existence. Now it is a busy brewery, restaurant, theater, hotel, art gallery, pub and whatever else they managed to cram into the former classrooms and locker rooms (yes the showers still work). The only thing that’s missing right now is me.

European Champions League Match (London, England)
In an epic match between football clubs from England and Portugal, titan Chelsea (England) took on FC Porto (Portugal) at Stamford Bridge in London. The stadium was electric with blue and fans hoarsely and enthusiastically singing “Blue Flag” and “Blue is the Colour” as Chelsea handed Porto a devastating 2-1 defeat to advance to the Champions league semi-finals against Liverpool. Me, I just tried not to provoke any hooligans. Go Chelsea

Pet Photo Contest (Capital Hill, Washington, D.C.)
My wiener dog became famous for one month during Capital Hill’s Hill Rag annual Pet Photo Contest. He didn’t win anything, but he was pictured under the “Best of the Rest” section, looking so cute carrying an oversized bone. At least I didn’t dress him up in a stupid costume! Those people should get acquainted with the inside of a padded room. You know who you are.

Facebook.com (website)
Oh man, last year I got on MySpace and this year I added Facebook to my repertoire of extreme time-wasting activities. I’ve “superpoked” so many people that I think the police are looking for me.

Fish (Key Largo, Florida)
In the Florida Keys, I saw fish from all angles, inside and out. First, we went to the Fishhouse, a busy little restaurant that served great Mahi-Mahi stuffed with blue crabmeat. Fried Conch, although it sounds interesting, is just not. Then I did four (scuba) dives off French Reef and played with the inquisitive lobsters and tried to tickle the clown fish (apparently they don’t find that very funny – false advertising!)

Planet Earth (DVD)
This 11-part epic mini-series exhibits our little planet through breathtaking cinematography and stunning, never before captured live action. Wait, do I sound like I’m writing the back of the DVD jacket? Crap, well, if you want to see lions kill an elephant, or crystal caves that are off-limits to preserve their beauty (except the film crew and only for this series), or a desperate polar bear try to kill an elephant seal bull (not a good idea really), or the lovely ecosystem that lives in a pile of bat guano the size of your house, then this is the DVD for you.

U.S. and A
Over the last few years, I’ve been traveling to quite of range of countries. This year, I actually took some time to poke around my home country a bit. So I had a look see of Boston (no tea party but plenty of Harvard talent), Atlanta (home of the Braves), the Florida Keys (where else can you get key lime pie on-a-stick?), St. Petersburg (it’s silly to expect much), New York (those damn Yankees want how much for a ticket?), Seattle (still sore from too much sports and coffee), Portland (good for drowning oneself in beer) and Miami (South Beach!).

Canadian Rocky Mountains (Alberta, Canada)
If only to stroll the picturesque Banff in minus 13 (Celsius) weather, to sip hot cocoa at Banff Springs Hotel or to ski much too fast down the Lake Louise ski slopes. Or to be overwhelmed by the imposing blue mountains as the sun begins its descent. Or to spy a bald eagle at dusk making short work of a frozen deer. Or to…but I digress.

Beaches and Tsunamis (Dar es Salaam, Tanzania)
Outside our hotel, south of Dar es Salaam, was a beach granting uninhibited access to the Indian Ocean. With just a 20-minute boat ride, you could land on a small island and stroll up from the cobalt blue water and small patches of coral and park yourself in the sand. Or you can wait out a tsunami warning after an 8.2 earthquake rocked Indonesia. Sadly, it petered out and didn’t wash us all away. Though harder to write about when dead, it probably makes for a more interesting story.

Top Books
The best books I read this year….”The Road” by Cormac McCarthy, “Manhunt: The 12 Day Chase for Lincoln’s Killer” by James L. Swanson, “Heat: How to Stop the Planet From Burning” by George Monbiot, “Made To Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die” by Chip Heath and Dan Heath, and  “Guns, Germs and Steel” by Jared Diamond.

Spice Farm (Zanzibar)
If you want to know where nutmeg, cinnamon, peppercorn, cocoa beans, lanolin, vanilla and other spices come from, then your next adventure should be a trek through a spice farm. Smell, taste, touch and guess what each plant grows. Then eat all manner of fruit until the juices can’t help but drip from your chin. If you also want some guy to make hats, ties, bags and jewelry out of banana leaves (you heard me), then my work here is done.

Blogging
Yikes, I started a blog this year. Noooooo! Although it is the last thing the world needs, I feel compelled to infect the unsuspecting masses with my unnecessarily lazy prose. Dark, disturbing and beyond redemption, it can only get worse. Read more: (Myspace link removed – A Random Journey is now my blog which you are on…)

Top Movies
Some of the best movies I saw this year, even if they weren’t all released this year were….”Pan’s Labyrinth”, “The Lives of Others”, “Superbad”, “American Gangster”, and “No Country for Old Men”.

Wicked (Musical in Baltimore, Maryland, USA)
As you may not know, the Wicked Witch of the West was actually good, just misunderstood. This is a great bit of revisionist history about the classic tale ‘The Wizard of Oz” set to music. Green is good!

Flowering Balconies (Cartagena, Colombia)
Ahh, perchance to stroll aimlessly about the walled city of Cartagena de Indias, spying the spectacular hanging flowers exploding from balconies, plazas, and gardens only to be tempered by the pulsating colors and architecture of the myriad of edifices densely packed into narrow cobblestone streets. (Would you rather I wrote it in Spanish?) You can gaze out onto the Caribbean watching (hoping) for pirate ships to attack the impregnable Castillo de San Felipe. Wishful thinking, once they built that sucker, no one ever took the city or made off with boatloads of booty again.
 
Speaking of booty, this is the end of the Christmas Letter. Get back to whatever you were doing before this unwelcome intrusion. Or do something interesting.
 
Bonus Entry!
For anyone just not sure how to handle 2008 yet, let me give you some options. Baseball games at Yankee Stadium (New York Yankees) and Shea Stadium (New York Mets). They are tearing down the stadiums after the 2008 season and I have to go before it happens. Mark your calendars.

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What’s the best way to enjoy Medellín, Colombia? A few ideas…

El Bueno (The Good)

Go to a wedding: What could make a lengthy Catholic wedding service completely in Spanish better? Maybe a 25 year bottle of Dom Perignon saved for just such an occasion.

La Familia

Listen to a mariachi band: First cram 11 mariachi band members into a small living room, squeeze together all cozy and sardine like, make a few requests and enjoy.

Full service Mariachi band

Jaunt about Parque Lleras: Have a mojito or three at Wako, grab a bite at Orleans, or sip some brew at the Medellin Beer House, or grab a taco at El Loco Carnal, then continue bar hopping through the neighborhood designed to go out and be seen.

Eat a national dish: You can get bandeja paisa almost everywhere and believe me, I had my share. With generous helpings of chicharrón, arepas, beans, eggs, plantains, ground meat, rice, sliced avocado, chorizo, black pudding, and the kitchen sink; devouring this will not lead you astray.

Take it slow…

Make beautiful music: First things first. Don’t give a gringo a güiro (a long metal tube with ridges that one rhythmically rubs a rod over). Second, if you still insist on doing that, ensure plenty of Aquila beer and aguardiente are on hand so as to make the melodies that unfold less bracing. Or you can completely mask the gutteral sound of the güiro by accompanying it with maracas and a cantante that also plays the guitar.

Güiros, maracas, y guitarras

Stroll around Piedras Blancas Parque: Try the zip line over a lake (P.S. do pull the stop cord at the end…the side of the mountain is not your friend), hike on the numerous trails, go into the steamy butterfly habitat (and watch them flit from one sweet flower to the next), visit the nearby 4 star hotel with a stunning view, and drink a Club Colombia beer. Or not, but then why else did you go to this park?

A view to a lake

Relax at a finka: A finka (farm/vacation house far from the city); with hammocks, an orchid (with six kinds of mango trees, coconut trees, and sundry other fruit trees), a garden, a swimming pool, a sappo, a BBQ pit, a fountain, and around 20 beds for your whole entourage; is where you should plan to go to relax. Activities include; watching an epic storm front thunder past, playing a mean game of sappo (throw disks into holes for points – get it in the frog’s (sappo) mouth for 5000 points), card games, eating ridiculous amounts of mangoes, hammock naps, pool parties, eating ridiculous amounts of grilled meat, stuff like that.

Finka

Into the sappo’s mouth

Hammock of the dogs

Climb El Peñol:  644 steps up. 644 steps down. And a view to a kill at the tippy top.

The Rock (minus Nicolas Cage)

 

Ride the metrocable:  As you slide effortlessly up in a swinging box over the slums of the city, peer down at the ebb and flow of daily life. Once at the top, you can visit the freshly minted library (to improve this area) or you can take in the grandeur of the hilly city with warts and all.

 

Snack on obleas con arequipe: Tasty!

Explore a small colonial town: If you have no desire to remain in the comfort of your air-conditioned car, and believe a skip about the weekend market in a small town’s central square is more suited to your tastes…at least try some of the local tamarindo juice. Refreshing on a hot, muggy day. I suggest waiting until after your walk.

  

El Malo (The Bad)

Drive during pico y placa: There are solutions for mitigating traffic congestion in a city and then there are solutions. Pico y placa deserves its spot among the latter. This brilliant plan says you cannot drive during certain hours of certain days. So maybe 2 days a week, you won’t be allowed to drive during rush hour, or risk getting slapped with a fat ticket at one of the checkpoints. So what do you do to get to work or home during those times? Learn to be creative. Take risks.

Get sucked into the election fallout: I know little about Colombian politics, but I do know that when one tries to buy alcohol on the last weekend they are in country, one would hope that it would be that simple. Yet during the elections, the whole country shuts down its alcoholic options. They won’t sell it in the stores, they won’t sell in the restaurants, and even many bars just decide to close (what else you going to do there? Play sappo?). So it was with great chagrin that the last weekend turned out a wee dry.

 

El Feo (The Ugly)

Do a photo shoot at Plaza de Botaro: Fernado Botaro does sculptures. Some that are decidedly strange. Indeed, many can be found all over the world. We walked around and ‘admired’ the numerous statues in the downtown plaza dedicated to his work. And by ‘admired’ I mean ‘thoroughly enjoyed’. And by ‘thoroughly enjoyed’ I intend sarcasm. And by sarcasm I intend you to stop reading now.

Squat Now Or Forever Hold Your Peace

 

 

Stop poking around

The end. Give a hand!

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Episode IV

Who did Flat Stanley meet on his whirlwind adventures?

He met orange people playing in the snow

 

He met green people on St. Patrick’s Day

 

He met blue people

 

He met Kuma, the miniature dachshund

 

He met Choko, the springer spaniel

 

He met the Guinness toucan

 

He met another Flat Stanley from Puyallup, WA

 

He met Alex and Lina, while they were getting married

 

He met people that work at World Vision

 

He met George

 

He also met President Obama

 

He met many other people, but they were wise and sage-like and did not smile for the camera.

This concludes the epic adventures of Flat Stanley.

For those of you that bought the DVD, stayed tuned for some additional ‘outtakes’. For those of you that haven’t bought the DVD, good show of will power. Stay strong!

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