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Willie Weir : July 18th, 2011

Saturation

I live in the insanely beautiful Pacific Northwest. Due to our cloudy skies and somewhat damp weather (even in July), the color pallet can be quite muted — dark greens, blues, and greys.

So when I travel, I am drawn to the opposite. The rich and vibrant, almost electric colors that you will find on the houses in Cuba, in the shops in Bangkok, and in the markets in India.

The photo above was taken in a small mountain town in Colombia. We were looking for a place to park our bikes at the guest house and stumbled across this scene. It looked as if a cement truck filled with paint had backed up and unleashed a river of pigment.

The simple household items — brooms, dustpan, and hose — were elevated to art on this wall. The already bright blue hose was now painfully blue in contrast to its backdrop. The brooms appeared to have magical qualities. Perhaps we could ride them out of town instead of our bikes? The red spattered drain suggested that fresh paint was sprayed on nightly (probably with the bright blue hose) after everyone was asleep.

If I close my eyes I have a hard time remembering what the rest of the guest house looked like, or even the town. But I will always remember the wall.

Originally posted on the Adventure Cycling Association’s blog.
Kat Marriner : April 21st, 2008

Homeward Bound

I have never been so happy to see a Mariner’s game on television. M’s verses the A’s, but the teams weren’t so important. What was important is that we were together, safe and comfortable. Hours before when we tried to settle down for the afternoon siesta, Willie was too agitated to sleep. He hadn’t slept much the night before and had been uncharacteristically sluggish on the ride up the steep canyon between Bucaramanga and San Gil. For the first time in memory, I played the cheerleader, waiting for him to catch up with me every couple of kilometers.Unable to sleep and growing constriction in his chest, we left our hotel and found a couple of computers with internet access at the florist shop around the corner. While I read some emails and looked at news headlines, Willie read about chloroquine overdosing and he grew pale. Shaking, white with a thin glisten of sweat he said he wanted to get to a doctor… fast. Helping him out the door, and back to our hotel, we asked Oscar–out hotel clerk extraordinaire– for help. We explained to him that Willie thought he had malarial fever in Bucaramanga and was self-medicating. He was now clearly not well and needed medical attention. Willie feared he had over-medicated, which in this case could be very serious.

Oscar didn’t hesitate a moment. He called another staff member to cover for him and he escorted us to the local clinic. Willie, by this time, was unstable and clearly shaken. For him, the walk was a long green mile, for Oscar and me it was about 6 minutes until we entered the clinic reception. Oscar explained Willie’s condition to the reception and after a brief questioning about international health insurance (which we don’t have since we barely have domestic health insurance) and a deposit of 100 thousand pesos, we were let into the hall waiting for the examining doctor. Second in line, Willie sat, barely able to speak. That ten minutes or so was an eternity and only once inside the examination room could Willie look at me and say that he didn’t want to die. Shaken to his core, I could only hold him and tell him I loved him and that he was getting help in time. I believed with all my heart that Willie was going to be fine and could only hope my confidence could give him comfort.

We told the doctor about the fevers and showed him the malarial drugs and antibiotics Willie was taking. We told him that two week prior to the fever, we had visited Los Llanos (the savanna plains of Venezuela) on a 4 day jeep tour … the most likely place to come in contact with malarial mosquitos. When we explained the bicycle ride the day before, there was a look that spoke volumes. Malaria parasites multiply in the liver and then affect red blood cells, robbing them of oxygen. After a quick blood pressure check and few other simple tests, Willie was lead to the “Sala do Observation” and laid down on one of the 4 beds in the main hall. A kid with a broken arm waiting to be wrapped looked on and winced as the I.V. needle was inserted into his hand. Scared and nervous the first hour, his pale color and weakened body drew looks of concern from a mother sitting in the chair across from me. Only stroking his hair and holding his hand seemed to comfort him a bit.

Another hour past, other patients came and went. With growing calm and better looking skin tone, Willie took in interest in the dripping bag. Slowly drip, drip, dripping into him. Couldn’t it go faster? Is it going down at all? Is that bubble in the line getting in the way? The nurse assured us it was dripping as it should. Patience. Another hour and the bag was near empty. Willie, was ready to sit up — ready to walk outside and away from his nightmare. I got the nurses attention again as the empty IV started to bleed backward into the line. Take it out and let us go. But no. She brought another bag, per doctor’s orders. Another bag, meant another few hours and Willie finally slept. I read my notebook and re-lived each day of the journey. Forced myself to remember places and people where details were sketchy in order to stay awake as night closed in.br /br /At last, the second bag was nearing empty. By then all the other patience had been released or moved to other rooms. I saw the nurse leave for the night, not really sure if we would be staying for another round. At last a young doctor arrived with results from Willie’s blood test. From what we could understand, the test couldn’t show if Willie had malaria since it only registers when active. The doctor seemed to indicate that the medication Willie took was correct for one of the 4 types of malaria, and without a blood test while the parasite was active, he couldn’t confirm malaria or the treatment. There were concerns though with some levels in his blood, so the doctor released Willie with instructions to stop of medication and to return to the clinic in one week for another blood test. The final bill … 135,000 pesos, or $70.

It was a pleasant, cool night by the time we left the clinic. We talked the short distance back to the hotel, where Oscar the day clerk and given the night clerk the details to look after us. Secure in our tidy room with fan and television, we flipped on the TV and found the Mariner’s game. The M’s won that evening, and so did we.ba San Gil cast it’s spell on us and we decided we had found a place to stay awhile. It’s an easy place to linger and we were ready for a vacation instead of an adventure. Each day we visited what we think is Colombia’s most beautiful and well-used town squares. The 350 year old trees gave ample shade for reading books, sipping tinto coffees from strolling vendors, and enjoying a shaved ice with sweet mora (blackberry) syrup and a squeeze of lime. Locals shared a bench, couples strolled by, children played and we soaked it all in.

Oscar at the hotel proved to be helpful beyond medical emergencies. He showed us to perfect breakfast and lunch spots, then a place for a spa-treatment massage and haircut. Next he pointed me to the best optical shop in town where I splurged on two new pair of glasses. Every day he sends us to new places and suggests day trips and sights to see.

celebrated Willie growing stronger and breathing easier by riding to a picture-perfect 300 year old village on the high plateau 22kms from town. It was sheer pleasure to ride free of baggage and return the end of the day to our room and balcony overlooking red tiled roofs of San Gil.

Mostly we just hung out and found ourselves happy as puppies to just be together. Our top floor balcony was the perfect place for a nightly cocktail and it was high time to enjoy a Scotch for a change from cool beer or rum. Daily I went back to the same avocado street vender for perfect avocados to make a salad with tomatoes and lime and spicy salsa. By the time we left, she was giving me more avocados than we could eat … but somehow we managed.

We lingered in San Gil until the next exam at the clinic, and one week later, all levels were normal again.

By now, we are enjoying playing tourist instead of adventure cyclists. We’re healthy, well rested, a few pounds lighter and a few hairs grayer, and we’re ready to come home.

Thanks for coming along for the ride.

Kat Marriner : April 14th, 2008

See Ya Later

Clean, well-rested, solid breakfast and a bright but cool morning, we pedaled uphill out of Pamplona. The traffic was lighter, the roadways cleaner, the faces more eager to greet us — but something was missing. We had 70K more to pedal before summiting the last high pass over 10,000 feet. After an hour of climbing, I figured it out. My heart wasn’t into it.

On every bicycle trip, there comes a point when I wish to god I could just make it stop. Usually I rant and rage internally and most likely take that anger out on Mr Extreme who seems never to tire of the effort and the sweat of the adventure. There was a climb in Turkey with a headwind that nearly blew us over — I stormed and stomped on the side of the road in angry defeat until we found an old gravel pit to camp in and continue in the morning. There was the day in Macedonia when the rough, rocky road had kicked my bicycle out from under me for the last time and I declared I wasn’t going to take it any more … but I kept going. And there was the time in Laos when the monotony of climbing rolling hills day after day after day wore me down and ripped into my spirit, but we continued on together after I had a good cry on the side of the road.

All those times and many more, I fought the urge to just pack it in, hail the next passing vehicle and say ” See ya later.” That desire to take the easy road isn’t all that easy though. Thumbing a ride also meant going it alone with my limited language abilities and negotiating my way to a safe place, finding a hotel, getting myself some food, and figuring out how to let Willie know where to find me when he eventually arrived in town a day later. The prospect of doing just that quite likely kept me from ever actually flagging down a vehicle … until now.

Mr Extreme is often talking adventure, and at that moment the grind of pedaling up the mountain wasn’t an adventure — it wasn’t facing a fear but battling the nemesis of mental collapse. If an adventure requires facing a fear, then heading off on my own was by far the riskier option for me. Perhaps the decision was made easier for me when it came as quiet acceptance that “this is not where I want to be right now” as opposed to the blame and guilt felt with previous challenges. Not only did I not want to do the climb, but I didn’t want to ruin the day for Willie by my petty suffering. So that was it. I decided to take the bus and meet him in Bucaramanga. With his support, we flagged the first mini-bus, put my bike in the back, grabbed a quick kiss and waved goodbye as the bus left Willie on the side of the road.

Fear is all about the anticipation of the unknown, and the adventure begins with that first leap of faith. Once enroute aboard the gleaming white mini-bus with the action movie playing, I had time to relax into my new state of alone-ness. We stopped for a lunch stop and the driver with an easy smile helped me get my lunch and joined me at my table. His young friends, brother and sister, going to the universities in Cucuta and Pamplona joined us and soon I was telling all about our bike trip through Colombia and Venezuela. Even with my minimal language skills, I was being understood! Sitting at the outdoor cafe, the air was cold and we all shivered while eating our soup. The looked on amazed as I revealed wearing 5 layers of clothes and still wanted a cup of cafe con leche to warm me up. They laughed when I told them I called my husband Señor Extremo and me Señoritra Moderada. He would never take the bus — they would never imagine bicycling over Alto de Berlin.

The road was spectacular and pangs of “missing something” would strike when I saw the vista of mountain tops poking above the clouds. The top opened up to a vast “paramo” or open plateau of stark and striking beauty. Winding down the mountain on the other side was a different challenge. Fortunately I carry motion-sickness pills for such an event, but I soon discovered that other travelers did not. A sharp cry for a “bolsita” from a woman in the back proved that the bus company supplied sturdy plastic bags with the company logo for such emergencies. Two other young women deftly applied makeup for the fiercely winding last 45 minutes of the journey while I kept my vision, laser-locked, on the road ahead.

Arriving in the city of a half million people, the driver left me off just blocks from a hotel listed in my travel guide. I found it easily and took a room with a fan and hot shower. I wandered the street market, found an internet cafe to email Willie the name and directions to the hotel, and sat down to a lasagna dinner all by myself. So much for adventure — it all went smoothly as I fell asleep after watching Queer Eye, Top Design and the end of Brokeback Mountain on the television. The easy road really was easy.

A crack of lightening and roar of thunder woke me from solid sleep just after midnight. If it’s storming here, what’s it doing at the top of the mountain where Willie is no doubt camped alone? Is he shivering in the cold and wet? I had gone to bed hoping he was having some kind of adventure and now I was afraid for him. The descent would be much colder than the climb.br /br /Noon the next day a call on the phone from the receptionist informed me my husband had arrived. I raced down the stairs to throw my arms around him and he stepped back. Still wearing several layers of clothes and an ear-warmer in 80 degree weather. His teeth chattered when he said don’t kiss me I’ve got the flu. We carried his bags upstairs, put him in the shower, wrapped him in blankets and sleeping bag and put him to sleep. Only Mr Extreme could have found the will to finish the last 20-plus kilometers of the climb and then suffer the 50k coasting downhill while shivering in his boots.

Not the adventure he imagined … and it never is. Not quite the same danger I imagined either. Willie’s temp spiked and the sheets were soaked with sweat. After telling me this started the moment he pitched his tent the afternoon the day before, we suspected malaria.

Hours later, the fever reduced but still present, the chills and sweat continued. A quick internet search while he slept convinced me to seek help immediately. The concierge at the upscale hotel I had to go to find an internet cafe open on Sunday evening told me to take him to the Clinic and he called us a taxi. Did I have a credit card he asked as I departed? I nodded and he said good, they’ll take care of you then.

I don’t know what we expected, but when the taxi dropped us off across town at the all-night clinic, one glance inside the room overflowing with human suffering told us we’d still be waiting to get help in the morning. The 24-hour pharmacy was just across the street and going straight for treatment seemed the better option than waiting for diagnosis. A packet of pills later, we grabbed the next taxi back to the hotel where I wrapped Willie in blankets again and put him to bed.

A fretful night passed. Would the fever go down? How long should we wait for improvement? How do I find a doctor if he needs one? The project manager in me, opened the books, made notes, developed a plan for morning. Willie had his own plan though. He smiled when he woke, shook off the last of the chills and took a hot shower. A couple more hours and his temp was down to normal. He sits beside me now — right were he belongs.

Kat Marriner : April 9th, 2008

Si´ or No

Yes or No. Those simple words were plastered, posted, painted, scratched onto walls, roads, billboards, shacks, signposts, you name it, throughout Venezuela. Rarely was a whole town or village in the “Yes/Si” camp or the “No” camp. Clearly the issue divided the country. Other signs simply urged people to Vote.

The issue dividing Venezuela was a package of reforms proposed by Hugo Chavez. It was a long list of reforms, and by the propaganda we read across our travels, anything he touched was considered a “revolution”. The vote the world, and much of Venezuela, paid attention to was changing the term limits for the president, and therefore allowing Chavez to remain in power indefinitely.

The YES vote was clearly the organized and funded opinion. The signs were most often red spray-painted stencils of a cartoon bubble with only “Si!” inside. Some towns would have enormous billboards extolling the wisdom of the Chavez revolution. Signs of support were no doubt painted in broad daylight, while the opposition was more like graffiti. It screamed out where it could, or whispered when it needed. A large NO would be painted on the street or a small NO on the back of the stop sign. The NO was not organized or well-funded and most likely unknown who was behind the NO.

For my own YES or NO vote, I tried to wait until I had given the country a fair shake. After traveling nearly a month through, albeit a small portion of this vast country, I am thrilled to say we are back in Colombia. Not only would my vote be NO against Chavez reform package (and for the record, the people of Venezuela voted NO back in January), but I also have to vote NO for a country that I want to return to. Not all countries are created equal, nor can I appreciate and enjoy all countries the same.

Individuals we met across the board were warm, friendly, helpful — from the gal who served us a coffee with a free refill while sharing her take on the current political situation, to the fellow cyclist (in his truck) who stopped us along our last climb to say how excited and happy he was to see is in his country — we had very positive personal encounters. When it wasn’t personal though, when we were simply cycling down the road, in busy towns or lonely by-ways, more often our smiles were met with blank looks, turned down mouths or avoided eyes. It got so I sought out smiles and rewarded them with extra enthusiasm. I tried to coax waves from construction workers or school kids who would stop and look but rarely respond. Sometimes it felt like work.

In contrast, we cycled across the border today into Cucuta and once again strangers pulled up alongside us on the road and said “Beinvenidos – Welcome!” and wanted to know where we are from. Smiles come easily from store clerks and internet attendants.

More than the people of Venezuela being a bit “closed” as a traveler we met politely put it, Venezuela for me also has a feeling of repression and lack of pride. Pride in their country, their product, their service, their homes, their business. It’s very difficult for me to find something of quality or beauty that is man-made. The nature, the mountains, birds, flowers are stunning, but I’m hard-pressed to think of a building or handicraft or even a meal that was above par. What can I say except Venezuela offers more toilet seats and napkins than Venezuela … that those two banal things come to mind speak volumes.

When we were first dropped on the side of the road at the military checkpoint, the increased level of traffic was immediately apparent. We hoped it was a product of a busy highway, but we quite often found traffic heavy even on smaller roads. Gasoline is extraordinarily cheap in Venezuela, making it possible for anyone who can scrape together a vehicle, literally, to drive anywhere and everywhere. It is cheaper to buy a tank a gas and drive across the country from Merida to Caracus than it is to buy a beer or a simple cup of coffee. A slew of 1970s made-in-the-USA cars fill the roads and roadside stalls supply oil and lubricants that these cars burn at an astounding rate. Many are held together with rust and a prayer and we can always, always hear them coming, making vehicle exhaust and noise pollution a part of every day life in Venezuela, and making more difficult for this cyclist to enjoy.

Our guidebook also warns that litter is a way of life in Venezuela … and it is. From the first day to the last, the roadsides were trashed with bottles and wrappers, doll parts and oil cans, construction scraps and dirty old hats. Worse is the whiff of something decaying in the weeds and it’s better not to look. Town squares were littered with the days discards of cups, bottles and paper bags. Passengers would toss the remains of lunch on-the-go out the window. For these two travelers, the constant assault to our senses was disheartening. Mr Extreme is the Trash Czar back in his neighborhood, so you can imagine that we always carried a plastic bag for our garbage and tied it on the back rack until we found a garbage can. Of course, that garbage can was most likely dumped over a cliff somewhere down the road. I know this happens in all countries. It happens more in developing countries and impoverished countries without infrastructure to “manage the waste”. The difference for me from some other countries was the amount of garbage dumped from mountain tops to river drainages. We came to think of the Venezuelan tourist motto as ” Looks Better at a Distance”. Close up brings a tear to the Native American eye.

I’m curious to see if Colombia holds up to our memories of lighter traffic, cleaner roadways and friendlier faces. So far so good, be we are soon to start the next leg of the journey back to Bogota on main roads instead of unpaved, back-country tracks.

As I look back on our time in Venezuela, I’d like to remember the best of our time there. We were able to wild camp high in the mountains, and my heart is most full when we’re stuffed in our little tent cooking soup and eating cookies. There’s a peace that comes in that solitude and comfort in the familiar or creating our own sense of “home”. Camping isn’t as easy or comfortable in Colombia when FARC forces are still a possibility.

Venezuela also gave me epic climbs followed by glorious, sinuous downhills. Twisting and turning down a mountainside is worth the effort of climbing up the other side. Venezuela offered me the kind of downhill that lifts my spirit and requires only a touch of the breaks now and then. Those sweet descents watching the panarama unfold as we glided gently down the valleys will linger a long, long time in my memory of extraordinary roads traveled.

Kat Marriner : March 30th, 2008

Poco a Poco

I was sitting in the vets office waiting for the doc to look at Deeter when I first read about the 4,000+meter pass near Merida. At a rough translation, that’s 12,000 feet — higher than I may have ever been. Certainly higher than I have ever pedaled. I have a real love for big mountains, and I would rather be above treeline and touching the clouds than in a forest canopy. But I also knew that climbing a pass to 12,000 feet would challenge me both physically and mentally.

The climb over Paso de Aquila and reaching Merida was the one thing that I knew I wanted to do on this trip before we left home. This was my personal challenge and came to be the thing that kept me awake some nights. The night before we began the final ascent, I felt just like the night before the SATs, the night before the big track meet, the night before I was to be on stage at Kane Hall. Pure performance anxiety.

Mountain passes have always had some kind of magic for me. I remember the very first one I pedaled over in Romania in 1996. I remember the one that wasn’t on the map in Turkey in 2004. I remember Steven’s Pass close to home. They all serve as symbols for some kind of achievement or goal that I’m not sure I am worthy of.

We headed out of Timotes early in the morning and were happily surprised to find traffic light and the road beautifully paved. The day before we pedaled with too many big trucks and stinking 70′s model “taxis” racing past for comfort. But once the real climb began, only vehicles who respected the road seemed to be traveling. We got some thumbs up from eager passengers and toots from careful drivers — always a welcome sign. Villagers and farmers smiled once their minds registered the two loaded bicycles passing them by. Kilometer after kilometer we slowly climbed passed cabbage patches, leeks and onions, garlic, artichokes, cauliflower and greens. Impossibly steep and rocky patches or earth were tilled and irrigated along our way.

Our maps didn’t show how far to the top and road signs varied in their distance to Pico de Aguila, so we simply went as far as we felt that first day before we found a rare and perfect place to camp beside the river and near the onion field. It looked like the top was “just up there” as we watched the clouds roll in mid-afternoon and obscure the view. All my anticipation seemed so unnecessary as we settled in for the night, thinking that in a couple short kilometers our downhill would begin.

It was a perfect camp sight and a perfect night in our hamsters nest of a tent snuggling under a shared sleeping bag. In the morning, we cooked a hearty breakfast of leeks and garlic and eggs, made toast and coffee over the camp stove and lingered for the sun to take the chill off the morning air. The elderly lady who gave us permission to camp on her property had the face of a sweet apple doll and wished us well as we continued on our way.

So we hopped on our bikes and whooped it up as we came to a sign at the top that read 4,007 meters. The ribbon of road disappeared through small farms and villages in the valley below. The official top was supposed to have a National Park office and restaurant, so that must be just around the corner. Or maybe it’s around that next corner … or the next?

The road continued to climb and farmland quickly disappeared into dry and rugged scab land. Hearty heathers and lupins long past blooming covered the landscape. A few lonely cattlemen looked on with wonder as we slowly pedaled past. One friendly fellow called out to ask say we were only an hour away from Aguila. An hour? Wasn’t it just around the next bend?

We stopped for hot chocolate and the chance to warm up once again in the sun at a restaurant on the lonely road. Was this the restaurant stop listed in the guide book? We went on … and on.

There are no signs on these roads indicating how far or where you are. When we would point and ask, the answer always way that Aguila is “just up there”. Somewhere past the hot chocolate stop, I stopped looking at my cyclometer, stopped looking at my watch, stopped thinking how far. The landscape now looked like the top of the world and could go on forever. By now, my legs felt more like a wet sponge being rung out to dry. We would stop long enough to breath, and eat a few nuts and feel the surge to go on once again. I recalled the climb to Alto do Letras in Colombia nearly 2 months ago and was pleased it wasn’t a wild and frantic stretch for breath, but a slow and methodical labor for breath. Two months training had prepared me well, a life time of performance anxiety was turned into a simple need to keep moving forward. Poco a poco, I would tell myself — Little by little.

We passed a road crew slicing a thin line in the road to lay internet cable, they cheered us on and said we would see the top soon. Indeed, around the next bend the statue of a Condor — Paseo de Condor was visible against the still blue sky. Switchbacks continued to inch upwards one pedal-stroke at a time. I’m caught on camera by a family visiting from Caracus, the father in a bright blue suit smiling as he pointed his video camera at me. I am barely able to manage a smile and a wave is impossible. They seem to understand.

Drenched in sweat and too cold to stop, Willie pushed on to capture the moment I rounded the top — a milestone. A life highlight. A victory for the moderate amongst us who can achieve great heights one small life stroke at a time. The final pedal stroke at 13,894foot — nearly the height of Mt Rainier. The downhill … savored for 60 kilometers and 60 years to come.

Kat Marriner : March 19th, 2008

Welcome to Venezuela!

Just as I had truly fallen into REM sleep, we were startled awake at 2AM by the bus driver who had pulled over and asked Willie to come to the driver’s cabin with him. He was literally looking for a good place to drop us on the side of the road. A short while later, the doors opened and we were thrust into the warm night at a military checkpoint. The city of Barquisimeto, our starting point for cycling Venezuela, was somewhere “over there”. We tipped our driver as he wished us well. “Good luck!” “Buen suerte!” coming from the other passengers of our luxury bus as we departed.

Before we left Seattle for our trip, many people cautioned us to take care, Colombia is a dangerous country. We found Colombians anything but threatening. When we told Colombians we were heading to Venezuela, many people cautioned us to take care, Venezuela is a dangerous country. As we boarded the bus, we hoped once again the warnings would be unnecessary.

When approaching any country, there’s always a slew of unknowns and potential challenges. We heard there is more petty crime, people are unfriendly, drivers don’t like bicycles on the roads, the police expect a bribe… in a word, it’s unsafe. But when one is literally dropped along the highway at 2 in the morning and only barren concrete building nearby and city lights across some unseen divide, there’s simply not much to do except have some faith it will allbr /work out.

The two military personnel watched us put bicycles back together and load our panniers by headlamp. They stopped the regular flow of trucks to allow us to cross the divided four lanes and we parked our bicycles under the watch tower. Welcome to Venezuela!br /br /After 22 hours of mostly wakefulness, I easily agreed to pull out the thermorests and lay down in the open air and elements for a couple hours as we wait for sunrise. No time for moderation now! We snuggled under our fleece blanket while trucks ground their gears to a halt a few meters away, then carried on with the roar of their engines after a quick nod from the patrol. What price would we pay when we woke, I wondered.

Our plan was to get up at 5am, and pedal into the fifth largest city of Venezuela at daybreak. At 5:10 the coffee and arepa (corn cake, this time stuffed with tasty meat) cart arrived and we enjoyed that first cuppa joe in a new country. When we offered to buy the military guards breakfast, we were flatly refused … so much for needing to bribe the military. Dawn actually came an hour and a half later because of the time change, but who could have slept through all that bustle anyway? As the sky turned pink, we pedaled towards the city center as 18-wheelers brushed past us inches away from us hovering on the white-painted line.

At the first off-ramp, we stopped to tighten some of our bicycle joints that we hastily put together in the middle of the night and discovered our bike tools were missing. Somewhere in our groggy haze we had either left tools or they had been lifted while we slept. Willie jetisonned all his bags and left them with me at the edge of town while he circled back to look. A half an hour … 45 minutes … we hadn’t gone that far away … what’s wrong? Crazy thoughts creep in when you are abandoned on the side of the road in a foreign country. Crazy thoughts will lead me to do bold things like stop a passing cyclist … wait, there’s a cyclist in Venezuela!?… and communicate with him that my husband has gone to look for a tool for our bicycles but I think the tool is lost and so is my husband. I don’t know what this guy can do to help, but I’m looking for any crumb I can get. Just as my new cyclist friend is ready to ride up the road looking for Willie, Willie comes running his bicycle down the offramp towards me.

No tools, but a flat tire to round out our morning. Willie had tried a shortcut which became a wrong way and he ended up running back to me knowing that by this time I would have imagined the worst. Tire fixed, it turns out my bike buddy had connections with a bicycle shop and he lead the way weaving through morning commute traffic to place of work–a print shop. Entering the business, we see trophy after trophy of bicycle races. The print shop owner was an old time racer and we were immediately pulled into the bicycling brotherhood. The old pro had a tool to tighten our frames. We were then escorted to the largest bicycle shop in the area where we sought information and help from locals.

I like to think that we traded in a few tools and got amazing help and kindness in exchange.

Willie spent much of the day working on exchanging dollars on the black market. A tricky business of needing to find a secure source at a good rate. I spent the day hunting down maps since our one map of Venezuela seemed highly inadequate. We had success on both accounts.

It doesn’t take long for some place foreign to feel familiar. The trepidation of entering town was long gone by the time we pedaled out the main road heading towards the Andes. We easily reached Guarico and looked up Jose Luis, a cyclist we met in Barquisimeto, who had sketched out a route to Merida for us. He had suggested we call him when we got to his town, and to his surprise, that’s just what we did.

A place to stay was another problem though. We had left the coast of Colombia in part because of the busy Semana Santa-Holy Week, but quickly discovered that we would face the same room shortages and closed business challenges no matter where we were. Searching for a room in town, we assembled a full entourage of young cyclists eager to escort us. When not a room was to be had, a cell phone call away confirmed that the kids would show us the way to a finca on top of the hill where we could pitch our tent.

The hill turned out to be a ridiculous incline not fit for these cyclists legs, and I eagerly traded my loaded bike with one young lad who graciously pushed it up the grade. At the top, we found paradise and rewarded our young guides and sherpas with cookies.

Our misfortune of the lost tools had now lead us to a beautiful farm with a view that took our breath away. There in the distance were the mountains we were about to climb. As the sun set, our host, Jorge, arrived and greeted us in perfect English. Jorge had lived in the United States for several years and was a welcome source of information, friendship and insight into Venezuela. We also quickly learned that the next day was a bicycle race that would come through town and end a few kilometers up the mountain road. We were invited to join the support crew at a water stop in the morning and celebrate at the finish line.

Suddenly this country that didn’t respect bicyclists was FULL of bicycles. Around 200 racers (2 of them women) climbed the same road we had come the day before. We knew their pain as they panted towards the finish line — faces tight with concentration, muscles glistening with sweat mixed with mid-morning rain. At the top it was a celebration of bicycles and we were quickly introduced to the gathered crowd and interviewed for television.

Jorge and his family invited us to stay on another night and enjoy a Venezuelan fiesta complete with roasted pig — slow cooked all day Cuban-style by his brother-in-law. Friends and family gathered, food was shared, along with laughter and music. In just two short days, Venezuela was no longer a country to be cautious of, but one that will live in our memories forever.

Welcome to Venezuela! Adventure in another country begins…

Note, this blog entry was started about a half a life time ago, but the Net went down, we cycled on, and are at long last connected. It’s nice to know we were missed these last couple of weeks. There are many stories yet to tell.

Love to you all,

Kat and Willie

Kat Marriner : March 11th, 2008

A Few of Our Favorite Things

With two days ride to go, and one day to do it in, Willie and I opted to take bus into Cartagena. This goes against Mr Extreme’s nature, but he knew that after 10 days of serious riding without a full rest day, my parts were wearing out. Hands, wrists, feet, knees … and it could go without saying, butt… were sorely in need of some time off the bike. We enjoyed some seaside stops and dips in the Caribbean, but we had also been offered the opportunity to stay in a flat while in Cartagena — an offer we couldn’t resist.

So now after a resting and reflecting, I’d like to offer you a list of some of our favorite things. No thread or story or intended priority of importance; merely snippets of life, experience, sightings and tastes that shape our impressions and love for this country. Willie also offers a few of his favorite photos snapped in the last couple of weeks.

To know me is to know I love food. Love thinking about it, preparing it, sampling new things and collecting ideas of food I’ll make when we return home. Cycling offers the opportunity to eat as much as we like while still managing to loose weight, what could be better than that?

Food in Colombia is tasty and filling, but not particularly varied. Mostly we have the plate of the day for lunch which consists of rice and red beans, a fried plantain and some sort of meat grilled or in a sauce. Often there is a small salad of a few tomato and onion slices and not much more. So the day we pedaled past a place up in the mountains that was brimming with people and plates and smells that made our heads turn, we turned our bicycles around as well and settled into our most favorite meal of the trip. The cook was a large women with an easy smile who patiently explained our choices. Other diners offered their suggestions and we settled on a plate with chorizo and a mixed fruit salad. We rarely eat chorizo which can be extra greasy and not well seasoned, but this one was different. This one was worth writing home about. The fruit salad was so different than any other salad we’ve encountered — an exquisite blend of melon, tomate de arbol (that’s tree tomato), apple, pineapple and others I can’t name. The sweet and tangy flavors combined perfectly with the salty spice of the sausage creating the perfect bite.

The varied and brilliant bird life in Colombia more than makes up for the general monotony of the food. We need to look up the names of the common birds we see along our route. The yellows, reds, oranges and blues darting in and out of the trees entertain us each day. In a particularly scenic stretch along the grasslands of the coast plains we stopped for a photo op with some white herons when a large flash of brilliant yellow and blue caught my eye. Then it flashed again and again. Not knowing what I was seeing, I pointed it out to Willie who in an instant knew we spotted our first Macaws. Eleven brilliant Macaws were enjoying a coffee clatch at the top of a large tree. We gaped and giggled to see such a site as these endangered species so close. Thankful again for stopping along the road less traveled.

As stopping goes, our spontaneous stop at the cabana along the dusty road on the way into Necocli wins our hearts for favorite beach visit. We also stayed at a magnificent stretch of light sand resorts in Caverñas, but the quiet seclusion of our little hammock and balcony at Rancho Alejo overlooking the cove is more to our liking. It was cozy and intimate without the blaring music of bars and rows of sun bathers. The small family-run getaway also came with the second best meal of fresh fish in coconut sauce. We spent the evening sitting around the table with the family who owned the place making us feel more like friends than paying guests.

On any trip, it’s the people we meet who make the strongest impressions. Sometimes we get to spend days with them, like our wonderful stay with Oscar and Mary Anne. Sometimes the encounters are brief but memorable to last a life time. I wrote a little about this earlier, but the spontaneous invitation from Mancho to park our bikes and visit his finca was one such memory. We followed him down the mountain trail to check the cows and deliver lunch to the workers picking coffee. Followed him back up to the bare shack along the road and were treated to a meal of great proportions. The lasting moment to top them all was when Mancho went to the next room, sat on the bed covered with tatored blankets and indicated it was now time to take a siesta.

It’s been our great fortune to encounter cloudy days and afternoon showers as we pedaled along the coast. Coming from Seattle where the rain is always cold, I have to say it’s pure joy to cycle in warm rain. Getting soaked means cooling off. We’ve managed to get to roadside bus stops, juice stands, machinery yard overhangs and other protective devices when the skies really pour. Heavy downpours last minutes, while we hope misty rains would last for hours.b

Colombia has a great cycling culture and is one of the reasons we were eager to travel this country. We’ve met plenty of cyclists along the way, pedaled with them as they get in their exercise on shiny sport bikes or commute to work on rusty clunkers. Most dear to our hearts though, is the evening spent in Guaybal (formerly Armero which was destroyed by a volcano mud-slide in the 1980s). Guaybal is in the low river valley between the Oriente and Central range of the Andes, so it was a hot and steaming evening. As the sun went down we strolled main street and then parked ourselves at cafe table sipping something cool. Bikes paraded by in the evening light. School girls cruising with friends, laughing and gossiping. Boys doing stunts and showing off. Elders out for a leisurely coast down the road to say hello to friends. All makes and models cruised past — more like kids in cars cruise in American towns. To see community life on the streets, out of their cars and on two wheels warmed our hearts.

While not necessarily in the category of favorite things, we have discovered a few surprises along the way.

Billiards (and not pool) appears to be the favorite past time. Nearly every town, villiage or simply where two roads meet sports a billiard hall.

The most common thing for sale in every town, village or casa along the road is minutes. Cell phone minutes. In large cities it’s common to see vendors with several phones, sometimes chained to their vest, while callers each on a phone like tentacles on octopus.br /br /We’ve encountered plenty of military posts along the way, and to a person they have been friendly, courteous, helpful and often interested in knowing what the heck we’re doing. It’s great fun to list some stops along our route and watch their eyes light up in disbelief and respect. The military posts have secured the roads for all Colombians to travel now. Years prior, traveling between towns was perilous due to FARC activities, so the military is a welcome sight and their friendliness a bonus.

While Zeb hasn’t been mentioned much in this blog, he has his own moment of glory he wants to share. Alejo the parrot came to visit us on our balcony by the sea, walking on our arms, carrying on a vibrant conversation, we thought to capture a photo of Zeb with the boisterous bird. Much to our surprise and Zeb’s glee, the parrot was scared — no terrified — of little Zeb. I had placed Zeb on the railing of the balcony for the photo op, but Alejo would have none of it. Zeb is usually thought as cute and adorable, mostly by young girls, so he felt particularly macho frightening a parrot 3 times his size.

There so much more to love and share about Colombia, but I hope this paints in a few details of our travels here. We’ve decided to call Bogota to Cartagena one leg of our journey and now bus to an inland city in Venezuela. The road we would need to pedal would be too hot and trafficed by trucks. This weekend also begins Semanta Santa, or Holy Week, when locals hit their favorite vacation spots by the coast.

We watched the relationship between Colombia with great interest over the last couple of weeks, and are relieved that the conflict over the murder of Raul Reyes, a kingpin of FARC, calmed down quickly. The border was closed for a few days and we feared we would need to alter our plans … and petition for a visa extension.

Kat Marriner : March 6th, 2008

The Zen of the Road

a href=”http://1.bp.blogspot.com/_nrsmt9LZJ0I/R9CJaCC-5rI/AAAAAAAAAKo/HsoyXyIhBv0/s1600-h/SSC_1798.JPG”img id=”BLOGGER_PHOTO_ID_5174787052167685810″ style=”margin: 0px 10px 10px 0px; float: left;” alt=”" src=”http://1.bp.blogspot.com/_nrsmt9LZJ0I/R9CJaCC-5rI/AAAAAAAAAKo/HsoyXyIhBv0/s200/SSC_1798.JPG” border=”0″ //aThanks to an errant road sign, we arrived at our destination today 12 km before anticipated, making this an 80 km day with 30 of them unpaved and in the process of “improvement”. Improvement meant loosely packed fresh gravel that enjoys sucking bicycle tires while enormous dump trucks pass spewing dust in their wake. I believe all drivers must be paid by the delivery and have a zealous need to drive as fast as they can. Two hours of eating dust before breakfast was a perfect time to practice the zen of the road.br /br /This is my sixth bicycle adventure with Mr. Extreme and he was well versed in road zen long before I arrived on the scene. Being a goal driven person, I’ve spent every trip struggling to find the zen–to let things unfold in their time, to enjoy the moment without anticipation of what is to come, to loose ones self in thought, or better yet, no thought. Perhaps because I’m more motivated by the destination, it is my tendency to fight against the bad roads rather than loose myself in them. Today was different. I knew within minutes of starting the ride at 6:30am that todays goal was a shower at the end of a very dirty day, but rather than spend the day eating grit and swearing at drivers, Zeb reminded me that I didn’t need to go fast, I simply needed to go. So I did, lost in thought, and eventually loosing Willie far behind while legs pumped and spirit soared.br /br /a href=”http://4.bp.blogspot.com/_nrsmt9LZJ0I/R9CJiyC-5sI/AAAAAAAAAKw/VSJJSWN74Jw/s1600-h/SSC_1802.JPG”img id=”BLOGGER_PHOTO_ID_5174787202491541186″ style=”margin: 0px 10px 10px 0px; float: left;” alt=”" src=”http://4.bp.blogspot.com/_nrsmt9LZJ0I/R9CJiyC-5sI/AAAAAAAAAKw/VSJJSWN74Jw/s200/SSC_1802.JPG” border=”0″ //aGetting to zen has indeed been a long road. We left Medellin and pointed our noses towards the coast. Not the straight down the PanAmerican highway coast, but the long ride across the third range of the Andes and towards the Gulf of Uraba — the closest paved road to the Darian Gap and Panama. Something in our readiness for a change of pace made us forget that even though the Occidente Range is the smallest of the mountain ranges, it’s still means mountains to climb.br /br /Our lovely decent from Medellin to Sante Fe de Antioquia and the warm river valley that seperates the middle and west ranges started with a surprising climb that turned the other direction only after we hitched a ride with a family in a pickup truck who could take us through the 5km-long tunnel. Bicycles, tractors and horses are not allowed, so the military patroling the entry encouraged the first empty truck to take us through.br /br /After enjoying the historic pueblo we once again thought our way would be a long leisurely decent to the sea. We didn’t pack much food since every few miles we’ve passed snack bars and restaurants, and once again we were met with a climb. This one was far different than before. Suddenly we were climbing grasslands dotted with brittle shrubs and dry river drainages that get used only in flash floods from infrequent hard rains. The saving grace was that it got cooler every foot we pedaled upwards. We pedaled past lunch time, and were offered no coffee. The only house we saw was on a point far from the road where we stopped to finish the last of our power bars offered so long ago in Bogota by Cristian.br /br /By late-afternoon we came to the only town on our map and turned-in in search of food. A bronzed and confident woman offered to make us lunch when we asked about comida at her little tienda. While she cooked, the ever-present military offered their advice that we continue only another 14 km to a place with a hotel and restaurant. “Plano.” he said. Flat. “OK.” we said and were off even though our legs wanted only to rest.br /br /This is the start of much well-meaning encouragement that included the word “plano” and we quickly realized that plano meant something different to someone riding a motorized vehicle. When your legs say no, and the military says go, and the road swoops and climbs; this is a good time to practice the zen of the road. It’s a time to not go fast, but simply go. To not think of aching hands or where we’ll sleep.br /br /a href=”http://3.bp.blogspot.com/_nrsmt9LZJ0I/R9CJGiC-5pI/AAAAAAAAAKY/1VoroXrKTns/s1600-h/SSC_1796.JPG”img id=”BLOGGER_PHOTO_ID_5174786717160236690″ style=”margin: 0px 10px 10px 0px; float: left;” alt=”" src=”http://3.bp.blogspot.com/_nrsmt9LZJ0I/R9CJGiC-5pI/AAAAAAAAAKY/1VoroXrKTns/s200/SSC_1796.JPG” border=”0″ //aWe rounded what truly was the last mountain pass a day later and glided into Uramita. At last we’re ready to blissfully glide downhill to the sea. Plano, they say even as the road crosses the rolling foot-hills along the river. We climb and dip with it, this time on the wet side of the mountains lush with the tapestry of green. Weeping walls covered in ferns and vines and many of our common houseplants. Forests dense and dripping with humidity. I stop to duck into a drainage for a bit of roadside relief and stop in my tracks, jaw dropped and wiggling frantically for Willie to come look and see. A Tucan sitting 10 feet away in a tree! The thrill of it almost makes me forget that the road is climbing again and I am climbing with it. Vines are thick and ropey tying the trees to the earth or they would slide down the mountain.br /br /We find ourselves again exhausted and my legs are ready to quite, but Mutata is still beyond our reach. Military posts dot the roads as we enter canyons and we get the thumbs up and encouragement to continue. It’s late enough in the day that birds have come out for their evening feeding and I want nothing more than to pitch our tent at the make-shift military post. “It’s only 8km more,” they say, “and plano … expect the one climb and one descent.”br /br /They don’t know we’ve been pedaling since 8am and I’ve told Willie I’m done. He does his best to convince them, but they only say for us to go on and they will call ahead to their chief and let him know we’re coming. We need to be off the road by dark, they say. I need to be off the road now.br /br /We’re in a bind and the only thing there is to do is continue. Bajando, down we go. Subido, up we go. The sky takes on the thick air of nightfall as the sun gets near the horizon. Canyons now are dank and cool. Past the 8km mark. Simply go. Don’t think. Past the 10 … did we miss the town? There’s the cell phone billboard that is outside of every village. But where’s the village? Another kilometer, folks say. But they’re wrong. It’s another 5km and sun has set by the time we enter Mutata city limits.br /br /Willie checks in with the police to let them know we arrived while I enjoy the cool shower and crisp white sheets of two-month old hotel in town. We’re their first foreigners and they’re eager to have us join them sitting outside in red plastic chairs by the light of the street lamps while kids dart by on their bicycles and dogs circle sniffing for snacks.br /br /The police promise that the road to the coast is now flat. Planed like a plank of wood for a table, flat. So we set out at the crack of dawn, as we do most days now to avoid the heat and wind, in search of flat.br /br /a href=”http://1.bp.blogspot.com/_nrsmt9LZJ0I/R9CNfCC-5wI/AAAAAAAAALQ/iKKoYNh10-8/s1600-h/SSC_1805.JPG”img id=”BLOGGER_PHOTO_ID_5174791536113542914″ style=”margin: 0px 10px 10px 0px; float: left;” alt=”" src=”http://1.bp.blogspot.com/_nrsmt9LZJ0I/R9CNfCC-5wI/AAAAAAAAALQ/iKKoYNh10-8/s200/SSC_1805.JPG” border=”0″ //aWe find the flat of banana plantations or cattle grazing, and we find a new reason to practice the zen of the road. Theirs a different kind of saddle sore that comes on the flats. The same motion, the same cadence, the same bones hanging on the edge of the seat. The flats are where your mind most needs to wonder in a different direction. In the mountains, there’s mystery in what’s around the next curve. The wide-open flats call for day-dreaming with legs pumping. Our 26km days of the mountains are now 80-plus kilometer days and we’re making good time towards the coast.br /br /Consensus along the route is that Necocli, a pueblo on the spit of land at the entrance to the Gulf of Uraba is the vacation place. Playa bonita, the locals say and encourage us to pass by the larger town of Turbo. A rest day by the seaside is inorder and our hearts are set on arriving early, so we depart at daybreak and share the road with regular bicycle commuters and even some sport cyclists, the likes of which we haven’t seen since leaving Medellin a week ago. It’s blissful on the road as the world wakes us. The air is fresh and traffic is light and the road is flat. We pass through Turbo as the workday begins and most other traffic stays in the city. Our anticipation of spotting water and relaxing by the sea grows as friendly cyclists and scooter-drivers chat along the way. Something cerrado in 6km, I tell Willie after such a chat. Or was that 6km of rough road? I don’t know enough Spanish to get the finer points.br /br /Soon enough we get the answer when we come to roadwork ahead signs. Our blissful ride to the sea has been interupted to bring improvement to this road. In the meantime, we can enjoy bone-jarring rocks lining what will someday be smooth, black asphalt all the way to Necocli.br /br /a href=”http://4.bp.blogspot.com/_nrsmt9LZJ0I/R9CLjyC-5uI/AAAAAAAAALA/867TDCFGQUU/s1600-h/SSC_1804.JPG”img id=”BLOGGER_PHOTO_ID_5174789418694665954″ style=”margin: 0px 10px 10px 0px; float: left;” alt=”" src=”http://4.bp.blogspot.com/_nrsmt9LZJ0I/R9CLjyC-5uI/AAAAAAAAALA/867TDCFGQUU/s200/SSC_1804.JPG” border=”0″ //aThis is the perfect place to practice the zen of the road. Don’t think of that beer in the hammock or first dip into the waters of the Caribbean. Don’t think of falling asleep with a book in your hands, or waking to the sound of surf out your balcony. Don’t need to go fast. Just go.br /br /”What about checking out one of these cabana places we pass along the way to Necocli?” the zen-master Willie asks? “Sure. Let’s give it a try.” I say as we turn our bikes left down a lane lined with palm trees. We don’t need to get to Necocli today if we can find enlightenment right here.br /br /a href=”http://3.bp.blogspot.com/_nrsmt9LZJ0I/R9CJRiC-5qI/AAAAAAAAAKg/wA8MhVgkVCc/s1600-h/SSC_1797.JPG”img id=”BLOGGER_PHOTO_ID_5174786906138797730″ style=”margin: 0px 10px 10px 0px; float: left;” alt=”" src=”http://3.bp.blogspot.com/_nrsmt9LZJ0I/R9CJRiC-5qI/AAAAAAAAAKg/wA8MhVgkVCc/s200/SSC_1797.JPG” border=”0″ //aRancho Aleja was our reward. A cabana by the sea all to ourselves except the parrot that come to visit. The beer, the hammock, the fresh fish in coconut sauce, the lull of the waves, the reward for our escape from the road.br /br /br /——-br /br /br /Thanks to all for your comments and emails encouraging me to write more, or more often.br /br /Most internet cafe don’t allow me to spell-check, so I apologize for my bad spelling and typos!

Kat Marriner : March 3rd, 2008

Medellin

a onblur=”try {parent.deselectBloggerImageGracefully();} catch(e) {}” href=”http://2.bp.blogspot.com/_nrsmt9LZJ0I/R8ytOQMC8-I/AAAAAAAAAKI/xyU4I4Dx7V0/s1600-h/SSC_1641.JPG”img style=”margin: 0pt 10px 10px 0pt; float: left; cursor: pointer;” src=”http://2.bp.blogspot.com/_nrsmt9LZJ0I/R8ytOQMC8-I/AAAAAAAAAKI/xyU4I4Dx7V0/s200/SSC_1641.JPG” alt=”" id=”BLOGGER_PHOTO_ID_5173700532317123554″ border=”0″ //aAh, Medellin… city of eternal spring, home to world-class architecture, public sculpture you can touch, a metro-line that moves people efficiently, a cable-line that carts buckets of citizens from the slums high on the hills to the valley below to work each day, amazing art, botanical gardens … and home to the most notorious narcotrafficer of all. Medellin, was made famous around the world by Pablo Escobar. We almost went to see the movie about him at the mall, but opted to see “Sweeny Todd” instead.br /br /Medellin was our destination for so long, and fortunately the city didn´t disappoint. Unfortunately, the “back-packer” tourists we did meet were another story.a onblur=”try {parent.deselectBloggerImageGracefully();} catch(e) {}” href=”http://3.bp.blogspot.com/_nrsmt9LZJ0I/R8ysDgMC84I/AAAAAAAAAJY/L6HskhKPxDY/s1600-h/SSC_1405.JPG”img style=”margin: 0pt 10px 10px 0pt; float: left; cursor: pointer;” src=”http://3.bp.blogspot.com/_nrsmt9LZJ0I/R8ysDgMC84I/AAAAAAAAAJY/L6HskhKPxDY/s200/SSC_1405.JPG” alt=”" id=”BLOGGER_PHOTO_ID_5173699248121901954″ border=”0″ //a We spent a month in Colombia before laying eyes on another traveler and we were eager to find out what they had to say. What had they discovered that we should try? What places have they been? What have we missed? What have they found with the FARC and paramilitary situation? In a word, Nada.br /br /Sadly, for many “back-packers”, Medellin is still the narco-capital and many have come to party. Displaced frat boys buy their bags of coke, hang-out in trashed hostels, and spend their days recovering from the night before. We were hoping to meet kindred spirits and, but instead we only found the party crowd. Back-packers rarely go beyond the four main destinations of Bogota, Cartegena, Santa Marta and Medellin … and above all, they don´t go anywhere the Lonely Planet guide book said was unsafe 4 years ago when it was poorly researched and badly written. What they’ve missed!br /br /a onblur=”try {parent.deselectBloggerImageGracefully();} catch(e) {}” href=”http://4.bp.blogspot.com/_nrsmt9LZJ0I/R8ys1wMC87I/AAAAAAAAAJw/j1-WVsmSH84/s1600-h/SSC_1638.JPG”img style=”margin: 0pt 10px 10px 0pt; float: left; cursor: pointer;” src=”http://4.bp.blogspot.com/_nrsmt9LZJ0I/R8ys1wMC87I/AAAAAAAAAJw/j1-WVsmSH84/s200/SSC_1638.JPG” alt=”" id=”BLOGGER_PHOTO_ID_5173700111410328498″ border=”0″ //aThe guide book warns that the slums can be dangerous, but we rode the spectacular Metro-Cable to the top and actually got out and walked to the new Biblioteca de Espana. There we talked with school children practicing English, got a guided tour of the library which reminded us of our own Seattle Central library, and savored a perfect home-made coconut paleta (popsicle) before descending the cable to ride the metro across town. It was better than an E-ticket at Disneyland, and the tough guy travelers who pride themselves on not having been robbed yet, were afraid to get out of the tram. I chided them over beers around the pool that night, and then encouraged them again to get out and meet the real Colombia.br /br /a onblur=”try {parent.deselectBloggerImageGracefully();} catch(e) {}” href=”http://3.bp.blogspot.com/_nrsmt9LZJ0I/R8ys-gMC88I/AAAAAAAAAJ4/V7QZCMjjS54/s1600-h/SSC_1639.JPG”img style=”margin: 0pt 10px 10px 0pt; float: left; cursor: pointer;” src=”http://3.bp.blogspot.com/_nrsmt9LZJ0I/R8ys-gMC88I/AAAAAAAAAJ4/V7QZCMjjS54/s200/SSC_1639.JPG” alt=”" id=”BLOGGER_PHOTO_ID_5173700261734183874″ border=”0″ //aWhat saddens me, is that the people of Medellin, and Colombians in general, consider themselves very friendly and helpful, but the world doesn´t know it. The media would have us all believe that coke is still king, people are sill kidnapped every day, and roads are unsafe to travel. Friendliness is in their national identity though, and it’s true to form for ALL people we have met.br /br /Simply arriving in a city of 2.5 million people and trying to find a particular traveler’s hostel is like trying to find a needle in a haystack. We relied on incomplete maps and kind directions from locals until a father and daughter team in a small toyota stopped us in our tracks and asked where did we want to go. We handed over the address and phone number and they quickly whipped out their cell phone, got directions, and drove their pilot car and we followed on bikes. THAT’s friendliness! When we ventured to the metro, people again and again came to help, point the direction, and explained the system. When we told our hostel-mate Mike about it, he said that would never happen in NYC where he´s from.br /a onblur=”try {parent.deselectBloggerImageGracefully();} catch(e) {}” href=”http://1.bp.blogspot.com/_nrsmt9LZJ0I/R8ysOAMC85I/AAAAAAAAAJg/d0Ghe-Ri-Uk/s1600-h/SSC_1637.JPG”img style=”margin: 0pt 10px 10px 0pt; float: left; cursor: pointer;” src=”http://1.bp.blogspot.com/_nrsmt9LZJ0I/R8ysOAMC85I/AAAAAAAAAJg/d0Ghe-Ri-Uk/s200/SSC_1637.JPG” alt=”" id=”BLOGGER_PHOTO_ID_5173699428510528402″ border=”0″ //abr /Throughout our time in Colombia, many strangers have come to our aid. Others have simply thanked us for coming to visit their country. There’s a general feeling that they want us to tell the rest of Americans … the rest of the world, that Colombia is a good place. It’s not all about drugs and terror. I feel for the national psyche as Colombia struggles to right the wrongs of narcotrafficers who terrorized this country. I see faces swell with pride when we tell inquisitive Colombians that we have only met kindness in our journey.br /br /I see the back-packers traveling in some sort of parallel universe finding only the worst of Colombia and perpetuating a time most a onblur=”try {parent.deselectBloggerImageGracefully();} catch(e) {}” href=”http://4.bp.blogspot.com/_nrsmt9LZJ0I/R8ytFwMC89I/AAAAAAAAAKA/6pP3Wbb3iS4/s1600-h/SSC_1640.JPG”img style=”margin: 0pt 10px 10px 0pt; float: left; cursor: pointer;” src=”http://4.bp.blogspot.com/_nrsmt9LZJ0I/R8ytFwMC89I/AAAAAAAAAKA/6pP3Wbb3iS4/s200/SSC_1640.JPG” alt=”" id=”BLOGGER_PHOTO_ID_5173700386288235474″ border=”0″ //alocals would rather forget. They do have stories of being robbed … at 2am … while trying to find their way home drunk, but that could be true in any city in the world. They’ve missed the coyboys riding into the town square, missed hot chocolate and panela, missed the helping had of someone showing them where a good hotel is. I think they’ve missed the heart of Colombia.

Kat Marriner : February 27th, 2008

Four Degrees of Separation

A bike trip means 24/7 togetherness … which is not a bad thing, but it does limit the conversations. Willie and I experience the same roads, eat the same foods, and spot the blue-a href=”http://1.bp.blogspot.com/_nrsmt9LZJ0I/R8dA_6UUVXI/AAAAAAAAAI4/jh8SdwU_Q-Y/s1600-h/SSC_1402.JPG”img id=”BLOGGER_PHOTO_ID_5172174163788715378″ style=”FLOAT: left; MARGIN: 0px 10px 10px 0px; CURSOR: hand” alt=”" src=”http://1.bp.blogspot.com/_nrsmt9LZJ0I/R8dA_6UUVXI/AAAAAAAAAI4/jh8SdwU_Q-Y/s200/SSC_1402.JPG” border=”0″ //aheaded parrots together. I mention this observation to Willie and he notes that only one of us is experiencing a slowly erupting boil-size pimple on our backside. That’s too much togetherness, but we are easy companions. At the possibility of conversations with others that go beyond the exchange in Spanish of “where did you come from”, “where are you going”, and “how long did it take you” we get very excited. These handful of questions are asked again and again. Every once in awhile though, someone comes into our lives and enriches our travel, stimulates our conversations and broadens our perspective.br /br /In Thailand, our visas needed renewing so we took a day-trip to Burma simply so we could renew our Thai visa and stay longer. What we got in addition to the visa was Bruce and Andrea. We met them at the bus station and we’ve enjoyed their friendship and been inspired by their brand of adventure ever since. When I received an email from a friend of Bruce’s brother who encouraged us to contact his father living in Colombia, it felt like a long-shot but I gave it a chance. Through the miracles of email, blackberries, and cell phones, we were able to correspond with Joaquin, a Colombian native living in Chicago, and his father Oscar, now living outside of Medellin after living in the states for many years– all because we struck up a conversation on a bus in Thailand. a href=”http://3.bp.blogspot.com/_nrsmt9LZJ0I/R8dBZaUUVZI/AAAAAAAAAJI/meVWdJ5oJVo/s1600-h/SSC_1404.JPG”img id=”BLOGGER_PHOTO_ID_5172174601875379602″ style=”FLOAT: left; MARGIN: 0px 10px 10px 0px; CURSOR: hand” alt=”" src=”http://3.bp.blogspot.com/_nrsmt9LZJ0I/R8dBZaUUVZI/AAAAAAAAAJI/meVWdJ5oJVo/s200/SSC_1404.JPG” border=”0″ //aAs luck, or the travel gods, would have it, the route we had chosen to pick our way through the small mountain towns of Colombia, took us to the beautiful, little pueblo of Retiro. With one quick call, Oscar and Mary Ann made a date to meet us for coffee and they would lead us to their home a few kilometers outside of the village. Before even meeting us they invited us to stay as long as we like.br /br /These kind of offers don’t come every day, and they rarely come in the “real world” living at home, but there’s some magic on the bicycle trail. Its hard to imagine inviting perfect strangers to come into our homes and stay a night … or a week, but that’s just what Oscar and Mary Ann did. A luxurious queen-size bed with crisp linens, waited for us. First we had to pass inspection by Mimi and Carmen, their two lovely dogs who inspect everyone who passes the rocky, dirt road a kilometer or two off the pavement. Mimi and Carmen became friends almost as fast as Oscar and Mary Ann, so the welcome party was complete.br /br /Coming up the back roads to Retiro from our one day on the Pan-American highway, we passed a href=”http://2.bp.blogspot.com/_nrsmt9LZJ0I/R8dCbKUUVaI/AAAAAAAAAJQ/D_fn-gE-wJ8/s1600-h/CSC_1407.JPG”img id=”BLOGGER_PHOTO_ID_5172175731451778466″ style=”FLOAT: left; MARGIN: 0px 10px 10px 0px; CURSOR: hand” alt=”" src=”http://2.bp.blogspot.com/_nrsmt9LZJ0I/R8dCbKUUVaI/AAAAAAAAAJQ/D_fn-gE-wJ8/s200/CSC_1407.JPG” border=”0″ //amany beautifully crafted homes, but nothing prepared us for the paradise that Oscar and Mary Ann created when they moved to Colombia in 2001. Oscar’s brother-inlaw designed for them a simple, but perfect floor plan for their comfortable home filled with art and books and passion for life. Large plate-glass windows looked out on Eden rich with orchids and oranges, amaryllis and avocados. Completely surrounded by a rich and varied garden, we were like kids in a candy shop excitedly discovering new flavors. Blue birds, hummingbirds, long-tailed green birds all visited the fruit-peel feeder. The surrounding hillsides a tapestry of greens.br /br /We spent three glorious days in the company of our hosts and relished every moment of our a href=”http://1.bp.blogspot.com/_nrsmt9LZJ0I/R8dBN6UUVYI/AAAAAAAAAJA/hq-WdbhlWvE/s1600-h/SSC_1403.JPG”img id=”BLOGGER_PHOTO_ID_5172174404306883970″ style=”FLOAT: left; MARGIN: 0px 10px 10px 0px; CURSOR: hand” alt=”" src=”http://1.bp.blogspot.com/_nrsmt9LZJ0I/R8dBN6UUVYI/AAAAAAAAAJA/hq-WdbhlWvE/s200/SSC_1403.JPG” border=”0″ //atime together. Oscar is a writer and poet at heart and we are stirred by his stories, and observations of life’s great and tragic moments. Mary Ann shares her passion for politics along with her own stories of family and childhood growing up in Oklahoma. That they found each other in Dallas seems almost as much a long-shot as us finding them in Colombia. But maybe kindred spirits travel intersecting routes. From Bruce to Mark to Joaquin to Oscar, the four degrees of separation were bridged. And we are the richer for it.br /br /======br /A note of thanks to Mr. Extreme who stops extremely often to take photos along our way.