Bogota, Medillin, Cali…A City is a City is a ? Part 1 of 2

#blogguilt? Yep, six fascinating, challenging weeks exploring Colombia and we’re already across the border in Ecuador (more on that “interesting” experience in Part 2!).

We spent a lot of time in Colombia’s large cities, learning that as beautiful as the surrounding mountains might be, the cities themselves leave a bit to be desired. To be fair, Bogota (8mil), Medillin (4mil), & Cali (4mil) are just rougher versions of many other million plus population cities around the world – traffic is horrendous and diesel/gas fumes reek – walking is not a lot of fun. Until we get city transit issues sorted out and move away from private cars to public, shared & more environmentally sustainable transportation, the world’s largest cities will continue to be increasingly difficult places to live as they grow. (And that’s my quasi-political/social statement for this blog.)

But Colombia’s big cities offer a good look at the country’s history, its art (fantastic), and a peek at how a tourist industry (while not quite in its infancy – hello, Cuba?) is developing. If you’re planning a visit to Colombia and want to do it without a glossy tour company, be aware -you’ll need the following:

Patience – you’ll be taking buses much of the time, and there are generally not set hours for departure. You will go the terminal, search for a suitable bus line (vendors stand about calling destinations), and either find yourself among the first or last to board…and then, only when the bus is FULL will it depart! Along the route, the bus will stop to let passengers off any old place…despite having told you the bus is “direct” (this does NOT mean “non-stop”.) As seats are emptied, the bus will stop along the route to allow others to board, including vendors who offer drinks, fruits, banana chips…and yes, these impromptu snacks can be delicious.

Earplugs – ah, those buses again. Usually, the music will be turned on, loudly, immediately, and constantly throughout the trip, whether 1 hour or 6. Be prepared.

Toilet paper – if you like more than a couple of squares, you’ll be happier if you put a packet of tissues in your pocket before you venture out. You’ll usually pay for the use of the toilet at bus terminals. And, if you’re female, be prepared for lidless toilets…great for the thigh muscles as you attempt to pee without touching the ceramic.

Ok, tips on how to “journeywise” out of the way.

We loved visiting the main plazas in Colombia’s cities – many are named for Simon Bolivar, the “Liberator.” Statues varied from a soldierly and solemn Bolivar to a “Bolivar as Condor” in Manizales, and naked Bolivar on a horse in Pereira…along with your run-of-the-mill busts. The gentleman was everywhere doing good deeds, until he ran into political and financial difficulties and ended his life in exile.

Bolivar Nude - Pereira

Bolivar Nude – Pereira

Museums and outdoor art were also a complete pleasure. From Botero sculptures to murals and graffiti, Colombia (whether on purpose or not) has encouraged a public sharing of exuberant art – it’s everywhere, splashing color along highways, streets, alleys and parks. While most is “art” for art’s sake, there is also plenty of politically motivated art relating to both indigenous peoples and the FARC guerrilla movement. More photos are available on Instagram @tojourneywise and commentary about traveling, organic agriculture and random thoughts on the journey on Twitter @tojourneywise. Enjoy!

Botero Sculpture

Botero Sculpture

Wall Mural Medillin

Wall Mural Medillin

Part 2 coming soon, more on Colombia’s big cities next time…then on to Ecuador!

Chiva Bus - Colombia

Chiva Bus – Colombia

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Periyar and Beyond

Periyar Entrance

Periyar Entrance

We had a long, meandering and beautiful drive through the hills heading south to reach Periyar Tiger Reserve, located in the Cardamom Hills and Western Ghat mountains on the Kerala/Tamil Nadu border. We’d eagerly anticipated this couple of days in the wilderness and had booked one of the Gavi Eco-tents (www.periyartigerreserve.net/cottage-tent.html) to sleep in. Almost nothing about our two days at Periyar disappointed!

The first view of the tent was just as expected – a large one room tent on a platform and suspended beneath a palm-leaf covered roof. There was a separate, private bath/shower room behind the tent, accessed through the screen door at the rear of the tent. The tent and bath area were basic, and just what we’d anticipated, although the view down to the lake was even nicer than we’d hoped for. There was electricity in the tent, though the 5 minute, unlit walk to the outdoor restaurant was quite dark in the evening (glad we brought small flashlights on the trip), and perfect for star-gazing. The deep, amazingly dark evening sky and brilliant, countless stars were spectacular.

Gavi Tent Periyar

Gavi Tent Periyar

Inside the Tent

Inside the Tent

Periyar is what I’d describe as a “forest-jungle” and many areas are quite densely forested, making it a challenge for wildlife viewing from the back of a jeep. There aren’t the “big five” to see as we’d looked for in South Africa, but we did see the fabulous Malabar Giant Squirrel, Nilgiri Langurs, Gaur (a large, endangered Indian bison), Sambar (an Indian deer, of which we saw many) and many birds. Elephants were evidently close by as the fresh dung and HUGE elephant tracks we saw in the river bank proved, and the elusive tiger was not to be seen. Our guide, who has worked in the park for 14 years, said he’d only glimpsed the tiger twice in that entire time. There are currently 46 tigers roaming the 357 sq. mile park.

We had a great 3+ hour hike with Narayan, our guide, who was in flipflops, and I don’t know how he negotiated the steep hillsides; I was very happy to have my hiking poles with me, and sturdy boots. He took us a bit off the beaten track once he realized how enthusiastic we were about the park – we hiked along the nearly dry Pamba River to one of the waterfalls, and along a tiny track where a couple of tribal families lived in makeshift tents with no running water or other facilities. They survive by harvesting wild crops and making the incense used in Hindu temples – by harvesting the bark from a particular tree and processing it into a sticky, aromatic resin.

Tribal Smile

Tribal Smile

Vista with Red Trees

Vista with Red Trees

Two jeep safaris allowed us to go much deeper into the park – and again, not much wildlife, but the scenery was spectacular, including the bright red, new leaves of one which our guide referred to as “Mora” or “Moro” – but my online research hasn’t confirmed the name or type of tree – any ideas?

Many visitors come only for a day visit, but we’d stay overnight again – the quiet night, glorious stars overhead, and thrill of knowing that we were inside a tent protected by electric fencing to keep the elephants outside the perimeter were all a real treat.

Periyar Sunset Shades

Periyar Sunset Shades

After two nights at Periyar, we loaded up the car again and headed for the Kerala backwaters for a night on a houseboat… our Kerala adventures next!

On the Road and off to Agra

If you’re still with me on this journey – thank you. The combination of poor internet access and my having caught a whooper of a cold in the Thar Desert delayed this post. Enjoy – and I’m on the mend!

On Wednesday (Day 2) we were up early and off to Agra with a new driver “Raj”, who will be with us until Udaipur. We didn’t have any say in who our driver would be, but are so glad we are in his hands. Raj is our driver, not a certified guide, as are the city guides provided by Journey Sutra, but clearly loves what he does, and enjoys sharing his knowledge about Delhi, and Jaipur where he is from. On the way to Agra we stopped at a rest area on the“super fast” road (according to Raj) for coffee and masala chai. After all we’d heard about toilet facilities, it turned out that this public toilet wasn’t bad at all, though it did look like someone had climbed on the seat to squat as in a traditional toilet in India. The other note here is that despite all the advice to carry tissues for toilet use, there’s been either a roll or an attendant pretty much everywhere – though the tissues have come in handy for frequent nose-blowing due to dust.

The transport trucks, of which we’re seeing plenty, are painted in bright colors and have large black tassels (against the evil eye) and multi-colored streamers hanging from the antenna wires and mirror frames. We passed a roadside stall selling these truck decorations, and I’m tempted to bring one home to help identify our car in a large parking lot!

After arriving in Agra and checking into the Taj Resort, a purpose-built small hotel with a view of the Taj Mahal in the distance, we met our new guide “Kalpana,” our “lady guide.” Journey Sutra has had a local rep at each new city to review our plans and discuss any changes. We dropped our bags off, and then Kalpana took charge and off we went to the market for a tonga ride (horse-drawn cart); CW in front, me in back with Kalpana where it was very hard to see from under the canopy – but the market was still interesting and different from the congested and chaotic Chandi Chowk in Delhi.

Then, to visit a place that is probably recognizable the world over – the Taj Mahal. At first, it truly seemed like a backdrop, it was so perfectly proportioned and so familiar from the many photos and films in which we’ve seen it. It took more than a few minutes to simply absorb and then settle in to a quiet frame of mind. The crowds weren’t terrible. We were there for the sunset, which didn’t really change the color of the tomb – but it was peaceful to sit on a wall and watch the people and the nuanced changes in the white marble. We walked out through the south gate as it was closing, emerging into a narrow village lane, to get lassi (a yogurt based drink about which more later) at “Johny’s” – a real hole in the wall. Kalpana organized a tuk tuk lift back to the car – after the 2 men in the back moved to the front, there were 6 of us in the tuk tuk – a small 3-wheeled vehicle that we’ve seen versions of now from Vietnam and Thailand, to India. The ride cost 30 rupees – about 60 cents.

We’re sure to get more adventurous as the weeks go by, but for dinner, we took Kalpana’s advice and went to dinner at “Pinch of Spice,” where she and her family like to eat. It was good Indian food, upscale but popular with locals as well. Portions were huge. Dinner was followed by a mouth-freshening chaser – a “paan shot,” made of betelnut juice – very refreshing but a little medicinal.

A little more about Agra, and then how about some pictures instead of words? The next morning we got up before sunrise to go and see the Taj Mahal from the “backside” – it was very misty, trash seemed to be swept into piles to make it easy for the cows, dogs and goats to rummage through, and people are living in tents of plastic along the roadside. Barbed wire keeps you from going near the river – but we saw a pale Taj Mahal floating above the river bank. The rising sun turned the sky soft pink lifting to blue, and altogether peaceful. At a small stall at the corner of path towards the river we had masala chai (we watched the stall keeper grind the spices and then boil up the delicious spiced tea…)and channa masala (a breakfast dish made with black chick peas). Kalpana was so cheerful, and laughingly issued orders to people she wanted to get things done with – it felt like she knew everyone in Agra.

Agra’s Red Fort is stunningly beautiful – and I’ll have to stop commenting on how old everything is! I accept that India is like a river – it flows and renews itself and has been doing so for thousands of years.

After a “real” breakfast at the hotel, Kalpana took us to Nevi Ram, a famous Agra sweet shop where we bought gajar kA (carrot) halwa, a Punjabi dessert – delicious in small portions!

An incredible stop on the way to Jaipur was Chand Baori – a stepwell built in about 800 AD. An early and successful piece of water conservation engineering. By early evening we arrived in Jaipur and checked into the General’s Retreat, where the bed was “Maharajah” sized – big enough for three! Marble everywhere, and so far, no tubs. Here are a few photos of highlights so far.

Agra Hotel: Taj Resort http://www.hoteltajresorts.com
Agra Restaurant: Pinch of Spice http://www.pinchofspice.in/about.php

Taj at Sunrise

Taj at Sunrise

Taj Mahal Detail

Taj Mahal Detail

Chai Walla

Chai Walla

Chand Baori Stepwell

Chand Baori Stepwell

Stepwell Detail

Stepwell Detail

Carrot Dessert

Carrot Dessert