Sauntering and Hiking in Cartagena and Santa Marta, Colombia

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Cartagena is a beautiful, white city

I was really looking forward to the two Colombian ports on our ship’s itinerary.  I have been to Venezuela before but not to Colombia. We debated the best way to spend a day in each Cartagena, the capital city and in the oldest city in Colombia: Santa Marta.

Rather than spend time in a bus with a whole group of people, we just wanted to walk at our own pace around the old city center. We could take a taxi to get there. I figured out, online, that it would only cost about $7.- to go by taxi from the dock into the centre. But what if we got stuck in crazy traffic on the way back? So, in the end, we settled on booking transportation from the cruise dock to the old town by catamaran. It was 15 minutes and pretty much guaranteed no delays. Turned out to be a good choice. IMG_3904

We sailed by the old St Felippe Fort and arrived right next to the historic city walls. We really enjoyed strolling through the narrow streets, along pastel coloured houses with the most gorgeous wooden balconies. IMG_3926Of course Cartagena reminded us of Spain but the solid teak balconies with cascading bougainvilleas were even more gorgeous than those of the old country. Bright yellow churches, green pubs and pink shops leaned against each other until they made way for the rough stones of the ancient city wall. We climbed to the top and looked out, the way the cannons pointed, over the sea. I enjoyed walking along the many little vendor stands shaded by a large portico, selling unusual fruits, cookies, candied, coffee and chocolate. We crossed squares and discovered alleys. IMG_3910

We found a tiny little pub, in an alley, with beer and mango smoothies. And wifi! We even found a post office to mail home the mandatory postcards for our grandsons. The post office did not take US dollars so we made a quick stop at a money exchange and got a few Colombian pesos to buy stamps.

It’s interesting how each place has its own unique flavour. Even though all these ports are Caribbean with a similar history, their sights and sounds are all unique. Each has its own music. We heard drums, bongo’s and all sorts of instruments the names of which I don’t know. In Cartagena many women wear colourful head bands and long flowing dresses with baskets of fruit in their head. But mostly for tourists who will pay them for photos. One kissed me and hugged me, but I still had to pay if I wanted to take her photo… IMG_3919

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We strolled back, through the old city gate, to where our catamaran was waiting. On the pier side was a lovely tiny zoo with exotic birds, Amazonian ant eaters and monkeys.  And it was hot. Must have been well into the 30’s as we walked along the quay back to our ship.

In Santa Marta, the next day, we booked a hike to a nature reserve. A bus took us from the pier, through the city, and into the hills. Santa Marta reminded us very much of Cambodia with similar roadside stands, lots of motorbikes, dogs sleeping along dusty roads, and tidy kids walking to school. IMG_3916

As we left the city behind, and eventually the squatters’ huts in the hills, the landscape was cacti and palm trees. Those gave way to major banana plantations. We passed an important National Park which closes one month of the year to allow indigenous people privacy as they celebrate religious ceremonies. And finally we arrived at a nature reserve where we tracked across a dry river bed and through a forest of towering palms, ficus and bamboo.

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We heard birds, some distant monkeys calling, and saw one big spider… And lots of flowering plants that are house plants in Europe or North America but flourish here in the wild, including hibiscus. Butterflies and hummingbirds darted in and out of the sunshine.

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Cacao pod

Along the path were 2 or 3 little stands, crudely made of branches and planks. At one we bought fried bananas stuffed with cheese and papaya. As soon as we ate them, we were surrounded by dogs. I don’t know where they came from so quickly and they dissipated again after we ate.

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At the end of the trail we reached a pretty waterfall that tumbled out of the jungle and
IMG_4017into one large pool. I had a lovely refreshing swim here. Kees waited in the shade under some trees. Suddenly there was a tremendous crash! Another man jumped out of the way. Turned out that a very large iguana had been lazing on a branch above his head and fell out of the tree! 

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Oracles and Miracles

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Road to Delphi

I wonder if the Oracle of Delphi could have predicted that we would show up, unplanned.

We got up at 5 AM (!) to follow our days in Athene with a ferry ride to our first island: Mykonos. We had carefully researched and selected three of the nearly 2,000 Greek Islands. Our choices were based on geography: they had to be near Athene because of our limited time. We watched travel shows to find a variety of size and landscape. 

As we had arranged with our AirBnB hosts, we left the key on the table and pulled the door locked behind us. We stepped into the still dusk alley and walked over, with our luggage, to a hotel around the corner from where we hailed a taxi to take us to Piraeus, the busy harbour of Athens. 

“No ferries!” announced the taxi driver, “National strike!” I had heard rumours of a one day strike on Monday but this was Tuesday. Surely our ferry would take us to the island? But no, inside the hotel our fears were confirmed. So if the ferries don’t go, you can’t reach the hotel you booked. And thousands of other tourists can’t leave so hotel rooms will be at a premium. What to do?

In cases like this I find that the ‘Serenity Poem’ always works: ‘grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change.’ Or, in the words of our Greek guide we would meet later: “things ghahppen that will ghahppen”.

First we decide to ensure that we have a place to sleep in Athens for the next two nights and book a hotel via Orbitz. No problem.

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Delphi

Then we take a taxi to that hotel, leave our luggage (because it was only about 8 AM, too early to check in), use their wifi and walk to the travel agency through whom we had booked our Greek ferries. Thank goodness I had decided that booking it myself was too complicated. We always book everything ourselves but this time we are grateful we didn’t. AFEA Travel was amazing. They wasted no time in cancelling our first ferry ticket, hopefully to get a refund. They contacted our hotel in Mykonos to confirm we couldn’t make it. They re-booked a ferry for a few days later from Athens to our next island: Naxos. And then they booked us for a full day excursion to Delphi. All is well again. We are grateful that so many people here speak good English and that all we encounter are kind and helpful. (www.afea.gr)

That night we marvel at the sight of the Parthenon, as the sun set over the Aegan sea, and look forward to a totally new plan: learning all we can about oracles and mythology.

I love being in the very place where Zeus ruled the world, where Apollo reigned and where Hercules flexed his muscles. History is tangible here, the ‘story’ part of the word being especially applicable. Everything is stories.   Where we come from, what it looks like, how it was. Even the language is rich in history and meaning.

Did you know that you speak Greek every day? Words like forum, gymnasium, marathon, spartan, stadium, atlas, even the word phone all come from Greek. And well known brand names, too, like Nike, Amazon and Olympus all come from Greek.

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Delphi is the ‘navel’ of the earth

On the way to Delphi, our guide tells wonderful stories about battles with giants and cyclops, about gods and their confusing offspring, one of them marrying his own mother. Delphi is a two hour drive north of Athens on the mainland, in the mountains and was believed to be the navel of the flat earth. We drive through green fields, sparse forests and picturesque villages. 

Delphi was a bustling place about 2,500 years ago. The original artifacts that have been found around the remaining ruins are now housed in a nearby museum. The marble statues, gold decorations and bronze castings are impressive and represent the humans who lived and worked here so many thousands of years ago. 

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Oracle of Delphi….

The Oracle was fascinating. Apollo ruled here as god and the female oracle was believed to be his direct connection to the people. I find it much better to buy into this belief than to think of the more realistic alternative: the woman selected to be the voice of the gods, was kept high on methane and chewed intoxicating leafs. Her incoherent mumblings were interpreted by three poets who tried to relay them as sensible, poetic lines.

Really? The future of the world was determined by a woman who was stoned and by three men who liked words?

But despited being high, the Oracle was apparently able to predict future events. She was consulted, and proven to be correct, by many travellers from far away. The way she predicted what would happen, make it sounds like Delphi was a kind of CNN or BBC headquarters of the ancient world.

However, they had a kind of a blanket statement that meant ‘use these predictions at your own risk’ – whatever the Oracle told you, you had to use your own common sense to interpret it. One god was told he would destroy a mighty land. He did, but hadn’t realized it was his own land…

No matter how you look at it, the Oracle of Delphi is an impressive part of the history of mankind. 

What I find particularly fascinating, having traveled to many interesting places, is that all peoples throughout history, in far flung places, seem to have come up with very similar stories. The cave paintings of Australia’s aboriginal people, the stories of the Aztec, those of the Haida, the carvings at Angkor Wat, all resemble similar stories. Here in Delphi we learn about a Greek myth about rain that washed away mankind except for two whose task it was to repopulate the world after their boat stranded on a mountain top and the rains receded….

Perhaps the saddest story I learned today was the fact that Aesop lived here. He was a slave but earned his freedom by his amazing storytelling powers. We saw names of people carved in marble, listing those who obtained their freedom, apparently his name was recorded here, too. Aesop happily went on telling stories as a free man. Until the Greeks decided they did not like the tales he told and pushed him to his death from a mountain top. So much for freedom of speech and censorship.

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Just Cruising’ Along – to Alaska

P8300253.JPGWe wanted a short get-away at the end of a busy summer. We run Between The Covers, Booklovers’ B & B and knew that we would not have much time off all summer, so we planned a short trip, relatively close to home.

Having left Whitehorse, Yukon where our children went through elementary school, 27 years ago, we decided that this was the year to go back and see the Yukon again. I have made two short trips back there, but Kees has not been back since we moved south.

Initially we thought we’d just drive the Alaska Highway. We both love driving. But driving it both ways is too boring. Besides, it is not incredibly scenic. I used to love traveling on the Alaska State Ferry. But I nearly had a heart attack when I checked fares on the Alaska State Ferry website and saw that is would cost over US $2000.-. That is one way. On the ferry. Without a cabin.

P8300248.JPGThen I remembered the many tantalizing emails about Alaska cruises and checked these. Orbitz, my favourite travel bookings website, offered a one way cruise from Vancouver to Anchorage. Price per person was about 650.- When all was said and done, including extra fees, taxes, gratuities, etc. we paid on the dot the exact amount as the ferry would have been. But a cruise, of course, includes all you can eat for 7 days….

We got out a map and ended up booking the cruise on Norwegian Cruise Lines, via Orbitz. Then we booked a rental car in Anchorage and a flight back using our Alaska Airlines points.

When we boarded the ship in Vancouver, we weren’t sure what to expect. I’m not terribly crazy about cruises since I do not need a casino, I don’t like crowds and I don’t need to be entertained. But I did really want a few days of NOTHING. I couldn’t wait to sleep in and get my meals served. P9020292.JPG

The boarding process was fast and efficient. The paperwork we had received was confusing. I checked in online, printed off luggage tags and selected dinner times. The papers told us, over and over, in bold underlined print that we had to check-in between 2 and 2:30, a time slot we selected from half hour slots offered all day. At some point I realized that the papers also stated that the ship departed at 2 PM. I finally phoned and was told to be on board well before 2 PM. So was the check-in time on board then? When we got onboard, no one knew what that not to be missed check-in was… And none of the dinner times I had selected online, were recorded. But we found our cabin which was just fine. A large, clean bed, a place to sit, a desk, plenty of storage space and a small fridge. Next time I’ll check the price difference with an outside cabin which has a window or small balcony. It would be nice to see daylight and what the weather is doing…

The service on the ship was impeccable. Everyone was friendly, courteous and helpful. The food quality in the main dining room was superb. The ship can hold just over 2,000 guests. It has its own bakeries, one for bread and one for pastries. We rarely got the same little dinner rolls. And the cinnamon buns were out of this world.

Here’s a glimpse at the ship’s weekly shopping list:

  • 15,000 pounds of beef
  • 1000 gallons of juice
  • 15,000 pounds of flour
  • 30,000 pounds of fresh fruit
  • 5,000 dozen eggs!

They said Costco loves it when they stop by!P8280237.JPG

I found it fascinating how our daily schedule and priorities changed overnight. On the first night, we sat in the gorgeous dining room and watched two whales spouting against an orange sky. The quiet wake of the ship seemed to drain my aches, my tiredness and my worries about deadlines, about which B&B room to clean, about how much more weeding I should be doing… From then on our main concern was what to order for breakfast… A waiter draped a white starched napkin across my lap and handed me a menu. A menu for breakfast! Choices included 5 different kinds of juice, many options of fresh fruit, yogurts, pastries, breads, eggs, smoked salmon or bacon, porridge or french toast, pancakes, waffles… Enough already! Just bring me one of each 🙂

After breakfast there was nothing to do but wait for lunch and repeat steps 1 – 3 (sit, order, eat). Same at dinner…

Good thing the ship had a pool (for me) and a walking track (for Kees).

The ship also offered bars, two theatres, a library, an observation lounge and many more facilities. It took us three full days before we stumbled upon a casino. How do you hide an entire casino on a ship? You put it between the shop and the art gallery, one deck up from the bars and theatres. We had a ball sitting in a quiet corner and watching people. My favourite times were sipping a drink while listening to a good string trio playing Vivaldi.Of course these cruises are ideal for those who are less mobile. But they obviously also attract people who like to eat. I’ve seldom seen so many overweight people in one place. Good thing the ship doesn’t sink easily. But the guests on this ship were as varied as the books on a library shelf. Young, old, active, obese, classy and not so classy. They came from countries all over the world: Germany, France, Australia, Japan, China, USA and everything in between. The crew alone represented 62 countries.

P9010273.JPGBesides on board entertainment like concerts and shows, we also stopped in beautiful locations:

  • Ketchikan, Alaska is a quaint village clinging to the hillside. It rained – which it often does here. But we found a nice coffeeshop with wifi (even if it was 5.- per hour);
  • Throught gorgeous scenery we sailed to Juneau, the capital city of Alaska. Juneau is more than the gold rush image ofcolorful wooden houses near the dock. It is also a large city with a Costco, schools, university, libraries, and more. We visited the  Mendenhall Glacier and a fun bear viewing boardwalk just above a creek full of spawning salmon. It rained. I think ‘Alaska’ is the First Nations’ word for ‘rain’.
  • Skagway used to be a tiny gold rush village near the beginning of the famous Chilkoot trail. Instead of aging into a ghost town of cracked wooden sidewalks and sagging houses, the town choose opted for a facelift. The saloon type store fronts now host a Starbucks, many jewelry stores and confortable eateries offering wifi. Yet it maintains its last frontier image and offers can-can girls and Soapy Smith shows to its thousands of visitors. Skagway has discovered a whole new kind of gold mine.P9010283.JPG
  • Next we departed for Glacier Bay. Rough grey waves of the Pacific made way for a pristine, blue reflective bay of immense proportions. At the very end, our ship glided toward a crumbling glacier. The mirroring water was dotted with small, white icebergs. The view was breathtaking. The temperaturesdropped drastically since we left Vancouver. Capris and sandals made way for fur coats and woolen hats while we watched the icy beauty of Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve, a United Nations World Heritage Site. Comprised of 3.3 million acres of natural wonders, it is home to magnificent glaciers and snow-capped mountains.P9020349.JPG
  • Next was Hubbard Glacier (I didn’t know that Alaska is home to an estimated100,000 glaciers!). Tall, wide and generally massive, Hubbard Glacier is a mesmerizing natural wonder framed in striking glacial blue. The largest tidewater glacier in North America is a whopping 76 miles long and 1,200 feet deep. Its foot is some 7 miles wide and the exposed ice is said to be over 450 years old. Impressive facts but not nearly as impressive as the sight of being right next to it. Hubbard is nicknamed the “galloping glacier” because of how quickly it’s advancing toward the Gulf of Alaska through Disenchantment Bay. This results in major calving — the dramatic breaking off of chunks of ice at the edge of a glacier. As we stood on deck, we heard sonic booms, followed by long deep rumbles. Large chunks of glacial ice broke off and tumbled into the sea, leaving spray and mist. The sounds and the feel of icy air, made the sights even more impressive. A sight I won’t soon forget!P9020384.JPG

After this natural wonder, we sailed to our final destination of Seward, Alaska – some 12 hours on very rough open water. We had winds of 45 knots and 14’ waves. Even though this was a huge ship, it creaked and groaned as we bobbed on the waves. As if by magic, little barf bags appears on all the stair handrails…

In the next blog, we will continue our Alaska Adventure by road.

Belgian Backroads: avoiding all highways

Monday, October 5, 2015

One of my favorite things to do, is to have a detailed map, get in the car and find tiny little backroads to get from A to Z. Preferably without even knowing where Z is, exactly.

In Europe, everything is close by. Distances are much shorter than in North America and it’s fun to avoid the main highways that are often clogged with traffic.

So to go from Holland to Belgium, where I was to work in the International School in Brussels, we did just that. We followed tiny white backroads, slightly larger yellow roads if we had no other choice. But no red or orange highways. This way we drove through farm fields. We watch cows lazily chewing and wondering where we were going. We passed villages in the blink of an eye. Not because we were speeding but because they consisted of a church and two houses. Often we thought we’d have coffee in a village but there wasn’t even a cafe, at least not one that was open when we passed through.
Once we got very close to Brussels, we entered our hotel address in the car’s GPS but until then it was a sport to find connecting roads.
I worked in the wonderful school in Brussels and loved being able to walk back to the hotel through the woods – beautiful oak forest with autumn leaves just starting to turn.
Kees found out how to use the mêtro, explored the Grand Marché of Brussels and visited Manneke Pis. At night we had pizza (there are more Italian eateries in Europe than anything else…) or the best Belgium fries anywhere (see: Le Tram – http://www.letramdeboitsfort.be)
We really polished up our high school French in Belgium. I was pleased that we were able to ask for everything we needed, and understand the answers (!) in French. After 4 days in Belgium, we, once again, took our map and avoided all highways.
We had a wonderful time crisscrossing tiny villages in d’Ardennes. Found a lovely B & B (http://www.lacascatelle.com) La Caccatelle in Leglise. From here we drove through beautiful forests and explored the Abbey d’Orval. ( http://www.orval.be). We didn’t stay overnight in this silent monastery, but you can. Or you can sit on a patio and sip the beer that the monks brew. We roamed the 11th century ruins before taking a 7 KM hike through the woods.