South America, Tourist, Traveling

Fun and Guns for Everyone

Day two in Bogota, I took a long look at the map in my guidebook, then ditched it and went in search of two things: the tourist kiosk in Plaza Bolivar, and the Museo de la Policia Nacional.  The first was rumored to have the best maps of the city (important in a place where, in the last two years, some – but not all –  of the street names have been changed. Now, instead of 12th-16th streets, there are streets 12a, 12b, 12c, 12d and 12 (formerly 16th) street). The second has a basement exhibition on the hunt for Pablo Escobar. Anyone who knows me knows that, as much as a good diorama, I’m a sucker for a crime story with a drug lord.

Just southeast of the Plaza Bolivar I ran into a cache of guns. Still overwhelmed by altitude, and by the fact that I had just, with very little planning, left the country for six months (though it’s difficult to say which of these caused more trouble with my breathing), I overshot the tourist mark. Guns were everywhere. Soldiers protected each building en masse. (I later learned these were the  presidential residence, presidential offices, the presidential guard battalion, that national archives, and the national observatory where the Colombian constitution was devised – all gun-worthy locations.) Cadets in camo walked in twos and threes; policia in their neon yellow pinnies monitored street corners. Federales with semi-automatics stood at the gates and driveways of sandstone buildings. A map would have been helpful here.

I turned north, hoping to head closer to the Plaza, or a tourist zone. Both sides of the street were lined with stores  geared for soldiers – or their like minded family members. Booth-sized entrances were filled with military gear for the whole family: boots, badges, and pins for the already camo-clad dad. A stylish desert camo ¾ length overcoat to get the supportive wife through the cold season.

and Camo fashion for the moms

and Camo fashion for the moms

Surely junior wants in on the action – we have camo of all shapes and sizes for your little ones.

Back to school outfits for the kiddos

Back to school outfits for the kiddos

And while you’re at it, get them a shelf full of military dolls to remind them what their future occupational options may be! It’s a family even a revolutionary could be proud of.

Police are fun!

Police are fun!

Colombia has made a concerted effort to improve the reputation of its military, and it seems to be working. The police presence is everywhere, more as information posts and beat cops than mini dictators. Bus stations, street corners, your sidewalk taco stand – all of them are monitored by pairs of policia who are more than happy to try to answer your questions.

No where are they happier to do this than in the Museo de la Policia Nacional.  Here, polyglots serve military service as tour guides, and mine, whose name was Oscar, did not disappoint. For almost two hours, he toured me through rooms with thesis projects put to use as drones and bomb detecting devices; the history of Colombian police structure and the efforts to devise a public relations – and culture – strategy to reduce the ‘dirty cop,’ reputation of the industry; the development of forensic science; a wide-ranging sample of weapons and ammo. And at last, to the hunt and capture of Pablo Escobar and other cartel leaders.

It was worth every minute. The displays were thorough but not laborious, Oscar’s English (part of which he learned in school and most of which, he told me when asked, was “empiric,”) was so close to excellent that it was an entertainment for us both when he forgot a word and we would work to discover what he was trying to say. Along the way, other English-speaking cadets would join us for a time, add their two cents, and then move on.

This being only day two, I wasn’t settled in my solitary traveler status, which now feels like a lovely bubble I can pop whenever I want out , but which I can wear as protection when need be. I couldn’t help but think of everything I saw through the eyes of family I wouldn’t  see for quite some time.

For my dad, there were homemade guns, marked by their creators or decorated to suit the discerning owner.

Homemad crafts

Homemade crafts

For my niece and nephews, there were models of helicopters, trucks and airplanes, displays of badges from police around the world, and uniforms that would make for days of good dress-up.

My nephew's xmas present...

My nephew’s xmas present…

For the architects (my family has two), models and plans of houses, towns, and even a prison that drug lords built for themselves, and the Spanish roof tile on which Escobar landed after he was shot and fell out the second-floor window. For my motorcycle-loving brother in law, Escobar’s illegally imported Harley embellished with gold and silver décor.

An embellishment on Escobar's illegal Harley

An embellishment on Escobar’s illegal Harley

There was even a horse-drawn paddy wagon occasionally converted to an ambulance when need be. It was a blissfully honest, entertaining, military mess, and I loved every bit of it.

And it was just the beginning of my second day.

For more pictures of camo and ammo, as well as the rest of my pics from Colombia, click here

Moving, South America, Traveling, Uncategorized

How It Happens

This is how it happens, then. Slowly, almost imperceptibly, things fall into place.

La Plaza de Villa de Leyva

La Plaza de Villa de Leyva

You leave the city for a smaller town. You ride the bus, watch the countryside change. You walk around, find a park, watch a family playing basketball in the twilight. Multiple generations – the girls mostly, their father, mother, and grandmother. You head to the plaza, buy a latte, and sit on the steps of the  church while evening services sing out the door. You watch a procession carry the virgin around the plaza, down a street. She doesn’t come back until the next day.

While sightseeing, you get caught in the downpour and don’t mind. You run into the owner of the comedor where you failed to consume the menu del dia because you couldn’t make the food go down the tunnel of knotted nerves that used to connect to your stomach.  She comments that you are wet, you’ve been caught in the rain. She invites you back for another try. You have just the soup, this time, so you don’t waste food.  And it’s perfect. Fresh, warm, filling. Your appetite has returned. When you pay, she lets you know the next day’s menu, so you can plan ahead.

Outside, the workmen leveling the cobblestone street – by hand, digging up the stones and rearranging them in a less treacherous fashion – are back to work. As you walk by, one raises his pick jokingly, as if to hit his coworker on the head. You notice and you laugh out loud, which makes all of them laugh with you.

This dude did NOT like when I got too close to one of his ladies

This dude did NOT like when I got too close to one of his ladies

You don’t care that you walk all the way to the ostrich farm and find it closed. Instead, you take a picture of a cow, and an oriole, and talk to a guy who’s twenty feet up a telephone pole hanging wire. You don’t mind when you find a little scorpion in the bathroom; you just put on your flip flops and do some thinking. You take a nap and listen to the second rainstorm of the day. After, a woman scrubs water down a large street with a very small broom.

in case there was ANY question...

In case there was ANY question…

You see some fossils. The town is small enough that you run into everyone again – the lunch lady, the coffee lady, the guy you asked for directions – and they all want to know how the fossils were. They want to know If you liked the ancient stone structure like Stonehenge (only not, only smaller, only tiny and completely phallic – so how do you tell them you thought it was great without sounding like a perv?) and if you’re coming by later, for coffee, for lunch.

When you return to the Bogota, the city is more familiar. You get off at the right bus stop. You see landmarks where you change to the express. You sit through rush hour and laugh with the woman next to you when everyone, already packed like sardines, gets pushed a little more in places that aren’t pushable. What else is there to do?

This is how it happens, then. How the unfamiliar becomes familiar. How the nerves recede, for now. How you let the world in.

To see more pictures of my travels in Colombia, click here

South America, Tourist, Traveling

The Terror….the Terror

No one tells you about the terror. Everybody talks about how exciting it is, all the places you’ll see and the people you’ll meet. They talk about how your life is will change. They don’t talk about being nauseous, shaking, and feeling like you may pee your pants, simultaneously. No one warns you that you’ll get so anxious you’ll barely be able to say goodbye to your family without crying, even over the phone. Finally, I understand what people mean when they’ve been telling me for months, “you’re so brave!”  Apparently they all knew something I didn’t: this is terrifying.

Who in her right mind gives up a perfectly good job and an apartment and drives around the country for three months, then ditches dog and car and leaves the country for six? Who gives up the comfort of clean air and cotton sheets for diesel fumes and polyester? Or a nice deep tub and clean bathroom counter for a communal bathroom the size of a pea? Instead of telling me I was brave, I’m beginning to think people should have told me I was crazy. What is wrong with you people for not stopping me?!

Like all dreams, this one is currently suffering from a dose of hard reality.  The business class ticket was a good sendoff (and, dare I say, by the time I board that plane to Sydney, will be a welcome relief), and the free champagne went a long way to calm my frazzled nerves. Even Miami, which I recall being the armpit of airports, looked all spiffed up when I went out to the ticket counter to pay for a change to the Chilean leg of my plane ticket and came back through security. And Colombian customs? Uneventful, thank goodness. And then I woke up.

Now, while I walk around Bogota, the fear whispers at me like a Marlon Brando Apocalypse Now nightmare, only instead of “the horror,” it’s “the terror, the terror.”  In the newness of this one city, I am gleaning what the next six months of my life will be like: unfamiliar. Nothing to be taken for granted.  No landmarks by which to measure position or progress.

In a ten day vacation, I revel in this. Who cares about familiar food or your own bed for short periods of time? Or for that matter, being able to communicate fluidly? Isn’t half the fun of a foreign place the interaction you have while trying to engage in the completely, totally unfamiliar? Isn’t that why you leave the country?

Yesterday, negotiating something in my barely passable Spanish, I started panicking about how I will make it around Southeast Asia, where I can neither read nor speak the language. You got it: on day two of my 180 days, I started worrying about something that won’t happen until  the end of the second month. That’s day 60, for you math whizzes. And honestly, it was a pretty great day two (which I will write about later).

And so, this is how the transition goes. It is the challenge of a journey this length: how do I open my heart to this adventure without letting in too much of the fear? How do I balance the new and exhilarating with the exhaustion that comes with it? How do I learn to see today for today, and not for what it means for the next six months? My goal for Colombia is to bring myself to a place I can find comfort in being lost. I’ll let you know how it goes.

On the Road, Tourist, Traveling, Uncategorized, United States

Heaven on Earth

I’ve been thinking about heaven a lot lately, driving around the United States and finding myself fully realizing the words to ‘America, the Beautiful,’ as amber waves of grain roll by my car windows. I’ve fallen into describing the awe-inspiring landscape as “heavenly,” meaning it brings peace, visual pleasure, and possibility into my frame of visual reference, and thought. In hotels, I’ve slept on more than one ‘heavenly bed,’ some because they are branded that way, and others because they bring the possibility of sleep and the chance to unbend my frame from it’s too-frequently seated position.  And from airplanes, of course, I’ve looked down at an ocean of puffy white cotton-like clouds outside the window and thought, ‘this is what they say heaven looks like.’ Yet upon my return to Orcas (the island I’ve made home base this fall) after a few weeks away, it occurred to me that if there is a heaven on earth, it is not a place or a vision, but a smell.

Sometimes heaven smells like wet seaweed

Sometimes heaven smells like wet seaweed

Smell transcends time and place. It can carry you from where you are now to where you were when. Think about it: the smell of fresh-baked cookies – anywhere – in a home or a bakery or wafting down a street in any small town or large metropolis – any where  in the world, can pull you from the moment you are in, to another moment, possibly long ago and far away, that is anchored by the smell of warm chocolate chips and dough that sinks back to hug them as they cool on a rack, and defined by the moment of peace or hope that it brought to you back in that time and space. Isn’t that what heaven is? The transcendence of the present to a larger realm of peace and possibility?

Sometimes heaven smells like fall

Sometimes heaven smells like fall

I am a person of place. I always have been.  I engage in a place by falling in love with its landscape. When I lived on the east coast, I often longed for the west coast with its cold ocean and high foothills. I longed for the hilly streets and old Victorians of San Francisco. I longed for the stillness of this island on which I’ve spent much of the last two months, and for the serenity of the view from where I now sit – over the grass, beyond the apple trees to the sound, to Lopez Island, to the sky above it and the Olympic mountains standing guard behind. For most of my life, I have associated this anchoring, this peace, with this place. I believed, for much of  my time living in Dallas, that what made it difficult was that city had no hills, not enough trees, too much strip mall cement.

And then a week ago, I drove off the ferry, cracked my window, and was in my heavenly home. The smell of clean air, laced with sea salt and rained grass, rushed in to welcome me.  In the distance was a top-note of wood-stove burning off fall chill and deep, deep beneath it were undertones reminiscent of the sun warming sugar out of last summer’s blackberries.

Suddenly, all the smells came to me. It wasn’t San Francisco I missed when I was on the East Coast. It was the smell of old book stores filled with history and revolution. It was salt floating on fog on early mornings when I waited for the bus to work. It was eucalyptus  trees carrying their native Australia to Tennessee Valley. Strip malls weren’t the problem with Dallas. The air was. Except when it was raining, and the air was filled with the electricity of a storm, Dallas atmosphere stagnated. There was no news being brought on the wind. You couldn’t tell where the ocean was by inhaling. There was no possibility blowing through.

And so, as I prepare to leave for lands that smell of dewy mornings in thin air, of the dirt road beneath your feet, the slow burn of trash in a neighboring field, the diesel of combis and collectivos that roar by, I’m taking some time to absorb this heaven. Lying in bed last night with a rain pounding wind down through the alder and rushing the scent of leaves and water through the roof eaves to where I lay, I inhaled deeply and held my breath, absorbing just a little bit of heaven on earth to bring with me on the road.

Heaven is the smell of true north

Heaven is the smell of true north

On the Road, Tourist, Traveling, Uncategorized, United States

Wild. Wonderful. Wyoming

I’m a sucker for a diorama. Always have been. Maybe it was those sugar eggs we got at Easter with the little scenes inside, or an over-eager grade school homework project  that did it, I don’t know. Maybe I just like how life looks, all laid out for view in a tidy defined box. Whatever it is, it’s stuck with me. So when I pulled into the Southeast Welcome Center on I-25 outside Cheyenne, Wyoming and perused the brochures to see what might be found in Casper, where I was headed for the night, it is no surprise that the flyer for the Fort Caspar History Museum caught my eye.  And it didn’t disappoint.

Captain's letter awaits an envelope

Captain’s letter awaits an envelope

The museum is on the site of Fort Caspar, and the remaining buildings – officer’s quarters, the mess, the store and stables – have been restored and stocked and they sit away from the main museum site, so when you stand there, wind blowing up from the Platte, sun bearing down on an early fall day, squash ripening in the fort garden, you can *almost* sense what came before you, quiet, isolated. Blue coats, sabers, and captain’s hats adorn the bunks, checker and card games are laid out on communal tables next to tin mugs, ready for rowdy players and beer. A telegraph machine waits for news on a table in its own cabin. Off to the side, a Mormon Ferry buggy stands proud. Diorama, real-size.

Soldiers quarters in the mess

Soldiers quarters in the mess

Telegraph table.

Telegraph table

Inside the museum, the history of Wyoming has been lovingly recreated in one diorama after another. A display of stone tools through different eras of history outlines changes in the land and the people, new kinds of stone, new types of tools, arrival of Europeans. Around it, in wood and clay, miniature native Americans hunt mammoth, hunt buffalo, build teepees, fend off Europeans, and then attack them. Men and horses fall in gory fashion, red-painted blood oozing from their detailed clay bodies. It’s miniature America in all her glory.

Miniature America, in all her glory

Miniature America, in all her glory

Wyoming is full of little treasures like this: pieces of history that have been picked up, cleaned off, embellished and put on display. I skipped three other museums in Casper in favor of getting back on the road to Bozeman, and didn’t even touch on others that are sprinkled along drivable routes across the state. Maybe it’s the benefit of oil dollars, though neither Fort Caspar nor the Welcome Center itself (which had a historical display, including a dinosaur skeleton and a number of dioramas) glossed over the boom and bust effect of the industry, that fund all these little gems.

And what would be the point in hiding this ugly truth? You can see it in the life-sized diorama of scenery that is Wyoming itself as the land goes by. Towns like Story, Buffalo, and Bar Nunn pulling you off into the distance of gas-scarred hillsides. Mule deer and cattle graze side by side on rolling grass-spotted hills and mesas, hiding between rock skyscrapers, divided by snow fences, waiting for winter.

Wyoming rolling by

Wyoming rolling by

You feel the state in your bones as you drive it: riverbeds of cottonwoods changing colors and hardly another tree in sight except on the distant jagged mountains.  Red rock, granite, trains winding through. The Crazy Woman river running across it, running through you as you drive by. Wyoming. Wild. Windy. Wonderful Wyoming.

Sun after the rain on I-25

Sun after the rain on I-25

Wild. Wonderful. Wyoming.

Wild. Wonderful. Wyoming.