Colombia  ( By Bhajana Thimmaiah)

Colombia.. The Only risk is, wanting to stay back… These are the exact words that I read when I went to the consulate to get my Visa stamped.. As my trip is coming to an end I know exactly what they meant… A 2 week trip to the coastal town of Cartagena, a vacation like no other.. In Spanish my name means whale, and I think I have lived up to my name by spending most of my time here in the sea.. In fact I have been in the water so much that I feel If I stay any longer I might undergo osmosis.

When we first heard we were coming here our friends Simon &Marie invited us to stay with them. I had always heard from them how much they love Cartagena and how much they love living here. For us it was better to stay with them as we do not know the local language and nobody even knows a language called English exists! Also they r good friends of ours and what better than to experience a country with near and dear who know it all. A French couple who have lived most of their lives in the luxuries of clean, neat & organized France, eating cheese, bread, and drinking wine now loving the chaos of Colombia so much that they wish all their friends could experience it through them.

Simon & Marie have a beautiful beach abode which tries to encompass all the luxuries a person can ever imagine and the best part, it opens right into the beach which houses beautiful sunsets every evening. 3 swimming pools, Jacuzzi, gym, cleaning service, security… Except for the occasional outage of power & occasional availability of internet it is a perfect place to reside. The number of employees working in this place easily outnumbers the number of people using this place on a regular basis. Most of the villas are empty and belong to super rich Colombians who work in other parts of Colombia, who come here for a week or two on vacation.

If these luxuries don’t seem enough, there are 27 small islands about an hour away from here where the rich Colombians go to spend the rest of their money. Simons friend suggested we do that our first day here. Simon, Marie, Stephan, Isaura and their little daughter stephania took us along to experience the beautiful island of Cocoliso. The worst part was waking up at 8am to catch the boat, what we experienced after that made it all worthwhile. An hour of boat ride and 15minute trek through vegetation that looked like coorg later we were invited by something we don’t expect amidst that vegetation…

‘Playa Bonita’ a crystal clear blue shallow water beach with fine sand, shaded tress, vendors trying to sell their catch and some marvelous sea creatures. If that dip isn’t satisfying, there is a bar right in the swimming pool where u can enjoy a pinnacolada made with fresh tropical fruits while listening to reggae music. The island also had fine Caribbean food for lunch and hammocks for a quick siesta to rest a bit to take a break from the all the relaxing.

Time to be Marie: The next day Marie, my friend cum host cum tour guide took me to ‘Caribe Plaza’ a huge mall amidst small street shops and crowded roads. The mall had all big brand clothes, shoes, fast food and even a movie theatre that shows English movies with Spanish sub titles. Everything seemed so expensive. I’m beginning to think that once u get used to shopping in consumers heaven (read United States) it is impossible to shop anywhere else in the world.

I spent the next couple of days trying to lead a typical Colombian life, using the local transport to go to the old city understanding the history of the city and I must tell you, it is very interesting. They have a huge wall ‘Las Murrallas’ surrounding the city that was built in the 1700’s to save the city from pirate attacks as the city had previously been a victim of several attacks. The old city still remains un touched, ancient houses flower and fruit filled gardens, old churches, some old houses now converted into cozy little romantic restaurants or small shops, street vendors in every nook & corner, women selling fruits , stands selling street food and the sunset gives rise to another kind of life where the bars start playing Vallenato the local music of the Caribbean and street performers dance or perform for meager tips. We also spent some of our time taking long walks on the beach enjoying a very popular local delicacy called arrepa, trying out some local food in small shacks on the beach etc.

An ultimate invite – a getaway from a getaway: As I was beginning to think that I had experienced the pinnacle of luxury Colombia had to of-offer, we were invited on a weekend getaway by Mr.Gustavo.. A ride in Mr.Gustavo’s boat to a private island of baru which is not accessible to any form of public transport. A place where the rich and the famous party. Just as I was beginning to lose faith on all the men that asked hubby to check beautiful women out, I noticed several private boats with loud music and gorgeous women in Thong bikinis.. a feast to even my eyes The men folk had totally lost it for a bit.. No, they weren’t topless and most of them evidently had a boob job and butt lift done long black hair and they looked G-O-R-G-E-O-U-S..

Whatever I write from this point on about this island will seem boring now.. We had some fresh caught raw seafood marinated in lime juice ‘ceveche’ for breakfast. Then we set off to some place in the middle of the ocean to swim and play in the water. Fresh caught lobster and fish from the sea was served as lunch in the sea. Yep, in the sea. Table and chairs are 2 feet under the clear blue waters. A very different and exciting experience in all.

The country: The country in general is a strong contrast to the luxuries the rich experience. As soon as we landed in the airport I looked around and it looked so much like India. Mosaic tiles, non-ac lounges, coconut trees, money plant.. I was ready to pass a judgment. As we stood in the immigration line, I told my husband “I think it is safe to say that all the countries can be divided into two categories, countries that look like India and countries that look like the US, and Colombia I think falls in the India category” Hubby however made a very interesting point. He said, I think there are just two categories, countries that look like India and USA is a separate category in itself. No place in the world is like the US. At first I did not understand, he went on to explain that if u notice closely France, Switzerland also looked just like India, they just were 10 times more cleaner and roads were organized, otherwise they looked just like India. I seemed to agree with him. However I would still like to have a separate category for that, cause even though it’s as simple as India+clean roads in my mind is still not equal to Japan or even Singapore for that matter. So, considering my hubbys opinion, there is Category 1: Countries that look and feel like India, Category 2: countries that have set-ups somewhat similar to India and the US in a separate category by itself. Colombia is definitely in Category one.

Stretches of long well made outer roads ending into shorter haphazard local roads which flood during the rain, traffic running in the right of the road using the left side of the road to make a quick illegal pass, honks before a parallel pass, vehicles of all genre two wheelers, small cars painted yellow which serve as taxis, local buses and all.. people and animals walking on the road, men taking a leak, extra friendly vendors screaming the product they are selling at the top of their voices, men staring at women’s boobs giving them a quick compliment as they pass, shops of fresh flowers, small places of historic importance here and there, small bakeries selling empanadas, arrepas and sweets made of coconut.. this what defines a great part of Colombia. There is a strong contrast in the form of huge sky scrapers, modern buildings, beach villas, super markets luxuries which make you feel you are in the US.

The reason I first write about Simon & Marie is because I think no matter how hard I try my opinions might be influenced by the thought of how two people who were living in a perfectly organized world with friends and family love this place where everything seems like a struggle. Just 10-15minutes of internet a day available only if computer faces 37deg north in the patio, people speaking a language foreign to them and only talk to them when they are trying to sell something, public transport system which has no rules and no timings and no fixed stops, supermarkets where hardly any foreign goods are available, working about 11 hours a day and Saturdays. Their answer this place has a soul, a character!

Food: I believe that local food is one way in which you can experience local culture. Very surprisingly and very contrary to what I had heard, I love Colombian food. What I like best is that the cuisines bring out the best by using of very few fresh ingredients. Everything is very fresh, the tropical fruits and fruit juices are amazing, they have natural sweetness and when whipped together with some local alcohol make amazing cocktails. The meat is very flavorful by itself, a few herbs and touch of the grill later tender bites of heaven is ready.

They use coconut in everything, starting from drinks like coconut lemonade, pinnacolada, to main course items like coconut based sauces, to desserts like coconut pie. Everything tastes so flavorful as the produce is all local and organic. And Cartagena being a coastal town the specialty is sea food. Also since we have been living with Simon & Marie we also got to try some homemade French food. Houstonians get ready to try some quiche & flan once I get back..

Women: Yes! I am going to write an entire section on women.. Before I came on the trip everyone was telling hubby you will have a great time cause the women are so gorgeous, everyone has a boob job, most women are braless, some even topless.. I heard so much about Colombian women that I thought everyone will look like shakira. Well, Beauty must lie in the eyes of the beer holder. Yes, there are gorgeous women. Every now and then in some fancy places you will find extremely gorgeous women. Like in every other place. Nothing special or out of the ordinary. If you are planning a trip to Colombia just for the women I am sorry to disappoint you. Most men here prefer voluptuous boobilicious, bootilicious women. And most women here are like that and dress to trouble men. Men on the other hand indistinctly stare at them and its very common for men to compliment strangers on their looks and women take the compliment very well. I saw women do all kinds of jobs starting from cleaning, vending to policewomen.

The People: Well, I am not the absolute best person to talk about this. They seem very friendly and say things I can’t understand:-D Marie was telling me that they are very laid back. Some Colombians are known to take a nap between Noon and 2 to beat the heat.

I observed the laid back attitude in some vendors. A lady tried to sell us some coconut sweets in a restaurant, when we refused she just lay her tray beside us and sat in our neighboring table, enjoyed the ocean view & slightly moved her body to the music for almost an hour. Also for couples it is common to display some forms of PDA and i did see some girl-girl and boy-boy couples holding hands and watching sunsets by the beach American Influence: There is a small part of cartegena where the rich foreigners live is called bocagrande. This place has the American influence and houses McDonalds, burger king, KFC, Holiday inn, I even saw a Century 21 office.

Boca Grande is the only place where you will hear some English speaking people and also translators negotiating business deals in Colombia’s own version of Starbucks called Juan Valdez.

And Finally: As this trip is coming to an end I realize that every country is nice in its very own way! There are good things, not so good things and few things that surprise you every new country you visit. But ultimately the things that really define a country are the history, people, nature, climate and food.. Colombia has the right mix of everything and its understandable why its so easy to fall in love with this country.