Monthly Archives: February 2014

Our learned friend

We made a really useful friend on our bus ride across the Venezuelan border. He happened to be sitting in front of us and was interested in having a chat. It’s incredibly useful that Fiona can have meaningful conversations with people. Many travelers are more like me, in that our conversations resemble some sort of terrible verbal game of Pictionary.

He shepherded us across the border, was open about black market currency exchange, and was generally interested in what we had to say about New Zealand. It turned out he was both a captain in the military, and a lawyer. Despite this, he encouraged us to give, like him, to the pot of money used to bribe border officials.

Our arrival in Maracaibo was not as planned. We’d had to take a different bus at the last minute and it dropped us somewhere unexpected. It was dark and late and we were on the side of a highway. Taxi drivers are plentiful in Venezuela, but frequently sideline as kidnappers. Walking is not an option.

But our learned friend came to our rescue. He couldn’t find a taxi so took us with him to a kind of urban country club for lawyers which was a few blocks away, while waiting for his wife to come and pick us up. There were pools and a bar. It seems that in Venezuela, as in Colombia, the loudness of the music is considered proportional to the bar’s quality. This bar was very loud.

Not only did our learned friend get us out of a sticky situation, he gave us an interesting insight into how the richer Venezuelans are getting on. Their socialising is in private clubs with private security. And it turns out they can easily sustain opposition to the government, while being in its ranks. Before he and his wife dropped us at our hotel, they offered many complaints with the government. And she recounted that, attending an eight year old’s birthday party that day, the song for the birthday boy had spontaneously morphed into a rousing anti-government chant.

They waited for us to signal that our hotel reservation was fine, and then drove off into the Venezuelan night, leaving us with a list of their phone numbers should we get into any trouble.

Venezuela: The final frontier

Originally we’d planned to break up our volunteering with a two week trip to Venezuela. Its border is just a few hours from Santa Marta, the chance for new passport stamps is hard to ignore, plus, we were looking forward to observing the legacy of Hugo Chavez. Chavez’s image was probably the main one we associated with Venezuela. We wanted to see the quirks of an economy he had run (arguably into the ground).

Deciding to go to Venezuela

What we didn’t understand from afar is that Venezuela isn’t just a kind of quaint socialist experiment that’s managed to keep itself tourist friendly (like, say, Cuba). In fact it’s really dangerous. It ranks number four on the most murderous countries in the world, and on average last year there were four violent protests against the government each day. To add to this, a renewed and widespread protest movement against the government coincided with our planned trip. We’ll write about this specifically soon.

We were lucky to get a much clearer picture after we arrived in Colombia. We talked with other travelers, and we crowdsourced advice from friends-of-friend Venezuelans on facebook which was very useful. Some said not to go. Others said there was nothing to worry about. Everyone told us to be very careful: don’t speak English on the streets, don’t show your camera, and never your dollars…

Our decision was pretty finely balanced, but in the end we decided to go. We count ourselves as reasonably savvy travelers. We scaled down our trip from a planned two week tour to a four day surgical strike to a safe area: enough to get a taste, but only a taste, of how crazy things were over the border.

Crossing the border

We were still feeling nervous as we boarded our direct bus from Santa Marta to Maracaibo, Venezuela’s second biggest city. Our luggage was thoroughly searched by Colombian security before we boarded. Contraband trafficking across the border is a major problem, and is heavily policed. Continue reading Venezuela: The final frontier

Uses of snaplock bags

We were given an excellent present before we departed New Zealand: snaplock bags. Here’s what we’ve used them for:

  • Keeping delicious serpentes acidos (sour snakes) ant free
  • Keeping verb conjugation flash cards together
  • Salvaging a massage block that didn’t agree with the heat here, and melted
  • Transporting painted hearts that the kids made for valentines day that we sold at a hostel party as a fundraiser
  • Carving a space for our cilantro and chilli in our host family fridge

Upcoming Colombian elections

In lieu of an actual post from us, here‘s a useful backgrounder to Colombia’s upcoming elections. The biggest issue is the ongoing negotiations with FARC.

The positions of the various political parties with regards to the peace process are distinct, and the results of the elections will affect, partly or considerably, the progress of the peace negotiations taking place in Cuba.


Quiz nights in another land

Mariposas regularly runs quiz nights a couple of times a week in some of Santa Marta’s more upscale hostels. It’s good fun. We go and ask a few dozen questions, the bar donates some prizes and we get to ask travelers to make donations to our work. It’s also a useful way to raise some awareness about the foundation and to recruit new volunteers.

We ask things like:

  1. Where’s the only place the Trans-American highway is broken between Anchorage in Alaska and Santiago in Chile.
  2. What do dogs say in Spanish?
  3. This is the line of what movie: Mr. Dufresne, describe the confrontation you had with your wife the night that she was murdered.

Answers are over the break


It’s also an interesting insight into a slightly different approach to travel than ours. The hostels we quiz in are super flash. They have pools. They have bars. They have restaurants serving reliable western food. And they cost more for a dorm bed per night than the two of us pay for our homestay. It’s also more than you’d pay for a private room in a Colombian hotel.

The easy backpacker experience commands a premium.

What you’re really paying for here is the chance to meet an Israeli who’s just finished military service and is looking for someone to visit the beach with. Or to swap stories with Norweigans over a game of pool. And probably to decide the best way to visit Tayrona Parque is with an all inclusive tour that’s booked through the hostel.

It’s easy to forget you’re in Colombia. And maybe you’re not, really. One hostel in particular has a fortress feel. It’s in a flash suburb by the mall, and surrounded by high fences. Everything in the hostel faces inwards to the pool area. The pool sure looks inviting, and the travel experience significantly more comfortable than our own. But also less authentic. Continue reading Quiz nights in another land

Off the grid

We’re taking the next ten days off of school to do some travel. We’re not sure how much internet access we’ll have, but it won’t be much.

No doubt there will be stories to tell, and photos to share, once we are back in Santa Marta for the school week starting 24 February. And for our especially avid readers we have a couple of posts scheduled to upload for the time we’re away. Wish us luck…

The distance between

Fiona has been conducting something akin to reading recovery classes with Hedgehog. Today they read a book about kangaroos. Fiona asked Hedgehog whether she knew where kangaroos live. She thought so: “in the mountains”.

To correct her, Fiona showed her Australia on a map. She also pointed out New Zealand. The best way we’ve learned to explain that New Zealand is far away is to talk about it in hours of plane travel. “It’s thirty hours in a plane,” Fiona said.

Hedgehog was confused, “can’t you go by busetta?” she said.

A busetta is a mini van that plies the local routes of Santa Marta. Busetta routes probably encircle the whole world that Hedgehog will ever inhabit.

Fingers crossed, with Fiona’s assistance, she’ll at least be able to read about planes.

Fascination with facial features

Fiona has just finished a conversation with a visiting five year old neighbor Marimar.

Marimar had hoped that Fiona, who was knocking at the door, was her abuelo (grandpa). She wasn’t and Marimar was a little miffed. “Hmph” she said,”it’s not grandpa, it’s the gringa”. Gringo is a slightly derogatory term used for Americans here, and gringa is its feminine form.

Our almost resident host grandchild Jose, all of four, stood up for Fiona: “She’s not a gringa, she’s Fiona” he said “and the other one is Jose, like me!”.

At this point, Marimar, who has what Lean In tells us we should call leadership skills, commanded that Fiona bend down to her level. This allowed her to inspect Fiona’s face in more detail. “Why is it red?” she asked, pointing to chin, nose and cheeks.

The kids we see at home and at school are the most forward with their questions about, and poking of, our appearance. Our class is prone to stroking the hair on my arms, and pulling at my hair. One student concluded that Fiona’s children would have “blue eyes, monkey hair and blotchy skin”. Adults tend to be more cautious in their approach. The prize for the question so far which has been most reasonable and amusing is “does everyone in your country have blue eyes?” They seemed bemused when we said they don’t.

Art project

We find ourselves reaching into primary school memories of our own for many ideas. For example, Heads Down, Thumbs Up, Hands on Heads (manos en la cabeza!) and, a recent addition to our sports day staples, Candlesticks. Anyone else remember this one and how it works? The only thing I can’t recall is how we decided who was ‘it’ to start.

Once a week the kids do art. It’s about the easiest period to fill with our own primary school nostalgia. Today’s project came from Fiona’s store of childhood memories. The kids coloured paper with multi coloured crayons. They had to work hard to make sure there were no white spaces.


Then they coloured over the colours with black, again avoiding white space. Then they could draw pictures by scraping off the black crayon, revealing colours below. We gave them each a coin to facilitate scraping. Fifty pesos, the lowest denomination, is about three New Zealand cents, but probably still good enough to buy a candy or two. The kids were very pleased, but pleasingly, not that distracted from the task at hand.

Probably the most successful result is proudly shown below.


This art project is significantly easier to explain on this blog than it was in my Spanish lesson. However my Spanish teacher did, eventually, conclude it was muy chevere (very cool).

An historical explanation for Colombian accents

If you’re a beginner Spanish speaker, who’s just craning their ears for a recognisable word or two, there’ s not much to notice about Colombian accents. But if you’re more a connoisseur of the language, there are definite regional accents.

A lot of the variation can be explained by the history of settlement.

The coastal costeño accent is slushier, with final consonants omitted, and an emphasis on mumbling. It’s similar to the andalucian accent of southern Spainards. Colombus, and the explorers, colonists and slave traders that followed him, sailed from Andalucia. The coastal Colombians had the most ongoing contact with these travelers, and their accent continued to be influenced by this interaction.

Highland, or Andean Spanish, like the kind spoken in Bogota, is crisper. Many claim it’s the purest Spanish in the world and best to learn from. Bogotanos take pride in their more educated form of speech. They’re known for crisp articulation, and commonly use the formal you (usted) even when talking to their children.

History explains the highland accent too. Its close to the language used by Spanish colonists. But ongoing contact with Spain was more limited than on the coast, and the accent changed less over time. In fact, the Spanish spoken in Bogota today is closer to the Spanish spoken by the first colonists, than in Spain today. Our dictionary tells us that colonial speakers tend to be more conservative about structural change to language. Youse think that’s right, aye?

Folk from Medellin also have a variation in accent though you might need to be a linguistic scholar to describe it correctly. But their accent is considered closer to Spanish Spanish. Fiona picked this up from a sample of one Medellino on our rafting trip. Medellin was settled primarily by northern Spainards and Basques and a hint of their accent remains to this day.

A plausible application of this Colombian pattern at home might be to expect a Scottish accent in Dunedin. You’d be drawing a long bow to suggest the alevolar trill of Southland is evidence of this. A more amusing thought is how things might be different if people from Hamilton spoke Brummie.