Category Archives: Colombia

Llama got big

Llama is big now

Do you remember our adorable Colombian kitten Llama? When Fiona rescued him from starvation and scary dogs he was tiny. Small enough to curl up in the crook of her neck.

When we left our host family in Santa Marta we left Llama with the daughter of one of the school teachers. She kindly sent through this photo because we thought we might like to see his progress. Our thoughts:

  • Golly he’s grown. Suddenly a real looking cat.
  • His eyes look a bit funny in this photo, and he still hasn’t properly grown into his ears, but overall he is very handsome.
  • Look at the excellent tiger-like markings on his back and rump!

The photo was also a reminder of just how much time has passed since we left the kids of Mariposas. On one level it has only been a little more than six months. But just like six months must seem a long time to a growing kitten as he transitions into being a cat, the diversity of experience we’ve had across South America, Asia and the Middle East makes our time seem very long. Especially if you think back to the detail of one destination or another.

We keep in touch with Mariposas, and understand it has been trucking along okay. Not without some challenges, mind. New legislation had the unexpected consequence of requiring volunteers to come with pre-arranges visas, which is costly and cumbersome. And the city of Santa Marta spent months without piped water. Organisations are not easy things to run in the developing world, with challenges like these.

News over our shoulder

An interesting part of travel is reading news about countries you’ve traveled in and having a new kind of affinity for what is going on there. It also means I tend to seek out news from places we have traveled in a way I wouldn’t have previously. Here are some examples of news that have raised my eyebrows recently:

  • In an ongoing (and almost certainly futile) attempt to stop its supermarkets running out of key goods, Venezuela is to start requiring grocery shoppers to submit fingerprints when they buy stuff, so they can catch folks who are hoarding.
  • In a mark of the ferocious nationalism that its government has cultivated, a recent poll in China found a majority of Chinese respondents thought their country would go to war with Japan by 2020. I sure hope not.
  • TAP Air Portugal is starting nonstop flights from Lisbon to Bogota. You probably don’t care about that, though. You may be more interested that the US has withdrawn its request to extradite a man they thought was money-laundering, but it turns out is a carpenter who can’t use a computer.
  • China claims to be phasing out its practice of harvesting kidneys from death penalty victims to use for patients who need them. This strikes me as a difficult ethical issue. If you accept the validity of the death penalty then to me taking organs seems okay.

Friday afternoon quizes: Colombia

After a surprising amount of interest from folk wanting to know whether they are smarter than a Pakistani eleven year old I have resolved to make quizzes a regular feature of this blog.

Each Friday afternoon, inshallah, I will post a quiz with ten questions about a country we have visited, starting at the beginning of our travels. By my rough calculations, by the end of the year the quizzes should have just about caught up with our travels.

Many if not all of the quiz answers will be found on this blog. But to avoid you all googling your way to glory I have set a time limit for the amount of time you can spend taking the quiz.

Round one: Colombia


A Paisa is a Colombian who comes from:

What would a Colombian call a feijoa?

The former Colombian President largely credited with the country’s newfound security is:

Which sentence best explains the False Positives scandal that happened on that President’s watch?

What is the furthest that Colombia has progressed in the football world cup?

What is an arepa?

Is Colombia:

Boterro's artwork is famous for:

Every year Carnaval is separated on the coast...

In Spanish Turkeys say...

Ten reasons you should now be supporting Colombia in the world cup

One: They’re fun, flamboyant and tricksy, just look at the first goal featured on this video – it’s like a trick shot. Thought we were passing over there? Ha, nope!

Two: They dance when they score a goal. They dance well. Again, video. And it’s not arrogant or mean spirited it’s just like “yea, we dance when good things happen!”

Three: The team looks like Colombia. A crucible of African and European and Indigenous Americans. They might call each other ‘blackie’ or ‘fattie’ as terms of endearment because, actually, in Colombia, body type and ethnic origin isn’t actually that big a deal.

Four: Colombia’s recent history is so dark that they’ve celebrated every little thing they could get. They threw a public holiday when one of their riders won one stage of the Tour de France. Can you imagine what world cup wins do for this still recovering nation?

Five: Brasil, their next opponent (and probably main barrier to glory) has an absolutely despicable level of inequality. See it in a picture.

Six: The kids we taught at Mariposas took their football more seriously than anything else. They’d all concentrate and run swarming around the ball. One student liked to wear his Carnaval mask when he was goal keeping, and his hoodie.

Seven: Look at these guys…

They’re from our Colombian host family. How chuffed and adorable would they be if Colombia kept winning?

Eight: The kitten we left behind, Llama, would like it too. He’s been in training for months. Except when he’s tired.

Screen Shot 2014-07-02 at 11.34.00 AM
Colombians recently voted, albeit narrowly, to retain a President who favours the peace process with FARC rebels. How bout we get in behind a country pursuing peace?

Ten: There’s a whole soundtrack of Colombian pop you can grove to when you enjoy Colombia’s progress: see our friend Vanessa’s list.

¡Entonces, vamos Colombia!

What we’ve spent in South America

As a public service to anyone who might be thinking about following in our footsteps in South America, and to satisfy the curiosity of others, we thought we’d share a little about what our day to day spending is while traveling in various countries.

We do this as we leave South America and we’ll repeat a similar exercise for Asia later.

We’re providing an average daily spend in New Zealand dollars, and our estimate of how many times cheaper the countries we travel in are than New Zealand. This data is taken from our ongoing spending tracking which we update every week (I affectionately describe this as our WEEBU or weekly budget update) and from our general recollections of the prices we have observed.

Screen Shot 2014-06-08 at 10.20.11 PMDisclaimers

I’d have learned nothing as a consultant if I didn’t offer some disclaimers over this and indeed, a couple of caveats are in order:

  • This is on the ground costs. It excludes international flights and other pre-trip costs like visas and vaccinations.
  • This represents our travel. That means it reflects the specific experiences we chose to have, rather than what costs will be like for everyone. You could travel and spend more, or less and you might differ from us in where you chose to splash out or do it cheap.
  • Our costs are for a couple. You could reasonably assume two thirds for a lone traveler.
  • In a long period of travel there are inevitably some ‘lumpy’ costs like buying a new backpack or sending a package home. Where it’s easy to do so we’ve taken these out, but some will remain.

Some observations

  • Argentina is pleasingly cheap given the quality of food, accommodation etc. we’ve enjoyed is as good, if not better, than what you’d expect at home. Taking advantage of the black market exchange rate it’s like an awesomely cheap version of Europe.
  • Peru is probably cheaper than it looks. Costs are pumped up by expensive entries to places like Machu Picchu. We also chose to spend more to enjoy more of Peru’s excellent cuisine. We don’t regret that for a second, but you could spend less.
  • If you’ve got US dollars then Venezuela is silly cheap and the quality of food and accommodation is surprisingly high. But even given that, traveling there at the moment isn’t worth it. It’s just too dangerous to be enjoyable.
  • Colombia is a great destination and well worth the extra few dollars above the price of travel in Ecuador and Peru. Spending a long time there, to volunteer like we did, is very worthwhile.

So long South America – some parting observations

The sunset at the beginning of the world; day's end at Isla del Sol.
The sunset at the beginning of the world; day’s end at Isla del Sol.

We’re really sad to be leaving South America. It’s been an amazing five months and, if it weren’t for Asian travels on the horizon we’d probably be pretty down about our departure.

Truth be told, South America was never my first priority. When our timing for Asia didn’t match with the climate we needed to do what we wanted we had to reshuffle and I wasn’t sure how it would work out. But our time here has been challenging and rewarding and the places we have been and people we’ve met have been incredible. Significantly exceeded expectations.

As we leave, here are a range of parting observations. They try, but fail, to capture what we’ve seen and what we’ve thought in broad sweeping themes:

  1. There’s a lot of European history here, more than I had understood. Around the same time that Maori were losing their independence to British colonisers, Colombians were getting their independence from Spanish conquistadores. So things look and feel quite European even if they also feel different.
  2. There’s an upper middle class in the Andes whose life experience is probably not so different from ours at home. And that’s true for the whole middle class in Argentina. At the same time there are poorer groups whose living standards are dramatically different.
  3. A little Spanish goes a long way. A little more goes a long way too. There’s surely no other language that is so accessible to English speakers that allows you to speak with such a diversity of people. And the ability to cut through the hand signals and ask about family or work or aspirations really enriches a travel experience. I’m glad I learned some and grateful that Fiona knew lots.
  4. South American societies are colonial, like at home, but the mixing of ethnicities, be they African, European or indigenous, has been much greater. At its most mixy, skin colour doesn’t even denote ethnicity anymore. This is fundamentally different to New Zealand.
  5. It’s not realistic to call South America ‘catholic’. Not when there’s devil worship, hallucinogenic/spiritual drugs and witches. There’s catholic traditions for sure, but there’s a parallel spiritual belief system which sets South America apart, too. They still manage to be pretty prohibitive about abortion, however.
  6. Sloths are amazing.
  7. With notable exceptions, South American food isn’t much to write home about. There are a lot of carbs and a lot of fried things. Peru and Argentina stand out as the pick of the bunch in terms of cuisine.
  8. There’s a strong left wing political tradition in lots of South American countries. The best face of this is innovative policy and a concern for the poor. The worst is disastrous policies piled one upon another to sustain a doctrine that is clearly unrealistic.
  9. It’s not that dangerous, and danger isn’t always where you’d expect. The massive police presence in Colombia made us feel safer there than in the tourist hub of Ecuador.
  10. The people are great. Colombians and Argentinians are the most openly friendly we’ve come across; Bolivians and Peruvians tend to be a little more reserved. But we’ve experienced kindness everywhere we’ve been.

Should this be celebrated?

Ever since I spied them in the play lunch of the kids at Mariposas I have been unsure about my support for these dried snacks that are purportedly reconstituted, dried bacon. Of course bacon is excellent but should it be bastardised in this way? My concern is furthered because most of the poor souls who eat this stuff will probably never get a chance to eat real bacon themselves, rare as it is in these parts.

Cololmbian elections into run off

You might recall us writing about the impending Colombian presidential elections.

The initial voting was completed a couple of days ago. None of the candidates got an outright majority and so the two with the most votes progress through to a run off on 15 June.

The two top candidates were the incumbent, President Juan Manual Santos, and the challenger from Centro Democratico, the party of former President and security hardliner Alvador Uribe, Oscar Ivan Zuluaga. We saw Zuluaga speak when he came to Santa Marta, and at the time we noted that his name recognition was super low, so he’s done well to wiggle himself into the run off. He narrowly topped the poll with 29% compared to Santos’ 26%.

What does this mean?

Even more than before you could now interpret this election as a referendum on ongoing relations with the FARC rebel group and the peace talks with them. Santos was Uribe’s defence Minister, but as President has been more conciliatory towards the rebels than Urbie thinks is appropriate. That’s basically why he formed a new party and put Zuluaga at the head of  it (he couldn’t run himself because of term limits). Zuluaga is pledging to end the peace process if he’s elected.

While Zuluaga has done well to get this far, it’s reasonably hard to see him winning this competition. He’s further to the right of Santos, who is a more centrist candidate. So you’d expect the folks that voted for other relatively centrist or left wing candidates (not that there are many of the latter) to throw their votes to Santos giving him the win.

The x factor though will be how many of the almost 60% of voters who didn’t participate in the first round of voting turn out to vote in the run off. Both Santos and Zuluaga will be keen on their support.

We’ll be watching with interest to see how things turn out.

Llama’s still doing his thing

Llama‘s new family in Santa Marta have, delightfully, sent us an update on his progress. They say: “He is very playful and likes to jump and run all around. But not to leave the house. He is very cute and has grown a bit.”

They also say that they took Llama for a visit to our host family, who were very pleased to see him and took these photos.

IMG_20140404_134922_07 IMG_20140406_091925  IMG_20140406_092020

Ecuador seems more dangerous than Colombia

Tourist police not on the job.
Tourist police not on the job.

Contrary to some public perceptions, to us, Ecuador seems considerably more dangerous than Colombia. We base this on:

  • There’s tourist destinations that it isn’t safe to walk to.
  • Cafes and restaurants display signs encouraging you to get them to call a cab (apparently it isn’t always safe to flag them).
  • Barbed wire and broken glass atop fences.
  • Much more stringent warnings about theft and muggings in guide books.
  • Everyone wearing their backpack on their front on public transport.
  • The much less visible police presence.