The Top 10 Ways You Know You’re in Colombia

If you love adventure traveling, consider taking a trip to Colombia. While many people might be nervous about visiting the South American country due to crime, drug cartels and the like, the biggest problems visitors typically deal with are frightfully unsafe bus rides and contracting gastrointestinal illness (GI) from sketchy water.

Let me preface the following list by saying Colombia is a beautiful country with friendly locals, a variety of spectacular landscapes and cool environments (including beaches, cities, jungles, mountains and more), and a host of activities for those, like myself, who love trying new things and crave a spike in adrenaline every now and then. The adventurous experiences–good and bad–now make for unique and funny stories, and this list is (mostly) tongue-in-cheek. Iodine tablets, however, are actually recommended!

Up, up, and away in beautiful San Gil.

Up, up, and away in beautiful San Gil.

1) Your bus stops in town every four minutes to pick up passengers, but then doesn’t stop for four hours in the mountains, and the bumpy ride has your bladder screaming to be emptied. 

 2) You’ve won the lottery if you’re the one person out of twenty-one who didn’t contract GI while on a four-day trek through the jungle. 

3) Starting something forty-five minutes late is the closest to on time you can hope to experience.

4) You’ve lucked out if there’s toilet paper in the bathroom you had to pay to use. Soap is a luxury you only dream about. 

5) Comparing bug bites with fellow travelers is a common past time, and twenty-eight on each leg is considered low. 

6) You eat burnt ants because they just might be better then the local fare. 

7) Honking is a substitute for stop signs, turn signals, breaking and saying hello to other drivers. 

Fording the rushing river.

Fording the rushing river.

8) In the jungle you’re wet nearly every waking moment from sweating profusely, jumping into the river to cool off, being dumped on by the daily afternoon and evening torrential downpours, fording a river with waist-high rushing rapids due to one of the said torrential downpours, or soaking in the river in the evening–lightning be damned, because you know it’s not going to stop raining before you need to get some shut eye–in attempts to alleviate the itching caused by the numerous bug bites covering your legs, and wash away the sweat from the day’s thirteen-kilometer trek. 

9) You catch a ride with a random local on the back of his motor scooter because the vehicle you were in died on the side of a mountain and you didn’t want to swelter in the afternoon sun or have mosquitoes feast on your legs while you waited for another car that may never have arrived. 

10) You nearly throw up in the back of the bus not from the seven back-to-back hairpin turns you took at seemingly one hundred and eighty-three kilometers per hour, or from the moldy mystery cornmeal pancakes of which you regrettably consumed too many bites, or from the severe back pain you’ve incurred from being ejected from and jolted out of your seat repeatedly because of the crazy road, but because someone apparently doused the vehicle in fourteen vats of Lysol immediately prior to departing, and after six hours–many of which are spent silently battling the man seated in front of you for the opportunity to open the shared window so you can suck in one breath of fresh air every hour–you’re still not accustomed to the smell.

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My 5 Favorite Olympic Moments

It’s one of my favorite times of the year. No, not the time following the groundhog’s sighting or non-sighing of his shadow declaring how much or how little of winter we have left. I’m talking about the Olympics. Summer, winter, beach volleyball, bobsled, alpine skiing, speed skating, track and field, ski jumping, fencing; you name it, I’ll watch it. Okay, maybe curling isn’t at the top of my list, but I won’t change the channel if the highlights are on.

I have loved all-things-sports for as long as I can remember. I was skiing down my driveway before I even knew what skis were, and I was watching football years before I understood there was more to it than men running around in tight pants. According to my Top 5 Dream Jobs post, I would be thrilled to be a professional athlete. To me, the Olympics have always been a no-brainer. I get to watch the best athletes in the world compete against each other in a variety of sports.

I have seen only ten Olympic Games in my time, but I can easily recall my five favorite moments from them:

1) Atlanta Summer, 1996: Michael Johnson breaks 200m and 400m world records

Although I competed in track and field at the Division-I level in college, I’d put money on the “other guy” nearly every time in a sprint of him versus me. I can run for days, but anything less than a mile or three is much too fast for my liking and abilities. To be the fastest in the world at the 200 meters and the 400 meters (the most grueling distance, in my opinion) in one Olympics is remarkable. Michael Johnson is the only athlete to claim that success. Additionally, after annihilating his competition and breaking the world record in the 400m, The Man with the Golden Shoes (named so because of his custom gold Nikes) clocked a blazing time of 43.49 seconds that still stands 16 years later.

2) Beijing Summer, 2008: Michael Phelps wins 100m butterfly by 0.01 second

For those who have been living under a rock, Michael Phelps has been a swimming phenom for the last decade (though you may also know him for his Subway commercials or the “incident” when he decided to act like a normal young guy and smoke a little weed). His 22 medals make him the most decorated Olympian of all time and his eight golds give him the most first-place finishes in a single Olympics. He has a slew of other records and accolades, and he has often beaten his competition more than handily. What I will remember most, however, is his win in the 100 meter butterfly by 0.01 second. A sports fan can’t ask for a better competition than that.

3) Albertville Winter, 1992: Hometown Hilary Lindh wins silver in downhill

Hilary Lindh may not be a household name, especially when compared to Johnson and Phelps, but she was a named talked about in my household when I was a kid. Lindh and I were born and raised in the same small town of Juneau, Alaska. In a city of 30,000, everyone knows the names in something as minor as the police blotter. If someone becomes a pro athlete, and then goes on to place second in the Olympics, it’s a big deal. Add to that the fact that I grew up skiing—and then ski racing—on the very run that helped Lindh improve her skills, and her silver medal win is pretty memorable in my book.

4) London Summer, 2012: Misty May Treanor and Kerry Walsh Jennings win third gold in beach volleyball

Volleyball is a game I always want to play at the beach or at a picnic with a group of friends, yet rarely do because I’m a wimp and the ball hurts my wrists too much. However, I enjoy watching others play it, especially at the Olympic level. What’s even better is when it’s two women who have won gold medals in the two previous Olympics and are vying for their third. In the 2012 Games, Misty May Treanor and Kerry Walsh Jennings beat their U.S. teammates in the final match and accomplished their goal—cementing their place in Olympic history and in my memory bank, made even more impressive by the fact that Walsh Jennings was five weeks pregnant at the time.

5) London Summer, 2012: Oscar Pistorius is first amputee runner in Olympics

Potential murder-conviction aside, what Oscar Pistorius did for “disabled” athletes (though he certainly seems more able at running fast than a lot of “able-bodied” people) has left an indelible mark on me. Leading up to the 2012 games, there was rampant controversy in the world of track and field and the Olympics over the question: should a double-amputee who uses prosthetics and blades be allowed to compete in the Olympics? The main argument being that the Blade Runner would have an advantage because of his “blade legs” (as if all the other amputee runners are as fast as, if not faster than, “able-bodied” runners and are just too lazy to put in the effort Pistorius put in to try to compete against them). Pistorius, however, worked as hard off the track as he did on and finally won the right to compete against those with real legs. Though he finished eighth in the semifinals, his incredible running ability and personal tenacity will stay with me for years.

Are you an Olympics fan? What have been your favorite moments in the Games?

23) Drive to Mexico

I challenge the world to show me a border crossing more disparate and paradoxical than that which divides United States and Mexico—at least where San Diego meets Tijuana. Politics aside, the border situation there is a mess. A filthy, putrid, trash-clogging-the-culverts mess.

Admittedly, I have driven across only three international borders: United States-Canada, South Africa-Swaziland and United States-Mexico. I have, however, done a fair amount of globe-trotting (evidenced in part in Oh, the Places I’ve Been) including to “third-world” nations and others poorer than the United States (in an economical, standard-of-living way—I’m not talking about debatable happiness quotients and the like). I have never seen a greater dichotomy between the “haves” and the “have-nots” than I did when I drove through sparkly and lovely San Diego and entered Tijuana, which sparkles only with trash glimmering in the sun and is lovely only when it’s seen in the rear-view mirror. I have no doubt that San Diego has its own dirty underbelly that is much overshadowed by its beauty and opulence, but I refuse to believe it is anywhere near the level of decay that afflicts Tijuana. The decay that is so powerfully nauseating it stings the nostrils and forces drivers to rapidly crank up their windows and switch on the A/C to keep cool.

Crossing the border made me disgusted, saddened and grateful. Disgusted by the odious air and the hideous amounts of garbage strewn haphazardly about the roadside, in the culverts and around people’s homes; saddened at the reality that people actually live in such abysmal and grotesque conditions; and grateful to reside in a place (block, city, state, nation—take your pick) that is at the opposite end of the spectrum of, well, places in which I’d be grateful to live. Or, I think, places in which most people would be grateful to live. I realize Santa Monica, California, is not everyone’s cup of tea, but I think I’d be hard-pressed to find anyone who would favor Tijuana—at least where it abuts the border.

Fortunately, I had been to Mexico before (always having flown in), and could close my gaping mouth with the knowledge that we were headed a couple hours south of the border to the charming, pretty town of Punta Banda—really a sand spit more than a town, but perfect for a relaxing weekend getaway.

In addition to driving to Mexico for the first time, I went boogie boarding for the first time, which was sad considering I live a mile from the beach and love playing in the surf. I loved it, though, and hope to do it more often! We also went zip lining and clambering across suspension bridges; snacked on delicious tamales, olives and nuts that were all but free at a roadside stand; and checked out the tourist trap known as La Bufadora.

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La Bufadora spouts and sprays tourists.

If I had been out ambling around and randomly stumbled on one of North America’s largest blowholes, I would have been pretty pleasantly surprised. As it has already been discovered—and completely exploited, which I’ll get to in a second—it’s still fun watching the waves roll into the sea cave, trying to anticipate when the next set will force a geyser of water nearly a hundred feet in the air.

I refer to it as a tourist trap not to be tired and cliché, but to offer an accurate assessment of my experience at the site. The gauntlet of countless vendors and kitschy stores visitors have no choice but to walk through to reach the blowhole is so long it feels like a trap. We’ve been walking for days, past store after store selling one unnecessary thing after another, none of which seem related to the marine geyser, which we obviously came to see. Surely it’s right up ahead, no? Oh, a little further you say? Okay. But first, let’s heed your suggestion, step into your store and have a look at all the magnificent, relevant things you have for sale.   

Now, I get it. I understand that tourist destinations offer local vendors an easy way to make a buck, while also providing visitors with treasured keepsakes and classy mementos to commemorate their trip. I mean, on a trip to Beijing, who doesn’t want to buy a small bag on a key ring that contains a live goldfish? (Yes, that’s a real thing). Or how about a doughnut magnet from Corfu, Greece, because, you know, visitors flock to the Greek islands for their doughnuts. (I’m now kicking myself for not having taken a picture of it when I was there). Or maybe the perfect way to remember that visit to Scotland is returning home with a bagpipe-playing air freshener? (Actually, that sounds pretty funny).

While we didn’t see any of the aforementioned “goodies”—probably because we didn’t enter any of the stores—we did see plenty of other weird, mostly useless stuff. What bothered me the most, however, was the few stores that paraded exotic animals on short leashes in front of their stores. To, what, lure tourists inside? Yes, I’ll patronize your store because you collar and leash leopards to parade around. A cramped, muggy store on a bustling road guiding people to a blowhole is the prime environment for such a wild animal.

Before I digress too much more, the blowhole is fun to see and, according to Trip Advisor, one of the top attractions in Ensenada. Maybe it says something about Ensenada, maybe it says something about me for not being over the moon about it; I’m not sure. Being a writer, I’m passionate about making things up and telling stories, so what do I know?

All in all we had a blast and the time flew by. I never did eat that mescal worm as I had hoped—I have a penchant for trying weird edibles, like durian (aka ‘poop fruit’) in Thailand and burnt ants in Colombia—but I did drink tequila. Its smell and potency was somewhat diminished in my mango margarita, but I was content with my accomplishment of drinking the local alcohol despite my massive disdain for it (thanks, 21st birthday celebration). I was also content with my accomplishment of driving to Mexico—perhaps the biggest success being safely driving once across the border, as my eyes had a hard time focusing on the road rather than the decrepit state of the area.

Have you driven across national borders that depict two places more dissimilar than San Diego and Tijuana? If so, I’d be interested in hearing about them!