Imagine an idyllic vacation: Are you lounging in a hammock on a white sand beach? Perhaps children’s laughter is heard softly in the distance. Or better yet, the children are busy surfing or paddle boarding. No, scratch that, you are the one surfing. There is time for long walks and quiet conversation. And time to snorkel for hours on spectacular reef with brightly colored fish swimming by and large, swaying purple coral fans. Yes, time also to hang out in a hammock tossing around ideas. Carefree days spent doing whatever seems right, day after day: hanging out, reading, or exploring the outdoors, etc. These are the images of my former daydreams when I was delayed at an airport (again) or stuck in a tedious budget meeting.
This past summer, I had a chance to spend a whole month in this type of dream vacation. But it felt different! Now I know what some (maybe all?) of you are thinking: “Good one Betsy! Isn’t your life one big vacation at the moment?” Yes, I get it. I am not reporting into an office, no longer taking 12+ hour flights every few months, and the backdrop for our family’s travels over the past year has generally been the Caribbean islands fitting this narrative. But a major difference, and new insight for me, was that vacation is a state of mind. And moreover, it is a cerebral condition, that when I am honest with myself seems a bit like a foreign country. This place of tranquility sounds exotic and attractive, yet I do not spend nearly enough time exploring it.
This blog will share my journey to this revelation and enticing photos of our month or so in and around indigenous areas of Panama.
We each have our comfort zones, right? Our life on the high seas involves embracing change and adjusting our sails to the wind. That said, I still prefer to plan first and then execute a well crafted plan. For that reason, I’m nearly always thinking several days in advance and how make the most of our time. Imagine, please, my angst when Bobby and I decided to take a spur of the moment 9-day trip.
How spur of the moment? On a Wednesday afternoon, Bobby and boys headed to the town on the water taxi for Spanish class. Bobby called out “I’ll either buy us tickets to the mountains (Boquete, Panama) or to Puerto Viejo, Costa Rica this afternoon.” We’d talked briefly, meaning someone floated the idea vaguely, about heading to Costa Rica and renting a camper van to tour the country. A few hours later, Bobby and boys returned and confirmed that we would be picked up on a water taxi to start our trip at 8 am the next morning. The trip would entail water taxis, buses and border crossings at a minimum.
What? The countdown had begun! With only a few hours, the priority was to pack and book our rental vehicle “Campervan” for the week. Where would we actually drive this van once we arrived in the new country? Where would we stay or camp each night? How many surf boards should we bring? Which school supplies would be best suited to “on the road” assignments? I wanted to research the national parks and surfing beaches but given the limited time, I multi-tasked by downloading the Lonely Planet Guide to Costa Rica on the family Kindle. There would be time later to freak out about which roads might be washed out or actually crumble as we drove along them given we were taking this trip during rainy season. There were so many questions to answer before taking this road trip. Or maybe not… perhaps it is possible to start a trip and not know what the plan will be for each day. We could try to take it one day at a time and live with the uncertainty.
So that is precisely what we did! Here is a brief photo recap of our trip and the unexpected surprises. For the record, it is not a good idea to take this ad hoc approach for a sailing trip. Sailors need to be watching wind, waves and other weather for at least a week prior and plan out many options for safe harbors. But for a road trip, even an international adventure (just check that your passport is current first), it is possible. Am I more likely to push myself out of my comfort zone again? Definitely. Take the spur of the moment travel challenge – I double dog dare you!
We did it! Alkemi Boat School is officially in recess for the summer break. I asked each boy to share what they learned or liked studying this year as well as to reflect on what they missed out on back home. This blog contains a brief recap of our year by the numbers and some thoughts by the boys and their teacher on how it went. And for those of you wondering if I ever got that rowdy classroom in check, the answer is "nope!"
Summary of Alkemi School Year
Days in Session: 183
Field Trips: 8*
Publishing Parties: 3
Art Shows: 1
*Only full day excursions aligned to school assignments counted here. If I counted afternoon sight seeing, dives on wrecks and hikes to old forts, the tally might be 10 times higher.
The subject I liked most was history because we got to experience history in many of the islands we visited. For example, I learned about the triangle trade: Europeans traded guns to Africa for slaves, colonial crops were grown for cash (supported by slave labor) and then the colonial powers in Europe using their cash to make weapons to trade with Africa. It was a daily fieldtrip to see the plantations and old colonial buildings in the Caribbean that were the result of this period of history. Overall, I liked having more free time in my afternoons to freedive and play in pick-up sports games on beach.
My favorite topic this year was World War II. I liked reading books about the war from a kid’s perspective and learning about how the Allies defeated the Nazi party. The best thing about our boat school day was that it was a short day so I could swim. I also liked all the field trip we took like going to Medellin and Bogota in Colombia. But I missed playing soccer with my friends at recess the most.
This was a fun year! My favorite subject was Reading! I liked Reading because I got to read many books including In the Year of the Boar and Jackie Robinson, Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH, and "The Marble Champ." I also wrote my own books in composition including The Despicable Teddy Bear, The Super Cheeseburger, and The New Galaxy. One of the things I miss from my main-land school is all my friends. I play with my brothers but they are not as fun the whole entire 3rd grade in my old school, Calvin Coolidge School.
And finally, the teacher's perspective on Alkemi Boat School (see pro and con lists below). In the final wrap-up, we accomplished tons and, like the boys, I am looking forward to our summer vacation with a child's excitement!
My favorite airline magazine has a feature called “3 Perfect Days…” where a traveler outlines how to spend several days in a new place. These always leave my mouth watering and a hunger to travel to these destinations myself. This blog contains my version of spending a few days in Santa Marta as well as the boys' versions (from school assignments on the road) to get you thinking about other Colombian destinations like Bogota and Medellin. Enjoy!
Spotlight on Santa Marta, Colombia
Day 1: Scout Out the City Beach Front
As you touch down at the Santa Marta airport, you have a panoramic view of one of the oldest cities in Colombia. Stepping off the plane, the heat rises from the tarmac and you slip on your sunglasses to take in the turquoise waters of the Caribbean coast of Colombia. Grab a taxi to your hotel (or friend’s boat) to drop off your bags and slip into swim trunks.
Now you are ready for an afternoon stroll on the city’s beach front promenade. As you amble down the wide sidewalks, notice the prominent sculptures highlighting the pre-Colombian Tayrona (also spelled Tairona) civilization. These strong bronzes commemorate the native inhabitants of this region who revolted and were subsequently persecuted to near extinction by the Spanish in the 1600s.
Feeling parched? Take out your pesos and purchase a freshly squeezed limonetta (limeade) from one of the many carts. This will set you back about fifty cents in US dollars. Perhaps you want to grab some freshly sliced mango or an empanada for another 2000 pesos (75 cents) to round out your snack. A friendly woman says “hola” and asks if you’d like a massage? Try out your Spanish and negotiate on the price. When it sounds good to you (maybe 10,000 pesos or $4 USD?), take a seat and enjoy a 20-minute chair massage. Or perhaps you’d rather kick a futbol with the children on the playa. If you are brave, try some flips off the pilings with the local boys. Tired yet? Head back to your room for a brief siesta.
You wake up from your siesta and find the sun has dropped behind the lush coconut palms that line the beaches on this waterfront town. Freshen up and take a stroll to Parque de los Novios. This large square boasts a statue of El Libretador, Simon Bolivar, famous for his quest to support the independence and create Gran Colombia uniting Colombia, Bolivia, Ecuador, Peru, Panama and Venezuela. In the rotundas on the square you can see a group of teens salsa dancing to a fast beat. At the other end of the square, another group has gathered for Parcour practice and the agile boys leap and twist over railings. In between, couples cuddle on benches while a few Crem Helado (ice cream) carts weave around offering a cool treat. After making a loop to review the Happy Hour deals and restaurant options, you select Ouzo and head to the 2nd floor for a rooftop deck dinner of flatbreads and salad under the shade of the tamarind trees. This farm-to-table and organic meal with custom cocktails and a flan for dessert comes out to about $15 US.
Before nodding off after your busy day, make plans for a tour of Tayrona Park and a Santa Marta walking tour. Then set your alarm for an early hike!
Day 2: Hike in Parque Nacional Natural Tayrona
Put on your hiking shoes and pack a backpack with water, sunscreen and bug spray! Today’s several hour hike will take you into the Tayrona Natural Park, a protected area in the foothills of the northern Colombia’s Sierra Nevada mountains. Once the stomping grounds of the Tayrona people, you may have a chance to meet current day descendants such as the indigenous Kogi, who have an intricate spiritual world intertwined with protecting the environment. If you have more time on your trip, arrange a several day hike through the rainforests, coves and lagoons to the Pueblito ruins of the ancient civilization and perhaps visit a working village of indigenous peoples still living in this region. Along the path, you may meet a member of the Kogi tribe who will stand out wearing customary pure white clothing to represent purity of nature and carrying a traditional woven bag. While Kogi traditionally farm, they may be selling fresh squeezed orange juice or coconut water out of the nut to support the wary hikers.
During your day hike, you can learn about the Tayrona natural gods and goddesses as well as the various species of fauna and flora in this biodiverse area. Take a break at the playa which is a natural turn around point. The surf is refreshing before your hike back out.
Ready to get some nourishment and see more action? Head to Rodadero Beach to learn how Colombians enjoy a day at the beach! This lively spot offers cabanas where all your needs will be met. A full course meal delivered with tables and cutlery to your cabana, beers, cocktails out of a pineapple or coconut, obreas (waffles with a caramel called arequipe), a new hat, another set of shades or any other item you may desire will come by for sale every few minutes. There are even paddle boats, rides on an inflatable banana and many other water sports for your enjoyment. If this is too much excitement, skip the cabana and just stroll the beach and tourist shops in town. Most evenings offer live music and street performances too. Sometime after sundown, it’s time to crash and prepare for your last day in Santa Marta.
Day 3: Some Culture before catching your plane!
After you packing your bags, make sure to stroll past the Iglesia de San Francisco de Asis and Cathedral of Santa Marta. Pick a cup of freshly cut mango to nibble on before you the Museo del Oro Tairona, a cultural museum where you can learn about each of the native peoples of Colombia, the famous liberator Simon Bolivar, and view intricately carved gold archaeological pieces. Hungry again? Take a walk through the local market before heading to the airport. Try a local exotic fruit such as a Lulo that the vendor will juice for you on the spot and pick up an arepa con pollo for some protein. Now hop in the cab to the airport so you don’t miss your plane!
Henry’s Journal Entry: Three Things I learned by visiting Medellin, Colombia
When I visited Medellin, Colombia, I learned three things: tragedies in Colombia are forgotten, Colombians like when stereotypes are broken, and Colombians like unique people. When I say that tragedies in Colombia are forgotten, I mean that Colombians try to forget the bad things that have happened. In Medellin, a grenade was thrown right below a metro (subway) station. There was no memorial, nothing to tell you it even happened. Another example of this in Medellin was two statues of disproportioned birds; one was in perfect condition and the other almost destroyed. The destroyed bird was blown up by a bomb in the 1990s killing 26 people. As soon as this tragedy happened, the President of Colombia ordered it to be removed. The artist Botero who made the statue told him it had to stay there as a memorial and he would give a new one too. This tragedy would have been forgotten if it wasn’t for Botero. These tragedies are forgotten because Colombians try to look at the future and not the past. That is how tragedies in Colombia are forgotten.
The second thing I learned in Medellin is that Colombians like it when stereotypes are broken. The average person sees and believes Colombia to be a dangerous, drug infested place. When I visited, the Colombians said the few English phrases they knew and asked me if I liked Colombia. All the people who asked got great joy to hear me compliment their country. That is how Colombians like when stereotypes are broken.
The final think I learned in Medellin is that Colombians like unique people. By “unique”, I mostly mean different or foreign. In Medellin, many people will stare at you (especially if you have lighter or blond hair) and even stand right next to you to see how small they are compared to you. One of the most extreme cases of this (shared by our tour guide) was when a Colombian woman handed her baby to two tall, blond haired tourists and requested a photo of the trio. Overall, you can see how Colombians like unique people.
In conclusion, the three things I learned in Medellin are that tragedies are rarely commemorated, that Colombia defies stereotypes (the cities are safe and welcoming to tourists), and that Colombians are intrigued by foreigners.
Don't Hassle Me. I'm Local. - Bob's t-shirt, What About Bob?
Have you ever day-dreamed about moving to a new place? When you take a vacation for a week or two, perhaps you find yourself imagining shopping each day in the local market, reading in the nearby park and going about family life in this new idyllic setting. Or perhaps you think “Nice place to visit, but I wouldn’t want to live here…”.
During our last 10 months, being in new places several times a month has provided many opportunities to consider our favorite question: “Would we want to live here?” Physically being in a place for just a few days, or even one week or two, may not long enough to get a true sense of the community and patterns of living. Is it time, though, that can provide this experience? As a foreigner, can you ever be truly accepted? As I considered this question, we have been living in Santa Marta, Columbia for one month. Yes, we did spend a month in another country (traveling to different Bahamian islands every day or so), but this is the longest we’ve stayed in one port since leaving the U.S.
Vacation or not, spending time in a foreign-language country is not easy! All of our Spanish skills are improving, thankfully. And I wish I’d shown more appreciation for the English-language skills of hotel staff on my past business trips. In an area where foreign tourists and residents of different nationalities is rare, you may both standout and have challenges communicating. This adds to the adventure in some ways, like: “How fun! Who knows what I just ordered off the menu?” Obviously, it can throw a wrench in one’s plans too: “Didn’t he say ‘a la derecha’ (to the right)? Now we are lost!” We are definitely out of our comfort zone; local residents in the market often fawn over the adorable “Gringo mono” (translation: blond foreigner) causing Myles much embarrassment.
Yet, after many weeks here, we are starting to feel like locals! This blog discusses some of the elements of our Colombian experience (a love-love affair) that have made us feel this way.
The Lahue Family moved onto a sailboat in Summer 2016. This blog tells our story of adventure.