The place where time stood still

It is early morning when a loud drip- drip of water drops falling onto our skylight makes me wonder if it is raining. I look out the window. Fog has surrounded us. Overhead, the waterlogged tree releases it’s surplus moisture from it’s leaves over the roof of our camper. Cool air makes me want to stay in bed a little bit longer: there is no rush, we’ll wait until the sun breaks up the fog …. we have all the time in the world …. We are still in the cloud forest of Al Bosque, in the almost too tranquil mountains high above the city of Medellin. Waiting here for parts and repairs has been a zen-like test of our patience. Now, after one month of practicing an appreciation of a simple life filled with a sea of time, we look forward to leaving; on to a new experience.

Don’t get me wrong, we had a good time, albeit interspersed with times of boredom. So, when overwhelmed by the idea of endless time on hand, it was good to have our dog Kakao, who would never turn down a long walk in the neighboring woods.

The path in the forest is not an easy one: no part of the trail is horizontal, and large sections are washed out, leaving slippery ridges of multicolored clay along narrow, deep gullies. Some parts are defined by tree roots that hold on to some of the soil, thus creating steps for easier climbing. Along the trail, the forest is often dense and impenetrable, not only with undergrowth, but also because of the steep fall-offs and creeks with soft, humus-rich bottoms. An occasional moss covered clearing allows the daytime sun too penetrate the forest floor. A shimmering of butterflies celebrate the presence of brightly colored blossoms where-ever the sun gets a chance to reach bottom. Kakao rushes criss-cross along tiny game trails, sometimes disappearing for an uncomfortably long time. He’d have me worried and staring in the direction he disappeared, until he emerges far ahead in the other direction. At twelve years old, his speed amazes me; running up and down the hills, while we huff and puff with an excuse of high altitude.

When we arrived at Hostal Al Bosque, we were disappointed to discover we were the only overland campers there. We had expected to at least meet one or two to exchange some travel experiences with … but only a day or two later one arrived, and then another one. The British couple arrived with engine trouble and, just like us, needed a mechanic and parts to be able to continue the journey. Through the weeks that passed they became our friends and partners in the practice of patience, and Happy Hour drinking buddies. Upon arrival, it took days before a mechanic showed up to inspect our collective damage, and days before our first necessary parts arrived from Bogota. After that, Thijs decided he wanted to order some other suspension (always suspension!) re-enforcement, to be sent here. And that’s when the waiting game started …. waiting for the mechanic to show up – around once a week- and waiting for packages to arrive. While we were at it, we had an envelope with some important paperwork sent to us, by UPS from Virginia, with a guaranteed three day delivery… after nine days and a lot of phone calls, it could finally be picked up in Medellin, since UPS would not deliver here. It makes you wonder, what does a guarantee do?

With the arrival of the weekends, more guests would come to stay, and at one point the camping was just about full. Since the weekends were also the only times the nearby restaurants were open, we considered it the most exciting times while there. We’d sit around the campfire, join our friends for a restaurant meal and go down to Medellin for shopping (while the traffic is light) or a sight-seeing tour.

But then again, the time comes when everybody else packs up and leaves us and our British friends behind. The quiet is suffocating and we have to make an effort not to get depressed. We stay put at the campground, waiting for our packages to get delivered, and the mechanic to arrive to help us out….. We walk the short distance to the local grocery store for our daily necessities, take Kakao and some of the resident dogs out for another walk through the woods, and watch the butterflies flutter by; the most glorious, irridescent ones just out of reach for a closer look or a picture. Time stands still again….

After what seems like an eternity and a joined effort by all of us and the campsite management (thanks, Juliana, David and Daniel!) , we received what we needed and Thijs proceeded to install the parts without the help of Edgar, the mechanic. Now we belong to the guests leaving. Already the campsite looks deserted, but we leave our British friends with some other Dutch overlanders, who just arrived back to their troubled truck, and also may be staying for a while. We wish them good luck and hope to see them again somewhere down the road, in better spirits. On to a new adventure!

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A few more days in Cartagena, but then … we have our camper back!

Just when I finished writing the last post and pressed “Publish”, Thijs walked into the room – much earlier than expected, and empty handed. The camper was on the ship that had arrived in Cartagena, but it remained on the boat when it departed again, heading for Panama. Apparently they only loaded more vehicles that needed to go to Panama, and they would return to Cartagena later for delivery. We’d have to wait another week…

But then, finally, exhausted after a long day of paperwork to get our truck out of the port, Thijs proudly drove into the hotel parking lot – with a complete camper – nothing seemed to be missing! What a relief. Yay!!!

The following day, after getting the camper move-in ready, we wrestled the early midday traffic in the part of Cartagena that we’d always avoided during our pleasure outings, but had to pass through this time to get out of town. Around the market quarters, cars and trucks, ever stopping-and-continuing buses, motorcycles and taxis zig-zagged from lane to lane and slipped into any available opening in front or around us. Horse- and hand-carts desperately tried to keep up with the flow. Pedestrians crossed the road by squeezing through the smaller cracks, while walking mattresses or boxes and the like completed a sense of utter chaos.

Originally the idea was that we would meet up for Christmas with some friends in Medellin. The delayed departure from Cartagena however, made it difficult to make that date. When we arrived at the beach hangout of Lucas and Rosario, who invited us to visit when we met them at our hotel in Cartagena, we did not want to leave. Lucas was by himself while Rosario was hosting friends and visiting family in Medellin (we were supposed to join her there). With his warm invitation and an interesting environment, we found it would be a sin to rush, so we decided to stay and wait for Rosario right there.

IMG_20181231_131038IMG_20181228_174632We had one little issue: our camper was too tall to pass through the gate to their property and although we could sleep in the guest room, our long awaited camper with our possessions had to stay on the street … So after two nights we moved ourselves to a nearby campground, where we could re-organize ourselves after all these weeks, do our laundry and some shopping. We would visit Lucas for lunch or dinner, some deep talks or a game of dominoes. We ate at the best fish restaurant along the coast of Colombia, and took Kakao for walks along the beach and the nearby mangrove forest.

The highlight of our stroll to Lucas was the hand-pulled pedestrian ferry across the creek that separated his place from the village where we camped. Kakao learned to step on and off the barge without being afraid of falling in the water – something he’s had trouble with before: when in a panic he wouldn’t wait for the boat to get close enough to the shore and ended up in the water – exactly what he was most afraid of. But no more!

When Rosario came home, we celebrated together with a nice dinner prepared by her niece. Her niece, a chef, specialized in local caribbean dishes, like fried coconut rice, a thick chicken and rice soup, and a cheese and eggplant soup. Especially the cheese soup was memorable.

On New Year’s day we said goodbye – to our friends, and to the Colombian coast. Because of the holiday there was not much traffic and the road inland slowly got smoother and faster. Following the Cauca river upstream, we climbed some. Tropical vegetation held the slopes together. At regular intervals along the side of the road, water spouted high out of a jumble of black plastic tubes sticking out of the mountainside. Confused, we wondered what the purpose was and why they wasted all that water, though of course this was spring fed water that would otherwise lead to the river anyway … Then we noticed  ramps alongside the waterspouts … they were advertising car washing, with beautiful, clean spring water!
When we started looking for an overnight spot, the thermometer was still an uncomfortable 31 degrees Celsius. We continued driving until just before dark we reached a roadside restaurant with a large parking lot. The elevation was just a little higher, so we hoped the temperature would go down a little during the night. The restaurant was closed for the holiday, but the owner didn’t mind us parking there. In the morning we woke up when the restaurant started to get ready for their first customers. Soon the parking lot was so full that we had to rush to drive out before getting closed in by the cars and trucks that parked helter-skelter everywhere.

The houses along the road changed from plastered red bricks to wood planks – gaily decorated with flowers and plants in brightly colored pots. Just when I remarked how lovely these small houses looked, plastic covered shacks started appearing beside them. Higher up the mountain and closer to the pass, these makeshift shacks where everywhere. On the pavement in front of these shacks, crowds of men, women, and children shook hats that  they held up in front of them. Later on we heard that these were Venezuelan refugees – part of over a million that have fled to Colombia from their once affluent, oil rich country, which now has an inflation rate of one million percent.

After a night’s rest Thijs looked under the hood and under the car, and discovered that one of the engine mounts had broken. Since this had happened before in Nicaragua, Thijs knew what to do: he removed the broken part and ordered two new mounts. Then we waited; with a long Epiphany weekend ahead, delays were to be expected. Luckily we could not be stuck in a better place: 1000 meters above Medellin, the air was crisp; and the campground of Al Bosque is a dog’s paradise with plenty of room for Kakao to play with a small pack of friendly resident dogs, and direct access to a dense forest with a choice of trails. Nearby stores and restaurants eliminate the need to drive to a supermarket for our food supply. (Just finding a bank for much needed cash was a problem)
After a week of relaxing, we worked on our taxes, laundry, blog. We socialized with other overlanders, and regularly walked through the woods. When the parts arrived, Thijs  installed it in minutes. The next morning was a Saturday; the best day to drive into Medellin. Google Maps still wanted us to take the little country roads (with 4 ton weight limits which we exceeded), but we were wiser now and stuck to the main, (yellow colored on the map) roads. The longer but gentler drive down took an hour and a half. When we reached the city in the bottom of the bowl, Thijs stopped, worried that the brakes were not working the way they should be. Fortunately, with lighter traffic on Saturdays, we found a spot to pull to the side of the road to let everything cool down a bit. We found a nearby brake workshop just down the street, where immediately several men started to work: they replaced some worn-out brake shoes and changed the brake fluid, while I made us a sandwich for lunch. After the workshop guys took a few selfies and group pictures in front of our camper, we could continue with our business about town: find a bank that would accept out card, visit the garage whose owner had helped us get the parts (alas: he just had closed shop by the time we arrived), and try to go shopping at PriceMart, the Latin Costco sister south of the Mexican border.

Exhausted, we arrived back at Al Bosque just before dark. We got a lot done, but also came to the conclusion that the front suspension, which we thought we had upgraded in Norfolk, VA, failed. The heavier spring blade has no spring in it, so every time we hit a pothole or a sag in the road, there is no cushioning. At one pothole, the cabin hit the undercarriage so hard, it cracked the windscreen. Maybe this had also caused the engine mounts to fail…in any case, we need to have that worked on.

We will be here for a little while longer.

Cartagena: waiting for our camper, part two

Today is December twelfth. We are now in our sixth week of waiting here in Cartagena. We start to feel at home; Kakao gets greeted in several  places around the historic district. We are making friends, both in town as well as in the hotel. Hotel Bellavista, which started out as (in our opinion) an okay place – a little old and rundown,  but personable and very dog friendly, is also very interesting with a faithful crowd of  friendly, easy going, artistic, and at times eccentric people from around the world. The owner turns out to be an art collector, welcoming his artist guests, some of them year after year. I already had the feeling that at times he must have accepted artwork as payment for lodging. Recently we got to know several of the regular guests. One couple, who we initially thought to be French, are Corsican and Colombian/US American, living and working in between the three places. We have had some interesting conversations about travel, culture, Cartagena, and the hotel. If everything goes as planned with our camper, we may celebrate Christmas together with them in Medellin. An other interesting couple who also comes here frequently, is Italian and, just like us, recently gave up their green cards after living for years in New York City. He must be a pretty well known artist who does installation art a little reminiscent of Christo. He makes photos and film of stuff  that he burns.  He comes to Cartagena for projects and its biennale.  And we discovered he knows our Italian (acquired relative) cousin Fabio, also an artist living in New York!

Last week Friday we took Kakao out for a walk along the beach – this time in the direction of the city. As we were getting close we decided, instead of turning around, we’d continue our walk over the city walls: nearing the end of the day, the sun had lost its burning power, and a nice breeze made our stroll pleasant. We approached the foot of the rampart, where an enormous gathering of livestock trucks had taken over the surrounding lawns. On closer view we spotted  horses…and more horses…and then a section full of horses. It looked like a horse market, with men grooming and inspecting the animals. A few horses  showed off their dancing skills, others just looked gorgeous. Looking down from the rampart, the gathering was impressive, and Thijs wanted to have a closer look – to find out what was going on. Kakao is well behaved and a little intimidated by these large animals, but I didn’t think it would be a good idea for him to mingle and maybe startle the horses, so I stayed on the perimeter. After quite a wait Thijs returned with the conclusion that most of these horses were here for a parade through town, and some would exchange owners. It was not clear at what time the parade would start, but not anytime soon, so we continued on our planned walk over the wall towards the best point to see the sun set. 

We were not the only ones enjoying the evening on the wall. We saw stages being built, and chairs arranged in front of them. Costumed kids organized themselves for a performance. Families took their time choosing drinks or souvenirs offered by hawkers. Lovers settled in the privacy of  gun ports in the battlements, from where cannons used to point towards pirates and other enemies threatening the ancient city. Wedding parties burst out of buses, carriages and narrow streets, ready to party. Brides posed for photographers in the setting sun. There was magic in the air.

We had not prepared to stay away very long and decided to head home. Kakao was hungry and tired! On passing the horses again, there was still no sign of a parade. As we were once in the middle of one in Mexico, we had some idea what such a horse parade would be like, so we left it at that for the night. Back in the hotel, rows of candles in paper bags were lined up along the edges of the grand patio. We assumed there would be some party planned, remarked it would be too windy to light these candles safely – and went to bed.  In the morning, when I took Kakao out for his walk, I saw the candles were burnt down, and on my return along the neighboring buildings, I saw colorful signs of melted rows of candles every where. What was that all about? The girls in our hotel explained about the “Noche de las Velitas”, celebrating Maria’s immaculate conception by lighting rows of candles just before dawn – around 4 AM. So now we know, after the fact. The horse parade also had to do with the occasion. We missed this celebration, but not the surrounding magic.

With still many days to go before we could claim back our camper, we looked into our vaccination situation. During the last moves from Virginia Beach to Baltimore and on to Amsterdam, while separating and storing items, we must have misplaced our yellow vaccination cards. Proof of some important lifetime vaccines (like especially Yellow Fever) are registered in there, and we might need to show these cards somewhere along the way.
Over a month ago in the US, we’d already contacted Passport Health  to see if they still had copies of our vaccinations, but were told that our records were too old, and thus deleted. Now in Colombia, we learned that, in their battle to eliminate that disease, you can get a (free!) yellow fever vaccine.  Maybe it would be good to just get another shot, just to have a record of it again.
The local health department is in Getsemaní; a neighborhood known to be more bohemian; with artists, art, and good restaurants. We could combine a vaccination with a visit.

When I told the nurse  behind the counter what we were there for, she asked for our age, and told us that because of an increased risk, they don’t give a yellow fever shot to people over sixty five. Instead they could give us a doctor’s note explaining the refusal, and according to the nurse, that should suffice. No problem, we thought, we’d had that lifetime vaccination over forty years ago, so we would be protected, and now we didn’t need to get that painful shot again, just for the paper.  (The doctor’s note did cost us some money, and looking at the secrecy of this process, we had the feeling that the payment went directly into the nurse’s pocket.) Oh well…. To celebrate, we enjoyed a seafood pizza at a close-by tiny triangular square, adjacent to an open air furniture workshop. The water bowl offered to Kakao made it clear that our dog was also welcome. 

After lunch, we explored the many narrow colorful streets where its inhabitants were busy installing Christmas decorations over chairs,  arranged in the middle of the street. We felt like we walked straight through their living room, and exchanged greetings. We passed murals, and outdoor sculptures similar to some we’d seen all over town – that must be a popular artist! 
On our way back to our hotel, we passed through Parque Del Centenario, a smallish city park that houses sloths, monkeys, iguanas, parrots, and who knows what else. We spotted one giant iguana interacting with a girl, as if dancing. I went to take a closer look, but the moment I wanted to take a picture, the iguana raced into a tree…. because Thijs had followed behind me with Kakao. Iguanas clearly don’t like dogs!

Since this blog entry was not written overnight, several days have passed since I started. If everything goes well, we should be able to get our camper back today. We are sooo looking forward to moving back in our own place again but, at the same time, we look back at the wonderful time we had here in Cartagena … the people we’ve met … the friends we made … just four days ago we  were invited to a well organized art opening – we met one of the four artists some days before; it was going to be his first show. Just like we had done in our former life, we wanted to attend the show to encourage an emerging artist – again, just like home. We connected with a bunch of people – some of the guests mistook Thijs for one of the artists who indeed looked just like him. A musician – friend of one of the artists – from New Orleans sat next to us; we helped convince him to play his sax to provide a beautiful melancholy mood to the event. Even Kakao was not alone; there were three other dog attending the corridors connecting the luscious green courtyard with the exhibit rooms.  

The thought of leaving Cartagena is bittersweet. The extensive stay gave us the opportunity to love this city not only for its architectural beauty, but especially for its people.

Cartagena: waiting for our camper

Four weeks ago today, we delivered our camper to Port Everglades, Florida, to be shipped from Miami to Cartagena, Colombia. The sailing time was supposed to be two days, but we had to add an additional three days in port for handling. Not bad, we thought, when we packed our bags for a short stay away from our home. Then we learned that three days later, it would be weekend, and nothing gets done. Also it would be Veterans day weekend, so add one more day. Instead of five days, it would now be eight. We can survive that, we thought. On the last day before the ship was supposed to leave, we flew to Cartagena with our weekend bags and a kennel full of dog. After one miss, we found a good hotel that also welcomed Kakao. The beach was across the street, and old Cartagena about twenty minutes walk away.  That weekend we heard about a late tropical storm threatening the Florida coast but, we thought, by now our camper should be safely stored away in the belly of the enormous ship. No worries!  Close to the arrival due date Thijs made an inquiry about the location of the ship.  

“Oh, no!” He moaned. “Our truck is still in the Miami port… US customs has held it back for further inspection!”…..What on earth would they be looking for, in a vehicle leaving the country? What would they not want you to take out? We never heard of this before….And worse, they needed the keys to get into the back of the truck – the area that we made sure would be impenetrable to prevent infamous stealing. If we’d send the keys, who knows what could happen, and who would be the responsible person in case of loss? After a night of thinking about it, Thijs decided to book a return flight and meet the customs people themselves, hand them the keys for inspection, and afterwards he may be able to retrieve some additional necessities for a longer hotel stay, and lock the car himself. The Customs check – which turned up nothing, Thijs flew back to Cartagena. Our camper could go with the next ship – three weeks later. We recently heard that the sailing schedule is delayed, and instead of a straight crossing, this time there will be several stop-overs. Now, due date for arrival will be December twelve or thirteen…we will see. 

In the meantime, upon arrival, Cartagena had welcomed us with a big Independence day celebration. Over happy rhythmic African music, our taxi driver pointed out that we arrived just after a big parade; the one after / from which the local beauty queen would be selected. However, there were still three more days of celebrations ahead. 
The next day we headed into town and explored just about every street, where one building sings more jubilant than the other with bright colors and flowers. The whole town felt like one big celebration, but we did not feel like we hit any Independence day activities. It turned out we were there too early in the day! In the hotel we googled for more information, so  the following day we arrived in the middle of a parade that would represent many cultural and ethnic groups from the area. Proud dancers showed off their bright costumes with flowing dance moves; pulsating music kept them motivated in the blistering sun. One awful tourist lady stopped the steady flow by posing in front of every group for a series of pictures her husband had to make. Ugh! She was always in everyone’s picture, unless you waited until she was done, and the paraders were passing already! The police controlling the crowd was mild and forgiving.
At the tail end of the parade, the public – prepared with tall spray cans filled with something like shaving cream, started a crazy fun foam fight. No one was spared – even Kakao was speckled at one point. Satisfied and hot we returned to our temporary home.

After all the celebrations, we tried to get in a rhythm of going into town, enjoy the sights (trying not to get overheated), find a restaurant that would accept Kakao’s presence – which would usually be an outdoor venue; enjoy lunch, wander around some more, and go home. With Kakao in tow, visiting museums or other distinguished places was impossible. After a few days, we had seen enough. We decided to rent a car and head North, to a corner of Colombia that would be out of the way once we’d have the camper. With a destination in and around the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta – the highest mountain in Colombia- we also hoped for cooler temperatures. We first visited Pueblo Bello, a small town known to be the shopping destination of the magical Arhuaca indigenous population. We hoped to learn a little more about these people, like how they manage to keep such strong identity in culture, language, dress, and religion through centuries of outside contact. The temperature and the environment of Pueblo Bello was lovely, and we saw many Arhuacos, who stand out with their white dress and caps. There is pride in their posture, and they looked as curiously at us, as we at them (we were about the only gringos there), but when a local merchant offered to drive us to the indigenous village high up in the mountains, we declined. By then we learned that Kakao could not come along, and tourists would be tolerated, but not really welcomed.  We had learned that isolation, self reliance, and pride is their key! 

On the way to Pueblo Bello we passed one Arhuaco settlement. When we asked if we could visit, the woman we talked to said no; they were in the middle of a reunion.

We decided that visiting Pueblo Bello was enough for us, and after two days we continued our trip along the East side of the mountain range, along the border of Venezuela. Except for an enormous open air coal mine that stretched for thirty miles (largest in the world) there was not much to see, so we reached the coast in time for lunch at the funky beach town of Camarones. On arrival at a fish restaurant, children, and women with black faces  came over to offer their ware for sale. These were people from the Wayuu- or Guajira tribe, people known for making extremely colorful and popular mochillas – handy tightly crocheted shoulder bags of different sizes. I would have bought one if I would have found one with just the right color and style, but instead I bought a couple of little woven bracelets to satisfy the kids. 

As we slowly headed back towards Cartagena, we stopped for the night at a couple of beach towns. Because of Kakao we had a few restrictions: we could not visit the National park of Tayrona (and couldn’t leave Kakao behind in a hot car), and most hotels didn’t like to have dogs in their rooms or public areas. When they did accept Kakao’s presence, we tried to control his behavior as much as possible. No jumping on the beds, no barking, and no howling when alone! The latter was the hardest, so we just didn’t leave him alone. Thankfully the iOverlander app showed a few dog friendly hotels, which became the first choices in our search. We learned by trail and error not to book in advance, for sometimes the picture is better than the  reality. 

When we arrived at an, according to the app, dog – friendly beach hostel in Palomino, we were not quite rejected, but discouraged to take a room there, by slowly taking away the comforts of the available accommodations.…no private bathrooms…no AC….second floor... All didn’t sound like a big deal, until we were shown the “room”. Going up ladder-like steps (Kakao had to be pushed and pulled up), we were given a gazebo attic space, mattress on the floor, no place to unpack our luggage. When we still accepted it- since it had taken us half an hour of driving through a labyrinth of mud, potholes and dead-end streets to get there – they raised the already steep price as a last resort to discourage us. Though offended, we persisted, for one night. Mainly because beach atmosphere was nice. I noticed that, a few days later, the dog friendly logo has been retracted from their site.

Before immersing ourselves in the Cartagena heat again, we chose for one more stay in the mountains. Just outside of Santa Marta, connected with an excellent road gaining just enough altitude to be pleasant, we arrived in the small village of Minca. There is nothing significant or charming in the layout or building style, but what made it special to us was the presence of some European businesses, like a hostel, a bar, some restaurants, and a bakery.  We enjoyed  whole grain sandwiches filled with fried eggplant, onions, tomato and avocado, a delicious spaghetti, and a chocolate croissant for a change. The Swiss run hostel was immaculate, and the nights were cool. At the crack of dawn, birds enthusiastically celebrated the beginning of a new day. Below, a rushing creek lent a soothing sound on the deck. We walked to the waterfall and judged the water refreshingly cold.

By now our rental car had to be returned, so we continued our way along the coast, with one more beach-side overnight stop. Finally, the old Cartagena hotel welcomed us back with the same favorite room that we had before. It felt like coming home.

We also found out that the ship transporting our camper would be delayed by another ten days. Will we ever see our home again? Never will we ship a vehicle again! 

Cartagena, however, surprised us once more with an exciting event. On Saturday morning  we noticed an unusual amount of cyclists stopping at our beach for a swim. They are doing the Ironman triathlon, explained the hotel’s proprietor … Really?… Come on!… Here? we thoughtBut when we looked it up – good old Google – it turned out to be true! The big event would happen the next day. That Sunday morning, when we crossed the street to take Kakao for a walk on the beach, I was surprised to see how little traffic there was, until we noticed that the street was blocked off for traffic, because the bicycle part of the race was due to pass through there. We missed the swim part which happened before the bike race, but that afternoon we walked into town (the historic section) to witness the final part of the triathlon. Exhausted  runners were encouraged by friends, families, volunteers and spectators like us along the narrow streets towards the finish at Cartagena’s famous clock tower square. When we felt overheated just from strolling to and through town, I can not imagine the exhaustion these people feel at the end. Respect! And a massage was well deserved!

An other week has passed. We know that our camper is floating around somewhere in the Caribbean sea. The new arrival date of our camper moved up to December 15th – a Saturday – which means that we can only start collecting our vehicle on Monday the 17th. Another week of waiting. This blogpost is stretching on forever, so I think it is best to split our report about Cartagena in two posts. Expect more about this beautiful city in a week or two… and hopefully we can report about continuing our travels just before Christmas!

Back in the USA

Patriotic display during the annual Virginia State Fair

Even when it was an odd move to go north in order to go south, coming back to the USA seemed a secure, easy, fast, and less expensive way to get to Colombia. It also had a few additional advantages: first and foremost, we could see our son Robin and his family once more – who knows how much time it will be before we see them again…(this is the drawback of traveling far) Second, we could service and upgrade parts on our truck, like our springs and solar system, and replace our worn, leaky shock absorbers that were still under warranty. Time in the workshops occupied a major part of the time spent in the US. It was not my idea of fun, but, according to Thijs, necessary for a worry free trip in the next continent. By the end of October we made our way down from Virginia to Florida, with a stop in Clemson, SC for an all clear from (the best!) Sprinter specialist “Dr. Andy”. Our final technical stop was in Crystal River, where Thijs, once again, with the expert help of Steve of Green Shed Conversions, added two more solar panels and adjusted the now perfect (?) battery charging system.

Dr Andy and his wife Barbara. Andy has been our saving grace during two breakdowns on the road. He knows everything about Sprinters, and doesn’t mind sharing his knowledge.

With our camper in top condition, we were ready to ship to South America. On to a new adventure.

Thijs contacted the shipping line to find out about an upcoming departure date. The next day he received notice that we only had two days to drive south to the Miami area, get our truck professionally cleaned, pack up, get all the paperwork done, and seal off the living area to prevent access- with theft during the shipping process apparently a common problem- and deliver it in port three working days before departure. With the long veterans day weekend ahead, though, our truck would have to stay in port for six days before taking the two day ride to Cartagena.
We got everything done in time, and breathed a sigh of relief when we left our home on wheels on the assigned lot at the seaport. With a rental car we drove to the “Pet Friendly” hotel we booked, only to hear they did not accept dogs in their hotel, except service animals. We found another hotel near the beach – basic and expensive, but with kitchenette and lots of room. The beach did not turn out to be a bonus for Kakao and us, since dogs were not allowed on the beach nor the boardwalk (after almost a year in Mexico, we forgot about those restrictions) so we walked Kakao in the back alleys. All together, we just did not enjoy South Florida much and decided to book a flight and leave for Colombia as soon as possible.

Thijs started building a separation wall with elements already in our possession.

The camper gets a thorough powerwash, now required before shipping to Colombia.

Our view of the beach in Hollywood, Florida. That’s all we could enjoy with our dog in tow.

Late Friday afternoon we arrived in a relaxed and festive Cartagena. The taxi driver told us it was the week running up to Independence Day, with parades, dances and pageants happening in and around the historic center. How lucky could we get? But we will leave that part for another chapter, since our US story is not over yet….

Parade in Cartagena. More pictures will follow in the next blog!

We expected to be able to pick up our camper in the Port of Cartagena by the following Thursday or Friday. On Wednesday morning, when Thijs went through his emails, he could not hold back a loud SH#T!, when he read that our camper had not made it on the ship; it had been impounded by US customs for further inspection. When Thijs called, the shipping agent said Customs needed the keys to enter and inspect the living area. (What could they possibly be looking for, in a vehicle leaving the country?) As a consolation, we were told that our vehicle was not the only one seized; from our agent alone, 40 other cars were also impounded. And when the camper will be released, it would ship on the next boat, sailing by December 2nd. We only packed a weekend bag, not counting on being away from our camper for more than a week …now we’d have to wait three additional weeks!
Anyway, we thought, if we’d send the keys to … who knows? … anyone with access to the keys could rob us blind while the camper is out of our sight. We didn’t feel comfortable with that. So Thijs flew quickly back and forth from Cartagena to Miami, only to personally unlock and lock our camper for that nothing-burger customs inspection, and retrieve some additional necessities to take back to Colombia for the upcoming weeks.

This joke cost us an extra $1000, with the Florida return flight, and car rental, hotel stays, and restaurant meals both in Florida and during our wait in Colombia, but we figured that with Thijs present, at least our possessions could remain safely under lock and key. In the end, that could save us – loss from theft, and aggravation.

Now we wait in an old fashioned South American family-run hotel on the beach in Cartagena. Maybe tomorrow we will start exploring the area by rental car and hope, on our return, to find our truck here in the Cartagena. Until that time, it seems like we can not separate ourselves from the USA.

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The old hotel has a beautiful classic reception hall.

Thijs is waiting for breakfast in one of the hotel’s flower covered patios.

The beach across the street is struggling with Red Tide, but cleanup is ongoing.

Every morning, across the street from the hotel, a fresh catch is offered.

Stuck between a Swamp and a Wet Place

Who knew the rainy season in Central America would take so long? Last year, when we left Guatemala in May, the rains were just starting, so you’d assume that by August the season would be over and done…?

When we returned from Amsterdam to Cancun by mid-July, it was so uncomfortably hot that we hurried to the cool highlands of Chiapas, to wait out the rainy season. There, we contemplated our travel through Nicaragua, a country that was not getting more peaceful as time progressed…

We believed that the month of August would give us enough time to get a better handle on our Spanish, give Nicaragua the opportunity to get its act together, and the rains to subside.

As August went by, we learned some fine details of the Spanish language in the very pleasant town of San Cristobal de las Casas, but we also learned that the real rainy season was only getting started in Central America, and could last all the way through October. We already experienced a few downpours in the afternoons, when coming out of Spanish class and spending just a little too much time in the city. Streets would become deep, raging rivers (now we know why they need those high curbs) and our shoes, socks, pants, and dog got soaked.

A wet camp mobile is miserable. When the floor gets muddy and your shoes and clothes don’t dry, the inside space feels small, dirty and smelly. After a few soaks, we had no desire to go out after classes; we’d just buy our necessary foods, and rush home while the weather was still dry.

Traveling for a rainy month or two through Central America did not feel like something to look forward to, especially since we already visited -and enjoyed- these countries last year. This time, with a tense political situation in Nicaragua, in addition to the rains, we would rush through some of them anyway. We figured, with so many borders (about 6-8 borders, times 2-4 hours per border crossing) we would not have enough fun to make another trip to Panama worth our while. Shipping our camper from Panama to Colombia is about the same price as shipping from Florida to Colombia (the latter may even be cheaper). We could have chosen the Veracruz (MX) to Cartagena option, but we prefer a non-stop flight for our dog, which is possible from Florida. (To be clear: the camper goes to Colombia by boat, but we fly.)

With the added bonus that we can see our family and friends one more time before shipping to South America, we made the decision to drive back to the USA.

In September we went on our way; first to Oaxaca, then to Puebla and Pachuca, etc.. We heard about the big hurricanes coming towards the US – so now the rains were everywhere around – and above us. We slowed down our pace, and stopped at need-to-see-sites with pretty waterfalls , but most clear waters had turned muddy and brown, and the pools too wild and dangerous to swim in. In the mountains above Pachuca, the sharp curves in the road were hard to see through dense white fog and driving rain. We made a stop in the mountain town of Xilitla, to visit the Edward James surrealist gardens, moody and mossy in the dripping rainforests. (Clear waters there! YAY!) We also planned to experience Mexican Independence day here, and we picked up a few snippets, but the big evening celebration rained out. In Xilitla, it rained maybe every few hours. Our clothes, towels and sheets became moist and moldy. Without a dryer, washing was no use, since nothing dried. Mosquitoes kept us inside. Therefore we did not stay as long as we wanted, and moved faster than planned: but then again we did not want to get caught in the hurricane making its slow south-west move across the Carolinas towards Tennessee and the west side of the Appalachian mountains…We made a few more stops at some famous and beloved waterfalls and clear blue rivers, but there was too much brown water, and too many mosquitoes.

In Matahual we were in the desert highlands. At the campground we were able to use a washing machine and hang our clothes on a line. Even here it rained, but with time, the sun came through enough to get things reasonably dry.

Now we are just north of Monterey, a few hours south of the Texas border. Today is a sunny day and we decided to stay put at a little piece of paradise in the shadow of an impressive mountain. The weekend weather forecast shows heavy rains in Texas, all the way to the Appalachian Mountains.

We don’t want to wait for the rains to go away. We will just push through and hope to get a dry spell in Virginia -for a change. We can’t stay stuck between a swamp and a wet place forever.

On the road with a dog

20180812_121557_film1Kakao, our German Shorthaired Pointer mix, recently turned twelve years old. It has been over ten years since we adopted him when he was twenty two months. In the beginning he had some food and toy aggression, which was probably the reason why he was repeatedly returned to the SPCA. His issues were nothing compared to the problems we had with Lobbus, the French Mastiff we adopted at the same time, and within a short period of time Kakao’s aggressions were a thing of the past. He will still express his dissatisfaction when strange dogs touch his food or even his water, but he won’t fight over it.

When we were ready to start traveling, Lobbus had already passed away, killed suddenly by cancer of the spleen. But even if he would have lived, he would have joined us on our travels, however complicated it would have made our life. We consider our dogs part of our dependent family; you don’t leave your dependents behind. So, Kakao is with us on the road – and he loves it. Even though he mellowed with age, he keeps us on edge at times.

There are the obvious challenges during border crossings, where besides (rabies) inoculations, recent and short lived health certificates are demanded. We also fear losing our dog. Kakao tends to wander off. Even when we are in an enclosed property, the first thing he will do is check out the perimeter to see if there is any escape to the bigger world. That’s why we keep him on a long leash most of the time. We would like him to have some freedom, but then he abuses our trust by disappearing for quite some time and not returning when called. When that happens, images of Kakao getting hit by a car, or getting stolen to end his life as a chained-up guard dog, or getting lost without finding his way back and starving to death, haunt me.

Two weeks ago, after a rather restricted day, we thought it would be nice to give him a short period of freedom within the walls of the San Nicolas campground in San Cristobal de las Casas (Mexico) Within minutes he had vanished into the woods that cover the steep mountainside in the back of the camping. He had been up there before, and it must be interesting, because it would take multiple calls, whistles and searches before he would return. This time I tried to be patient and trust him to eventually come back. After about an hour, he showed up. I noticed that one leg gave out under him before he crashed on his bed. I tried to make him get up again, to see if he was alright. He could not pull himself up; he looked like he was drugged. Was he poisoned, and would he die? What could it be? With the help of the camping manager and a bilingual friend we found a vet in town who could help us right away. Fortunately our truck can be made travel-ready in no time, and soon we rushed through the narrow streets of historic old town of San Cristobal. The vet was a twelve minute drive away and we could park on the street in front of the office. I carried Kakao inside where, without delay, the vet checked and felt for sore spots while we answered his questions as far as we knew what and how. He must have eaten something wrong, was the conclusion, and after three shots – one anti-histamine, one pain suppressant, and one antibiotic (plus one more shot to go, for us to inject later), and were out the door. In and out the door within ten minutes, for a total of 200pesos (about $10US); we love Mexico!  By the time we were back on the camping, we all felt a lot better already.20180825_144902_film1

Kakao does not get off his leash for a while. Poor, stupid dog…I wish he would finally learn!

Why is it that Kakao has no problem leaving us behind on his adventures, but he does not like us leaving him?  He has always been an independent dog, not one for much cuddling. He used to not care being left by himself. But something changed.

Since we took him on a flight to Amsterdam and back, he has separation anxiety. We cannot leave him behind in the camper anymore; he will raise hell and howl, making us feel like terrible parents – so we take him along to just about everywhere possible. Now we limit our museum visits and our outings to other places where no dogs are allowed, knowing that, by doing this, we reinforce his dependency. And here’s the next problem: our spoiled prince refuses to lay down on any hard surface, like packed dirt, concrete or any tiled surface: when we like to sit somewhere for a drink or lunch, he will just stand there with a droopy face, looking miserable…unless we would bring his bedding along.

But what do you do? We love him, and enjoy every moment we see him happy. So we adjust.