Salento & Valle de Cocora: Week 227

View of Carrera 6 in Salento: Colombia

Colombia has a lot of three-day weekends. They are called puentes, which means bridges, and when my first one came up I leapt at the opportunity to get out of town.

So early Saturday morning Barret was squished in the back of a small buseta while I sat next to a woman in a blue cardigan and torn jeans. Ten minutes into the trip she pulled out a multi-colored rosary and began crossing herself every time we passed a church, went over a bridge, or stopped at a tollbooth.

She got off at a bus station in Pereira and on the way out of the parking lot I noticed a glass display case with the Virgin Mary holding a baby Jesus. It made me wonder who decided that was the right pose for a bus station statue.

It was mid-afternoon when Barret and I arrived in Salento. We ate at a restaurant overlooking the most popular and photographic street in the city- Carrera 6.

Architectural detail in Salento: Colombia

Only after our stomachs were full did we start the search for accommodation. The first guesthouse we visited was on the outskirts of town. The garden was filled with toys and sunflowers and the foyer was actually a living room with an overstuffed couch. It was an odd juxtaposition of private versus public.

The place was completely booked though, and the only thing they could offer was a tent on the porch with a thick sleeping pad and some blankets. Barret and I declined, but after a disparaging walk around the city, we quickly realized that the tent was our only option. If there is anything I have learned from traveling on a puente weekend, it’s that reservations are imperative.

We spent the first half of the evening watching a very untalented caricature artist and the second half in a small cafe listening to excellent live music. We weren’t in a rush to make it back to the tent, but when we eventually did, we slept well. The only exception being the return of a group of drunk Colombian tourists. Upon seeing a row of tents on the patio, one of the guys yelled out. Look at those gringos! What are they thinking?! 

Horses outside the trail head of Valle de Cocora: Salento, Colombia

The following morning Barret and I woke up very early to begin our hike to Valle de Cocora. From the main square in Salento, we caught a jeep to the trailhead. There was an option to hire horses, but Barret and I decided to walk the whole circuitous route.

Valle de Cocora: Salento, Colombia

Valle de Cocora is famous for its sweeping views of the wax palms- Colombia’s national tree. This is in no small part thanks to the herds of grazing cattle that nibble all the vegetation around the wax palms. The trees are already slender and insanely tall, but when viewed unobstructed, they are even more impressive.

Rutted trail through the Valle de Cocora: Salento, Colombia

Bridge crossing in the Valle de Cocora: Salento, Colombia

Several hours into the hike we stopped at the Aicame Natural Reserve. It was a small hummingbird sanctuary located at the end of a seemingly never-ending ascent. There was a fee to enter the reserve, but it included a beverage. We also discovered that the reserve had a very basic but insanely cheap lodge. Beds were available for something like 10,000 pesos (USD$5) and the cost included food!

Hummingbirds at the Acaime Natural Reserve: Valle de Cocora, Colombia

We weren’t prepared to rough it another night, so after viewing all the hummingbirds we double-backed and continued walking the full circuit. An hour or so later the trail came to a head at a lookout point named Finca La Montaña.

The lookout point had a flower garden and a small building with a covered porch. An open door led from the porch into a small dark kitchen where a woman was making traditional Colombian hot chocolate over a wood-burning stove.

Woman making hot chocolate at the Finca la Montana: Valle de Cocora, Colombia

In its raw form, the chocolate comes in hard blocks that are dissolved inside a metal jug. Once prepared, the hot chocolate is served with a thick slice of queso campesino (a soft, spongy, and slightly salty cheese).

Hot chocolate and cheese at Finca la Montana: Valle de Cocora, Colombia

I was initially reluctant to drop cheese into my hot chocolate, but it actually tasted delicious. The cheese softened and the saltiness balanced well against the sweetness of the chocolate. I felt like that was a good metaphor for the weekend- the salty frustration of lugging our backpacks around town in search of a room was tempered by the charm of the city and the beauty of the valley. Having the one makes you appreciate the other so much more.

How to get to Salento: Direct buses are available from the bus stations in Armenia and Pereira.

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An Engagement in Hawaii: Week 221

Polaroid of a church in Lahaina: Maui, Hawaii

Lahaina is lush but also arid- red dirt and hibiscus.

Front Street, the epicenter of the town, runs parallel to the coast. It is filled with tourists, restaurants, and shops. From Front Street the land makes a parabolic rise up into the shrouded West Maui Mountains.

It was around 2:30 in the afternoon when a troop of yellow school buses honked their way through Lahaina. The kids from Kamehameha III Elementary were celebrating their last day of school by sliding out of view and waving their hands out the windows.

At the south end of town, near the school, a massive banyan tree canopied a public square. Families sat in the shade and a backpacker rubbed ointment onto his tanned foot. Barret and I strolled down the street, past a stand of parrots that squawked aloha, and had lunch overlooking the waterfront.

Boys bodyboarding at Kaanapali: Maui, Hawaii

To the south and north of Lahaina, all along Honoapiilani Highway, the coastal side of the road was filled with cars. The charcoal grills were hot and the ocean was filled with people and boards. Everyone knows Hawaii is famous for surfing, but it is still surprising to see so many people out in the water at all times of the day. It makes you wonder when and if they ever work.

Barret eating a popsicle at the Twin Falls Farmstand: Maui, Hawaii

The Twin Falls Farmstand is on the eastern end of Maui, which is the side that receives all the rain. The little stand sells smoothies, drinking coconuts, and popsicles on sugarcane sticks. Just beyond the stand is a trail that crosses a small river twice before ending at a waterfall.

Large puffy white clouds floated out of the woods and hung over the clearing. A mother of three studied the dissipating clouds with a large frown. Her husband, a man with thinning hair and an armband tattoo, enthusiastically watched stoned teenagers jump off a precipice and into the cool water below. “I’ve jumped off higher,” he mouthed in her direction. Her frown deepened.

North of the falls, Barret and I stopped at a lookout point. I bought a drinking coconut from a brightly painted van that was manned by a woman with voluminous hair, a voluminous bust, and big jewelry.

At the lookout point Barret distracted me with sea turtles while he pulled out an engagement ring. Although I had selected the ring, I was completely caught off guard.

Polaroid of the proposal in Maui, Hawaii

“Look at what I am wearing!” I exclaimed as I surveyed my wrinkled pants and Teva sandals. My arms were caked in sunblock.

“This is who we are,” Barret replied. “This is what we look like most of the time.”

I had always thought that the proposal would make me cry a lot, but looking back I just remember laughing with joy. Although if you ask Barret, I cried for five minutes behind my sunglasses.

I couldn’t wait to share the news, so before we left I returned to the coconut stand. The vendor squealed in excitement before proclaiming, “isn’t that a cute little promise ring.” Not exactly the response I was expecting, but I think our tastes were a bit different.

Polaroid of a van selling drinking coconuts: Maui, Hawaii

After living in Sydney, I knew Honolulu was a popular destination for Aussie shoppers. However, it wasn’t ’til I was there that I realized the scale of the development- it was a tropical Las Vegas minus the casinos. Older vestiges of the Waikiki beach culture remained, but massive hotels, shopping centers, and restaurant chains dwarfed those two-story bungalow apartments. The main thoroughfare was filled with people in neon green shirts advertising shooting ranges.

Flyer for a gun range in Waikiki: Honolulu, Hawaii

Pearl Harbor was just north of the airport. Barret and I showed up on empty stomachs and we laughed when we discovered that the food court only sold hotdogs and nacho chips- both covered in liquid cheese. Everywhere else in the world the food cart is a culinary treasure, in the US it is most often a form of torture.

Photo of the boat which transports visitors to the USS Arizona War Memorial: Pearl Harbor, Hawaii

It cost nothing to visit the USS Arizona Memorial, which could only be accessed by boat, but we had to collect a ticket for a specific time. Because there were so many people, we had a few hours to explore the museums beforehand. One of the things that stood out most for me was how well the collection explained the events leading up to the bombing without reducing everything to: USA good, Japan evil.

However, the most interesting site at Pearl Harbor was of course the memorial for the USS Arizona. This unfortunate vessel had been scheduled to leave the day before it was attacked but had instead been docked for an overnight repair. Because of this, it was fully manned and stocked with fuel- 1.5 million gallons.

Postcard of the USS Arizona: Pearl Harbor, Hawaii

After the attack, the USS Arizona burned for three days. Despite this, about 500,000 gallons of oil remained intact and have been leaking ever since. Up to nine quarts of ‘black tears’ bubble up to the surface every day and leave a rainbow-colored residue on the water.

In total, 1,177 crewmen died and of the 37 sets of brothers assigned to the USS Arizona, only one complete set made it out alive. In 1982 a repatriation program began which offered survivors of the USS Arizona the opportunity to have their ashes laid to rest inside one of the ship’s gun turrets. More than 30 crewman have chosen to have the watery grave as their final resting place.

Photo of Waikiki Beach at sunset: Honolulu, Hawaii

Hawaii is a tropical paradise, but it was also a little bit different from what I had anticipated. The number of boxy strip malls surprised me just as much as the massive size of the sea turtles I swam with in Napili Bay.

Honolulu had a thick knot of traffic and a massive highway infrastructure, but when I met a woman in the hotel lobby who had just moved there, I could understand why she was so happy. She had just found her own little slice of heaven. I was sad to be leaving.

Polaroid of swimmers at Waikiki Beach: Honolulu, Hawaii

About: Lahaina

How to get to the Twin Falls Farmstand: East on Hana Highway past the town of Paia. Around mile marker 2 is a bridge- on the right hand side is a parking lot and the farmstand.

How to get to Pearl Harbor: Take bus #20 or #42 to the Pearl Harbor Visitor Center

About: Waikiki, Oahu

Australian Botanic Garden & A Scavenger Hunt Twenty-Two Years in the Making: Week 174

Grevillea paradoxa flower and bee: Australian Botanical Garden

Grevillea paradoxa

In 1992 anything I needed to know could be found in my set of World Book Encyclopedias. In the pre-internet days, my encyclopedias were a carefully curated fountain of knowledge that my parents didn’t need to monitor. Naughty buzzwords like ‘penis’ only ended in disappointment once redirected to the ironically sterile ‘reproductive system.’

Sometimes my dad would use the encyclopedias to create spontaneous educational lessons. There was something about the sight of 21 gilded volumes sitting on a shelf that tickled his fancy at the most inopportune time.

“Stephanie, what is unique about the Liberty Bell?” My dad would ask, clasping the black hardbound cover in his hands.

“I don’t… know.” I replied. It was evening and I was snuggled under a blanket in the downstairs lounge. My peripheral vision was glued to the Sesame Street movie flashing in front of me.

Think about what I read. How is it different from a new bell?”

“It’s… shiny?”

“Stop watching that TV! Here- give me the remote!”

Queensland silver wattle yellow flower: Australian Botanical Garden

Queensland silver wattle

Other times my mom used the encyclopedias to segue into topics such as plagiarism. This usually happened when I was writing school projects. I was completely nonplussed at the idea of getting in trouble for doing homework.

“Well,” my mom explained, “plagiarism means you can’t just write everything you see in the book.” I thought maybe she meant all of my sentences just had to be shorter than the ones in the book.

If I could go anywhere I would go to australia. This is the australian flag. I want to see soom australian animals like the salt water crocodile, a dingo, a koala. a Tiger Quail, a wombat, a cuscus and some plats like the ghost gum.

Looking back at my second grade Australia report, I definitely had my World Book Volume A at my side. Aside from ride an ostrich, (blame my South African mom for this erroneous inclusion) my Australian flora list read like a data table of native plant species.

Forest red gum peeling bark: Australian Botanical Garden

Forest red gum

They were the kind of plants that not even botanists get excited about; I know this because I went to the Australian Botanical Garden to find them. Of all the trees and bushes on my list, only the forest red gum was apparently important enough for a large sign.

Orange thorn bush: Australian Botanical Garden

Orange thorn bush

The Fruit Loop was one of the walks at the Australian Botanic Garden which contained a lot of interesting fruiting plants that definitely were too exciting for my seven-year-old self. The orange thorn bush had berries like miniature oranges. Unlike their namesake, the sweetness of the fruit and the bitterness of the rind were inseparable. After eating a few of them, the back of my throat was as dry as a cotton swab.

Atriplex-Australian-Botanical-Gardens-cropped-square

The old man saltbush was the hardest one to find. I enlisted the help of both the nursery volunteer and the visitor center to find the location of the elusive plant. The center’s computer eventually prevailed and I was led to a flower bed on the outskirts of an inflatable jump house and a kid’s birthday party. A metal dog tag clasped around one of its stems identified the plant by its scientific name.

Old man satlbush green leave: Australian Botanical Garden

Old man saltbush

I found a Grevillea striata grafted onto a Grevillea robusta, which was also on my list, so that kind of counted as two trees.

Grevillea striata: Australian Botanical Garden

Grevillea striata

The ghost gum and the snow gum were both in the park, but they just weren’t labeled. As this was a scientific journey, I was embarrassed that I couldn’t tell these two apart from each other nor from the red gums. I took photos of pretty flowers instead.

Sturts desert pea, red flowers with a black center: Australian Botanical Garden

Sturts desert pea

I know for a fact that the bonya pine grows on top of one of the tallest hills in the park, however I only learned this after missing the turn and riding my bike down the steep hill. A part of me wanted to traipse back up, but the other part just couldn’t be bothered. Barret sided with the lazier part of me.

The only plant I didn’t bother looking for was the karriatuarra jarrah. It doesn’t exist on Google, so I didn’t have a hope in hell of finding it at the botanic garden.

At the end of the day, I might make a terrible botanist but I will eventually see this list through. My second grade teacher would be so proud.

 

Dry grassy field at the Australian Botanical Garden

How to get to the Australian Botanic Garden: Narellan Road, Mt Annan NSW 2567

The Outback: Week 171 Part 2

View of Mt Connor from Curtin Springs: Northern Territory, Australia

107.2FM was the only radio station on the Lasseter Highway. There were no DJs or advertisements, just a collection of obscure American albums that someone cared enough about to share with whoever might be passing through the dusty red landscape.

It was late afternoon by the time we reached Curtin Springs. It was a motel with a gas station and a shop that had as many functions as a Swiss army knife. Jars of pickled snakes and small wooden plaques lined the shelves behind the counter. A TV in the corner of the room was blaring part two of an annual rugby game called State of Origin. The first time I heard the tournament’s name I thought it was an important political address by the Prime Minister.

Although we were in the middle of nowhere, the young staff were all foreigners extending their Working Holiday visas. Citizens of certain countries can stay another year in Australia if they spend three months working in regional Australia. If it wasn’t for this program, places like Curtin Springs would have a very difficult time finding employees to wear their trademark blue and yellow shirt: Ugly staff but top service.

The facility itself was surrounded by a million acre cattle station, all of it owned since 1956 by the Severin family. It was easy to forget the arid land could support a working farm. In fact, the only time I heard a cow was before dawn. A pack of dingoes had surrounded the frightened creature with barred teeth and howls like electric chimes.The parking lot emu at Curtin Springs: Northern Territory, Australia

Barret, our friends, and I pitched a tent in the Curtin Springs campground and built a small fire to cook our dinner. A tame emu strolled by, pecking around the fringes of our site.

“Hey you guys, guess what band was playing on the only radio station in the outback!”

“You’ll never believe it,” Barret added, “it’s so random.”

It was impossible to guess, so Barret finally shouted out, “Coheed and Cambria- the entire album!”

Turns out there is no ‘underground’ cattle station, only our American friends driving behind us with their iPod radio adapter. I was a little disappointed to hear that.

Uluru at sunrise: Northern Territry, Australia

Just south of Curtin Springs and the Mobil gas station, a large plateau the color of dusty rose punched out of the flat terrain. To the unsuspecting traveler it looked like Uluru, but it was actually a beautiful red herring named Mt Connor.

The real Uluru was smooth, worn, and patterned like a tiger with dot-dot-dash stripes. When the sun began to rise, the bush landscape became two-toned. The tips of the vegetation were rosy-lime-green while the lower portions were blue-jungle-green. A ray of sun struck the monolithic rock and warmed it up like a glowing stove top.Receipt from Ayers Rock Resort: Northern Territory, Australia

This beautiful landscape first became a national park in 1950. Eight years later the land was taken from the traditional owners, the Anangu, and ownership was only returned in 1985. Since then, ‘Ayer’s Rock’ and ‘The Olgas’ are officially recognized as Uluru and Kata Tjuta. Longstanding cultural traditions, which had been suspended during that period, have also since resumed and contentious issues such as the ‘right to climb Uluru’ are being addressed. While it is legally possible to climb Uluru, it is culturally insensitive and heavily discouraged. The route up the rock is a sacred path taken by a few select Aboriginal men.

Uluru at sunset: Northern Territory, Australia

Photography is another thorny issue since ‘avoidance tactics’ are traditionally practiced after the death of a person. In the past this meant the deceased’s name was not said, but today it also encompasses photography and film. Obviously this is practiced to varying degrees within the community, but there are a few sacred points around Uluru where photography is prohibited.Polaroid of Kata Tjuta: Northern Territory, Australia

Instead of climbing Uluru, our friends and I spent the rest of the day on a circular hike around Kata Tjuta, which means ‘many heads’ in Pitjantjatjara. Unlike the sandstone-composed Uluru, Kata Tjuta is a mosaic of pebbles and rocks cemented together by sand and mud. One of the boulders next to the footpath looked like a geodesic meatball.Polaroid of Valley of the Winds walk at Kata Tjuta: Northern Territory, Australia

The name of the walk was The Valley of the Winds and it cannot be overstated how beautiful the view was when we reached the top of the valley. The hidden oasis was a refreshing pause from the unrelenting sun, and that was the middle of winter!

Polaroid of the King's Canyon rim: Northern Territory, Australia

The following day we drove to Kings Canyon. From ground level, the canyon appears to abruptly end at a sheer cliff face. However, the view from the rim reveals a massive expanse of stupa-like domes. Along the route we saw lizards, honey pot ants, and collected swarms of hitchhiking flies on our backs. The latter is one of those things you just come to accept because it’s just not worth fighting.Rock formations at Kings Canyon: Northern Territory, Australia

The trick to dealing with the flies was to keep moving. Then, when the sun set with a pink halo completely encircling the horizon, the flies just disappeared out of thin air. The red landscape turned to bruised plum and the temperature dropped. The desert might be sparse, but there is life quietly tucked away in every fold and crevice.Red earth landscape of the outback: Northern Territory, Australia

About: Curtin Springs

About: Uluru and Kata Tjuta

About: Kings Canyon

Polaroid of Uluru in the afternoon: Northern Territory, Australia

 

Great Barrier Reef: Week 146

Have you ever been someplace so beautiful you thought, how could I possible make it look terrible?

Well, that’s kind of what I did. I made snorkeling on the Great Barrier Reef look like an exercise in drowning. Thankfully Mikayla and Barret took the GoPro away from me.

On a side note: the woodpecker-like noise in the background is made by parrotfish nibbling on the coral reefs. This is really what it sounds like to be snorkeling on the reef.

About: Calypso Cruises

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