Sunday, June 11, 2017

Ramblin' (WO)Man

June 11th (I think?), 2017

"Ramblin' (WO)man" - photos on da blog.

June 11th (I think?), 2017

It is Sunday at 10:00 PM and I am sitting in the dark, with a fan on the highest level and the front door (which is a gate that you always leave locked) is open to increase airflow. Next to me is a cheap beer (Aguila light to be exact). I have finally washed my filthy body and shaved my armpits.

I am in Colombia, sitting in my collaborators apartment while he is in Bogota. I think my rash I had a few months ago is coming back – it starts with a herald patch (a larger patch usually somewhere on your back or stomach) and then you just get this random all over your body rash. No doctors know what causes it (likely stress) and nobody knows how long it lasts and like all rashes there is no cure. I think the move and that blasted United flight did me in for this rash part deux. Last time I had the rash it finally dissipated ~ 6 weeks later after I spent ~3 hours in a magical lagoon in Iceland. I don’t think I will find that here. F.

I just went down the Sunday night rabbit hole on Facebook (instead of working), scrolling through people's wedding and baby photos, which seem to occupy most my social media space these days. My other open tab is the on google's  “how to keep your skin clear in insanely humid weather (because at 28.9 I now am getting adult acne. I’ve been here 3 days and my skin is greasy ALL the time, damn you humidity!)”.

 I just read a book called What I was doing while you were breeding, aside from the authors slightly skewed perspective – a blonde, blue-eyed LA TV writer breaks up with a series of long-term boyfriends and finds herself single for the first time in her life in her late 20s and goes on a series of foreign sexcapades and extravagant New Year’s trips – I quite enjoyed the read. It resonated with me on a few levels, series of long term relationships in 20s and the part where many of your friends are settling down and while the author and I feel like life's adventures are just starting...

** Who am I kidding half my friends are un-married and/or recently single – get your booties down here, you’re only young once…. right?!

On being young…My second night in town I went out with the students from the University. I am never certain how old people are, mostly because in Colombia braces, the one’s on your teeth, are super popular. Anyone from ages 15 to 50 could have braces – it’s trendy. Anyway, I ended up drinking beer and Brazilian rum with the Colombian students and friends for 6 hours.

We were dancing and every song (champeta, salsa, vallenato, merengue) everyone kept yelling “Nikki dance to this one with X person!” and so I got shifted around from partner to partner because people love to see a gringa get down to some champeta. While some of the students puked in the alley (a 20-year old male), my dance partners included a 19-year-old named Omar. Omar had braces and looked 16, MAX. I laughed to myself and thought here I am Friday night dancing with a teenie bopper Colombian kid, but at least I can hold my cheap beer better than young Colombian men. Again – weddings, babies…small Colombian teenage dance partners with braces, pretty similar eh?

Today, I drove, in the burro 2.0, to the beach with my Colombian friends (including the 20-year-old puker). We spent a very Colombian weekend day on the beach in Taganga, a small fishing town nearby. I pet the stray dogs, swam in the water for 3 hours, and practiced my Spanish, ok Spanglish, with my friends – I really feel like I am getting worse at Spanish already.

I continue to impress myself with my self-survival strategy of keeping my shit together when I need to: i.e. driving in Colombia. I am learning to drive the car I managed to buy with some of my grant (and personal) money. I so far have figured out 1) how to unlock and lock the car with the clicker, which took quite a few rounds of the alarm sounding to get it right; 2) that the car is power steering "mechanico", not hydraulic or even electric, so DAMN that is why the wheel is so hard to turn, you need to give the car gas before you turn the vehicle wheel, no wonder people didn't need to work out back in the day when driving is a freaking work out....and ; 3) to drive like a Colombian, be aggressive and put yourself and your car first and things will work out…oh and NEVER, ever, let the horns intimidate you.

Surprisingly, I have not been too nervous driving here, but I have yet to head up the mountain or drive completely alone. The burro 2.0 is 20 years old. I think me and the burro will get to know each other all too well over the next year. Thank god (no spell check, I will NOT capitalize god) my parents taught me how to drive a stick.

If there is one skill in life kids, and adults reading this, learn to drive a manual transmission. It will save you money and make you sound like a badass non-millenial.

I may not have a wedding or a baby on the horizon (thank you IUD and Obamacare!) but I am excited to see what Colombia has to offer, which is more than Zika and Guerillas. So, come visit! The best thing I learned in What I was doing while you were breeding is that in life there is usually one big scary moment, once you get over that big scary moment you find yourself open to an array of possibilities and experiences. Seize the scary and see what’s on the other side!


Mis amigos mejores (L to R: Daniela, Jefrey, Sintana ie the puker)

Taganga - Fisherman's village and popular weekend hangout 

Obviously, there just should always be a dog photo.

The Night Flight

June 7 – 8, 2017:

I flew United airlines to Bogota. Yes, that United, the one that drags people off planes. Anyway, I had been so concerned with the weight of my bags (50 lb limit), and the number of bags I could carry domestically in Colombia, that I did not think to check bag limits for United. I brought around 150 lbs of equipment to Colombia. 

I got to my flight (slated to depart 11:59 CST) at 09:45 PM, which for those of you who know me, that’s really impressive.

Below is a timeline of my activities:

09:45 PM: Arrive at IAH international airport

09:49 PM: Try to check in at kiosk – kiosk closes

10:00 PM: Check in with real humans

10:02 PM: Humans tell me I am only allowed 1 carry on (I have 2) and that I need to pay $150 – 200 USD or repack my bags.

10:02 – 10:15 PM: Frantically try to repack my bags, I have around 2 lbs in each checked bag to play with in order to stay under the 50 lb limit. Luckily the lady helping me took a liking to me and let me sneak by with a 52lb bag. She said she didn’t want to charge me $150 extra (bless you woman!!). Phew.

10:22: Go through security, get flagged for things from my backpack in my back pocket I forgot to take out in my frantic dash. Get frisked by the security lady – hands in waistband of pants etc.

10:24 PM: Bags get pulled. My recorder for frog calls always gets flagged by TSA (and I always forget). I get asked if I am a journalist, I chuckle – “no that’s for frogs”, I am a biologist I explain hastily.

~ 10:26 PM: Catch last few minutes of the warriors game with my giant backpack on– EPIC COMEBACK!!!! Go KD! !

10:30 PM: Currency exchange – closed. (luckily I have some leftover Colombian Pesos with me, enough to get by for a few days I think).

10:31 – 10:40 PM: Reorganize backpack to make small for plane.

10:40 PM: Women’s restroom – closed. Wait for diaper baby changing restroom. Try to brush teeth – I forgot toothpaste, I floss instead and splash water on my face.

11:15 PM: I am last in line for group 4 boarding. I am told there is no overhead space and I need to check my bag (internal screaming begins M*R**@@*@*HDHA&&)

I get onto plane – THERE IS OVERHEAD BIN SPACE – continue screaming with fury in my head. I am now carrying 5 separate bags including a laptop and I smush them all under my middle seat (this is a redeye people).

12:00 AM – 5:00 AM: Take off. I proceed to get NO sleep – the chairs do not recline and they are incredibly erect. I try every possible sleeping position to no avail. No, I do not want dinner at 1 am United – leave me alone. Person in front of me has their TV on the entire ride which glares into my eyeballs.

5:00 AM: Arrive in Bogota. Make it through immigration and customs sin problemas. Eat a chicken empanada and attempt to find my gate.

At this point I scuffled between gates multiple times because I couldn’t find my flight on the TVs. I bought a duffle bag to put all my belongings in so I was not carrying around 5 bags. Turns out the shitty duffle bag was $63 USD. I didn't care when I bought it but checked my bank statements letter, yowza! 

07:00 - 08:30 AM (Jun 8th): I finally board my flight to Santa Marta where I am met with ALL my luggage and my three Colombian friends and field assistants in the “new” car (burro 2.0) we purchased for field season.

09:30 AM: Arrive at my collaborator (Beto) house. At this point I am exhausted, I’ve slept maybe 2 hours and I am hungry. I am doing a pretty decent job speaking Spanish (at least in my mind) and I am told “alright Nikki, you’re driving to the University”.


Immediately thrown into Colombian driving, I take up the challenge and figure out a few things that need to be dealt with (i.e. the steering is incredibly difficult to make a turn, it’s a crazy work out).  I make it to the University and back with everyone alive and no accidents, so I consider that a success for my first day.

We come back to the apartment and split four large beers. When everyone leaves, I immediately pass out for 4 straight hours. Once I woke up I meandered down to the little Mercado (market) beneath the house, buy bread, cheese, yogurt, and water and whip myself a little egg and cheese sandwich, while I sip the remains of an old beer. Now that’s what I call a success.  

Friday, July 29, 2016

The Little Things

The United State is a country of excess. Everything comes in bulk, you can by toilet paper that lasts months, a cereal box can feed 10, grocery stores often contain all the medicine, toiletries, cleaning supplies you would ever need. It is easy to get things. 

In Colombia things work a bit differently and below are some examples.

Drugs. I needed drugs bad. My allergies were out of control when we walked to Minca, a tiny mountain town sitting approximately 800 m above Santa Marta. I spent the better half of our five hour walk, sneezing and wiping the snot dripping from my nose onto my shirt. When I got to Minca, I was lucky to find they had a farmacia. However, instead of buying a box of medicine, I bought my medicine by the pill. So I paid for 40 pills (~ $4 USD, just to be safe) and ended up needing only three where afterward my allergies miraculously dissipated.

ATM machines. There are no ATM machines within 2-3 hours from the reserve. So you better travel with a wad of cash (preferably stuffed in different locations in your bags, in case you get robbed) until you can find the next ATM.

Toilet paper. Toilet paper cannot be flushed in Colombia, you have to dispose of it in the wastebasket.
You can buy toilet paper by the single roll. I generally keep a plastic baggie of toilet paper in my backpack for emergencies.

Lip gloss. I could NOT find lip gloss anywhere in Colombia, I really wanted some chapstick with a little bit of color so I didn’t feel so blasé every time I went into Santa Marta or was in public for a few days. Instead of easily finding chapstick in an aisle in the grocery store the make-up is in locked cases and you must ask for assistance to pick out what you want.

Power. The power goes out almost every day at the lodge. The power was recently out for 48 hours. Luckily we have generators, but for the most part we hang out and play a lot of Dominos (my new favorite game, seriously it’s awesome!).

Google. It is impossible to google anything here, even with WIFI. It has made doing research really difficult. Luckily I have an amazing team of undergrads back at Texas A&M who have been carrying my heavy workload on my behalf.

Mail. No, I cannot get mail here.  I live on a mountain where people still use mules to transport building equipment.

Radar. Weather stations? Yeah right. We discovered (the difficult way) that it rains almost every afternoon starting from around 1 – 4 pm and sometimes even longer. So we generally avoid going out during those times.

Transportation. The best mode of transportation up and down the mountain is by foot or by motorbike. We rode motorbikes up from Minca (20 km below the reserve) and it took a little over an hour. It took us 5 hours to walk down to Minca two days prior. While the motorbikes are faster they can be extremely terrifying. The mountain roads are rocky and huge trucks tear around blind corners. Once you get to the last 10 km the road becomes so bumpy I generally fly off the seat of the motorbike, clinging to the young Colombian male driving me up the road for dear life.

Roads. A new road was paved between Santa Marta and Minca making the trip an easy 30+ minutes. This summer there was a dedication to a new bride built in Minca. The president of Colombia, Juan Manuel Santos, came for the dedication of the new bridge. THE PRESDIENT. That’s like Obama coming to celebrate a new bridge built in Arling, Idaho (yes this is a real place)…So random!
*I will note that apparently this new bridge is part of a development plan in Colombia to increase access to remote regions, they are even going to pave the road halfway up the mountain toward El Dorado, which is likely to increase visitor rates and development even further. I have mixed feelings about it.

Construction. Like I eluded to above, in order to get building materials to and from the roads you must use mules or motorbikes. Both are in high demand at El Dorado Reserve where they are building a new restaurant overlooking Cienaga. There are also a few giant trucks that send large materials up, one of them has a sticker on the front that says “Poower truck”, I chuckle every time I see it.

Food. One of my favorite things about the U.S. is the incredible diversity of people and cultures; this diversity leads to an assortment of culinary cuisine. Even College Station has delicious dining options to choose from. Colombia does Colombian food well. Arepas, queso, chicken, pork, and patacones (same as tostones) fill the menus. The jugo (fresh squeezed fruit juice) is amazing and I could drink that every single day. But the cuisine gets incredibly tiresome after you realize every meal is rice, chicken, and some veggies (lettuce and onion, sautéed zuchinnis, rotate, repeat). After this trip, I don’t want to see another arepa/chicken/fish/potatoes for a year.

Cheese. I love cheese. Unfortunately Colombia’s cheese selection is not the best, but its not the worst! (Cuba was the worst). Here there seems to be one main type of queso. It is a big, medium firm block of white cheese called well queso. We brought some on our three day trip to San Pedro, and Jose Luis said we didn’t need to even refrigerate it (I shuddered at the thought slightly). We ate this block of white medium firm cheese for three days. Yuck.

Water. Colombians can drink the water from the streams. During our backpacking trip, I filled up my camelback and a nalgene, equaling a whopping 4 L of water. Whenever I wanted to refill, I had to use potentially expired iodine tablets and wait 30+ minutes to drink my water. Miraculously I did not get sick. Part of me wants to just go ahead and drink the stream water here – it is supposed to be very clean…

Wine. The wine in Colombia is dismal, to get the good stuff you need to pick out the Chilean or Argentinian wine- even then a decent bottle can be a bit pricey ~ 30,000 COP (~ $10, OK I am used to Safeway wine discounts in CA!).

Beer. I heart Aguila. It is probably the most popular Colombian beer in Norte costeño. You see Aguila flags with the gold eagle emblem waving over corner stores. It’s a light beer, the Colombian bud light, and is often enjoyed at various times throughout the day, easier to get than water. It is my favorite beer and tastes quite spectacular the minute you enter the heat of Santa Marta. The other popular beer is Club Colombia. Try getting a craft beer in Colombia? I’ve had two. One from Sierra Nevada (Happy Jaguar and Happy Toucan – I thought it tasted like horse pee) and another from Bogota (Bogota Brewing Company) which has a couple decent brews. When I asked Daniela, my Colombian field assistant, about these two beer companies she goes “Nikki, I have no idea what you’re talking about”.

Champeta. This is the Colombian style of dance and appears to be a fusion of reggaton and twerking. I still am not exactly quite sure how it is supposed to be danced, because each version I have seen is slightly different. But I am excited to learn and master the art!

You can always tell when it is a Friday or Saturday night because the champeta, vallenato, and bachata reverberates across the dark mountain valleys, attempting to lure the Toro from its hiding place.

Check out Sofia Vergara's Aguila commercial here...she's no stranger to bikini commercials for Colombia.