Colombia 🇨🇴: Two weeks in Santa Marta

After Dec2017 and Oct/Nov, it was my third time back in Santa Marta. This time with less of a travel angle, but to spend time with Laura, her family and help out in certain areas. I also brought lots of German food along to impress with a bit of German cooking (and it went well, generally speaking). Santa Marta continues to fascinate me with its Caribbean feel and bustling nightlife yet also its easy access to the surrounding nature in national parks and the ocean. See you soon!

Hanging out in Santa Marta

Our apartment was pretty central and we used it as a base to explore the restaurants and bars of Santa Marta when we had time. Loved the breakfasts and dinners alike!

Work placement in boiling heat

There were a few items on the list to keep Laura and myself busy. Be it painting walls and doors, repairing chairs (that I broke … need to slim down) or building a terrace foundation. Laura’s skills and knowledge were admittedly quite impressive – respect! More to come in the future …

Drowning in Minca

Minca is a fisher village an hour from Santa Marta nestled into the Sierra Nevada. We visited the Pozo Azul for a rather cold swim in the river and wanted to also visit Casa Elemento, but a flood of rain left us stranded in a cafe – well, could have been worse.

Cheering for Union Magdalena

Unión Magdalena has only been promoted to Colombia’s top division recently and ever since I looked it up on google, the search engine has been feeding me their results on my mobile. This time it worked out to watch a game against America Cali although not of relevance anymore.

The stadium requires a taxi to reach (unless you want to jump a lorry like the local kids) was pretty empty. Ticket prices didn’t help I guess (30k COP or c9USD). The atmosphere right next to the fans in the south end of the stadium was still great (not to be mixed up with those in the north end who are considered enemies). The kept on singing despite Union losing 3:0 and being dominated by America.

Ahh, and we managed to meet Mallory, a school-time friend of Laura, for a nice evening together.

BBQ on fire

BBQ’s were high in demand – one which I prepared (German style) and a Colombian one prepared by Lorena, Laura’s sister. Delicious! We topped it up with a good night out in Santa Marta and a few dance lessons with Lorena though I fear my hips are not made for this. Better leave this to the professionals.

A day out in Taganga

Laura’s dad had already popped by her mums house on a few occasions, but still we owed him a visit in Taganga – the former fishermen village 15mins drive from Santa Marta now turned Israeli party hotspot. From the main village you can hike over to Playa Grande and take in the nice views of the bay.

Playa Cristal 🏖 (well, almost)

Playa Cristal is about an hours ride from Santa Marta (if you don’t miss the left turn…) if you drive yourself. There are also plenty of tours and a boat service from Taganga.

Overall, a bit disappointing given high entrance fees (USD15 for a foreigner being part of Tayrona national park) not including vehicle, parking or the boat transfer you still require for the last bit to reach Playa Cristal. We skipped the boat ride and enjoyed the quiet beach can reach by moto. On the way we stopped to see ‘7 olas’ – the bay of 7 waves.

New tattoos 🐢 🌊

We finally made it to the tattoo studio to get our sea turtles inked on our bodies. We had picked the design already in Sri Lanka, but for reasons of time and drama didn’t manage to get them done. The design was very inspired by our sea turtle experience in Hikkaduwa – what a great day it was!

Our tattoo artist was Denis Bondarenko (here his insta) who has his studio in Rodadero (15min ride from Santa Marta). All super clean, relaxed and very professional. We spent the whole day there amidst lots of chatting about life, travels ans other things with Denis and his wife Estefania.

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England 🏴󠁧󠁢󠁥󠁮󠁧󠁿: Paddling the Thames in Oxfordshire

Looking at the thermostat would not have given you much of a hint, but indeed it was already May and the first bank holiday weekend had arrived. Alex had just come back from his first overnight schooltrip in Norfolk and i had promised him a canoe trip and time in the countryside, which he adores.

Early, early start…

I booked the early train to get us out of London an into Oxford before 9am. I had a feeling that putting the Canoe together would take a while… I was spot on!

The train station is pretty close to the river and perfect to put in a folding canoe (if you don’t mind the puzzled looks of people trying to figure out what you are hiding in this huge green bag). I must have fiddled with the canoe for more than an hour, repair a part of the frame that had snapped and found it generally not that easy to assemble the Ally 15DR canoe given low temperatures (skin not very elastic) and different to last time (Elbe paddle (day 1): Usti n. L. to Decin) i was alone to do it.

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Anyway, by 9.30am we hit the river and the adventure was underway.

Get you license sorted

To paddle the Thames requires a boat license for the part that is regulated by locks (GBP10 for a weekly one for unpowered canoes). Closer to the sea and in London you can go without, but for paddlers the tides can be a nuisance. You can sort everything here: www.gov.uk/environment-agency

Day 1: Oxford to Abingdon

We managed 17km down the river taking in the amazing scenery of Oxford along with its rowing club that was rather busy that fine Saturday morning. We chatted away with lock keepers (we had several on day 1, including the Thames’ largest lock at more than 9ft drop), watched a motocross race and plenty of wildlife – mainly birds such as geese, swans, ducks, herons – as well as the idyllic architecture of Oxfordshire. English countryside at its finest. All culminated with a big lunch at the Nags Head in Abingdon before we explored the cosy town and got some shopping done.

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Since Abingdon camping was full, we went for a night of wild camping further down the river. We pitched the camp just in time to escape the rain mid afternoon. A cold night with temperatures as low as +1 degrees lied ahead of us, but it turned out ok.

 

Day 2: Abingdon to Shillingford

We started the morning with sunshine and to the noise of early Sunday rowers passing by. Quick breakfast and off we went.

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It was again pretty fresh, but alex enjoyed himself wrapped in a blanket and lying on my inflatable mattress instead of sitting on not so comfy plastic canoe seats. We managed another 16km before his attention span run out and we were hungry. So we stopped in Shillingford where you have camping and restaurant right by the bridge.

 

A word of advise, don’t land your boat on the upstream side of the river. It is private property (the Boathouse) and the owners are nasty. They stole our paddles and only handed them back on the threat of police getting involved. What a bunch of miserable people. 

In the afternoon we had time to stroll around and wandered over to Warborough with its famous and stunning Six Bells pub (both the village and the pub featured in the British detective drama Midsomer Murders). A cricket match was on too!

 

Once back in camp we all enjoyed the above mentioned episode with the owner of the boathouse, but the subsequent evening was lovely. The canoe incidence helped to get to know Pippa & Garry (and of course their dog Pepsi). They treated us to finest English hospitality over BBQ & drinks and we had some really entertaining conversations (later also joined by another couple that gave them a surprise visit to the campsite). Thanks for the evening.

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Time to head home … so canoe into the bus & back with the train. Pretty easy after all to travel around with a canoe ;o)

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India 🇮🇳: Observations, fun facts, nuisances …

Almost two month in India are up and a long journey in this huge country has come to an end. In total, in visited 11 of the 29 states (some more, some less thorough) and I that process came across a few oddities that I want to write about in my last India blog.

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“We owe a lot to the Indians, who taught us how to count, without which no worthwhile scientific discovery could have been made.”

Albert Einstein

Security is tight: First up, there is loads of army on the streets of India and loads of road blocks (even if not reinforced, lock down can be quick). At times also very visible at airports. Especially our first flight, from Varanasi to Goa, we faced some excessive airport security and thousands of checks. Other flights were better (esp. Hyderabad impressed). I was told that sometimes there is extra security if there is a threat of terrorist action like incidents in Kashmir.

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Bureaucracy: When I bought new flip flops in Varanasi the layers of people involved in my purchase surprised me. One to sell the product, another to pack it and another to check everything on the way out of the store. Crazy! Same goes if you purchase a ticket at the station or check into hotels – lots of details are often required.

Ola vs. Uber: Ola is the local ride sharing app that has slightly better coverage than Uber. Using your foreign credit card might be an issue, but more importantly the divers don’t get the concept of a location based app. For every ride they will call you to confirm where you are and where you go (and not always in English) … e.g. exactly the info you put in the app. Whats the point? Uber never did that once.

OYO vs. booking.com: OYO owns most of their property and are very pushy for reviews and also pretty bureaucratic. Generally the experience with OYO was worse than with booking and I felt they pimped their pictures more and staff were generally less competent or rude. Discrimination: The worst part of OYO and something unlikely to happen in Europe is client discrimination – some hotels don’t accept foreigners or unmarried couples. Better check beforehand. I was refused entry once in Assam.

Foreign credit cards: For airlines you are fine and in larger hotels. Otherwise, best get enough cash (Rp 10,000 per withdrawal max) or bring foreign currency. Booking trains can be really a nuisance, but cleartrip should work.

Orange hair:  Orange is certainly the new black cross India and at time you might think someone escaped from Holland (Koningsdag in Amsterdam: Oranje rules). Men use henna colour to dye their hair and seem to love the colour. Amazing really.

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Driving can be wild: I didn’t;have an accident, but driving is poor in India. Generally the rule of the stronger prevails (watch out for trucks) and general road rules are not being observed. Cars pull out on the street without any consideration to look, overtaking can happen uphill in fog, stopping cars put the indictor on the wrong side, using dimmed headlights at night is not worth the effort for many … don’t get me going ;o). Maybe it is for the reason that speed limits are that low (KM/h 20 to 80).

Smell & urinating: Something pictures can’t tell is the smell of India in certain places. North generally by far worse. You can be strolling along happily somewhere an suddenly a cloud of urine smell hits you. Importantly, it can be different with place like Sikkim completely clean and smell free. Generally speaking and without trying to discriminate here, religion has an impact on a places cleanliness (India 🇮🇳: Motorcycle Diaries – Exploring Meghalaya’s South (day 4)) as well as geographical location (South cleaner than North as richer).

Small pint measures: The. they first asked me if I wanted a pint of lager I expected a UK sized beer. Turns out that despite a long colonial presence of the British in India, the pint definition is a very different one – just 330ml vs. the 568m at home. On the flip side, you getvto buy 650ml beer bottles with 8% high alcohol beers. So don’t worry if getting drunk is your concern.

“It’s not spicy”: Don’t trust anyone that says it is not spicy. Most food will be to an extent. Likewise, don’t push it and say you want it spicy … in my experience that was an invitation to burn you alive ;o).

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Respect for women: Mainly in the North we had bad experiences as men looked at women in a bad way (see India 🇮🇳: Jaipur, the pink city and India 🇮🇳: Holi Festival in Mathura 🌈 🙏 👳🏽‍♂️). However, it is also amazing to see that within the same country you have place like Meghalaya where women carry the family name and inherit the family wealth.

Spitting everywhere: After littering and honking the third most popular activity as usually men get rid of their reddish chew tobacco. India 🇮🇳: Motorcycle Diaries – Back in Assam: Scenery 😁, towns ☹️, hail & discrimination (day 5/6)

No privacy: The lack of privacy was one of the main issues for me. Whether it is this huge urge to take selfies with Westerners or people (groups of them) starring at your phone. There is generally a lack of privacy as a concept and hence, when you remind people of it, they don’t feel they have done anything wrong.

Drugs in Goa: Goa was an eye opener although Anjuna beach was also a bad spot. Drugs were offered everywhere and very openly so. Felt like a joke when they stopped selling alcohol 10pm I the pre-election period yet next door you’d be able to score MDMA, weed or whatever suits you. Generally speaking, these election time restrictions seems completely pointless.

Alcohol & dark pubs: Clearly India doesn’t have drinking culture although more people drank than I expected. Alcohol shops are more akin to prisons with their steel barred windows. And if you want to drink in a place, be prepared for sealed off dark places without women to do so. Arguably, it is different in tourist places.

Tata rules! The Tata brand will follow you wherever you go in India (and new they even sponsored the London marathon over the weekend … no escaping). They have their fingers in everything and anything and probably have a government license to copy. As a road user, most like the huge lorries will stay in memory.

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Are Indian voices higher pitched? I really felt that at times mens voices sounded really high. Random? Googling for it gives a funny answer in QUORA.

Why do Indian men have higher-pitched voices compared to western men?

Evolution, evolution. Indian women never listened to Indian men so we had to shout at them and  gradually our voices became high-pitched. But all that effort has proved futile since even now they dont seem to give a damn. Maybe we need to swallow a mike or something. [On a serious note please please dont post such silly questions. Lets use quora for quality debates.]

India 🇮🇳: Last stop Mumbai – Slums, Colonial History, Bollywood & Friends

I’d be lying if I’d deny that I was pretty happy to board the plane and leave Bagdogra for Mumbai. Returning the motorbike was all fine – the agent was just a bit disappointed that I didn’t return the evening before so we can grab a drink together.

Arriving in Mumbai – feels different!

The city immediately looks much cleaner and feels more organised. You see not only Tata and Suzuki cars, but other foreign ones such as Mercedes. Definitely more money here in the economic capital of India. Roads are better, there is a modern skyline and the location by the sea makes for a nice experience too. At least in the old town there are no motor rickshas significantly reducing pollution and noise levels. Nice, although it has to be said that me staying in the old town helps perception significantly. Many of Mumbai’s inhabitants live in slums… where things are different, naturally.

Mumbai’s economic muscle

Mumbai is still considered India’s economic capital though recent GDP numbers put Delhi ahead. Estimates suggest around $300bn (with a wide range) implying around 8- 10% of India’s total GDP. Mumbai is a large recipient of foreign investment, dominant in foreign trade (70% of maritime trade), is India’s main banking and insurance hub and home to Bollywood’s movie industry to name a few sectors. The city’s economic importance historically was always linked to its deep sea port  though initially maybe in a way that will surprise you.

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Mumbai’s docks in the 19th century

Going back to the 19th century, it all kicked off with the opium trade under British colonial rule. Parsi’s were mainly in charge on the Indian side (same Persian/Indian origin as the family of Freddie Mercury of The Queen). The Brits used India as a production hub for the opium they sold on to China and with that ‘enslaved’ a whole country leading to Anglo-China wars and the ‘lost century’ for China (a part of history that defines Chinese education to date). See Golden Triangle: How opium shaped world history for all the details of this amazing part of history. So I guess any Chinese with a little mind for history will not be the keenest fan of India.

Catching up with Yash

Although we had met not long ago in London, the most important item on my to do list in Mumbai was to catch up with Yash – my former team mate in Morgan Stanley Research who became a very good friend over the years. It was fun to delve into some old stories and hear about his successful life as entrepreneur and father (baby no 2 just arrived before I came to visit). Thanks for the amazing hotel and see you soon big man! This time we managed to take a picture together … not sure we will make it into GQ magazine, but at least we have a record to look at next time.

Checking out the old town

I took a two hour walking tour through the old town in an area called Walkeshwar (again just me and the guide – same as for slums & in Varanasi). The tour was very average and included place like the India gate (a gate literally built to welcome the British Royals), several locations of the Mumbai terrorist attacks in 2008 killing 168 people, the stock exchange and lots of stories around individual buildings be it Iranian cafe or jewish sponsored libraries.

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There are some lovely old fashioned buildings in the old town indeed, something unique and not common judging by my own India experience. You will find a strange mix of architectural influences – British, Portuguese, oriental etc.

Bombay or Mumbai? The longstanding name of Bombay given by the British was a poor (or anglicised) translation from Portuguese “Bom Bahia” mining good bay. The name was only changed to Mumbai in 1995 by Hindu nationalists though in local language (Marathi & Gujarati) it has always been Mumbai – a name in reference to Mumbā or Mahā-Amb, the patron goddess Mumbadevi of the native Koli community.

Bollywood

Bollywood is the nickname for the Hindi language film industry and by many measures the largest film industry in the world (number of movies produced, no of tickets sold etc). It aims mainly at domestic audience and almost always includes dance and song elements. Revenues in 2016 were estimated at more than USD2.3bn.

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An afternoon in the largest slum in Asia, A Positive Surprise

Slums can be found all over the globe yet few have reached the level of fame as the ones in Mumbai. The movie Slumdog Millionaire with its eight academy awards in 2008/9 probably helped a bit. Still, in my mind slums were some rotten areas of poverty so when I witnessed the significant commercial side of the slums I was positively impressed.

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Slums are a big part of India across the country though naturally more pronounced in cities. 9m people or 41% of Mumbai’s inhabitants life in slums. Nationwide, the number is 104m & 9% (data from population review, other estimates put people living in informal housing at more than 240m). Dharavi is the largest slum in Mumbai and the second largest in Asia (Pakistan leading the way). About 1m people live here implying 870,000 per square mile! The slums are not one area, but you have different slums across the city (see map).

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Map of Mumbai’s slums

I want to note here that while living conditions are poor, such as a lack of in-house toilets (instead 150-200 people share one toilet), very narrow streets without light or air and a rotten river that smells really bad to name but a few, the slums at times just look like poor neighbourhoods that you find all across India e.g. I expected worse just because of the name ‘slum’. It also felt reasonably secure (going with a guide helps I guess).

What I didn’t expect at all is that the slums are a powerful business engine. There are approximately 5,000 businesses and 15,000 single-room factories in Dharavi alone (the most literate slum in India at 69% – not far off the 75% national average and on par or ahead of many rural areas in Northern India). Over USD1bn economic output for Mumbai’s slums alone. It is estimated that poor Indians contribute 7% to urban GDP implying about USD140bn (although this includes more than just slums). Just for comparison, the GDP of Qatar is USD200bn. Main industries in Dharavi include leather, all sorts of recycling (plastic, carton, tins, rubber etc) and pottery.

Women only! On the way back from the slums I took again the train – the lifeline of Mumbai though a metro is under construction. At first I jumped into the ladies only compartment being bit surprised for I wasn’t aware such things exits (although they did exist in England until 1977). The women didn’t waste a breath to educate me probably feeling completely disturbed in their female privacy. So next compartment while the train was already moving … but then boarding a moving train is no longer a problem after two month in India. Skills!

 

India 🇮🇳: Motorcycle diaries – Ripped tyre, no petrol & the benefit of people everywhere (day 7)

Today: 348km | Total: 1,871km

I guess it had to happen at some point. After getting away with 2,000km cycling the Sultan’s trail last year and almost 3,000km through Vietnam this year … I had my first flat tyre. Not just flat, but ripped. I guess i didn’t stop quick enough to prevent that big a damage. Only stopped when it felt very shaky on the back wheel and by then it was too late.

Soon after i got to Serfanguri (ca. 40km from where i started), a bunch of mechanics took care of the bike. The rental agency surprised to hear, as the tyre was relatively new. Well, Rp2,600 (U$37) ain’t the end of the world. Within 50 mins of my arrival they had organised a new tyre and repaired the bike. Bigger issue now was that i had no cash and the closest ATM was back where i started this morning – so 40km backtrack.

In all my hurry i forgot that i was low on petrol. Well, i assumed that there was a reserve. What i failed to realise is that i run on reserve mode since i rented the bike. Right on top of a motorway bridge the bike stopped. I left it to find petrol. Now it was not without a sense of irony that i run out of fuel literally in front of a big refinery of India oil. Must have been 50 petrol trucks there… But no station. A guy in a moto shop nearby gave me a lift to a petrol station 5km away. Thank you very much. Problem solved and my ride towards Siliguri could continue.

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I stayed on the highway to make up time though probably spent an hour talking to family with Easter wishes. So it wasnt until nightfall that i reached a small city close to Siliguri and got stuck in extremely heavy traffic (stop and go on a sunday evening). Unbelievable but true… i run out of fuel a second time. 🤷‍♂️

Just one of these days. Friendly locals helped again in a heartbeat, which leaves me with an overwhelmingly positive feeling at the end of the day and shows the positive side of literally never being alone almost anywhere in India.

Now just a little more to go back to Siliguri and off to Mumbai – my last stop in India and with some familiar faces waiting.