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  • Writer's pictureGregory T. Wilkins

Colombia (2013)

March 6, 2013 - Count Down to South America Count down--3,2,1...and I will be in Colombia, South America--3 days and counting! It is one country I have not yet visited in the Americas. I had wanted to visit in the 80s, but it was too dangerous with the cocaine wars. Things have gotten significantly better in the last 2 decades, and I look forward to seeing Bogota and Cartagena. It is going to be particularly interesting as the Venzuelan President, Chavez, died 1 day ago. Being their neighbor, it will be interesting to see/hear the sentiments of the Colombian people.}

Part of me thinks I should wait entering anything into my journal because I have not yet finished with India. I have at least a week of entries to transpose. When my computer went nuts, I ended up going old school via pen and paper. I have not yet transcribed my thoughts from journal to WordPerfect. Oh well...I keep telling myself I will get to it. Who knows, maybe I will have a chance in the evening in South America?

Today, I received an email from Daniel and Clara from France. I met them in India on the train and again in Jaisalmer. Daniel had given me his email address, but I misread it. I confused his letter Z with a #2. I kept getting an error message. I resent it over and over again for 1 month. I finally had an eureka moment when I figured I would change out the #2 for a 'Z'; and viola! It worked.

I had shared with them about my trip to Hampi and strongly encouraged they go. In the email Daniel sent, they included a picture of Clara overlooking the town and the main temple during sunset. It made my day!

My trip to Colombia is going to be amazing! Juan Camillo is going to pick me up at the airport and get me to my hotel. He and I have only met via the web and chatting on Skype. He has been a true ambassador. He is between jobs and will be my guide to explore churches, the cemetery, Botero Museum, etc. I am honored to have such a great host! To top off world excursions, tomorrow Dr. Beth Sandell at MSU, Mankato and I are going to chat about the Magadan, Russia guests that are going to come in April to Mankato, MN! The world is large but soooo very small. Life is truly grand indeed! March 10, 2013 - Atlanta, Travel Halted Temporarily Oh the trials and tribulations of traveling never quite knows when they will leave. It's a blessing and a curse. Deep inside you are ready to take flight, but the flight gods want to watch you toss and turn at their every whim to see how you manage stress. Arriving first thing in the morning does not always work in your favor, especially when a flight is cancelled and another rescheduled when a flight attendant is whisked away by medical personnel. This leaves a back-up of full fare passengers, employees on standby trying to get back to their base city and lastly J-class folks like me. All you can do is take a deep breathe, smile, and wait...PATIENTLY. There is little use to pitch a fit and cause a commotion. It does no one any good and only makes you look like a total ass. And believe when I say I saw my fair share of asses over the course of having to wait for not for one or two flights but 6. That's right, 6! At least I didn't have to wait for #7, the last and final one for the night.

Behind storm clouds come rays of sunshine. One of those rays was a college student from South Dakota who is studying in Tennessee. He appeared down and out, and I went over to give him a pep talk. He may have thought me odd and peculiar, but then again what's new. If he didn't want to chat he could always brush me off I kept telling myself. In the end he was delighted to have someone pal around with him. I have never been good with names and this was no new occasion for me to remember his, but I did recall that his last name was right before mine on the wait list--W-E-something. He is the youngest boy in the family of three sisters. He had fallen in love with a woman named Destiny and had a crush on her since childhood (the infatuation last 15 years). He was in a house painting accident almost a year ago when he fell off a ladder, broken his arm in multiple places, damaged his vertebrae, and was hospitalized. The owner of the company did not have insurance, and he was stuck with a $60,000 doctors bill. He chose not to sue the guy b/c it was his best friend (some friend, huh?). The medical staff at the hospital felt badly for him and brought the bill to $8,000. With the accident he found a new passion in the medial field and hopes to become a physical therapist--a field tat Destiny hopes to also go into. The guy who I can't remember his name has traveled around the world doing mission work. He loves world travel, and we went back and fourth about places we have seen, where we would go back again, and places we would avoid. We became experts on Course G--where to get free internet, cleanest bathrooms, where the Subway was located, etc. And to save dollars, we split a footlong sandwich.

When it looked like he and I would never make it on the plane, I gave Cricket a call to see if he was back in the USA from his travels around the globe.  I thought I saw that he had returned from Mt. Everest and settling back into MSP. I dialed his cell phone, and he picked-up. He was preparing to go on a date to the philharmonic and was thinking about calling me this weekend to fill me in with his travels. I told him I was off to South America and was hoping he might be able to help me with a favor.

I explained the flight situation and was hoping he might be able to put me up on his couch along with y new found friend. He said he would be delighted. I told him that if he heard back from me in the next three hours we were on for the night, if not I had gotten on the flight to ATL.

Fortunate for me, I was able to get on the plane to Atlanta. The downer was however that I was not going to get to Colombia on the day I had planned. I returned to the free internet connection I found at the airport free internet and sent Juan Camillo a note via Facebook. I asked if he would call Casa Platypus and inform them of my mishap. I also posted on my FB wall of my misfortune and to send positive thoughts my direction-- encouragement was better than none at all. I figured if I could get to ATL, I would then call Scott Norman to see if he could put me and my new friend up. I told the guy with no name m,y and he was over joyed. He said he would call his roomie in TN to see if he might be able to get picked-up in ATL rather than wait another day to get home.

The ordeal resulted in me getting to ATL. The guy with no name had his friend pick him up at the ATL Airport. Scott Norman was in ATL, and he let me stay with him at his apartment. There is only 1 flight a day to Bogota via ATL, and I would have the entire day with Scott and his friend (Steven). I took MARTA to the Lindberg station, and they picked me up. I bought a 6 pack of imported beer to share. Scott and I stayed up all night talking about the good ol' Warren Wilson days. I got a great night's sleep with a hot shower and fabulous breakfast. Steven returned to the next morning, and we drove to the park, walked around,  window shopped uptown, and had a quick bite to eat at Yeah Burger before heading back to the ATL Airport for my fight to Colombia. There were 30 open seats and was able to get to South America. Once I got to Bogota, I was fortunate to find a local who left me call on his cell to Juan to let him know I was there. The gentleman wanted me to give him some pesos for the ell use, but all my money was too large. I apologized, and I told him I appreciated the Colombian hospitality. Juan had sent me a FB note that he would not be able to be there at the airport. I never received it b/c I was in flight status. He told me not to spend more than 25,000 pesos with the taxi driver. This was informative b/c the biding started at 35,000. Juan and I  settled to meet me at 9:30 a.m. at Casa Platypus on Monday, and he would show me the city. In the end I was able to negotiate the taxi fare to 25,000 pesos and gave a 5,000 tip. I got to the hotel by 10:30 p.m., and they were delighted to receive me. They thanked me for the telephone call the night before to notify them of  my flight problem. (I was still going to lose a night stay and would have to pay for it but deep down hoping they would be gracious and give it back to me. Time will tell.) The Casa Platypus is centrally located in Gersamin and only a five minute walk from the hustle and bustle of business and the Congress. I look forward to seeing the town in daylight. When I arrived via taxi, the city was behind closed doors and windows. All was quiet. I feared that things may be like Nicaragua with regards to safety which put a pit into my stomach. At least the hotel was adorable and well appointed--down comfortable, monogrammed towel, shampoo and soap, and a welcome drink upon check-in. I look forward to a good rest. March 10 & 11, 2013 -- ATL to Bogota I arrived to Bogota on Sunday, March 10, at 9:30 p.m. As the doors opened and I walked up the jetway, the smell of smokey firewood filled the air. It was not heavy like that in India, but rather pleasant in a white Christmas sorta way minus the snow and Santa Claus. Following the signs though the airport, I settled into the immigration line not knowing how long the process would take. I took the middle line which made a world of difference as the other one was at a stand still. After traveling all day, people just want to get home and see family. My heart went out to the Colombians as their line meandered aimlessly into oblivion. After about 20 minutes, I got through and followed the signs to the exit. I was hoping Juan Camillo was keeping an eye out for me as the large plate glass window spanned the expansive room. Coming out, I did not see him. I decided to pace the corridor to be on the safe side and see if any familiar faces would jump me back into reality. No, no faces jarred the memory. I was fortunate that an old man allowed me to use his phone to call Juan. Juan had sent me a Facebook note saying he would be unable to receive me, and I had not seen the message. I took a taxi to Casa Platypus.

Exchange rate at the airport-- $1750 pesos = $1 US

taxi from airport to Casa Platypus $25,000 plus $5,000 tip


Juan said he would meet me at Casa Platypus at 9:30 a.m. to show me the city. I woke early to eat breakfast at Casa Platypus and to review the neighborhood information. I had breakfast with my roomie who was a flight attendant from Chile. He told me most things were very convenient to the hotel, and in 15 minutes walking time I could be most places. (I had picked my hotel well; it pays to read and plan ahead!)) There were several things in close range I wanted to see--Cathedral Primada, Inglesia de San Juan, Inglesia de San Ignacio, Inglesia de la Veracruz, Inglesia Santa Clara, the cemetary, Botero Musuem, Gold Museum, Museum of Modern Art, Congress, President's Palace, etc. It was going to be a fun day with a lot to see as I was one day behind b/c of my plane challenges.

At 9:30 a.m. Juan had not yet arrived so I got walking directions to the nearest church. I t" old the concierge my plans and informed her that Juan might drop by after I left. (She laughed when I told her he would show up at 9:30 a.m.; she insisted that Colombians are historically late.) I asked if she would be so gracious and let him know my plans. I was out the door at 9:45. and headed down the street.

Not seeing the cathedral, I crossed the street to see Inglesia San Franciso first. There were 3 beggars outside asking for money; I said hello to them and then went inside. The altar is lovely with gold gilt and statues rising to the ceiling and cascading down the walls. People were in morning prayer, and I got permission fro the guard that I could take some pictures as long as I did not use the flash and was fast. Point and click, I was out the door in seconds flat.

I then headed down the street in the wrong direction to see the cathedral. After a few blocks I figured I misread the map, and I was quite right. I popped my head into another church that I don't recall the name and returned in the direction I recently came. Timing is everything because as I made my way up the street, a young man turned around. I immediately knew who it was, Juan Camillo! I gave him a big hug and shared with him my adventure. He apologized fo being late, but I was impressed that he found me in this city of 8 million people. It was destiny! And so, we were off to the cathedral (where he went first but informed me the doors were closed). What surprised me was for a city so large, I never felt overwhelmed by it. Streets are pedestrian friendly, everything is very orderly, there is little trash on the street, and I felt very safe. Juan and I went from church to church, museum to museum and even got to the cemetery. The cemetery is not as impressive as others I have seen in the world, but it was nice to witness it. Former presidents and people of prominence are buried here. I was particularly struck by how many of the deceased were cremated versus entombed. I was expecting more mausoleums (like in Argentina), but I was still glad to have gone. Juan has lived here in the city for over 35 years and had never gone. It was a first time experience for him, and I was glad to see it with him. We later walked through the bohemian section of town, got a late lunch, and walked through Gestemani for coffee and to watch street performers.

Juan and I walked from one end of Bogota to the next. He was a great host! We parted ways with the intention of meeting up again when I return this coming weekend. COSTS $39,600 pesos-- 2 lunches (me + Juan)

March 12, 2013 -- Bogota to Cartegena The heat is what you will first face when coming off the plane to Cartagena (and later the wind off the port). There is at least a 20 degree temperature difference from Bogota to here. Pulling off my cotton, argyle sweater I packed it into my duffel bag. Finding my directions the hotel had sent me, I inquired about First Avenue by asking a police man. He did not know where I asking, and he got another friend of his involved. I was hoping to get there to save 4,000 pesos. According to the hotel directions, the airport taxi would be 11,000 and the other 6,000. No one knew where I was going, and so to save grief I bargained the taxi to 10,000 pesos. The last thing I needed was to fight over a couple of dollars.

My hotel, Casa Viena, is located in Getsemani neighborhood--a hop and skip from the Walled City. When I checked-in, my room had yet been made and would have to wait for a 2 hours. I settled into an alcove with a large ceiling fan to watch an American movie with Tom Cruise. (It was one of his spy films.) A woman in a purple, short dress was sleeping on a sofa. I kicked back and waited.

Casa Viena is your typical hoseal-- book exchange, room info for other hostels around the country, bargain tours, other travelers passing the day, internet, baggage service, shared kitchen, bath, etc. The front area was a bit dishelved, but the reception staff were pleasant, and the place looked clean. Two hours came and went, and on the dot was taken to my room. I immediately took of my dungarees and long sleeve shirt off for a pair of shorts, slides, and polo shirt. Tucking my bag under the bed, I secured the computer into the safety deposit box. I was off to explore the town.

Cartagena (or Cartagena de Indias) is a Caribbean beach city on the northern coast of Colombia. The city has over 850,000 citizens, making it the fifth-largest city in Colombia. Cartagena is an important center of economic activity in the Caribbean, as well a popular tourist destination. (with lots of cruise ships)

The region dates to 4000 BC. The Spanish colonial city was founded on June 1, 1533, and named after Cartagena, Spain. Cartagena served a key role in the development of the region during the Spanish eras; it was a center of political and economic activity due to the presence of royalty and wealthy viceroys. In 1984 Cartagena's colonial walled city and fortress were designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and it's definitely worth a visit (minus the one too many tourists and locals selling hats, jewelry and cold beverages.

Founded on June 1, 1533 by Spanish commander Pedro de Heredia, in the former location of the indigenous Caribbean Calamarí village, the town was named after Cartagena, Spain, where most of Heredia's sailors had resided. The city began with 200 people. And like so many conquerors of the past, the Spanish were after the local gold.  Once depleted, the settlers became farmers.

A little later, the city had fewer than 2000 inhabitants and one church. The dramatically increasing fame and wealth of the prosperous city turned it into an attractive plunder site for pirates and corsairs – French and English privateers licensed by their king. 30 years after its founding, the city was pillaged by the French nobleman Jean-François Roberval. The city set about strengthening its defenses and surrounding itself with walled compounds and castles. With its popularity, came destruction when the place burned down. The city was rebuilt and created the first fire brigades in the Americas. Popularity of the city made it  pace where many wanted to conquer. The British tried to defeat the town, and Spain took it under its protection. Spain poured millions every year into the city for its protection, beginning with Gov. Francisco de Murga's planning of the walls and forts; this practice was called Situado. The magnitude of this subsidy is shown by comparison: between 1751 and 1810, the city received the sum of 20,912,677 Spanish reales, the equivalent of some 2 trillion dollars today. The city recovered quickly from the British attack and subsequent occupation.

Cartagena was a major trading port, especially for precious metals. Gold and silver from the mines in the New Granada and Peru were loaded in Cartagena on the galleons bound for Spain via Havana, Cuba. Cartagena was also a slave port; Cartagena and Veracruz, Mexico, were the only cities authorized to trade African slaves. The first slaves were transported by Pedro de Heredia.


$22,000 Casa Platypus to Airport $6,900 doughnut with hot chocolate at airport $10,000 Taxi from Cartagena Airport to Casa Viena $1,500 bottle of water $11,500 lunch--aroz con pollo with fries, Pepsi plus tip $2,000 scoop of chocolate ice cream with sugar cone $2,200 flavored water March 13, 2023 - Castillo San Felipe Barajas Days are warm in Cartagena and the best thing to do is to star it early to beat the heat. By 10 a.m. hits it already is becoming unbearable. I leave Casa Viena, walk down the street o Cafe Havana and take a left. Walking a couple of blocks, I cross the street an over the bridge to the other side of the water. In the distance is Castillo San Felipe de Barajas. I am thankful I brought my university ID because professors an students get a 50% discount. I pay $8,000 pesos. Walking up the steep ramp, I enter the fortified fort feeling the heat radiate against the stone with me trying to find any resemblance of shade I can up the climb. Up and up I go to see a vista that spans 180 degrees and then back toward town. The view is lovely. I can understand why the Spanish claimed this spot to protect the two openings in the water and the walled city beyond.

The castle is located on the Hill of San Lázaro in a strategic location, dominating approaches to the city by land or sea. It was built by the Spanish during the colonial era beginning in 1536 and expanded in 1657. It was originally known as the Castillo de San Lázaro. It was built in a triangular shape on top of the hill, with eight guns and a garrison of 20 soldiers and 4 gunners. Its name was given in honor of Philip IV of Spain. Another expansion was made to the fortress in 1763 by Antonio de Arévalo.

In the 1697 raid on Cartagena, during the War of the Grand Alliance, the castle fell to the French privateer Baron de Pointis. The castle was repaired by José de Herrera y Sotomayor in 1739. British Admiral Edward Vernon attacked the fortress in the 1741 Battle of Cartagena de Indias, an important conflict of the War of Jenkins' Ear. Vernon's forces were repelled by the Spanish admiral Blas de Lezo. By mid-1815 a large Spanish expeditionary force under Pablo Morillo had arrived in New Granada. Cartagena fell in December, and by May 1816 the royalists had control of all of New Granada.

The castle is striking with a grand entrance and a complex maze of tunnels. You can still go through some of them. It is the most formidable defensive complex of Spanish military architecture. They say if the British had controlled it after the rampage, Colombia today would be speaking English and not Spanish. In 1984, UNESCO listed the castle, with the historic centre of the city of Cartagena, as a World Heritage Site.

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