Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Colombia: Mud Volcano!!!

Day 5: 

Well I certainly wasn't expecting to find myself sitting topless in a lagoon with a Colombian woman scrubbing mud out of my ears, but that's how today ended. I'm not even a little bit upset about it.

Our last full day in Cartegena started innocuously enough. I decided that after 5 days sans exercise I needed a run, so I headed out at 7:45 am hoping the days of buses and planes and taxis and hiking and hammock-sleeping hadn't maliciously meddled with my joints. I'm happy to report that though sluggish and slow, everything was overall ok! Until the heat really started to hit me a couple miles in. I was running along the beach. The breeze stopped. And all of a sudden I was inside an oven with now way to escape. I paused at a stop light, felt light-headed, focused hard on existing for a few seconds, and then headed home through the heat.

But within 15 minutes of returning to the hostel, after inhaling some watermelon and drinking a liter of water, my body temp was back closer to normal and I was happily sipping Colombian coffee and munching on toast with pineapple jam.

We spent a lazy morning wandering around the walled city, buying necklaces and paintings, and checking out Cartegena's modern art museum.

Ok so next up on the itinerary: Mud Volcano!

We booked a bus tour through our hostel for about $20 each, since the mud volcano is about 30 minutes outside the city. Honestly, we had no idea what to expect. We arrived at a gray-ish cone in the middle of nowhere that looked like a volcano if a child were to draw a volcano, overlooking a huge lagoon. We were shepherded into changing rooms and instructed to wear only our bathing suits, hand our cameras to a boy to document the experience, and leave everything else in a locker.

We climbed the volcano's stairs in our bikinis, the wind howling around us, giggling at the absurdity of it all -- an absurdity that only intensified when we arrived at the top and looked down into what was quite literally a pit of mud 10 feet across about 15 feet below the lip of the volcano.

The few Colombian men in charge of this experience waved us down the precarious mid-splattered ladder. I watched KatieHat slowly sink into viscous gray mud and then float, guided by the locals' hands, to the center of the pit where they began to massage her back and legs and arms as she lay on top of the mud.

Umm ok my turn! I backed down the slippery stairs and sank into the comfortably  warm and pleasantly smooth molten mud. My masseur told me to relax, and I was shocked at how completely buoyant the mud was! The massage lasted maybe five minutes (sure whatevs, it cost $1.50), and then he guided me to the side and told me to stand up. It worked! The tour guide on the bus told us that being in the mud volcano (which is 300 feet deep!) would feel like zero gravity, and she was right! The rest of our group (about 12 total) one by one joined us in the pit, and the camera boy snapped pictures from above. We slip-slided around like baby otters, or the Orc being born in Lord of the Rings, or like three girls in a warm and buoyant mud volcano bath of ridiculousness.

I'm not going to lie guys, it was a weird and awesome and unique experience that I highly recommend!

After maybe a half an hour, we one at a time climbed back up those slippery steps. A guy at the top used his hands to essentially squeegee the mud off, then sent us down the volcano stairs like a line of slow-moving Swamp Things to make our way to the lagoon.

So there we found ourselves. A woman with a plastic bowl in hand guided me into the lagoon, sat me down in water just over a foot deep, and started washing me like a baby in a bathtub, using the bowl to pour water over my head and scrub the mud out of my hair and ears. I squished my eyes shut and went with it -- she appeared to be doing a good job. Then she took off my top! Little waves crashing against my belly button, she washed out my top and put it back on me, then did the same with the bottoms. Unexpected, but ummm sure ok, me and my 12 new best friends are just going to have this experience together I guess!

We emerged out of the lagoon feeling clean and refreshed and a little bit baffled by the serious events that had just occurred. Clearly we bought egg arepas (again, Colombia = never not eating fried corn things) and then took the bus back to the city.

Our last night we went to a fancy restaurant/bar on the wall and then the next morning we walked all around the city one last time.

Now I'm back in the cold and work-heavy world of Boston and siiiggghhhh I miss Colombia!

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Colombia: Beaching in Tayrona National Park

Day 3: 

"Queso! Chocolaaaaaate! Queso!! Chocolaaaate!! Queso!!! Chocolaaaaate!!! QUESO!!!"

At around 7 am, a woman shrieking those words with increasing volume slowly jogged me out of my hammock-sleep into a waking state of pure confusion. I like those things. Where am I? Who is yelling that? And why? In the words of Jessica, "I was happy because I love cheese. But then mad because I didn't want to be woken up. It was a confusing morning."

Luckily KatieHat had the wherewithal to unfold out of her hammock and explore the situation -- the woman was selling fresh bread/pastries filled with ham and cheese, tomatoes and cheese, or chocolate. Hello breakfast!

We were sleeping in hammocks near the beach in Tayrona National Park (here's the previous post about how we got there). I must say, though it sounds awesome and I'm glad we did it, sleeping in hammocks is the worst. You can't be flat! You can't turn on your side! Napping in hammocks is awesome, but sleeping sleeping? Nope. Just something to keep in mind...

But we were waking up to queso and beach sunrise and that pleasant early morning warmth you get in the summer before it's heat-of-the-day hot, so I was quickly over my uncomfortable night. We walked along the coast, exploring Tayrona's series of beaches: Arrecifes (no swimming) to La Piscina to El Cabo.

The day started overcast but by 11 am the sun was out in full force -- I napped on the beach while KatieHat and Jessica played in the water.

A man on the beach sold us egg arepas for lunch (us = never not eating fried corn things) before we headed back to Arrecifes to get our books. I read on the beach until the sun started to go down, then we headed back to our camp site to scrub off the layers of sweat and sunscreen before dinner.

Summer nights guys. They are the BEST. You know, when it's warm enough that you're comfortable in a dress but not sweaty at all and you can just sit outside forever? That's what I want all the time.

Day 4:

Queso lady woke us up again the next morning, as expected. The morning sunlight was beautiful, so I got up and meandered down to our beach to look at the waves (uhoh am I my dad???).

We went on an abbreviated beach walk before packing up our stuff to leave. Hiking out to the main road took about two hours and was difficult! Mostly because it's hilly and hot, but in a good way -- it was nice to get some exercise and hiking through the jungle, though sweaty, is pretty unique.

We collapsed into chairs at a roadside restaurant, downed a Coke, and then hopped on the local bus to Santa Marta, jamming to the sweet Colombian pop beats in the back seat (all Colombians think we're crazy all the time).

The bus dropped us off in the middle of somewhere but nowhere (i.e. in the town of Santa Marta, but just on some random street, not the bus station). We got in a cab and asked him to take us to the tourist direct bus to Cartegena (we had taken the local non-direct bus to get there), and luckily he knew where that office was!

They told us the bus was leaving in 40 minutes, so perfect! Time to find some lunch before we go! But then, even though it was just us, the bus was about to leave NOW! But comida? Banyo? The bus people looked at us blankly. Uno momento! KatieHat went next door to a "restaurant" that was essentially two guys with a box of fried chicken legs and whole potatoes. As she was pointing to the ones she wanted, I rushed in Banyo? One of the guys led me to their back room to use the bathroom, and I came out to KatieHat frantically counting out Colombian change -- one, two, three -- the amused, if not confused, guys joined us in counting out loud in English -- four, five, six! Ok go! 

Needs handled, we ran out to board the bus (which was more of a shared van), which soon filled up with fancy Colombians. We sat in the front row of seats, eating chicken out of a bag like the classy ladies we are, and then promptly passed out for the 4-hour ride back to Cartegena.

Monday, March 24, 2014

Colombia: Arriving in Cartegena and Traveling to Tayrona National Park

I'm happy to report that Colombia is not even a teeny tiny little bit like Boston at all -- it's 80 degrees and sunny, the food is spicy, the buildings, the clothes, everything is brightly colored, there are fried snacks everywhere, and there is no hurry for us to do anything: no papers to write, no readings to read, no slide sets to review. Well ok, there are those things, and they will welcome us with open arms (or a punch in the stomach) when we return to real life, but for now we're on spring break and it is absolutely glorious.

Towards the end of last semester, KatieHat and I committed to an international spring break together. Then a few weeks ago we sat down and scanned the internet -- Mexico? Ecuador? (Tortoises!) Italy? What about the Alps? Or maybe Argentina? Suriname? Do people even go there? (Not really.)

We finally settled on Cartegena, Colombia, based on the important criteria of cheap direct flights and beaches and summertime temperatures, the idea of which got us through some dark late-winter Boston days.

Day 1: 

We flew out of NYC early Sunday morning and arrived in Cartegena, a 500-year-old city on Colombia's Carribean coast, at noon. Despite three hours of sleep the night before, KatieHat and I checked into our hostel in the walled city and immediately switched our shoes for flip-flops and jeans for sundresses and ventured out into the streets.

Inside our hostel.
We saw as sign on a hole-in-the-wall full of Colombians for "vegetariano" and sat down for lunch. My non-existent Spanish managed to get me a fried fish plate, while Katie ordered the veggie option (a plate of rice and beans and cheese and egg) plus a guabanana (aka soursop) milk smoothie. We sat there grinning like idiots and agreeing that this is literally all we want in life at this moment and maybe forever and for always.

We wandered around the walled city (beautiful tourist-land), and started jumping up and down at the sight of the ocean (we are West Coasters => we like the beach). So to the beach we went!

Cartegena's beaches not particularly stunning, but ummm hello ocean I missed you!!! I immediately laid out my towel, plopped down on my stomach, and proceeded to do what I do best: read on the beach, nap on the beach, and beach hair.

Our third amiga arrived in the early evening and we went back out to the city to find dinner. Apparently the fried fish/chicken/carne asada plate that I had for lunch, with rice, fried green plantains, and salad is the plato tipico of Colombia, so I proceeded to eat that for pretty much the rest of the trip.

Day 2: 

The next day we were off on our first true Colombian adventure to Tayrona National Park!

Bus stations in foreign countries always amaze me. You walk in to complete chaos -- stalls hawking little cups of coffee or tea, sodas, a million varieties of cookies and chips, local pastries and unidentified candies wrapped in plastic, local families milling about waiting for the next bus to somewhere the kids silently sucking on lollypops or sitting at plastic tables slurping bowls of noodles or plates of beans and rice (depending on where you are), and buses and taxis of all colors and shapes and sizes in varying degrees of disrepair zooming in and out, loading and unloading their human cargo. But there is an orchastrated beauty to this madness. Without fail I have walked in, stated a destination, and been guided by some young man to exactly the bus I need, told where to pay and where to sit, and how long to wait until it leaves. I stand by the assurance that when traveling, other people know what I need and where I need to go far better than I do -- it's best to listen, follow instructions (or gestures, as I have rarely traveled where I know the language), and smile at everyone.

Colombia was no different. The bus, though nice, took significantly longer than expected (about 5 hours instead of 3.5). Luckily Colombians are very committed to fried snacks, so an Arepas con Huevos! man rocking quite the mullet briefly boarded the bus to sell us fried corn cakes filled with eggs about halfway though the trip. Muy delicioso!!! (Is that a thing people say? I do...) Also if you go to Colombia and see something that looks like a baseball-sized and -shaped fried something GET IT. It's potatoes formed around a bit of spicy ground meat and wrapped in dough of some sort. Aka the greatest ball of carbs ever.

The bus ride showed us the more real side of Colombia (as I said, the inside the walls of Cartegena is very nice tourist-land). As we drove, brightly painted one-story stucco progressed to dilapidated wooden shacks, showing the remnants of being once a brighter color of paint. Skinny horses and donkeys pulled carts alongside the cars, dirt bikes, and motorcycles (Katie: I am shocked and delighted that everyone on a moto is wearing a helmet! Go Colombia!) as people went about their business.

A long bus ride plus a taxi (that I was 80% positive would chug its way up those hills -- I don't know much about cars, but I know that they should not make noises like that) landed us at the gates of Tayrona National Park at exactly 5 minutes to 5pm, just in time to pay our entrance fee before the park gates closed for the day.

A long tired day of transportation ended in the most beautiful sunset hike -- through the jungle, up and over some hills, and then down along the beach. The day's heat subsided into what would have been pleasant summertime evening had we not been carrying backpacks, but a little sweat (or a lot) never hurt anyone!

We arrived at Arrecifes Beach and paid for three hammocks for two nights at Aviatur has Ecocabanas. (Turns out this was the higher-end fancy option and there are cheaper places a bit further down the beach, just fyi. But Avairur has nice bathrooms with tp and individual mosquito nets on its I don't regret our mistake.) We showered, sat down at the restaurant to delicious Colombian seafood, and fell asleep to the sounds of night animals and birds and waves crashing on the beach.

To be continued...

Thursday, March 6, 2014

Cake of the Week: Mardi Gras King Cake

Happy Mardi Gras!

Of course, in honor of such a garishly great holiday, our weekly Wednesday dinner party was Mardi Gras themed (a day late I know, but is it ever a bad time for shrimp and grits and garlic bread and King Cake? No.). RoommateRachel and another southern friend handled the shrimp jambalaya and cheesy (ooh so cheesy) grits, while I took on the cake of course.

This recipe looks high maintenance, and does require some spatial thinking ("Take the pieces of dough that are coming from the underneath of the center and cross it with the piece of dough to the right of it" and then spin around three times counterclockwise and then cross your left elbow over your right ankle), but it actually wasn't that hard!

King Cake is more like a giant challah bread cinnamon roll than regular cake. The yeast dough is super-simple, and it's filled with cinnamon and brown sugar. I made the dough, let it rise in the oven (that I had heated to 200 degrees and turned off), then set to rolling and braiding. This blog post gives really good step-by-step pictures and instructions.

So all was going according to plan an my pretty ball of braided dough was ready to go. I almost took a picture, but then thought no no, I'll wait until it's all risen and cooked and absolutely gorgeous before projecting this on Snapchat. So then I put it back into the oven to rise again...and 40 minutes later when I checked, it had kinda sorta melted! I think my error was filling it too full of brown sugar (I put in probably twice as much as the recipe called for). I also probably didn't knead the dough enough -- since I don't have a pastry hook I was doing this by hand.

But then I baked it -- my apartment smelled AMAZING -- and covered it in the most brightly-colored frosting I had. What I did not do, and recommend, is frosting with one color at a time and letting it sit for about 5 minutes between colors -- I think this would stop the colors from completely bleeding together.

Oh and I did not have a little plastic baby Jesus to hide in the cake. But I do have a tiny hippopotamus. So clearly that happened.

King Cake

Recipe from For the Love of the South

  • Combine ½ cup of brown sugar and 1 tablespoon of ground cinnamon in a bowl. Set aside.
  • 1 cup of warm water
  • 1 package dry yeast
  • 2 tablespoons sugar, divided
  • 2 tablespoons butter, melted, cooled, plus more for brushing
  • 1 tablespoon salt
  • 3 cups of flour
  • 1 egg, slightly beaten for egg wash
  • 1 1/2 cup powdered sugar
  • 3 teaspoons milk
  • green, purple, and yellow gel food coloring 
  1. Combine water, yeast and 1 tablespoon of sugar in a mixing bowl of a stand mixer for 5-10 minutes to bloom (or in a medium-sized bowl). 
  2. Add remaining 1 tablespoon of sugar, butter, and salt and mix on low with dough hook attachment for a few seconds (or a spoon if you don't have a mixer). 
  3. Add half of the flour and continue mixing for a few more seconds until the mixture begins to combine, and then add the rest of the flour. The dough will start to come together and stick to the dough hook attachment. 
  4. Transfer the dough into a large, butter-greased bowl and let rise in a warm place for 1 hour to double in size (I usually place the bowl of dough into an oven that has been preheated to 200 degrees and then shut off. It’s a warm place for the dough to rise on a cool day.) 
  5. Once the dough has risen, punch it down and divide the dough in half. On a lightly floured surface, roll the dough out until thin and slightly rectangular. Lightly brush the dough with melted butter, leaving a 2-inch border around the edges. Sprinkle half of the filling onto the dough.
  6. Roll the dough up tightly, longwise, beginning with the side closest to you (this step is a lot like making homemade cinnamon rolls.) Once the dough is in one long, snake-like shape, begin rolling the dough out with your palms gently until the length reaches about 2 feet. Cut the dough in half and continue with the other half.
  7. Once you have 4 equal pieces of rolled dough, place 2 pieces of dough side by side, and then place the remaining dough in a tic-tac-toe format. Take the pieces of dough that are coming from the underneath of the center and cross it with the piece of dough to the right of it. (Picture instructions here.)
  8. Then, take the pieces that are now on the underneath and cross them with the piece to the right of it.
  9. Continue until you run out of dough and tuck the remaining stragglers on the underbelly of the dough.
  10. Place dough onto a baking sheet lined with parchment paper, lightly brush with egg was and let rise in a warm spot for 1 hour.
  11. Preheat the oven to 375 degrees
  12. Once the dough has risen, brush lightly with egg wash again and place in the oven for 30-35 minutes or until golden (if the bread browns too quickly, tent it with foil and let continue cooking.) Let cool while you prepare the icing (or if you don’t want to decorate the cake, EAT NOW!)
  13. Before icing: tuck your baby Jesus, or hippopotamus, into the cake. 
  14. Icing: in three small bowls, mix 1/2 cup powdered sugar and a splash of milk (be careful here -- small splashes!), and food coloring. Stir until smooth, then drizzle over the cake.                                                                        

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Literary Bite: The Last Train to Zona Verde by Paul Theroux

Consider this post a long-overdue thank you note to the Newbie! She got me The Last Train to Zona Verde by Paul Theroux as a getting-into-grad-school present almost a year ago now...but she lives in CA, so we didn't actually see each other (so I did not have the book in my hands) until this past Christmas...and then because I'm in grad school it took me two months to read it!

Looking back at my reading list, this is the fifth Paul Theroux book I've read over the past four and a half years. So that's kind of a lot? What can I say, I like his travel writing.

The Last Train to Zona Verde is the story of Theroux's final trip to Africa. As a follow up to his Dark Star Safari, in which he traveled overland from Cairo to Cape Town, it chronicles his trip from Cape Town up the west coast of Africa toward Timbuktu.

My reading history shows that I like Theroux. And I like Africa (well duh). But unfortunately, this book is not his best...I feel like he was kind of lost on the trip, and somehow lost me as a reader. (Full disclosure: I read this in 2-5 page increments right before going to bed over the course of a couple months, so the lost-ness could have been entirely my own fault...)

But he seemed like a traveler without a purpose. Perhaps finally after a lifetime of traveling, he reached the tipping the point in his own curmudgeonly misanthropy. Part of this could have to do with the countries he visited and the context in which he was seeing them. He says himself that Africa is "the kingdom of light" where he spent the "happiest years of his life." And in this book he returns, decades later, to see the same old problems or even worse new ones -- not exactly inspiring optimism.

But the African optimist and explorer in me rebelled against his brutally truthful portrait -- the bush of Namibia and Angola apparently (and not surprisingly) do not have a whole lot going on. I get that. I would probably be cranky traveling alone there too. But as readers may recall from this summer, when I have a ridiculous or terrible travel experience, I recount it in the most amusing way possible. Theroux, on the other hand, wrote like (and maybe is) a world-weary grumpy old man. He just ddn't bring the same traveler's attitude of excitement and exploration to this book as he did to his others.

But Last Train did get me thinking about the day-to-day life in places where I spend so much (too much?) academic energy focusing on the big picture. And despite Theroux's pessimism, I want to go to all the places and see them myself!

Monday, March 3, 2014

Weekend Report: Delta Rae, Long Running, and Arepas!

"Your weekends always sound like entire weeks to me." -- Sister2

My very observant sister is right. But between the things I need to do (schoolwork, life-work), want to do (friends! parties! activities!), and love to do (running! skiing!) I just don't see how my weekends could be any other way.

Friday night, after two solid weeks of having some sort of activities every night, I stayed in and it was pure introvert gloriousness: some cooking, some homework, some reading, some writing, and a lot of sleeping.

Saturday day was heavy on the schoolwork because grrraaahhh midterms! But my friend KatieHat came over and we made Econometrics fun (well now that's a stretch but work with me here) by turning it into a homework brunch. I made these peanut butter and jam muffins yummm, and we had eggs and hashbrowns and all the coffee to go with them. And then we learned everything. Or some things. Or maybe a few things. Perhaps (though hopefully not) nothing at all...

Saturday night I was SUPER excited to see Delta Rae at Royale in the Theater District. I first heard about this band a couple weeks from my friends in DC, who said they were amazing in concert. So then last week I finally looked up their songs, was immediately obsessed, checked tour dates, realized they would be in Boston on Saturday, and decided that I HAD to go.

It was an excellent choice. They were the most energetic performers and powerful singers I think I have ever see. Their songs have been in my head for three days now and I am not even a little upset.

Alright so what's next? Well I did my first 20-miler on Sunday morning and it felt awesome!!! The weather was nice (i.e. above freezing and nothing coming out of the sky) and I met up with my running friend for a lovely progression run out to Lexington and back. I've had some questionable workouts recently, so it was definitely a confidence-booster to feel so good in my first really long run (our longest until yesterday was 15).

Accompanying me on this run were some sweet new shoes. Finally! I always put off buying new shoes for waaaayyy too long. (More on shoes in this post.) So far so good with these guys -- Gel Cumulus 15.

For runners out there who care, here's my opinion (and I am definitely not a shoe reviewer): They're neutral (but I wear orthodics), a nice amount of cushy, and the top part is really light and breathable. Plus they're quite the snazzy color combination, no? As I'm sure you know, running shoe companies are constantly updating and discontinuing models and driving me crazy. So I tried on a lot of shoes, while the man helping me looked confused at my repeating, "well they just don't feel like my shoes, you know?" These were the closest I could find to what feels right, so hopefully they work out! 

I was worried that after the run I would be completely comatose, but nope! I felt good enough to hop in the shower, haul out my bike, and ride over to my Venezuelan friend's arepas brunch. For those of you who don't know, let me tell you: arepas are fried cornflour flatbreads, filled with cheese, chicken, avocados, or turkey. Aka absolutely delicious!!! 

We were supposed to do a salsa dancing lesson post-brunch, but everyone was in such a cornflour coma that we kinda just lounged around instead. The perfect way to spend a post-run afternoon.

And now here I am, procrastinating more studying with blogging...hope you all had a good weekend too!