“There are no foreign lands. It is the traveler only who is foreign.” – Robert Louis Stevenson

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Seasons Greetings 2013-14

Hello all dear friends and family from stunning Queenstown, except, oops, I've been back in Bogota three weeks now...
What a year, 2013!

I began the year in a tiny little diner in Bariloche, Argentina, which kind of feels like I've come full circle because Bariloche is sometimes compared to Queenstown in its ski resort, lake-town vibe. We looked everywhere to find a restaurant but everything was either closed or reservation-only. We shared our table (not the done thing!) with two Argentinian guys who were there to hike and cycle. I had just spend the most amazing 10 days going to Antarctica from Ushuaia -- am still nostalgic about such a trip of a lifetime!
After beautiful weather in Bariloche, we then went on to further amazements like horseback ridingwhite-water rafting and wine-tasting in Mendoza, following the Jesuit trail in Cordoba, to exploring the delta and historic districts of Buenos Aires. Argentina was so vast and diverse and had mixes of Europe, Southern Hemisphere, and South America everywhere. We loved the bizzare touristy cemetery where Evita is buried, the great art museums and the tango show!
January through March were a hard slog of work -- not a single long weekend, and the greatest concentration of deadlines and catch up work. However, I still managed to fit in my first Chiva ride, climb Guadalupe, and visit Choachi,... I continued to work on my little project, my blog called 1000 Amazing Places, whose self-imposed deadlines have been good for me (when I manage to make them!) and the reflections of places, magical. Perhaps its a bit overly positive, but I'm enjoying it (detesting it) immensely! Most of the links in this blog post lead to it, so please peruse!
 
Over Easter my parents joined me for a quick tour of Colombia -- La Calera mountain farm villages near Bogota, Guatavita (although the mystical Laguna de Guatavita was closed after the public holiday - my second failed attempt), charming colonial Villa de Leyva and Barichara, with lots of pottery bought in Rakira! We walked down the ancient Camino Real (pre Colombian) trail to Guane and marveled at the fossils in the rocks in its tiny museum.

June gave us a few long weekends to play with -- zipped off first to Pasto to see the magnificent Sanctuaria de Las Lajas and the beautiful Laguna de La Cocha then the following weekend we went on almost the same flight path further south to Quito in Ecuador -- the traditional Incan market in Otovalu was colorful and traditional, but I think I loved the vistas from the Panecillo hill best coupled with the super Quito Basilica which is the only one I've ever been in that lets you walk inside the roof and climb every turret and tower.

Bogota continues to bring delights like my Salsa Casino -- see the videos below -- (although I haven't managed to get there for the last part of the year), excellent restaurants and a mild (ahem, wet, rainy and cold) climate. I love walking to school in the mornings, my teaching/HoD role is more manageable this year, I have a fabulous mix of great friends to spend time with and life is good (but doesn't it always seem so from a far away holiday?). I lament the lack of (non-salsa) live music, the distance I live from the center of town and best restaurants, and the overly-fanatical or non-existent sports/outdoor options in Bogota, but love the short hikes up the mountainside when I manage to get up early enough to enjoy them (my favorite one is only open from 7-9am).

I am addicted to Audible.com's talking books so can say I've 'read' more this year than ever -- most recently I, Claudius but also The Disappearing Spoon, Birdsong, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Salt: A History (after which I was full of amusing salty anecdotes to drive people crazy with!), Things Fall Apart (finishing just before Chinua Achebe's death), Cutting for Stone, The Night Circus, Lady Almina and the Real Downton Abbey and Mirror Mirror -- I really can't remember the last time I read so many great books -- audio books have changed my life! I won't tell you about the bad books I read, though Mao's Great Famine almost killed me (luckily I stopped reading it part way through and let the lovely ladies of my book club tell me the key parts).

Ah, Summer... the reason I am a teacher. Two months of me time to travel, see family and catch up with friends across the world. I started July in London (met my darling nephew!), which at that point was a bit cold and wet, but went on some nice little trips to Canterbury, Manchester, Bradford, Leeds and York (yay, cat trail!) to see Michelle and Carol. On July 5th I fulfilled a long-held dream: I flew to Iceland (country number 80 or so). Wow, what a place!!! So amazingly beautiful, wild, safe, friendly, spectacular, lovely, gorgeous, photogenic, green, wet, majestic, etc, etc, though a bit cold when I was there. I rented a car and circled the island counter-clockwise and it was one special vista after another. Highlights included the amazing waterfalls, walking on a glacier in the East Fjords, driving through the East Fjords (especially past the iceberg lagoon Jokulsarlon) and staying in charming Seydisfjordur (one of the best hostels I've ever stayed at). Peculiar Krafla and volcanic Myvatn and the Husavik whale watching (though my flight over the central mountains was grounded due to bad weather), I thought the northernmost city of Akureyri was very livable (but likely miserable in winter as its almost on the Arctic Circle). The Western Fjords were majestic and rough -- large paths of gravel roads and a roaring wildness emphasized by the isolation and the wind. Reykjavik was charming and the trip ended all too soon!
      
I flew straight from the cool Arctic winds to the Mediterranean heat in Dubrovnik, Croatia -- I love that city!! The history and the ambiance, despite the billions of tourists and inflated prices, were fantastic while the solid impregnable walls shadowed over the glistening Adriatic. We did a day trip into Montenegro and then bussed up into Bosnia and back into Croatia to Zagreb. My friends took off and I enjoyed Slovenian alpine hospitality (and caves!) and sites alone. I caught up with Jo in her idyllic home near Fethiye in Turkey, and she showed me all over the area before I flew back to London for a last catchup with my brother and his wife Janneke in London (and of course, my charming nephew, Timmy) before life in Bogota resumed.

I had a lovely weekend in Villa de Leyva for the Kite Festival -- beautiful, enormous decorations floating in the serious Andean wind!

September saw serious protests in Colombia where farmers (campesinos) across the country were blocking roads and leading strikes and marches which led to looting and military clashes. Colombia recently signed a free trade agreement with the United States, and while parts of this were one issue being protested, other problems such as smuggling of (cheaper) goods from Venezuela and Ecuador and government subsidies were causing problems. We had two days of school cancelled and a curfew over half the city shaking up our new teachers a bit who had barely been in the country a month!
Two of the UNESCO World Heritage sites in Colombia, San Agustin and Tierradentro, have amazing connections to the pre-Colombian civilizations of Colombia, and I made that my destination for the October break, flying to pretty Popayan and wending my way on crowded local busses through the high mountains to see them both. San Agustin is famous for it's carved standing stone figures and ancient Stonehenge-like tombs and Tierradentro for its painted underground tombs. San Agustin was prolific in its beautiful carvings of animals and people on sites that reminded me of Maori Pas, and Tierradentro impressed with the hundreds of tombs scattered across a very steep mountaintop -- ancient symbols and colors decorating man-made caves initially found full of rubble.

We rented a car in November to take us to Melgar and La Mesa which was unexpectedly eventful with power cuts, stolen hubcabs (rims), and a tiny little house. Seeing the Magdalena river at its point nearest Bogota and it's now defunct railway brought thoughts of colonial Colombia and the interesting travel mechanisms that we are nostalgic about.

After a lovely Dec 1st Christmas dinner we headed into exams and then I flew via Santiago, Chile to New Zealand -- the first time I've come home in more than four years. It is so wonderful to be back and to be in our family home (for the first time in 20 years). My brother and his family joined us for Christmas and we have had many other friends and relatives here to catch up with. I loved the spectacular mountains that I can stare at for hours and the long drives down all the remembered paths to other beautiful local destinations like Glenorchy, Skipper's, Arrowtown, Bob's Cove, Jack's Point, Moke Lake, and of course Queenstown itself.


New Year's eve meant Queenstown fireworks, reflections on a great 2013 and the promises of 2014. I will be finishing my current job in July to take a year off from work for travel, projects, volunteering and reflection and possibly short-term contracts or work. It is very exciting! I will probably be in and around South America until December, but who knows after that?
I had hoped to get this written soon after I arrived in New Zealand and before Christmas, but too many cups of tea, hokey-pokey ice cream excursions, barbeques, picnics and day trips seemed to get in the way! Returning to Bogota meant even more delays.

But am done, now, January 31st. I hope its not too late to wish that 2014 brings wishes come true, dreams realized, love, light and laughter for you all. 

Much love from Natalya xx