Tag Archives: Colombia

Keep on moving

On the morning of Wednesday 25th, I shed a few tears saying goodbye to the staff of La Serrana & my little friend Niamh. And then some more on the bumpy old ride into town.

It was just a happy accident that I got to see Jon and Big Mike on my way out. We had already said our goodbyes on Monday morning after my last Ayahuasca, but it was super to be able to give them one last hug in the middle of the dirt road I’d walked almost every day.

I’d gotten quite used to having Big Mike around. Big Mike is a bit of a lone wolf from The Yukon: An exploration miner. His work involved getting dropped out into the middle of nowhere by chopper and then he’d go out in these wild unchartered lands on his own – for days, weeks at a time to look for mining opportunities (oil that is, black gold, Texas tea). He’s a man with a lot of stories. A little bit of darkness. And a big big heart. He saw me. And had my back when I needed a friend. He reminded me a bit of Rog. He loved The Rolling Stones. And was forever bashing away on his guitar. I have a lot of time for the man & I hope to see him again one day.

I remember looking through the back of the Jeep and seeing La Serrana getting smaller and smaller. And I remember thinking, ‘I want to hold onto this memory forever’. Sometimes I worry I’ll forget.

We all come in the same way, and we all go out the same way. And all we take with us is knowledge (& hopefully some wisdom) gained from relationships and experiences. I know I got a while to go yet… but sometimes I fret: What if my mind goes first?

What becomes of amazing experiences when they get forgotten? Do they still exist?


Pravin was a beautiful young Sri Lankan boy from Melbourne who had (no questions asked) helped me out of a banking pickle by lending me a few hundred dollars (– there’s a long boring story attached to this where I yell down the phone a lot to various bureaucracies in Australia & in the US to people who either don’t have the capacity to solve problems or aren’t empowered to do so, and so don’t. Do not get me started!)

Anyways, Prav & I went to Cali together for a couple of nights. And it was there I got my tattoo. We tramped all over town meeting artists – none of whom particularly grabbed me … until we walked into Zebra Studios. Stylish. Professional. Clean. And the artist was a dude. Crazy. But in a good way. I had agonised a bit over the placement of it, worrying that putting it on my wrist might mean limiting future professional opportunities but I figured I’m supposed to be creative. And I probably don’t want to work for the sort of organisation where that’s a problem anyways. I could cover it up if I absolutely needed to. Besides, I stand behind the words & their significance to me.

The day after I went to pretty Popyan with its big wide cobblestone streets & clean white washed walls. The trip there took twice as long as it should have, due to a savage accident. When we later saw one of the cars, it seemed unlikely there would have been any survivors. Many of the passengers on my bus made the sign of the cross, as we inched slowly past. As a result I got in late in the evening and only had the morning to have a quick look around. I wished I had more time there.

But I was now a girl on a mission. I still had a bit I wanted to see & do in Ecuador on the way down to the Galapagos Islands. I had a flight booked for the 4th – which gave me just 6 days.


Mixed tape


Time has a strange way of warping when you’re wandering. I ended up staying in the sleepy lil town of Salento for just over 6 weeks. Most folk come to see the wax palms, do a coffee tour, and stay for maybe 3 nights. 4 nights, tops.

When Sammy – the self-appointed ‘Director of Happiness’ (the perfect role for the happy-go-lucky lad) – left, I started working at La Serrana. I did that for just a fortnight. The rest of the time, I was just a paying guest. Far preferable in many ways. It meant I was free to come & go as I pleased.

The work wasn’t hard. It was just a matter of being around every night. All we had to do was take care of after hours’ check-ins / outs and ensure guests were taken care of. In exchange we got free nights & some meals. I also did a marketing strat for Jon in exchange for some additional nights.

I’ll be straight up with you: there’s not a whole lot to do in Salento. But that is kind of the whole point. Having said that – sometimes I would get to the end of the day and would be at a complete loss as to where it had gone. And it wasn’t because I was busy.

In fact – quite the opposite: it was all I could do to maybe have a bit of a morning stretch, take my time over a big breakfast and then struggle through a Spanish lesson. Afterwards I’d stroll into town, buy a Salpicón de frutas & have a bit of a jibber with the locals. Sometimes I’d meet a friend for lunch or a coffee. Then I’d pop in the supermercado, buy some groceries, amble on home, and cook up a tasty feed for new friends. All of a sudden it would be time for bed.

How did I fit everything else in before I started travelling? My sabbatical looks to be coming to an end pretty soon and I’m getting a wee bit anxious about returning to my old life: Getting so busy that my friends have to schedule a date with me 6 weeks in advance. Getting so frantic that I need to diarise a few hours to be on my own. Getting so hectic that I don’t have time to notice flowers opening, new graffiti, or lilting butterflies – you know, the important stuff.

Apart from 6 months in Europe in ’98, I’ve never had the luxury of this much time. And maybe I won’t again for quite some time. At first I felt guilty. Thinking in particular of my new-mummy friends, who also have to work full-time and just never seem to have time to scratch themselves. But now after one year – finally, I am truly able to live in the moment and just enjoy. It’s a nice lesson to have learnt – and it’s one I hope I can hang onto when I go back to my ‘real life’.


Having said that, in amongst all this beautiful non-busyness – this simple slow life to which I’ve become accustomed… there’s still a part of me that needs to be productive: to learn or to create.

In the last year, I’ve spent two months taking Spanish classes (on Isla Mujeres in Mexico and also in Salento in Colombia). In Antigua, Guatemala, I took a month-long class learning how to teach English. And on Little Corn Island in Nicaragua, I worked in a bar for just over a month & can now pour a bloody good Cuba Libré. I figure if you’re going to stop & be productive – you may as well do it somewhere gorgeous, Right?

In terms of creating – I’ve discovered I actually do have creative instincts (been in denial for 30-something years) and I’d like to spend more honing this when I go home. But one of the best things to come out of this trip for me is I’ve finally discovered my passion! Writing. How good is that?

So it was a little strange how in Salento – where I had all the time in the world – somehow I struggled to find the time to write. In part, I think this was because I was spending a bit of time doing some soul searching. But I also think I just need to face up to the fact that even when it comes to your passion – you need to practice discipline. Make it a part of your daily practice.

I think this doesn’t relate just to writing. But other stuff as well.

A few weeks ago, a truly gentle man by the name of Nas came to stay with us. Originally from India, he’s been travelling the world for the last 29 years! You don’t travel the world for that long without accumulating a bag load of stories, a good sense of humour & quite a bit of wisdom. Nas informed me I needed to learn how to breathe properly. He talked of noticing the differences in how we breathe in different situations. He said the air we breathe connects us to the outside world. And he suggested that everyone needs to have a practice, such as yoga, where we observe how we breathe. He told me that when you are able to breathe normally in uncomfortable positions, this helps you replicate this type of breathing in difficult situations in life. And that helps you manage the situation. It’s not something I’ve ever given much thought to before. But it really made sense.

I learnt a lot from Nas. I also laughed a lot with him. And I ended up buying two of his paintings (he’s a very talented artist). One was of all the butterflies in the fairytale landscape that was Ometepe (in Nicaragua). The other a light-infused jungle landscape inspired by the northern parts of Panama. I love love love them and can’t wait to get them framed & hanging on my walls someday soon.


Nas was just one of the many amazing people who came to stay at La Serrana. It’s the type of place that just draws beautiful people to it.

The ‘front yard’ is an unfettered lush green valley with all these gorgeous feminine curves… and just like a woman: it is forever changing moods – the shapes shift, the clouds drift… sunshine peaks out and rainbows form before a headstrong storm… Not once did I tire of looking out at that valley on my way up to breakfast.

Breakfast is held in an ambient dining room. Lots of solid timber & glass. Apparently, the entire property was once owned by a massive, wealthy Cali / Medellin family. And the gorgeous vivacious Olga who cooks us brekky every day used to be their family cook. She told us she once did a dinner for 150 of them. I love eating here: the sun spills into the glassed walls… and from the exposed beams hang hundreds and hundreds of empty wine bottles.

I spent my weekday mornings taking Spanish lessons at one of the alfresco tables. 180 degree views. Marcia, my gregarious teacher, is qualified to teach at university level. She’s one of 6 kids (all of whom are professionals) and she’s also a single mum. Her son is at uni in Bogota studying law. She’s rightfully very proud of him. She’s really helped improve my Spanish and I just loved spending time with her. I‘ve learnt a lot about Colombian culture through her.

Marcia was sweet enough to invite me and Marc – an Aussie larrikin who arrived here on crutches – to dinner at her house for Santa Semana (Holy Week). She cooked up a most delicious traditional dish called Ajiaco Bogotano for her son, friends & us. Marc had 3 helpings it was that good!

He was a good boy that one. Bit out there, but a heart of fucking gold. He reminded me a bit of wild brumby. We had a great night literally (okay, maybe not literally) laughing our arses off on golden tops we’d found in the fields under cow patties. That was definitely one of my all-time favourite ‘big nights out’ in Salento. Mind you – they were very far & few between!

Most of my evenings were spent cooking up a storm in the communal kitchen… generally huge vegetarian feasts for the long-termers – teaming up with the softly-spoken Fernando from Argentina (who was one of the other volunteers there) and drinking cheap Chilean reds.

Either that or revelling in Olga’s culinary skills. Mexican nights were my favourite, followed very closely by her mushroom & nut burgers. Which Olga gave me the recipe for, as part of my farewell present from all the staff – I was stoked! I ended up getting quite close to the staff there. Particularly Olga and the one of the hardest working Latin Americans I have ever met, Luz. They all only spoke Spanish which provided a great opportunity for me to practice. But moreover, I just really enjoyed getting to know them. We shared lots of girly goss & giggles. Tears were shed when I left. I’m gunna miss them all terribly.


In fact, I’m going to miss the whole country terribly. I ended up being there close to my 90 days. It’s a stunning country. And the people are so warm & welcoming. It’s funny: you hear all these things about how dangerous Colombia is & blah blah blah.

One night I found myself stumbling home down the 1.2km dirt track from town, in the middle of the night – quite drunk & completely alone. I don’t know that I would even do that in Australia. And here I was in goddamn Colombia! I know for a fact that I had absolutely nothing to worry about. I was safe as houses.

Colombia was full of surprises for me: It’s no secret that a lot of tourists  go there for a *good, cheap* time. And as someone who’s always been up for a *good cheap* time –it is a little ironic then that Colombia for me was the beginning of something a lot deeper.

This vacation has never been about eating, loving and praying (just quietly – I hated that book). I originally just wanted to take some time out, see a bit of Latin America, do a bit of diving & possibly drink a *few* mojitos.

I’m not even certain if Colombia was originally on my hit list. I was only supposed to be away for 4 months. Nearly one year later & here I am – still going. And I’m delving more into the spiritual and less into the spirits.

I ended up participating in the Ayahuasca ceremony three more times. And every time was wildly different for me. And extraordinarily enlightening. Sometimes scary. My past came back to haunt me. My future made itself known to me. I took a walk with my demons. And I saw my guiding lights. On my last night, I thought I was going to die. In all seriousness. I saw a white light. I heard a voice calling me. My body temperature dropped dramatically. I was unbearably cold. And then I started thinking about everyone I loved. It was terrifying. But also very revealing. I learned what I need to focus on from here on in.

I feel very fortunate. It might be overstating it a bit, but I felt like meeting the Shaman – Señor Carlos (or Tita) was akin to meeting the Dalai Lama. He is very clearly an extraordinarily spiritual, wise man. He sees stuff. He knows stuff. He can fix stuff. He and his people are very experienced and are all amazing caring individuals.

The morning after my penultimate ceremony, I spent some time with another Shaman, ‘Jairo’, who amongst other things told me I needed to meditate on these four words: Humildad, Respeto, Amor & Gratitud (Humility, Respect, Love & Gratitude). These words – while simple & essentially non-revolutionary really resonated with me. I knew immediately that I wanted to tattoo these words on my wrist as a reminder of my time with these people, as a reminder of the things I need to be mindful of on a daily basis and as a reminder of my time in Colombia. Beautiful, surprising Colombia.

Wild Horses

A couple of days after my first Ayahuasca ceremony, my roomies – a delightful wee Irish lass by the name of Niamh (pronounced Neve – a girl I would become really good friends with); another Aussie gal, Nadine; and I decided we would go horse riding down to a nearby waterfall.

On the way back, my horse tripped over a wet log and fell on its front legs. I went flying over the top of his head and bore the brunt of my body on my right shoulder. My sunnies took out a good chunk of skin just near my right eye and somehow I also managed to sustain minor injuries to my left leg. It all happened so quickly – there was absolutely nothing I could have done about it. I just remember hitting the ground and then bursting out into tears. It fucking hurt.

To cut a long story short, I ended up in the local hospital getting yet another shot of anaesthetic (that would be lot # 3 on this trip. Niamh thinks I should BYO next time) before getting two stitches to my eye and the advice to go to Armenia as soon as possible for x-rays.

That night, I collapsed into bed absolutely exhausted. When I awoke – all my adrenalin had worn off and I was in a world of pain. Frida the Swede (one of the three gorgeous volunteers at La Serrana) offered to come to Armenia with me with her very decent Spanish to help translate.

It was there, we had another quintessential Latin American experience. We walked through a security gate which would put most Australian airports to shame. We were seen by 3 different admin people before we got to see an intern. There were a lot of long waits, a bit of paperwork and being shuffled around from room to room.

I was forced into a wheelchair to be taken to a room upstairs. Frida & I were falling apart at the sheer ridiculousness of it all. We were sent back downstairs and shuffled around a bit more, while various kids in orthodontic braces looked at my x-rays. It was a long time coming before we got any kind of diagnosis. The details of which are still a complete mystery to this day.

They then told us we needed to go procure a sling which they would then fit once we returned. We tried to leave the building the way we came however the guards would only let Frida leave. For some reason I’m still not clear on, I had to stay put. So Frida left, went to 3 different pharmacies and came back sans sling.

No dramas: we’d go to the pharmacy in the private hospital and if necessary we could get them to fit the sling there.  We informed the admin kids of our intentions and they told us we couldn’t leave without the right permissions. WTF!

I picked up my x-ray and made my way to the nearest door, figuring I didn’t need any goddamn permission to leave. It’s a hospital right? Not a freaking prison.

It was then things started to get really interesting.

The door was locked and the security guards wouldn’t let us pass. Frida & I initially started off calmly explaining our situation and quietly asking why we couldn’t leave. When we were told it was for our own safety, in case we weren’t psychologically fit to leave – it was then we started to lose our shit. This was the epitome of ludicrous. We started getting antsy with the guards and this quickly escalated into a screaming session. Frida in Spanish & Swedish, and I in English (I figured they would get my gist). They weren’t offering us any advice or solutions. We both felt frustrated and moreover, trapped. I started yelling something about being detained against my will and wanting to call the Australian Embassy. Quite the crowd gathered to see what the crazy gringas were carrying on about but noone stepped in to try and help. Possibly they had concluded we were indeed not psychologically fit to leave.

By this stage, Frida had lost the ability to communicate in any language. And I also was at a loss for words. A man was let in from outside to help translate. We resumed our shouting until eventually we had to take a breath. The man then very calmly spoke to us: yes, he empathised and, yes the system was shit, and yes, he would help us leave.

Then the penny dropped. This man wasn’t staff. FUCK. We had been yelling at a regular guy who was simply stepping in to help. Woops.

I started asking him questions. Turns out his grandfather was in the ER and the stupid security guards weren’t letting him INTO the hospital. Another WTF! So apart from being yelled at by a couple of crazy girls – our situation had actually benefited him in that he would now be able to see his grandfather. But Frida and I couldn’t have been sorrier. We felt absolutely terrible. This poor man’s grandfather could potentially be dying and we were standing there shouting at him.

In the end, he found a staff member who could organise the paperwork for us to be able to leave the hospital. We apologised profusely, wished him & his family the best and bid him farewell. I paid my outrageously expensive bill and we left.

A couple of hours later we were back in the peaceful surrounds of La Serrana, me in a sling and happily drugged up, recounting our now hilarious story to anyone who would listen. I did a lot of self-medicating that night and decided I would ask Jon (the owner) ASAP if I could stay on to volunteer when Sammy left. Even if I had wanted to leave (which I didn’t) – there was no way I’d physcially be able to pick up my backpack for some time anyways. It seemed fate was convening to keep me here – at least for the time being.

Within you, without you

On the evening of Thursday 15 March, I was fortunate enough to participate in an ancient Amazonian ceremony called Ayahuasca (pronounced “aha-waska”). Aya means ‘spirit’, while huasca means ‘vine’. It was an event which will leave an indelible mark on my life.

Missionaries from Spain first came across the Indigenous people of South America using the ‘vine of the dead’ in the 16th Century.

In essence, Ayahuasca is a ritual intended to cleanse the body, mind & spirit. However, some gringos approach it solely as a means to get high – which I feel is doing this time-honoured custom a serious disservice. It’s a great deal more complex than that.

Some people report giving up drinking, drugs, meat, etc. Some people resolve long-standing personal issues. Others say they have become a better spouse, parent or child as a result of partaking in a program of Ayahuasca.

I was fascinated. I decided to approach this with an open mind. If nothing else, I was keen to at least observe the ritual.

One of the key elements of the ritual is drinking a decoction which is prepared by a Shaman. It consists primarily of a jungle vine called Banisteriopsis caapi (this is what is considered to actually be Ayahuasca) and is mixed with the leaves of hallucinogenic dimethyltryptamine (DMT)-containing shrubs (which are simply agents).

Traditionally participants fast for three days before the ceremony to assist the purification process. It is recommended that one abstains from alcohol, caffeine, meats (especially pork), excess fats, salt, sugars, spicy foods, acidic foods, as well as sex before and after the ceremony. Except for the booze, spicy foods & sex – probably just good practice anyways.

Jon (the owner of La Serrana) organised for the Shaman he regularly works with to come to us at his other property just up the dirt road. It’s a lovely farmhouse with a large living room with floor-to-ceiling windows offering vast views of the sweeping valley which surrounds us. It was the perfect place to wrap ourselves up in the warmth of a fireplace, and yet be able to get a clear read on nature & her spirits.

Eleven of us convened around 11pm. The Shaman was there with his two assistants, a woman who would assist with female cleansings, and a group of four musicians. They were all dressed in white smocks & white pants with traditional woven finishes on the cuffs.

On a small table there laid a neat spread of various jugs holding different brews, a stack of wooden cups, and some bunches of dried leaves. There was also a discreet head-dress, and some incense. Underneath the table was a bucket of dirty looking liquid.

They lit a fire and turned the lights out. We all took a place on a sofa or on the floor. I found a yoga mat and an extra blanket. It had been raining earlier and there were still lots of clouds. Despite this it was a really cold night. Every now & then, a shard of lightning snapped across the sky.

At midnight, we were welcomed by Señor Carlos (or Titan, as Jon called him) and then he came around to talk to us individually (in Spanish). He asked us if we were on medication, had consumed any drugs, and also about our diet that day. Finally he asked us what we hoped to get out of the night.

One of the girls couldn’t participate as she was menstruating. A woman’s energy is not considered optimal for cleansing during this time, and the consumption of Ayahuasca has been known to cause excessive blood flow. She was very young & didn’t seem to grasp this concept. She left very upset.

The musicians started playing softly and barely ceased throughout the night. They played several instruments including a guitar, a mandolina, pan pipes, some Colombian drums, and a harmonica. They really used the music to steer the group’s state of consciousness & mood. Sometimes the music would be deep & tribal, sometimes soft & meditative, sometimes trance-like & uplifting. My old hippy friend Gavin would have been beside himself over the music.

The Shaman came around with the bucket of dirty looking liquid which I learned later is ‘flower water’ and we each washed our head, face, arms and ankles. We then sat down to listen to the music while the Shaman cleansed the room.

After a while, the Shaman spoke with Jon and asked if we were ready to start. Jon took the first drink. We then took it in turns to drink the brew.

It was intensely earthy and woody and barky. Which makes it sound somewhat pleasant. It wasn’t. It was also thick, gritty and bitter.

The drink is said to affect the human consciousness for anywhere between ½ an hour – 6 hours after consumption. The effects of Ayahuasca include psychedelic visual & auditory stimulation. They say the tea has the power to take you on a psychological excursion that may lead to illumination or even enlightenment. The Amazonians believe the drink can empower our soul to ascend from the physical.  Most drinkers will need the guidance of an experienced drinker in order to successfully achieve this mental state.

After our first drink we all sat around listening to the music and more or less just waiting for something to happen. I fought an overwhelming sense of tiredness for a while, not wanting to sleep in case I missed out on something. Eventually it got to the point where I needed just ‘rest my eyes’ for a bit. I was so so drowsy. The music gently closed the deal. I drifted off.

When I awoke, one of the girls was standing in front of the Shaman with her eyes closed and he was in the process of performing another component of the ritual on her: the cleansing.

He took a mouthful of a drink from a thermos and sprayed it from his mouth in her face and on different parts of her body. He then took a deep breath and exhaled forcibly with a loud whooshing noise. Symbolic perhaps of expelling a toxin, a dark element, or maybe an evil spirit. Simultaneously he brushed her down with his fragrant sage leaves.

Other people in the room were in various states of sleep and awakeness and it appeared that strange space that lies in between. I kept drifting in & out of a light sleep… dreams & reality began to merge & I started to confuse the two. Every time I ‘came to’ – the music resonated with me on a different level…

The night sky began to take on shapes and somewhere around 4 in the morning, we took our second drink. The girls were given theirs in a more egg-shaped cup. It was stronger this time. The smell more pungent, the taste more sharp. It was difficult to consume. I took mine in several sips.

Shortly after laying down, I snapped back up in a sitting position. I felt an overwhelming desire to throw up. The purgative (‘la purga’) properties of the drink are important. The intense vomiting and occasional diarrhoea the drink induces cleanses the body both on a physical and metaphorical level.

I stood up and nearly lost my balance. I felt fine for a fleeting moment and considered sitting back down. But my stomach started gurgling uncontrollably. I went to the bathroom and vomited several times. It was very much a simple purge as opposed to being violently ill. All that earthy, woody, barky stuff was awful coming up. It reminded me of the Chinese herbal teas my mother used to give me whenever I was ill. Immediately after flushing the toilet, I had to sit down for what was a rather intense session of diarrhoea. That, fortunately, was all over fairly quickly and I soon returned to my space on the floor, feeling quite flushed and a lot less nauseous.

This component is known as ‘balancing’ – where the participant starts to feel more at one with nature. I remember looking up at the night sky through the windows. I felt incredibly alert and in tune with all of my senses but particularly my auditory senses. I listened to the sound of the fire crackling loudly in an otherwise almost silent room. I observed a bird crowing off in the distance. And I heard the measured rise & fall of my one of my companion’s breath as she slept.

I sat listening to the music and soon I felt compelled to get up and have a little boogie to the beat of the drums. I was ensconced in a big blue blanket and imagined I looked a little like a dancing monk. I remember feeling a bit self-conscious as I was dancing on my own in a living room where everyone else was not. When I was able to switch off the self-conscious talk, I had a lovely time. I closed my eyes and went into a little trance consumed by the sound of the drums.

I suddenly felt a wet spray on my face, and opened my eyes to see the Shaman circling me. Part of me felt I should keep my eyes closed and focus on what I was thinking and feeling. My more curious self wanted to see what he was doing. I alternated between the two.

He performed the cleansing on me for maybe ten minutes… hard to be precise. I kept slipping into a vague space which I can only compare to that time when you’re just starting to wake from a good night’s sleep, and you’re remembering your dreams as you become more aware of your physical surroundings.

When he was done, I felt little euphoric. I sat down on my yoga mat to absorb that feeling.

Then, I had two very clear visions in rapid succession. Not all drinkers experience visions the first time. I guess it’s a matter of when the time is right.

My first vision was an old man’s face in the clouds. He was an ancient man. He seemed (Australian) Aboriginal in appearance. He smiled at me kindly. I sighed deeply and felt comforted by what I saw. I feel like I have seen this man a couple of times before. Both in conscious and subconscious states. I closed & opened my eyes and shook my head to check if I was definitely awake. I was. In fact, I felt incredibly lucid.

My second vision came minutes after. In the reflection of the window, I saw the woman who was assisting the Shaman pass him a baby wrapped in a white cloth. My first instinct was that it was my baby. I felt a sense of relief, and elation. It was such a fleeting moment. Then my conscious mind started questioning whether the baby was alive or dead. I wrestled with this and my first more positive thought for a few moments. I decided to fall into the positive realm. I’m not sure if this was my mind creating something I want. Or if it was me tapping into some sort of private line into the universe. I choose to believe the latter.

I drifted off into a peaceful, deep kind of sleep soon after this.

When I awoke a new day was dawning and the Shaman was in the midst of summoning the other women in the room. Three chairs were set up in a row by the fireplace. The Shaman and his female assistant began their cleansings. I was the only female who wasn’t included. Which was fine. I figured it was because I had already had my time. And besides, I was interested to observe. It was fascinating to me that they spent a lot more time on one particular girl. Having already had some intimate conversations with the girl, I knew she had a lot of stuff going on in her life. She was in need of some healing. And they knew this.

The cleansings went on for quite some time and around 7 in the morning, the while process seem to come to a natural conclusion. Some of us wandered outside to just sit in nature while the Shaman sat and rested momentarily.

We each took a turn to go sit with him and thank him for his time. He wanted to know how we were feeling, if we had any visions. He spoke only Spanish. And the nuances of what I wanted to discuss with him required very specific words. I had one of my friends translate for us.

As I told him what I had seen, I started to cry. But they weren’t tears of sadness. More tears of truth. He told me that the man I saw in the clouds was my spiritual guide. He was always looking out for me and I could turn to him whenever I needed. With regards to my second vision, he reassured me I had seen the future. We hugged and I felt warm for the first time that night.

I watched as the others went up to him. The Shaman seemed so serene. For a man who had been dedicating so much energy to others, I couldn’t get over how un-exhausted he seemed to be.

He and his colleagues had been working so hard all night. The musicians had barely stopped all night. The woman had played an integral part in the healing of the women in our group. The Shaman’s two protégés had taken turns to help out with the ritualistic components of the evening.

We all started to dissipate…wandering the fields, talking quietly in pairs, making moves to go back to La Serrana. I said my goodbyes and wandered off in a bit of a daze. I spent the rest of the day going over the night’s events in my mind, trying to find words to put to them, dozing off into a deep sleep, eating well and just enjoying an overwhelming sense of what i can only describe as calm euphoria.

“The man who comes back through the Door in the Wall will never be quite the same as the man who went out.” Aldous Huxley

Cool change

After bidding my good friend Scott a teary farewell on the side of the road in Santa Marta, I was having a quiet beer in the cool wooden bar of la Brisa Loca when I met André – a sexy young thang from Melbourne, who introduced himself to me as a painter. At first I thought he meant houses. But he meant paintings. He showed me his sketchbook. Turns out he’s a pretty talented aerosol artist.

We got chatting and hit it off well enough to decide to hang for the rest of the afternoon. We watched the sunset from the water’s edge, walked around the plaza and grabbed a bite to eat at a lil cafe which did a great fusion of Colombian and Mediterranean food.

Later we went back to the hostel for happy hour. A few rum & cokes and What Have You, and it ended up being quite the night. We met a top bloke from Cootamundra (drowning in Aussies over here) who I ended up hanging out with the next day.

Josh & I took a bus & then a motorbike right out of town to a local’s beach. Clean and virtually deserted. A man kept bringing us icy cold beers and later a huge tasty fish lunch. Why can’t they do deliveries on Bondi Beach? Bloody genius.

Next day I took a plane to Medellin and quite literally bumped into Piers as I was walking into a hostel. Another happy accident! Piers is one of the two gorgeous big blokes from Aus that Pinky had brought to Little Corn. I thought he was still up on the Caribbean coast, so it was a terrific surprise. He was travelling with his friend Tara from home and Sam from Switzerland. They were good banter so I kicked around with them for a few days. One afternoon, the boys accompanied me to the Modern Art Gallery which I rated. But outside is where it’s really at – there’s all this incredibly vibrant street art.

We also took an overnight trip to a quaint lil town called Guatapé, where we visited El Peñól. ‘Big Rock’. And it is. It reaches an elevation of 2,135m above sea level and weighs an estimated 10,000,000 tonnes (I’d love to know how they come to this figure). It is said to be 70 million years old.

On one side of the rock, in white paint there is a massive letter ‘G’ and part of the letter ‘U’. Apparently the two neighbouring townships of Guatapé and El Peñol had long disputed ‘ownership’ of the rock. The folk of Guatapé had decided to settle the matter by simply painting their name on the rock. As you do. The people of El Peñól naturally noticed the works in progress and put a stop to it.

We climbed 644 stairs for an amazing view. It’s strange, but this particular part of Colombia is reminiscent of rolling European landscapes. Not what I was expecting at all. But I like it.

We went our separate ways after that. They made their way back up the coast. I returned to Medellin but to a different hostel. Secret Buddha was a beautiful retreat way out of town. I met a lovely young Aussie chick by the name of Ginger (who is actually blonde) and her & I played nanas for a few days. Healthy food, zero booze and lots of early nights.

She left for Salento in Zona Cafetera a day before me. I met her in the Plantation House on Saturday night. Recommended by LP, I thought it a bit rubbish to be honest. I moved the next day to a beautiful eco-farm called La Serrana which is about 1.5ks out of town and I’ve been here ever since.

Salento is a small country town 1,895 m above sea level; population 7,500. The town itself consists of a big plaza and just a few streets of cafes, bars & souvenir shops. The latter can lend a bit of touristy feel to the place. But if you look around, it’s still a very traditional town in many ways. Lots of preserved colonial architecture and wrinkly old brown cowboys sitting around in ponchos.

I really like it here. Everyone says hello when they pass you in the street. It’s got a very relaxed vibe. In one of the most stunning settings. Expansive green mountains and wide open valleys, cloaked by cool grey clouds.

I took a ‘tour’ of a boutique family-owned coffee plantation and learned about the process of picking, drying, roasting, blending, brewing coffee. We spent the better part of the day with a gorgeous family. And got really jacked up on too many espressos. Gosh they were good!

I also did a big hike in the nearby Cocora Valley. I need to start getting fit again if I’m to take on the Inca Trail and other hikes around Peru, Bolivia and Ecuador. This area is a great place to start.

The Cocora Valley is part of the Los Nevados National Natural Park. This valley is one of the main reasons folks come to visit this area. It is here the Quindio wax palms grow. The wax palm is the national tree & symbol of Colombia. These trees which can live up to 100 years old & grow up to 50m are the tallest palms in the world. There’s so many of them and they create this completely surreal landscape. It feels like you’re walking through a scene in Avatar.

I spent the next few days simply enjoying La Serrana. Taking short walks, reading, drinking lots of good coffee, cooking. It was in these first few days that I decided I really wanted to stay here. They have a program where you can volunteer in exchange for free accommodation, breakfast and ½ price dinners. I thought I could stop for a while & take some more Spanish lessons.

Then on the Thursday evening (15 March), I was offered an amazing opportunity to take part in a very special event…

The way it is

Cartagena is surrounded by 11kms of stone wall which took the Spaniards more than 200 years to build in response to repeated attacks by pirates. According to LP, Cartagena was one of the most “important bastions of the Spanish overseas empire and influenced much of Colombia’s history.” Inside these walls there is a charming ‘old town’ whose cobblestone streets I had already roamed (and tripped up on) many times over the past two weeks. Despite feeling like I’d been there a bit too long, I was going to be more than happy to wander those streets again with my old friend, Scott.

I surprised him by meeting him at the airport. Lots of squealing and jumping up & down and hugs all round. Okay, I squealed and jumped up & down. We then checked into a pretty hotel with a rooftop pool & a cracking view of the entire city (his treat). And then it was Christmas! Well kinda.

I had asked Scott to bring me a bunch of things from back home. Vegemite (how could i have neglected to leave home without it?); Bonds knickers (because apparently I have the biggest ass in all of Latin America. Where the fuck do all the black ladies shop?); mini tampons (impossible to find over here); and Bushman’s bug repellent (so many jungles and only 7.5% DEET!?) Aaaand not to forget my brand spanking new Kindle! Books books and more books. I can download up to 1,000 I’m told. And it weighs just 290g! Did you know the LP South America on a Shoestring book weighs 830g? Every Gram Counts when you’re carrying 22kg on your back. Trust me.

We caught up over dinner in an alfresco Italian restaurant in the beautiful (albeit very touristy) Plaza Santo Domingo, where Botero’s Gordita (aka, the fat lady) lounges seductively right in front of the church. Nude! The saucy minx.

Next day, we visited the macabre Palacio de Inquisicion which houses a depraved collection of instruments of torture – including an Addams Family style stretching rack and an iron skullcap with a drill piece. My favourite article though, was the list of questions they used to ask women to determine if they were witches, such as: “What worms and caterpillars/slugs have you created?”

That afternoon, we had wine & cheese and watched the sunset from the rooftop. Much later (no one even thinks about going out until 1030pm over here) – we went to Club Havana. Flocked walls are adorned with antique lights and fading framed photos of legendary Cuban singers. An old timber U-shaped bar is surrounded by high stools. Waiters in white vests serve up the meanest mojitos I’ve ever imbibed. And later: another massive band on another teeny stage playing sassy salsa you just gotta shake yer stuff to.

Needless to say, nothing much got accomplished the next morning. We did manage to visit the Castillo San Felipe de Barajas high up on a hill later in the afternoon. It’s an interesting triangular shaped design with multiple layers, and is said to be impenetrable. Underneath there is a complex maze of tunnels which have incredible acoustics. At sunset, we had a couple of beers at Cafe del Mar before heading to a Japanese restaurant for sushi & sashimi and a lychee martini!

Next day we set off for a side trip along the Caribbean coast towards Venezuela.

I had heard Santa Marta wasn’t particularly special, so we just stopped for just one night. That eve, we had some excellent Spanish tapas & a local brew in a bar by the plaza. The next day we got some beach time in (confirming: nothing special) and went for a walk to a swish-looking restaurant at the top of a steep hill overlooking Rodadero.

I don’t think Scott was terribly impressed when we later boarded a non air-conditioned bus which wouldn’t have provided a midget with any legroom. Luckily the trip to Taganga was only an hour.

The place Scott had booked for us at Taganga was just gorgeous. We were very enthusiastically greeted by a very young, very pretty Colombian girl. She turned out to be the wife of the French owner, who was old enough to be her grandfather (standard.) He had extended his lovely family home with two casitas off to the side. A bougainvillea-lined pool provided sweeping views of the village & the bay.

Later that afternoon, I went for a walk downtown to organise a dive. Taganga is a tiny fishing village rampant with wannabe hippies, high on ganja selling, lots of very average looking jewellery. The township is a bit hot & dusty by day but quite pretty at dusk. It’s renowned for cheap-as-chips diving courses.

I went for a couple of dives the next morning. Windy as all get out on the way to the site, so we got absolutely drenched before even getting into the water. First dive in more than a year that I had to wear a wettie for (Have to say: not too keen on the sub 20 degrees water anymore). The vis wasn’t all that great, but the reef was in great condition. Loads of big ass fish (and a notable absence of lionfish). Plus I got to see a couple of slugs & other stuff I hadn’t seen before. So all good.

Next day we made our way to Tayrona National Park, where Scott continued to up the ante. We stayed here.

At the top of a winding old stone stairway, you are welcomed by not one, but two infinity pools – which guide your wide open eyes to the most spectacular vista of a deserted wild seascape. Our own private beach stretching on for ever. This folks, is what is known as “flashpacking”.

Considering there were only four suites, the place was massive. And there were soooo many things to lounge around on. Banana lounges. Day bed lounges. Living room lounges. There was even a suspended dugout canoe which had been converted to a lounge. It was filled to the brim with big soft poofy pillows of various shapes, sizes & colours. Clearly, I had died & gone to lounge heaven.

So, we lounged around. And ate beautiful gourmet meals. We also got to know the only other guests there: Dot & Wayne – an interesting Canadian couple who captained & care-took a luxury yacht for a wealthy Colombian entrepreneur.

The next day, Scott & I went for a walk into the Park which started with an unplanned ‘shortcut’ shown to us by our uncertain but well-intentioned hotel manager. We had to wade knee deep through a river and do a bit of bush-bashing through some light jungle. Fortunately our intrepid ‘guide’ escorted us all the way to the road otherwise we would have got lost for sure. He flagged down a local on a motorbike & arranged for him to take us to the road’s end. I told Scott it was an adventure. But I don’t think he believed me.

The walk through the park was just beautiful and at the end of the trail – the greenery gave way to these untamed beaches with craggy rock formations peppering the skyline. We had a quick dip in one of the bays but it was a bit seaweedy unfortunately. We turned around & walked back the way we came. Without the stupid shortcut bit.

The next day Scott booked himself on a flight back to Bogota with a view to returning to the States (and home) a lot earlier than planned. He had decided Colombia wasn’t for him.

In retrospect, I guess I could have prepped him a bit more as to the differences between the First World and Colombia. Stuff like: Toilet paper doesn’t go in the toilet. Electricity can be unreliable. WiFi even more so. The shower pressure isn’t always best. You won’t always get hot water. Sometimes you won’t even get water. I could have asked more questions as to what kind of holiday he wanted to have and planned a better itinerary. I always knew we would be different types of travellers. But I just figured it would be stuff we could easily work around.

So that was that. A week of fancy hotels, fancy cocktails, and fancy pools with views. I am grateful to Scott for his generosity (dormitory rooms and shared showers do lose their charm after 10 months on the road). But to be perfectly honest, I would have traded all the fancy for just more time & more laughs with one of my oldest friends. I couldn’t help but be a bit disappointed.

We shared a taxi back to Santa Marta. On the edge of town, our cabbie organised for another driver to take me into Centro Historico, while he took Scott straight to the airport. And so I bid my best mate a teary farewell on the side of the road.

We’ll be all right at the end of the day. We love each other immeasureably. And have done for 25 years.  Scott & i will be friends until we’re old & wrinkly.

But it’s true what they say – that it’s not always easy to travel with friends. I think we can only happily travel with people who are very similar to us. Insofar as the places we want to see, how we get there, where we stay, how long for, how we spend our money, and probably most importantly – our overall outlook. Especially when things don’t pan out as we had anticipated. Because one thing’s for sure: they won’t.

And that’s when you just gotta say to y’self, “It’s an adventure!”

Hot on the floor

Around 8pm, I arrived at the ‘hostel’ (meaning a completely empty house) that the Bowen brothers were staying at in Barranquilla. I was relieved to learn they had organised a ‘bed’ (meaning a blow up air mattress) for me, for a very low price. All hostels / rooms had apparently been booked out ages ago & at double their normal going rate.

It meant that if I decided I couldn’t / didn’t want to pull an all-nighter – I didn’t have to. (*small sigh of relief*) It also meant I had a place to stash my daypack (infinitely more ideal than lugging it around all night, hoping all my shit wouldn’t get stolen.)

The Bowen brothers had linked up with some fun Irish & Aussie girls we had met while staying at Captain Jack’s in Portabello, Panama. As soon as I walked in the door, they gave me a big warm welcome, a shot of Aguardiente (the local firewater) & a *hero* … and that, my friends, basically set the tone for the rest of the weekend.

We caught up, talked a lot of shit, and laughed ourselves silly over several bottles of the surprisingly smooth anise-flavoured liquor. Evidently, I had missed an epic first day – stacks of colourful costumes in the multitudes of parades; oodles of live music & dancing; masses of foam / mud / flour wars; and shedloads of your ‘run-of-the-mill’ Carnaval debauchery. They had been going for days and weren’t showing any signs of slowing down.

We eventually decided to get in amongst it. Our hostel manager – a slightly effeminate, tubby Colombian, who fancied himself as an entrepreneur, hotel owner and a real ladies’ man – had taken it upon himself to play host to our lil crew (he had misguided designs on one of our girls).

He took us to the nightclub strip where of course, he knew the owner of this place and that place and could get us in for free everywhere (I suspect we could have gotten in for free, irrespective of his ‘connections’).

There were dozens of discotheques competing in a ‘my sound system is bigger than yours’ competition. In Latin America, speakers are strategically placed outside a club (as well as inside). The intention is to create what we marketers call ‘salience’. There was just this ridiculous cacophony of noise: latino pop, 80s house, old school salsa, trashy techno, and of course the omnipresent J-Lo vs Pitball: “Nyah, nyha, nyah, nyah, nyah … Hot on the floor.”

People were spilling their drinks out on the streets, local musos were crowd gathering with impromptu jam sessions in between randomly ‘parked’ cars … and everywhere raucous street vendors were pushing all manner of Carnaval necessities: gum, water, beer, meat on sticks. It was absolute anarchy. We cruised up & down the calle, checking out a few different scenes, and having a boogie in each. A bit of a Carnvial bar crawl, if you like.

Sometime after midnight, we escaped the bedlam & headed ‘home’… there was a massive street party underway right around the corner. Hundreds of people were dancing their arses off to the thumping sounds of an excellent salsa band with some 16 odd musos squished up on a tiny stage. And it was going OFF. We danced. And danced. And danced. Somewhere in the middle of the carnage, I got picked up by a rather gorgeous Carib boy (who am I to say no to broad shoulders, pretty dreads and a smile that goes on forever?) Around 4am I hit a wall, bid farewell to the young Jesse, got me some meat on a stick (not a euphemism) and ambled off to my airbed.

I woke up a few hours later to a blinding light lasering into the ‘living’ room and well into the recesses of my eyes. All a bit unnecessary, I thought. I assessed the damage around me. Bodies everywhere in varying degrees of decay. People were covered in mud & all manner of Carnaval debris. The place resembled a clean crack den. I was feeling extraordinarily average.

Marcus eventually woke up & took me downtown to get some brekky beers & a feed. We then went on a mission for some tacky Carnaval souvenirs. He bought some godawful fluoro Carnaval t-shirts, while I bought a pretty glittery elephant’s mask which is looking to become one of my most prized possessions.

I decided to stay one more night. We eased our way back into it with some afternoon beers and whatnot. Before you knew it, night had fallen and we were debating the merits of catching a cab across town to see a concert or schlepping our sorry butts back around the corner where another big band was giving the neighbourhood a lashing. We opted for the latter. I didn’t have another epic night in me, and crying old, told the boys I couldn’t go on. Being sometime between 1 & 2am they gave me permission to go home. They weren’t that far behind me truth be told (but to be fair, they were on Day 4).

I woke up fresh as a daisy the next morning (resplendent in my pretty sparkly elephants mask!) having had a solid night’s sleep in the middle of a 4-carriage highway that was the living room in that godforsaken crack den.

I needed a decent breakfast (as opposed to just beers) and so went to the local supermarket to get a big fat watermelon, proper unsweetened non-reconstituted orange juice (a rarity in Latin America) some veges & eggs.

A few hours later, we had made arrangements to our subsequent destinations. Barranquilla had certainly shown us a good time but it was no place to have a hangover.

I waved the boys off in a taxi… they were headed up to Tayrona National Park. And I eventually climbed into the air-conditioned comfort of a posh collectivo going back to Cartagena, where I had 24 hours to make myself nice for Scott.