Sunday, May 17, 2015

Panamá City, what to make of you?

I warmed to Panamá City but I still didn't completely love it.

In addition to the beautiful landscapes, crazy partying and unfortunate bouts of food poisoning, one thing that I particularly remember about my gap year travelling in Central America is the fact that cities generally range from a rather mediocre meh to a full on fastest escape route needed.

The only exceptions to the rule were Leon and Granada in Nicaragua, which I absolutely loved, adored and cherished.

I had already been to Panamá City before, albeit for one disastrous day just before getting my flight back to Blighty when I was young(er) and (more) naive and stupid(er) and I had discovered I had no money in my bank.

I was very lucky to have a lovely, although very evangelical Christian lady called Damaris take pity on me and let me sleep on her floor.

It didn't leave the best first impression, although it just goes to show the good in people, especially when the idiot backpacker probably deserved sleep on the streets that night.

One of Panamá's main beers is Balboa

So when I finally touched ground in Panamá City this time round after an amazing, incredible and unforgettable 4 days in the so-gorgeous-you-forever-be-spoilt-afterwards San Blas Islands, other than getting back in touch with civilisation, having running water and showers and wi-fi (sad but true) along with other mod cons and meeting up with my Korean friend Lucas, I wasn't particularly bothered, nor had any intentions of properly exploring the city.

I was so unbothered, it was bordering on ignorant and as per, I had got myself a typical case of post-trip blues, which was thanks to me being knackered, stressed out due to the impending mountain of work and feeling very sorry for myself because I was hungover.

I was moping around, being a little pathetic and I just needed to pull myself together.

So after encountering some less than warm and welcoming Panamanian taxi drivers, who guilt-tripped me into paying more, despite friends and the lovely staff at Kame House Hostel telling me otherwise, I was 'done' with Panamá City.

I mean, if you don't gamble, aren't really bothered about the canal, what is there to do?

I'm glad after venturing off to Bocas del Toro, I gave it another chance, because I found myself warming to the city.

Clearly, all I needed was some beach relaxation (because that was clearly in short supply in the San Blas Islands) a bit of rest and a disastrous but fun surf lesson and I was ready to give Panamá City a second crack of the whip.

First off, there were of course, the people. Being able to crash at Lucas' house and meet all of his lovely and interesting friends made me pining for a friendship circle like that in Medellín. Don't get me wrong, I have friends here but they're scattered about, all belonging to different friendship groups so I've not managed to have my own, yet,

With my second Panamá City round kicking off with a night out in Casco Viejo, hanging outside called Mojitos sin Mojitos I started questioning my initial indifference to the city.

Casco Viejo has some gorgeous architecture in la ciudad de Panamá
The beauty was in the detail in Casco Viejo
Panama's flag flying proudly in Casco Viejo, Panamá City.
Just one example of the beautiful colonial architecture in Casco Viejo in Panamá

It still wasn't love, especially as I constantly compared it to Medellín, which we all know is a bad move as COMPARISON IS THE THIEF OF JOY PEOPLE, but I found myself being more than a little bit nostalgic when I had to leave and go back to Colombia.

Particularly as I rounded off the trip fully exploring Casco Viejo in the daytime, which is just gorgeous and rightly, the number one tourist destination in Panamá City.

I was also surprised to find a little bit of  street art going, which is always a sure-fire way to get my good books.

Panamá city street art
"I'm a panther not a princess." Gan on lass.

Panamá City street art
"What's sweeter than honey? Dreaming."

Panamá City Street Art
Panamá City street art

I simply got lost, had a little bit of a mish and stopped every now and then and looked up, because the beauty really is in the detail in Casco Viejo. 

My change in tune even had me considering if I could live in Panamá City. But I think it is a little bit too Americanised for me. If I'm in Latin America, I want to feel like I'm there and as stupid and no doubt pretentious as it sounds, there were too many gringo comforts there for my liking.

But, Panamá City, we've got unfinished business and I'm pretty sure I'll be making a return sometime soon.

Have you been to Panamá City? Where in the world have you had mixed feelings about?

Sunday, May 10, 2015

Welcome to Paradise - Guna Yala (San Blas) Islands

Welcome to Paradise - Guna Yala (San Blas) Islands.

I may be partial to exaggerating every now and then some, but in all seriousness, I have found paradise.

And it can be found in the form of the Guna Yala, or the San Blas, Islands on the South Caribbean coast of Panamá.

I'm a big advocate of superlatives anyway, but all throughout the four days we had the luxury, pleasure and fortune of spending there, I could not stop using them.

The beautiful Kuna Yala Islands in Panama.
The beautiful San Bals Islands in Panamá | Todd's Travels Travel Blog - Amateur Traveller, Professional at Getting Lost.

Your eyes aren't deceiving you, the sea really is that blue, you think someone has quickly added an extra pot of paint to the batch, or someone has photoshopped the colour and is messing around, maybe had a cheeky fiddle with their Instagram filter, but oh no, every single shade of blue you can think of - aquamarine, turquoise, royal blue, baby blue, somehow manages to naturally feature in the sea all around the San Blas islands.

Beautiful beaches and clear blue sea can be found at the Kuna Yala Islands in Panama.
The Kuna Yala Islands in Panama have you feeling like you're a pirate especially when X marks the spot.
Look at these beautiful, unspoilt coves at the San Blas Islands in Panama.

Then there's the beaches and islands - you're practically an extra on Lost, without any of the freaky goings-on.

Or if you prefer, you can act like Captain Jack Sparrow - especially when you take into consideration the amount of rum you may or may not be consuming - on a sidenote, I was 100% responsible mam, just may have slightly overindulged in campfire marshmallows instead (fo' realz).

You're free to fully explore the island, leave no nook or cranny unturned, heck, if there's one nearby, you can even swim to another.

I have been well and truly spoilt.

But the biggest joy of island life is being able to fully take advantage of slowing down, going back to basics, maybe read a book, play a game of cards and cut off all ties with the internet. It's sad, it's a sign of our times and I know it's ironic and hypocritical considering my line of work and the fact that I'm writing this blog right now, but being away from social media and the like for a good 5 days, left me feeling refreshed.

Kuna kids in the Kuna Yala Islands in Panama.
Indigenous hut in the Kuna Yala Islands, Panamá
A Kuna hut in the Kuna Yala Islands, Panamá | Todd's Travels Travel Blog - Amateur traveller, Professional at Getting lost.
Arte Kuna, Islas Guna Yala, Panamá

Let's not forget the fact we were in someone else's stomping ground. The Guna Yala Islands is a semi-autonomous and home to the Kuna, an indigenous tribe. Whilst we very much had an outsider's and slightly superficial perspective, it was fascinating to have an insight into the culture. It did sometimes have me wondering if we were intruding, although many told us they supported the tourism.

We were particularly surprised to find out that it's the la-la-ladies who have the say on who they marry and they were accepting of transgender members of the community - to say the least, it appears the Kuna are more progressive on certain issues than supposed, dare I say it and sound super-duper patronising, 'developed' countries.

Coconuts are also a huge part of their income, so much so that when trade ships come into the region, they can pay with coconut credit, using them as a currency in their own right. So if you innocently chance upon a coconut on one of the islands and want to take a sip out of it - you're going to have to pay for it.

I have a penchant for a good ol' cliché so I'm going to say it, I still pinch myself now when I look over the photos of the San Blas islands. They really don't do the place, the region, the sea, the beaches nor the Kuna culture any justice and you just have to see if with your very own eyes.

I don't like dictating where people should go, but if you really are on the lookout for paradise - the Kuna Yala Islands in Panamá may be exactly what you're looking for.

It definitely was for me.

I went on a 4 day tour with San Blas Adventures. I highly, highly recommend it as it's A: less journey time (read: little to no sea-sick time) B. more island time C. it's a great itinerary. You either leave from Panamá City or Capurganá (Colombia) and it is worth every single dollar (saved up all my hard-earned cash for this trip and I'm so glad I did), check it ouuuut.

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

How travelling has changed my perspective on voting

It's the general election tomorrow and today's blog is about how travelling has changed my perspective on voting.

I have to say – I’m pretty glad I’ve been out of the UK whilst the election campaign media circus has been raging on.

The constant one-upmanship, the egos, the fact that things completely unrelated to politics are pointed out to make politicians look bad or good and the fact that all we can talk about for the last month or so is what’s happening with the election.

Although, I have missed the satire that comes with it. Such as this absolute beauty and my goodness, whichever bright spark put Ed Miliband’s campaign video together with 8 Mile is genius.

The election does however bring up some interesting comparisons, especially when travelling and I have to say, as well as finding myself, becoming a better, more well-rounded person and the usual gap yah shebang, my eyes have been opened to the concept of voting, democratic process and the like.

All throughout school, I was – for want of a better word – a bit of a gobshite. I was never someone who got themself into huge trouble at school, but I didn’t make things easy for myself because I was a cheeky so-and-so and didn’t choose my timing wisely - I probably still am. My overly opinionated and domineering self meant I found myself spending school breaks indoors to “reflect on what I said and how I could have better dealt with the situation”.

Despite the fact I wanted everyone to know my opinion on everything to do with politics - honestly, from healthcare, immigration, foreign policy, you name it, I would give my (misinformed) opinion about it. I even got accused of being a communist by an equally opinionated person (I'm not a communist, just a bit more left-wing than he was).

And somehow, already, at the ripe old age of thirteen or fourteen, I was disillusioned with the system and didn’t see the point in voting. Why bother – because politicians are just going to do the opposite thing to what they say they’re going to do anyway, right?

The previous statement has some truth in it (Mr Clegg, looking at you) and I can understand why people don’t bother – politics is often made out to be an unattainable subject which only those who are ‘informed’ will understand.

But politics derives from the Greek word for many citizens and it boils to us, the people - despite the lack of diversity in parliament - and politics affects our everyday lives – getting the right healthcare, having access to high quality but affordable education or training, being able to get a job, we are all affected by these daily goings-on. But when conversations turn to political debates, a commonly used tactic to dissuade a person is to say they don’t know anything about politics.

OK, we may not know the exact ins-and-outs of NHS administration, we may not know the exact immigration statistics or we may not fully understand how Parliament works, but at some point in our lives, all of the aspects which the political leaders are fighting over have affected each and every one of us.

Especially when I've been travelling, I have come to realise that we have it lucky in the UK. It's obviously isn't a flawless example of democracy but on the whole, we have a fair representation and whilst politicians may not always play fair nor be upstanding examples of society, in comparison to some politicians worldwide, we do not have to deal with the same amount of corruption as many others do.

Then the voting process in itself is relatively simple, in comparison to other countries. 

In Colombia, in order to vote, you have to go to the city where you registered your cédula. This could be miles away from your current place of residence and it may not be possible to have your say in the country's political process because you're simply too far away. 

In Australia, you get fined if you do not vote. Whilst it's in many ways quite a good idea, I can imagine it's a bit of a pain in the arse, when you have to vote in every single election. But then again, it would be a fair representation of what Australians actually want - or is it, any Australians care to chip in?

A single vote won't make a difference and this is the argument I frequently hear from people who don't vote. I get it, I really do, especially when time and time again, the same old, same old seems to happen

But, in 2010, more people didn't vote than for any single party. That can make a huge difference and all it takes is a mere cross in a box at your local election station, which is probably not that far away. Heck, if you really want to shake up the political system, spoil your vote. Just don't not vote, many right npw are fighting for something we take for granted.

So, dear people of Britain, Thursday 7th May, you can make a big difference. 

I'm not going to tell you who to vote for - because who am I to tell you who to vote for - but if you're unsure as to who would represent your views best, check out Vote for Policies. It takes away all the personality drivel and boils down the parties' different policies for the main voting points.

If you've registered to vote, get your fine self down to the election station, even though I'm currently writing this with sand in my hair (and just about everywhere else, because I bring the entire beach back with me) in Panamá - hard life - my dear mam will be voting in proxy for me.

I'm having my say, it's time to have yours. As clichéd and sappy as it sounds, together we can make a difference and decide how we want our country to be run.

How has travelling changed your perspective? Do you see your home country in a different light?

Sunday, April 26, 2015

Mercado Campesino in Medellín - Basically an Excuse to Eat

Last Sunday, I finally popped into the farmer's market held every Sunday in Parque de la Presidenta, which I had always been meaning to go to anyway, because it's one of the closest places to feel like you've almost left the city, but I had never got round to going.

Thanks to a bit of gastronomic motivation, I was finally lured to Parque de la Presidenta and surprise, surprise, I loved the Mercado Campesino. I had come with a very empty stomach but I was practically rolling back, having eaten enough good, local food to last a life time. Wholewheat, baked vegetarian empanadas, various different ají sauces (I was in heaven) including one with chinese gooesberries, lots of fried food and probably one of the biggest patacones (plantain fritter) layered with hogao (tomato and onion sauce), guacamole and mushroom ceviche. I was stuffed, but very satisfied.

If you're on the lookout for the perfect foodie present, you've come to the right place, I practically had to stop myself buying so much jams and sauces because I knew I would probably end up eating them all before they reached the intended recipients. If you're around in El Poblado on a Sunday, you could work up an appetite, taking part in Ciclovía -  a city wide initiative which shuts down main roads so people can run, bike, walk, roller blade etc., it's one of my favourite things to do in Medellín - or one of the outdoor yoga classes, before coming to the Mercado Campesino in Parque de la Presidenta to make up for the previous saintly behaviour. It's pretty much a perfect chilled Sunday plan, which you could then finish off by relaxing in Parque de la Ciudad del Rio.

Quite a lovely way to round off the week.

Info: Mercado Campesino runs every Sunday 8am-2pm in Parque de la Presidenta in El Poblado (just a few blocks away from Parque del Poblado). For more information about the Farmer's Markets, check out the link to their Facebook page.

Monday, April 20, 2015

Piropos: The Good, The Bad, The Ugly.

Ahh, piropos.

If you've been to South America, especially as a woman, you'll know exactly what they are.

For those who have yet to have the piropo experience (and let me tell you, it's a treat), they're essentially a chat up line. Although Word Reference (without which I would not have graduated) deems a piropo to be a: "flirtatious remark", "amorous compliment" or "(pejorative) personal comment".

All you have to do is walk out and about on the street, preferably alone or with a girl friend, and it won't be long until you hear one may it be your typical "Hola [insert complimentary adjective of choice]" or something a lot more imaginative, creative, weird or maybe even down right vulgar.

They come as quite the shock to the system, especially if you're only used to the usual drunken "get your tits out love" on a Saturday night, as generally, South American men are a lot more open and forward than westerners.

Because we're cold and daren't express anything to do with feelings or just generally putting yourself out there.

On the whole, I have not had to endure any piropos that have been particularly rude, although who knows, it's quite likely I didn't understand so maybe I'll need to brush up on my dirty piropo vocabulary and I could do a Piropos: The Good, The Bad, The Ugly. Take 2 post later on.

That said not all piropos were created evenly so along with the cheeky vlog I uploaded to Youtube (g'wan have a click) I decided to compile a list of the good, the bad and the ugly piropo chat up lines I've overheard.

The Good

Probably one of my favourite piropos all of time, happened this weekend and was actually the inspiration for the vlog/blog idea in the first place. I was casually returning from a run, looking spectacular as per (aka red-faced, sweaty, wearing a lovely baggy t shirt) and I was about to cross a road when a guy said,

"ah, llegó mi novia ¡hola!"
(Ah, my girlfriend's arrived, hello!)

He then pretended to link arms with me.

Credit where credit's due, it made a change from the usual piropo and it actually made me laugh, so keep up the ingenious creativity - you never know, one day it may work.

The Bad

Like said before, I haven't particularly had any bad or horrible piropos, especially when I take into consideration my track record of attracting people who are bat-sh*t crazy (Paris, looking at you in particular). The only incident I can think of actually happened outside of South America, back in Brixton, when a middle-aged with questionable fashion sense and even more questionable pulling tactics asked me and my friends,

"Which one of you is the easiest?"


But I digress, this post is about South American piropos.

The bad piropos that come to mind are the ones when they will mutter under their breath loud enough for you to hear it, but quiet enough that you don't hear exactly what they're saying.

It's that Pandora's Box situation, when you want to know what they're saying, but you're fairly sure you won't like it.

The Ugly

Latin American men, if somehow you're reading this, for the love of God, if you're going to throw a few cheeky piropos, here, there and everywhere, avoid hissing at the object of your, albeit very short-term, affection at all costs.

Or grunting.

Or making kissing noises.

Just don't even contemplate it.

Keep the sound effects to an absolute minimum and let your marvellous gift of the gab do the talking.

Have you come across piropos before on your travels? Any notable ones to share?

Sunday, April 12, 2015

Comuna 13 Neighbourhood Tour

Todd's Travels went to Comuna 13 in Medellín, Colombia earlier this week, it was absolutely fascinating. Thanks to @luisbarretophotos for the photo.
Thanks to Luis Barreto for the photo - check out his professional site or his Instagram @luisbarretophotos, his photos are unreal.

Earlier this week, I had the opportunity to finally go see Comuna 13's Electric Escalators. I had planned to go see them the last round I was in Medellin but as per, with my grand and overambitious plans, I didn't get to see them.

This time round I was going to see them and I was so glad I did.

Comuna 13's Electric Escalators in Medellín, Colombia have to be seen.

It was absolutely amazing. The colour and the murals and the innovation and everything just goes to show that you only need to put in a little bit of investment and time to reap big rewards. Obviously not everything is completely hunkydory, even now, but when you heard stories of what it was like then and see how it is now, the difference is huge.

This South America Street Art Mural in Comuna 13 Medellin, Colombia has got to be my favourite.
Colourful buildings, Comuna 13, Medellín, Colombia.
Graffiti in Comuna 13, Medellín, Colombia.
Graffiti in Comuna 13, Medellín, Colombia
Graffiti in Comuna 13, Medellín, Colombia.
Thanks to Couchsurfing, we got to explore the electric escalators of comuna 13 in Medellín, Colombia.

I was inspired and snappy-happy when I got to wander around Comuna 13 thanks to a tour organised on Couchsurfing (it may have changed but there are still people who embody the Couchsurfing spirit) that it pushed me to finally enter into the foray of vlogging. It helps when you have such a fascinating subject matter. So, sit back and relax, for once, I will let the pictures (and my fine self) do the talking.

Have you been to Comuna 13? Have you done a neighbourhood tour before?

Monday, April 6, 2015

Things I will never understand about Colombia

Colombia is a great country but there are certain things I as a foreigner will never, ever understand.

I'm starting to sound like a broken record, but I really, really love Colombia (Exhibit A, Exhibit B, Exhibit C and no doubt there's even more evidence).

It's always quite hard to pin down why exactly I love Colombia, but the country's diversity of beautiful landscapes along with its warm, welcoming and optimistic people and their inherent love of dancing and rumba definitely have something to do with it.

But even though Colombia is probably my favourite country in the world, there are certain things I have never and will never, ever understand about Colombia. It sure is a great place but it also has some particular eccentricities that I'm not going to even bother trying to comprehend.

Let this be a disclaimer: Colombia, I love you and this is in no way, shape or form, an attack or trying to put a downer on Colombia but as an foreigner looking into Colombian culture, these are the things I am never going to understand about Colombia, such as:

Why everyone has to do everything together. I don't need an escort to go to the supermarket, we're not in a Jane Austen novel.

And why Colombians don't understand why you want to do something by yourself. I love spending time with people but I also love spending time on me doing my own thing (because I'm selfish and I love me time).

Why Agua Panela is the go-to solution for when you're ill. It isn't, it's lemon and honey made by your mam, just so everyone knows. I know it may appear almost identical but Lemon and Honey ftw.

Pointing with your mouth. Every time I even attempt to do it, it turns into a bad case of duck face. What is so bad with pointing?

Attempting to point with my mouth turns into duck face.
My awful attempt at trying to point a lo colombiano turns into this

Voice notes on Whatsapp.

Why no one has credit on their phones, ever.

Crocs, everywhere.

Weird English slogans on t shirts that don't make much sense (Drugs in my body, anyone?) or something if you understood, you wouldn't want brandished on your chest, like this fine example:

Simple but Insignificant weird Colombian t shirt.

Why men think it's acceptable to hiss at women to get their attention. Colombian women don't like it. Nor do foreign women. Basically, as a general rule, women do not want to be treated like pets.

Mullets and rat tails. A trend that should never, ever have left the 80s. Cut them off now, or I will.

The obsession with American shopping centres.

Sugar in bread.

Sugar in juice.

Sugar in 'natural' yoghurt.

I just want food as it was naturally intended without the sugary additions. Please, Colombia. Kthanksbye.

Speaking of food, how do Colombian women eat all the fried goodies Colombia has to offer and still stay slim?

One last food-related point - why. no. vegetables.

Bum implants.

How Colombians have not mastered the art of subtly staring at people and unashamedly do so.

Why can't Aguardiente be mixed.
I'm pretty much like this man when I've had a few too many guaros. Image via mario

Why aguardiente can't be mixed. It would make a great Colombian Caipirinha (Lime, sugar, ice and guaro, job's a good'un), I'm sure it'd be similar to Fernet and Coke and it may even taste nice with some tonic water and a good squeeze of lime. It would probably prevent many guaro-related incidents and injuries too (which I'd be eternally grateful for).

And dare I say it, aguardiente full stop. It just isn't my drink of choice (I know this is sacrilege).

On that note, having practically blasphemed, I will leave it there.

I've said it once, I will say it again - I love, love, love Colombia and I will always say in heartbeat that it is my favourite country. However, as the above list shows, there are some particularities I can never get on board with and will always be part of my outsider status here in Colombia.

What particularities did you not understand in Colombia? Have you encountered similar things elsewhere?