The Odyssey

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Latin America Monica Dispatch

We Began the Journey as Paupers and Finished with a Japanese Feast!

Monica is all smiles on the boat!
As Kavitha and Shawn have noted, our boat trip from Panama to Colombia was quite an adventure. But the little boat rides between each little town were quite an adventure as well! After almost two days on the boat getting to Jaque, our welcome was a soldier who motioned for us to come -- ahorita! (now!)-- to get our passports checked. We were going to be leaving Panama, and needed this or that other stamp. At this point, we have 14 exit and entry stamps in our passports for the seven countries we've visited. See if you can remember them all! (Hint! Check the Time Machine to see where all we've traveled!)

Finished with customs, we stood there blinking at each other. Now what? When you're at sea for two days sitting in hammocks, drawing pictures and braiding hair, you forget how to do other things. We found a little comedor and were waiting for space at a table when Gabriel, a friendly Colombian man, greeted us with a booming laugh. Gabriel was on his way back to Bahia Solana, in Colombia, after a mini-vacation during Semana Santa, Holy Week, in Jaque. He has a passion for all things Japanese, and when he saw Ryo, our friend from Tokyo, he started to speak a few Japanese phrases: Konnichi wa! (Good afternoon!) Watashi no namae wa Gabriel desu. (My name is Gabriel). Hajimemashite (Nice to meet you). It was funny to hear Japanese, English, and Spanish all spoken in a hodge-podge.

Snapshot of Jurado

Men in Green

There were about 20 men in town dressed in camouflage pants and army green t-shirts, either ambling about or stationed at different corners, talking in groups or watching the day pass in Jurado. At "Martha's restaurant," where we first ate and where I first saw them hanging around, I asked Hidalgo and Alex, both 20, to tell me their story, and they explained that "All Colombian men must serve a term of 18-20 months in the Infanteria de Marina." They were stationed in Jurado, but once they finished they would return to their universities.

Kavitha called for us to hurry; the lancha, little boat, named Diana, was on her way, and the pilot didn't want to tarry. Twelve seated passengers and enough space up front for our luggage and 3 more people made a very heavy load. The water came ominously up to the edge of the lancha. Dolphins played near us, jumping smoothly through the water. We also saw flying fish, but periodically I had to wipe off my glasses from all the salt water splashing into my face. Whenever you're in the lancha from Jaque to Jurado, remember to try to sit in the middle: there's less splashing.

In Jaque
We were all sopping wet, and it kept on looking like we would overturn. I told Kavitha to swim to shore if we overturned. Everything we had -- our computers, our cameras, our possessions -- could be replaced, except our lives. James lent me a towel to dry off some. Things dried off a little after a bit and Kavitha broke out some crackers to celebrate our arrival in South America. We tried to guess exactly when we crossed the border. After an hour, we stopped near some big rocks to refuel: a man rowed out to us with a tank of gasoline to refill the motor. After another hour, we saw a tall rock with a statue and a cross on it, marking the entrance to the river that led to Jurado. We turned in, bumpily, and started to slowly head upriver.

Have you ever been on that boat ride in Adventureland at Disneyland? Well, that's the only thing to which I can compare our lancha ride. There were big black vultures spreading their wings out to dry on the banks of the river, and we saw a huge white crane bathing. I heard a rustling up above and saw a mono, or monkey, climbing up the coconut tree, and you could smell the air becoming heavy with humidity and lush vegetation.

Snapshot of Jurado

Taking Fruit From a Stranger

Ryo and I went for a little walk to see what we could see, and a friendly woman whistled for us to come over to her house. When we walked up her porch, she welcomed us in. She gave us some marvelous tropical fruits to try: almirahon and maranon. Sorry there aren't any pictures, we ate them too quickly. Almirahon tastes similar to a banana, but much sweeter and juicier. There are large seed pods with starchy fruit all around, about 15 pods per fruit, stacked in rows that you can dig out with your fingers. Maranon is shaped like a pear, but has white flesh and a big pit, juicy, with the texture of radish but the taste of grapes. She asked us what we thought of Jurado and we said, "La gente es muy amable." (The people are very friendly.) How many times have you invited in a stranger to your house and offered them apples or oranges? As the schoolteacher for the ninos, the little ones, ages 6 and up, she was on vacation because school was out for Semana Santa. After a while sitting on her porch eating her fruit, I felt like maybe I should know her name. "Muchas gracias por todo, y... como se llama usted?" (Many thanks for everything, and...How are you called?) and she answered, "Bienvenida, y a la orden." (Bienvenida, and you're welcome.) (Which was funny because "Bienvenida" was her name, and bienvenida also means "Welcome.")

Snapshot of Bahia Solana

Japanese Food on Good Friday in Colombia - Of Course!

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Children light prayer candles during santa semena
We spent Good Friday, a holy day of Semana Santa (Easter Week) in Bahia Solana. Inside the church all of the children were sitting in the pews and lighting candles all around the base of the altar.

Eric, one little boy, and I posed for a picture with the candles, but when Shawn started taking more pictures, all the kids started to crowd around. They were amazed that you could instantaneously see the pictures come out...

Procession Time!
Then, the procession passed by outside. There were hundreds of people walking behind the statues that the women last night had put up on wooden platforms. A few children, dressed all in white, were leading the way, and the women were singing with their deep voices. Two priests, carrying megaphones, stopped the crowd in front of a little space, where they turned on the microphones and blessed the crowd, while kneeling in front of a cross on a rug placed on the street.

There's no music allowed on Friday, and since schoolchildren and working people are on vacation, the day passes with family and friends and neighbors stopping by to say hello and andando (walking) in the street. Kavitha's friends from Jurado had prepared dulces, sweets made of pineapple and coconut that traditionally one eats only during this time. Also, people traditionally eat no meat.

Click image for larger view
The children are part of the ceremonies
The four of us: Shawn, Kavitha, Ryo, and I, were invited to Gabriel's house to eat Japanese food. Gabriel turned out to be the former mayor of Bahia Solana, and he had an extensive collection of Japanese books and decorations and foodstuffs and servingware. We all prepared fish teriyaki for Gabriel and his family. Shawn made a salad of cabbage and cucumbers, and Ryo and Kavitha made the teriyaki sauce out of soy sauce, rice vinegar, panela (a type of sugar), and sesame oil. Ryo also made Japanese rice that Gabriel had bought in Panama. For a final course we had ochatzukenori, a powdered form of green tea with seaweed strips and little rice crackers, which you eat on top of rice with lots of hot water and umeboshi, a type of pickled plum, for more flavor. It was delicious, or oishii in Japanese.

A small station house appeared around the next bend, and the pilot cut the motor as we approached. When we stopped at the foot of the ladder leading to the guard house, a young officer, dressed in camouflage, asked where we came from. "Jaque!" everyone nodded their heads in unison. The officer, acting very official, then asked what was in the big cardboard box labelled "Refrigerator." Gabriel answered, "Es un refrigerador!" (Duh.)

The officer wasn't done with us. He motioned at Shawn, and asked "De donde viene?" Shawn answered, "Panama" but the guard pressed some more. "Somos de los Estados Unidos" (We're from the United States!), Kavitha piped up. The officer nodded his head, then went to get his supervisor, who was also dressed in camouflage and had his hand on his machine gun. The supervisor commented, "Ellos no hablan espanol." (They don't speak Spanish) But the other passengers chimed in, "Si, si, se hablan." (Yes, yes, they do) The guard asked us what we were doing and Kavitha, a quick thinker, replied that we were students, "solamente turistas," (only tourists). The guard kept pressing: "Estudiantes? Que estudian? (You're students? What are you studying?)" "Quimica (Chemistry)." Finally, after what seemed like forever, he let us move forward. Phew, now we can go on and study more Chemistry - not!

The flames and  wax look mystical in the late afternoon
We crossed under a footbridge and the water became shallower and shallower. The men got out to push the lancha, and I finally got out and pushed too, as we passed small wooden houses on stilts with tin roofs and children playing on the banks. After a certain point, the lancha could move forward no more - we had arrived in Jurado.

Taking down my mochila, I walked up the bank, and immediately got stuck in mud that sank almost to my knees. I noticed that there were about 6 different slippers and shoes encrusted in that same spot, and I realized why when I tried to lift up my foot! My rubber shoe stayed in place and my bare foot started to come up, so I readjusted my toes to clamp on to the shoes, and pulled with all my strength. A helping hand from one of the kids on the banks got me on dry land once more.

Ya llegamos! We finally arrived - well, to the second town anyway. There were several more to go, but I'll leave that to Shawn and Kavitha to tell!


Shawn - Life on a Cargo Boat
Kavitha - Starving and Penniless
Making a Difference - Live from Death Row
Kevin - Graverobbers and Life After Death - My Visit to a Moche Lord's Tomb
Team - Peru's Early Hunters, Artists and Fighters
Abeja - Hot! Hot! Hot! I Looked Into His Eyes and Melted...
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