Category Archives: Budget travel

Going Down

I’m going to reduce my blogging for the summer to one post a week.  It’s summer in Minnesota, which is very sweet, and very fleeting.

In addition, I’ve just got permission to work remotely again, like I did in the UK last year, and I need planning time.

My friend Heidi, who I met in London in 2007, is now back in Australia caring for her parents.  What a great opportunity to spend time with her in her home environment and see Australia through her eyes.  She lived in London for almost two decades and traveled extensively around Europe and North America, so she’s got perspective, too.

As long as I am going all that way, it seemed logical to try to stay a while, to wander around Australia, New Zealand, maybe Papua New Guinea, Fiji, Tonga …

I’ve been mostly stockpiling my vacation time since last summer.  It’s easier not to use it because I work 90% time, which works out to two unpaid days off per month.  When I went to Colombia I only had to use three vacation days.

Now that our busy proposal season is winding down at work, I’ve reduced my hours to 80%. One of the benefits of working for a non-profit is that they’re always looking for ways to save money.  Allowing an employee to work less—someone they know is responsible and will still get her work done within reduced hours—is a win-win.

So I’ll be gone seven weeks, working one day a week on average to keep on top of things, to keep things moving that need my attention.

As I’ve written before, I can only afford to do this because I have no debt and I live cheaply.  This wasn’t always true—until about 10 years ago I had student loans, a car loan, a mortgage payment, and a credit card balance.  If there’s one thing to prioritize in your financial life, it’s paying off as much debt as possible.  It may seem insurmountable at the beginning; it did to me.  It took years.  It requires sacrifices.  But it can be done.  And what a feeling of liberation.

I’d like to claim I paid off my mortgage.  I didn’t.  I sold my condo, I pay rent now, and that will never go away.  But I am lucky to have found a nice place with very reasonable rent. It’s not in a premium location.  The commute sucks. I don’t have off street parking.  But hey, I just bought a round-trip ticket to Sydney!

Still, Australia is expensive and Oceania is vast. The Australia guide book I got from the library is two inches thick.  I need time this summer to plan ahead, string out purchases of bus or train fares, airfares, lodging, and tours.  Heidi and I spent an hour workshopping on What’s App last weekend.  She’ll have a two-week break from teaching, and we’ll go to Melbourne to visit some other London friends who teach at an Aboriginal Girls’ School.

What should I do in the remaining five weeks?

My head is swirling.  Should I rent a car?  I have a phobia of driving on the other side of the road.  The guide says trains are expensive. But Heidi says they’re not any more expensive than in the UK.  A co-worker advised that New Zealand deserves at least two weeks, and that’s just the south island.  I have a Kiwi friend who lives in France and she’s putting me in touch with her brother who lives in Nelson and might put me up.  A Minnesota friend, has a cousin who runs a resort on Tonga.  Should I go there?

I’ve spent hours trolling Responsible Travel’s website.  They’ve got a budget vacation where you can swim with humpback whales in Tonga.  Dang.  I don’t know how to swim.  I spend a week day dreaming about taking a freighter around French Polynesia.  Oops, it’s 6,000 miles from Sydney to Tahiti, where that trip starts.  Maybe a yoga retreat in Fiji?  But all the photos show women who look like Athleta models.

I was glad to see that Responsible Travel offers plastic-free holidays.

If you have suggestions, please share!

Back to the US of A

In Getsemani, we took photos of the brightly-painted houses.

And fantastic murals.

“It’s almost too perfect,” I remarked to Lynn.  Everywhere I turned was a beautifully-composed photo.  If you can’t take great photos in Cartagena, you can’t take them anywhere.

Even a corner store offered a photo opp of “Still Life with Egg Cartons.”

It was Saturday night and the streets were thronged with people out for a good time.  Who knew who was a tourist and who lived here?

“Air BnB is ruining Cartagena,” Nora had said.  “Rich people are buying places to rent to tourists and Cartagenans cannot afford to live in the center anymore.”  I’ve heard similar laments from Amsterdam to Venice.

We passed through a bustling square with restaurants and bars.  “Want to eat here?” Lynn asked.

It was almost completely dark and there were few streetlights, but naturally I said, “Nah … let’s walk around a bit before it’s pitch dark.  Maybe we can find more photo opps.”

Lynn agreed so we stepped off into a side street.  “Let’s use the trick we used yesterday,” Lynn suggested.  “Where we just keep taking right turns so we can’t get lost.”

“Good thinking.”

But of course the streets in Getsemani weren’t straight, or thoroughfares, and within 10 minutes we were lost.  There were streetlights, but half of them were broken.  People were hanging out drinking and playing cards on the sidewalks.  Murals had been replaced by ugly graffiti.  There was trash, broken and boarded up windows, and mangy dogs wandered past menacingly.  The smell of pot was everywhere.  There was no doubt that this was not a tourist area.

“If we were in Africa,” Lynn said under her breath, “This is when we would hear the drums getting nearer and nearer.”

I laughed.  We smiled at the people we passed, who were staring at us as if to say, “You’ve taken over the rest of our city.  This is our patch.  Just let us enjoy our Saturday night socializing in peace.”

We spent 15 minutes walking through a completely dark, deserted warehouse district.  “If we were in Mississippi,” I said, “This is when we would hear the hound dogs baying, closer and closer.”

After much drama in our heads, we emerged onto the square where we’d started.

“See?!” proclaimed Lynn, “Going in a circle worked, eventually.”

We ate at a nondescript Italian restaurant that had a nice outdoor patio.  I needed to use the bathroom but judging from the exterior it appeared to be a latrine.  Finally I plucked up my courage and entered.  It was a regular indoor bathroom, which I actually found a bit disappointing, but it did have this mysterious sign:

Do Not Point to the Toilet?  Do Not Shoot a Gun Down the Toilet? Do Not Throw a Brick in the Toilet?

And as always, too soon, it was time to go home.  A driver picked me up at 10:30 the next morning; Lynn would begin her arduous return via Amsterdam later in the day.  The airport was only five minutes from the center.

This sign left no room for interpretation.

“Drug trafficking is punishable by pain of death or life imprisonment in China, Qatar, Egypt, the UAE, Indonesia, Malaysia, and 28 other countries.”

In Miami, I went through immigration and customs and then walk-ran to get from the last gate on D concourse to Gate E16, as indicated on the American website.

I followed the signs for E 2-33.  When I reached E11, the next gate was E20.

“E16?” I asked two American Airlines agents.

“There is no Gate E16,” they replied dismissively.  I showed them the screen shot and they doubled down, acting as though I had made it up somehow. American—the airline that dragged that poor man off a plane when he wouldn’t give up his seat for no reason.

The video system went down midflight so, since the same had happened on my arrival flight, I never saw the end of The Color of Water.   They offered free drinks, so I had a beer and chatted with my seatmate.

“Isn’t Colombia a third world country?!” she asked.  “I’m not a racist—I have mi-norities in my family.”

Edens and Getsemani

Our tour of San Pedro Claver over, we tipped Charles generously—at least I hope he thought it was generous.  He had clearly poured years of his life into learning everything about St. Peter and his namesake church.

Before we left, he scribbled on some scraps of paper and handed them to us along with some business cards.  The business cards were for his cousin’s store, which sells Handy Crafts.

“My cousin, Fabiola, you can tell her I sent you to get a discount.”  The scrap of paper had his contact details on it.  If you ever go to Cartagena and want a personal tour of St. Peter Claver Church, ask for Charles, aka Carlos Arturo Pelaez Martinez, and tell him Anne sent you and you want your discount.

We wandered out into the blinding, blistering hot sun.  In the square, this woman was posing for tourists with a bowl of fruit on her head.  I really hate things like this, but I took a photo and gave her 10,000 pesos.  It felt a bit like I was photographing a zoo animal.  The irony of us being in the former Black Market wasn’t lost on me.  Did her costume have any cultural significance?  She wasn’t interested in talking.  She needed to sell as many photos as she could, literally—Snap Snap!—to make a living.  I guess it was better than working in a factory.

Lynn and I always try to hit a grocery store when we travel. In Colombia, we were fixated on buying some of the crunchy corn kernels—sold in the US as Corn Nuts—which we’d had on salads and in ceviche and soups here.

I don’t know which is more disturbing.  The thought of wiping myself with a white rabbit or that “Exito” means “success.”  An interesting name for toilet paper.

This ranks up with the “Colonial” brand cigarettes I saw in Belize.  I mean really—what was the thinking on the marketing team when they came up with the brand name Dictator for a Latin American rum?  “I’m telling you Jorge, dictators are hot.”  Note that in one photo the man is dressed in a suit with a George Michael beard and in the other he is shirtless and clean shaven.

We found our corn nuts and went to find lunch.

It seems like it’s hard to go wrong in the search for good food in Colombia, especially if you enjoy seafood.  We found a ceviche restaurant and settled in.  There was no point in rushing around the city in this heat.

Being a plant lover, I appreciated that plants, vines, and flower arrangements were incorporated into the décor everywhere in Colombia.

The ceviche didn’t disappoint, although I thought half a pita and Saltine crackers were interesting choices for accompaniments.  I associate Saltines with being broke or nauseous.

The sign on the ladies’ room door.  Again with the fruit hat.  If a restaurant in Minneapolis used this sign, there would be protests that it was racist or at the very least, a case of cultural appropriation.  But this restaurant was owned and operated by Black Caribbeans, so there.

After lunch we returned to the hotel and I headed straight for the pool.  If you’re not a water person, you don’t understand the pure bliss of being in water in the sunshine, surrounded by plants and two very noisy parakeets in a big cage.  I don’t really even know how to swim but I can splash around in a pool for hours.  I ordered a print of this photo and keep it on my desk at work.  I escape here when I need to.

Our last evening in Colombia.  Nora had suggested only one thing—Getsemani—a bohemian neighborhood.

“It looks like all we have to do is cross a street,” I said to Lynn as I consulted the map.

Riiiiiight,” she drawled sarcastically.

But we got clever and left a trail of bread crumbs in the form of photos.

From one side of the clock tower to the other, dusk fell that fast.  With any luck it would be lit up after dark, right?

 

Saving the Slaves

Our last full day in Colombia.  It was 10 in the morning and already scorching hot in Cartagena.  Lynn and I stepped into the foyer of San Pedro Claver Church; it was cool and dark.  We made our way to some sort of service desk, where a young man was immersed in praying the rosary.  A glass case contained items for sale: Crucifixes, rosaries, scapulars.   In case you don’t know, scapulars are stamp-sized images of saints and such joined by a ribbon and worn around the neck under one’s clothes.  These are a couple images from discountcatholicproducts.com.

I’m not sure if they’re for good luck or protection or what.

A man stepped up to us from seemingly out of nowhere and I did a double take because in the dimness I thought for a nanosecond he was my long-dead grandfather, Ralph.  He was thin and olive-skinned with slicked down black hair and thick black glasses, and he smelled like tobacco.

He introduced himself as Charles, and launched into a breakneck Spanglish spiel with some French and German thrown in just to keep us on our toes.

“I have studied in France and Italy and Eeenglahterrrrra,” he told us.  He offered to be our guide for a small fee.  And it really was small; I don’t recall how much it was but he showed us around for over an hour and showed us some places I was pretty sure we weren’t supposed to be.

Even so, he didn’t waste any time.  Charles marched us out of the foyer into the main sanctuary and began pointing.  “This stained glass, she is from Italy,” he recited.  “And this eh-statue, she is from Germany.  All the things you see, they are gifts from other countries.”

Maybe because it was a mish-mash of donated features from European countries, the sanctuary wasn’t particularly beautiful.  The dome was pretty.

The altar had something glowing orange … yes, that’s …

… the bones of St. Peter, who died of Parkinson’s in 1654.

My personal favorite work of art in the sanctuary was this painting depicting a priest converting Chinese, Japanese and Indian heathens all in one go.  The Taj Mahal is in the background.  Nice!

Charles led us onward at a brisk pace, walking and talking.

There was a gallery with an incredible collection of religious and other art, including African carvings and contemporary marble statues.  All of it, even the centuries-old wood sculptures and oil paintings were just there, in the extreme heat and humidity, with stray cats wandering around.

This was a Hall of Bishops or some such.

As Charles waved his hands around, naming every single potentate, I could tell from Lynn’s body language that she was not excited.  When you’ve seen these types of places in Italy, France, and every other European capital, one glowering bishop looks much like another.

This was St. P. in his hunky youth.

Charles kept up a stream of commentary as Lynn and I wandered around the gallery.  I liked this French altar with all-seeing eye at the apex, like on a dollar bill.

Some of the Jesus figures could have been modeled on indigenous people.

There were a number of miracle-performing virgins, some as old as 16th Century.

There was a lovely courtyard.

And the usual dead people everywhere in the walls and floors.  Charles said his parents were among the dead, and that it was only the bones that were interred. What happened to the rest I didn’t want to know.

The upper floor, where St. Peter lived.

The saint’s bedroom.  “He was so humble, he slept on the floor,” Charles said.

You could say St. Peter filled a niche.

Some of the art was very much in the”white savior” genre.

Three hundred thousand slaves were baptized in this font.

“St. Peter, he was a friend to the slaves that were bought and sold in the Black Market,” Charles said.

A friend.  St. Peter had baptized slaves, but had he fed them or advocated for abolition? Charles indicated that St. Peter had ruffled the feathers of the slave traders, which was good, but as usual, I came away with more questions than when I’d started.

Beautiful City in a Sad World

Colombia has been in the news lately in the US.  Last night there was this story on the PBS News Hour about the election, which is taking place the day this posts.  Near the end, it talks about all the activists who have been threatened—and more than 50 who have been killed—in the ongoing conflict for power.

So I wasn’t overreacting when I worried about our tour guide in Bogota being at risk.  I wrote that Lynn and I would follow him on Facebook and maybe raise a stink if anything happened to him but in reality, what could we really do?  If he suddenly stopped posting, what would we do—call the police in Colombia?  I’m sure they would get a good laugh out of that.  We could contact Human Rights Watch or Amnesty International.  I don’t know.  It’s another thing to worry about, along with all the plastic in the ocean and the violence in Gaza and Russian interference in the US elections.

Just for fun, I made a list of the first three titles of emails I saw in a typical morning at work:

And here is a sampling of my daily dose of funding opportunities from the US government:

  • Bureau of International Narcotics-Law Enforcement, Combating Wildlife Trafficking in sub-Saharan Africa
  • Health Services and Economic Research on the Treatment of Drug, Alcohol, and Tobacco Use
  • National Technical Assistance Resource Center for the Prevention of Sexual Violence
  • Investigation of the Transmission of Kaposi Sarcoma-Associated Herpesvirus
  • NIH Collaborative Cross Mouse Model Generation and Discovery of Immunoregulatory Mechanisms

That last one is kind of amusing, until you really think about what will happen to the poor mouse.

In one of my daily international news digests this week, there was an article (behind a paywall so I can’t provide a link) about the Colombian government conducting a census of Venezuelan refugees. A few excerpts:

“Exact numbers of people who have arrived are hard to come by and it is difficult to ascertain if people intend to stay in Colombia or move to another country in South America or the Caribbean.

“The lack of accurate data influences the way the United States State Department, U.S. Agency for International Development, and NGOs can plan for and respond to the crisis, a problem the Colombian government hopes the census will help solve. According to [Felipe] Muñoz, there are 30,000 Venezuelan children in the Colombian public school system, and 25,000 in the child care system. Twenty-five thousand Venezuelans have been provided free medical care by Colombia’s public health system.

“The Colombian government also intends to set up a formal process for Colombians who had fled their own country during a decades-long civil war for Venezuela, but now seek to return home. This includes children that have a parent from each country but were born in Venezuela and do not have Colombian identity papers.

‘They have the right to be Colombian,’ Muñoz said.”

This almost makes me weep.  What a contrast between how Colombia, where the average monthly salary is $692, treats refugees vs. my country—where the average monthly salary is $3,428.

We are a country living with an epidemic of fear and hatred.

Lynn and I slept the sleep of the dead after our five-hour drive and two-hour walking tour.

Breakfast was on the rooftop restaurant, which had great views.  That’s the Cathedral in the distance.

We noted that the hotel had witch points on some of the rooflines.  Nora had told us this was a Colonial-era building requirement by the Catholic Church—to keep witches out of buildings.  I guess it works, because we never saw a witch, inside or out.

Soon we were out on the street.  Here’s the Cathedral again, in the distance.  Such a beautiful city.

The interior was cool and quiet.

Lynn led us on to Iglesia San Pedro Claver.  St. Peter Claver, as we know him in the US, was a priest from Barcelona, the first saint of the new world, and—so the legend goes—a champion of slaves.

Anglo American Afro Iberian Caribbean

It’s been almost a week, but I want to mention the royal wedding. Yeah, that thing that happened last Saturday.  I got up early to watch it with my aunt and cousin.  I watched because I love weddings in general.  My brother is a wedding videographer, so if you love weddings, you can watch his video clips of weddings to your heart’s content.

Mostly I watched because Windsor (technically the adjacent town, Eton) was where I lived for a month last summer, so it was fun to catch glimpses of the places I had frequented.  My friend Sam, whose house I took care of, was on the Long Walk with his wife and kid with their picnic and blanket, waving flags as the carriage drove by.  He WhatsApp’d me a slew of photos.

This is one of the little thrills of traveling or living somewhere else—to be able to point to the TV and say, “I was there!”

Out on the street in Cartagena for our two-hour walking tour, our guide Nora talked loudly to be heard over the street noise as the three of us navigated the crowded sidewalks.  Lynn and I gave each other the side eye as we passed certain shops.

These were dress shops.

Nora caught our raised eyebrows and smiled conspiratorially.  “Yes, our ladies like very expressive dresses.” Unlike Nora—who had short cropped hair and was dressed like a tomboy.  “Let us go to the sea barrier,” she suggested.  “It’s less crowded there.”

We passed the house of Gabriel Garcia Marquez.  He’s dead now, and Nora wasn’t sure if the house was occupied by his widow or what, but it was still cool to see it.  I had read Chronicle of a Death Foretold before leaving for Colombia and its setting was a rural version of Cartagena, with a very mixed racial and Caribbean vibe.

Across the street was a concert and wedding venue that looking like a wedding cake itself.

Nora continuously read and sent texts as she walked and talked.  She had moved to Cartagena to live with her boyfriend, a musician.  He was 60—more than 20 years older than her.  Would we like to meet him?

That was a bit unexpected on a guided tour, but of course we said yes.

She talked about how the rents were so much higher in Cartagena than where she had moved from—because of tourists and Air BnB driving up prices.  “My brother has also moved here now,” she continued.  “He is in a bar right now with my boyfriend and I will take you to meet them.”

Um, okay?  I don’t mean to imply that I was suspicious or worried about this, but it was a little strange.  Did she just want to hang out with them?

We passed a lovely old wreck of a colonial house for sale.

She led us along the breakwater and explained how Cartagena had been founded by runaway women slaves.  It was a really interesting bit of history I’d never heard, but unfortunately half of the story was lost to the roar of the wind and waves.

We re-entered the city through the thick walls and stood in a plaza. “This was the black market. It’s where that term originated.  Here’s where slaves were auctioned off.”

I had never thought about this before.   A pall of sadness descended over me.

But Nora kept us moving as night fell.  She led us through a food hall selling every kind of pickled, dried, and candied nut, fruit, meat, and …

… ants—I bought a packet for my son the chef.

This place was twice as loud. We shouted “Hello!” to Nora’s boyfriend and brother.  I’m sure this was the place to see and be seen, but we declined the invitation to stay and join this couple on the dance floor.

Cartagena

“I’m not really interested in a four-hour walking tour,” I said as we approached Cartagena after a five-hour drive.

“Me neither,” Lynn replied.  “Maybe we can ask for the guide to cut it down to two.”

We drove along the Caribbean beachfront, lined with tower-block-like hotels. Then we turned into a tunnel in what appeared to be an ancient wall, and we were inside old Cartagena. It immediately felt like we were in another country.  There were a lot more black folks, and as we would learn in a few hours, this was due to Cartagena’s founding as a slave port.  The streets were wide enough for one car, barely.  Residents and tourists thronged in the street and narrow sidewalks, there were carts selling bananas and sweets half in, half out of the street.  Horse-drawn carriages vied with motor vehicles.  There was music in the air—kids with boom boxes, live music wafting out of restaurants.  It had a vibe that reminded me of Havana or New Orleans.

Since our hotel had changed, our driver drove in circles for a while, then stopped and pointed to a street half a block away. “Your hotel is there, but my truck can’t drive there.”  We alighted, thanked and tipped him, then pulled our bags in the direction he’d pointed.

It was 2:30, and very hot and humid.  This screen shot is from the next morning—it was 26C (80F) at 7:35am.  So much for “getting out early, before it’s too hot.”

Our hotel was the Don Pedro de Heredia, and it was very nice.  A “restored colonial boutique hotel,” is how it was billed.  Our room was enormous, with two queen-sized beds.  “Why is there only that one tiny window?” I wondered aloud.  The window was high up in the wall and smaller than a microwave oven.

“Because of the heat?” Lynn posited.  Yes, that must have been it.  The room had an air conditioning unit—the kind that hangs on the wall and removes humidity—the first we’d seen in Colombia (although we hadn’t been looking).

As usual, I snooped around to find anything interesting or different about this place.  The toilet paper roll was positioned two inches above the floor. That would make for some interesting gymnastics.

A sign on the back of the door warned against sexual exploitation of minors in tourism.

There was also a No Smoking sign but when I opened the door to go for a wander there were two old geezers sitting in the hall in lounge chairs smoking.  So the Smoking Section was right outside our room. Fortunately none of the smoke seeped inside.

These Mayan faces were set in the wall every five feet.

It was the pool I was really after—as I gazed down at it from the fourth floor balcony I knew I would spend as much time in and near it as possible in our 48 hours here.

We were down in the lobby at 3:15, where our guide had been waiting.

“You’re late!” she said.

“But we just arrived …” I felt a bit like a naughty school girl.

We hadn’t eaten since 7am, so we negotiated that our guide, Nora, would return in two hours and cut the tour down to two hours.  She seemed happy with this arrangement.  “It’s a bit less hot at 6 than at 4, but only a bit,” she wagged her finger at us.  “Be sure to wear sun screen and bring water.”  She was younger than us, maybe 40, and tiny as a teenager but had a school marm air about her. “The city comes alive after dark,” she added.

We stepped out into the blinding sun and heat and crowds and held our hands up to shade our eyes as we scanned for the closest restaurant.  The city certainly didn’t seem dead.

“Let’s walk around the block,” I suggested, “so we don’t get lost.”  We found an Italian place and enjoyed a good meal.  Back at the hotel, Lynn napped while I jumped into the pool.  The day had seemed like three days; I could have gone to bed then but as instructed we were in the lobby at 6 sharp.