The shit had really hit the fan.
Tramp Trump had not only closed his borders to the whole of the UK and Europe, but now there was an imminent risk of us getting trapped here in Colombia due to the fact that the Colombian authorities had just announced that along with the strict Monday-Friday curfew and the weekend long lockdown, the cafes, bars and restaurants would also be closed too leaving us no longer able to continue our usual fun and frolicks in the beautiful city of Cartagena.
Many countries around the world were rapidly implementing the same strict rules, including sending cruise ships packing when they came anywhere close to their shores leaving some ships essentially stranded, cruising around the Pacific Ocean and beyond trying to find a country that would allow them to dock. But understandably, many of the countries hearing the horror stories of escalating deaths around the world were terrified that they would bring it into their country and most of them were unprepared for a pandemic on this scale.
Shelves were continuing to be cleared at a rapid rate back in the UK as people reacted to their idea of a quarantine which had infact not even been announced yet by the UK government. Cartagena’s shops, cafes and restaurants closing was the least of our worries though…
The residents clearly were not expecting to see any foreigners still in the city after the announcement of the curfews by the government and we had started noticing the way in which they looked at us suspiciously as we trawled around the empty streets in our flip flops looking for somewhere to get a coffee. They simply did not understand that we were not on holiday. We hadn’t arrived a mere week ago looking for a cheap holiday in the sun, we had been travelling in South America for a total of 6 months, been in Colombia for 3 months now and hadn’t been anywhere near any of the worst affected countries! We had been lucky that for the past 6 months in South America we had for the most part been blissfully unaware of Coronavirus, up until now that is.
We were nearing the end of our travels. Now that our cruise had been cancelled we needed to decide what and we were going to do now. Should we stay here in the limited, but nonetheless relatively safe country of Colombia, who thus far had minimal Covid 19 cases or return back to the UK to be greeted not only but cold, grey skies, but also by people hoarding food and medical supplies like they were preparing it for their underground bunkers. We were finding it increasingly harder to decide.
We had flights booked with every intention of going home, but as we tuned on to hear Boris speak each day it was seeming clearer that not only were the cases escalating in the UK, but they STILL had no strict rules enforced to prevent the spread of the disease! Personally, I would much rather be quarantined at home and know that my family were too, if I was also assured that other people were not going about their daily business, interacting with others, making the likelihood of contracting, and therefore spreading the virus even higher for us all. My friend in Paris was still being made to commute into work which I didn’t understand since they had a similar number of infections of London but at least for the most part they had a lockdown in place throughout the country and were handing out fines to people who flouted the rules.
Josh and I had started to think about where we could go where we would be the most comfortable in a lockdown. Afterall, we weren’t too worried about either one of us catching it and we had no intention of going near any crowds as for the most part we tried to avoid them anyway. What had become abundantly clear was that staying here in Cartagena wasn’t a good idea. This being their most expensive city, making up a large part of their GDP, they were taking their preventative measures seriously and as we’d seen, things were changing very rapidly, and we weren’t exactly the first ones to be told!
But in Medellin we thought that things would be different. Medellin was not only a very modern city with good infastructure, but I had seen lots of medical facilities in the city whilst we were there yet I hadn’t seen any here in Cartagena yet. We could find ourselves a nice apartment there and “bunker down” for however long it took for this thing to blow over. So long as we were near to a Supermarket and had some outside space we’d be fine!
We were not trying to eek out the last of our summer holidays. We had already acknowledged to ourselves that the party was over. It was just that we understood what was awaiting us back in the UK and we thought this plan sounded more attractive by far.
But despite us not being particularly enthused about the idea of going home to cold, grey UK amongst a rapidly increasing pandemic, we knew that we couldn’t avoid it forever. After our scary encounter with the Colombian police on the night that we were locked down and out we were definitely over the idea of putting ourselves in harms way or making a nuisance of ourselves. We wanted to keep as quiet as possible until such a time as we were able to leave to go home.
We looked into the possibility of getting an apartment in Medellin, and renewing our visa’s (which was due to run out in a few weeks) so that we could stay here in Colombia. We had spoken to our families back in the UK and though my Mum said that she thought it might be a good idea if I stayed where I was in Colombia as things were pretty bad there, Josh’s Mum wasn’t so sure. She said that she didn’t like the idea of us getting trapped here with no way to get home and in a way she was right as airlines were cancelling flights and country’s were closing their borders left right and centre. Everything was highly unpredictable.
As we debated whether we should stay in Colombia or take the flight we had booked to Miami as planned suddenly we encountered yet another dilemma: Our flight was cancelled. Due to the sheer volume of flights that we had seen being cancelled we had now taken to checking on the status of our flight a couple of times a day. I had already mentally prepared myself for our flight being cancelled at any given moment so I wasn’t in the least bit surprised when we logged onto the airlines website to see that our flight had also been cancelled. Unlike in normal circumstances where you would get an email to notify you that your flight had been cancelled we had received nothing of the kind. It was cancelled just like that. And needless to say because they had such a backlog of cancelled flights to deal with we also knew that we weren’t going to be receiving our refund anytime soon either!
We were now in a bit of a predicament. We were due to check out of the apartment and leave Cartagena for Miami in a few days time. Should we stay or should we go?
We now had no cruise, no flights booked and nowhere to stay in Miami as our accommodation was supposed to be the cruise that had just been cancelled, BUT we did still have flights booked from Miami back to the UK in a weeks time. Confusing is an understatement.
We had spent alot of time and energy trawling sites looking for flights and accomodation and now, at the drop of a hat we were being told that our cruise AND flight had been cancelled just like that! The annoying thing was that we didn’t particularly wish to go to Miami. We much preferred staying in Colombia rather then venturing to the US. The ONLY reason why we were going there at all was to embark on our cruise, but now that that had been cancelled we would now have to wait for our flight from there home a week later with Virgin. I had my suspicions that Virgin Atlantic, like all of the other airlines, would also cancel on us leaving us stranded in Miami. Not that I have anything against Miami particularly as I have been there many times and like it, but I personally have no interest in visiting the US whilst Tramp Trump is still in The White House.
We went out for lunch. This time almost everywhere was closed and almost everyone was wearing a mask. We still were mask-less as the WHO website said that wearing a mask was only effective if you had symptoms or were caring for someone who had symptoms. Plus the vast majority of people were wearing disposable ones which had almost no affect whatsoever after the first use and was certainly a waste of precious resources that I’m sure doctors and nurses were in need of.
Most of our regular spots were closed but eventually we were able to find a hotel with a restaurant/bar that was still open. It had been somewhere that we had planned to check out but hadn’t yet had the opportunity to so we were glad that it was still taking customers. After ordering some coffee we graciously accepted a free snack from the waiter and then the manager of the hotel came over. He had excellent English and began to tell us about what had been going on in the city. He was part of a group of hotel owners who received direct information about the city plans with regards to the outbreak. He asked us when we were planning on going home and we told him we weren’t too sure just yet, as we were still weighing up the pros and cons of staying in Colombia, but that we were probably going to go to Medellin. He then told us that we should probably rethink that as things were getting pretty bad in Colombia and they were unable to predict how much worse it would get. Also he said, the government has announced that it’s planning on closing the border to all incoming and outgoing flights commencing in just a few days time!
We thanked him profusely for the information. We had been very lucky so far that kind residents had taken it upon themselves to tell us something which could potentially have affected us greatly. We’d had no idea whatsoever that Colombia was planning on closing their borders, since South America as a whole had so few cases we figured that it was more likely to be America that would close their borders then here. This new information really focused the mind as if we were planning on staying then at least now we knew that once we decided that there would be going back, whatever situation (bad or good) that ensued here as a consequence of this pandemic would mean that we would be unable to leave even if we wanted to. And as with everything else at the moment, the duration of this border closure would be unknown.
Could we risk it?
Despite my anguish about my Grandad suffering alone in the hospital and the worry of either of our immediate family members catching this deadly disease, I also knew that my presence back in the UK was pointless as I would be unable to see them anyway. But how long did I realistically want to stay in Medellin? – I was thinking a month but now I knew that the duration of our stay was potentially open ended as nobody knew when all of this would end it didn’t seem that attractive afterall.
We took a walk along the iconic old town wall to discuss our options. So far we had always been able to think outside the box and do the best thing for ourselves individually and as a couple as situations had presented themselves to us, but this was different, we now needed to make a decision with alot of variables that we just didn’t know about and it was causing me alot of anxiety not knowing what to do for the best.
Would we be able to get a visa in time? (allowing us to make the move to Medellin)
Was the situation in Medellin bad and likely to get worse?
Would we have access to enough food to last us however long their lockdown lasted for?
Did Boris have any plans to introduce any strict measures such as closing the tube, or asking the population to quarantine or would we be walking into an infection infestation as soon as we got off the plan at Heathrow?
Would we find a flight to Miami or would that too be cancelled putting us on the hook for yet more funds to get us there?
Would our Virgin Atlantic flight taking us home be cancelled too?
Would my family be okay? Would I be able to get to them if they weren’t?
Would my Grandad be okay?
Would it be selfish staying here, being so far away from our families even if we couldn’t do anything?
How long would we be trapped here in Colombia if we did decide to stay?
If we did stay, did I have enough contact lenses to last me?
And on and on and on..
My head was spinning. It was agonising trying to make the right decision especially since we didn’t have any pressing reason to go home straightaway. Our cats were being cared for. We worked online so could work from anywhere. We weren’t in the high risk category and we couldn’t see our families when we returned home anyway. So it was very difficult.
By the time we’d returned home to begin yet another evening under Colombian quarantine we had gone from agreeing that we were staying, to going, to staying, to going, to staying, to going and back again. I was utterly exhausted. For one of the first times ever neither of us could decide what to do for the best. But there was something underneath it, when I thought about going back to Medellin to extend our time here in Colombia that didn’t feel right. I knew that we would be safe and comfortable there, but was it the right thing to do?
To confirm my niggling doubts I asked Josh to contact the previous manager of our apartment in Medellin to try to suss out the state of affairs there and also to call his parents so that we could get their take on it. After speaking to the manager back in Medellin he confirmed something that I hadn’t been expecting: that Medellin was also on lockdown and the lockdown was due to be extended even further. Put short: Colombia was taking this very seriously indeed.
We had assumed that due to Colombia’s second world status and most peoples ignorance about just how developed (and safe) it generally was, our families concerns would be in relation to safety etc but though Josh’s Dad was a bit more understanding when we explained our reasons for wanting to stay, Josh’s Mum told us that she would worry, she would prefer that we come home and that was the decider. I did not wish to put either them or my parents in a situation which is already stressful through anymore undue stress and anxiety. So if it meant that them just knowing that we were home would make them feel better then that’s what we would do.
And just like that we decided to go home. Once we had finally made our decision I felt an immediate sense of relief. Neither option was ideal but in this unpredictable crisis doing the right thing for the benefit of our families was the best decision to make.
We managed to find another flight going to Miami with another airline (Delta). Delta was in partnership with Virgin Atlantic so we figured that aswell as being able to badger them about our upcoming flight with Virgin a week later we figured that it was more unlikely that they would cancel the flight then the Colombian airline that we had originally booked with. Through the process of booking our flights to Miami a visa was requested which jogged my mind as it was then that I realised that throughout all of the craziness going on I had completely forgotten to get an ESTA!
Since in my mind I wasn’t actually going to the US but via the US to get on a cruise, I had forgotten to fill out an ESTA form which we needed to enter the US. And considering I knew that Americans were already generally pretty fearful and highly strung by nature I was shocked that I had overlooked this very important detail. We filled it out and thankfully our permission to enter was granted swiftly. I was extremely relieved by this as I had assumed that due to our late request for the ESTA and due to the fact that they were banning entrance to people from the UK (despite us not actually entering the US from the UK) due to virus fears I was afraid that we would definitely have been denied.
Since our flight to Miami was on the weekend and the whole city would be on lockdown then we now had another hurdle to climb: Getting to the airport.
From our previous encounters with the Cartagena Taxi Drivers we had learnt they weren’t the most professional of industry’s. Alas we also knew that there was no other way of us getting to the airport – we needed to pre book a taxi to take us there as the lockdown which came into affect on the weekend meant that they wouldn’t be cruising around the city picking up passengers as nobody was supposed to be out. We were acutely aware of the fact that since the border closure was due to come in affect literally the day after our flight out of Colombia it meant that we absolutely had to catch this flight no matter what or else we would get stranded there.
Our plan was to get to the airport 4 hours earlier as opposed to the customary 2 hours just incase and since we didn’t trust the taxi drivers to to be able to find our apartment since they didn’t seem to use sat nav’s we decided to pre book one through a hotel. It did of course seem ridiculous to us that we were literally going to have to go walk to another hotel that weren’t staying at in order to get them to book a taxi for us when we had a concierge at our apartment could just as easily do the same, but judging from his woefully unhelpful attitude on the night that we were locked down and out we didn’t trust him to this simple task and we really couldn’t afford miss our flight.
So we walked all the way to the Ibis hotel (where my sister had stayed when she was in Cartagena), and asked them if they could possibly organise a taxi for us and thankfully they obliged. I made sure that we booked the taxi for early enough where if they didn’t turn up at our apartment then we could drag our cases in the middle of the 48 hour lockdown to the Ibis and make certain that they got us one there and then. I was prepared for all eventuality’s because this was now some serious shit that we were dealing with. Even once we got to the airport I had been fully prepared for our flight to be cancelled but thankfully it wasn’t. I felt relieved that the Ibis had come through for us. The taxi had arrived at the time we had given and had found the place with no problems whatsoever. The Ibis staff were life savers.
We were glad to leave Cartagena and our uninspiring apartment behind. The party was well and truly over. Now we needed to get to Miami to begin the next stage in our ever unfolding drama.
We had booked a hotel near the airport in Miami for just one night. Our plan was to badger Virgin to put us on an earlier flight so we decided that there was no point committing to booking accomodation for the entire week as we didn’t want to stay there for a whole week. As it was Miami, though not on lockdown, was certainly not the fun time Miami that I remembered. Many of the shops and restaurants were closed as was South Beach (the whole point of going to Miami in the firstplace!), and even our hotel wasn’t serving food, just giving out a “grab bag” in the morning, otherwise you were expected to order takeaway or go to the supermarket.
Eeking out the last bits of sun in Miami
Thankfully though, the hotel was new and had a classic, modern style that for the price and location was really good. Also our room was very cosy and spacious and the bed was the most comfortable bed that I’ve ever had the pleasure to sleep in. It was like sleeping on a cloud, literally. I felt as though I had been drugged or something when I emerged from that bed because it was so unbelievably comfortable. We also had a fridge and microwave in our room and the hotel had 24 hour hot and cold drinks, a snack shop, a swimming pool, a large study and a communal washing machine. So it was definitely set up for quarantine conditions and I decided that I neither Josh or I had a problem spending part of our quarantine there.
So far the cases in Miami were very low, but that wasn’t the same as in New York who were experiencing a terrifying number of cases and deaths everyday. And back in London, my family were updating daily about my Grandad’s health, but it wasn’t good news. For some reason, despite talking to him when we was out of hospital just under a week ago they were now telling me that the hospital where he was currently in isolation was on lockdown and they weren’t allowing any visitors in at all in. For me, thinking about my Grandad being unable to have visitors, and more importantly that his many loved ones (such as my Mum and Aunts and Nan who were unable to visit him because of their own vulnerability), were now not even allowed to enter the hospital.
Aside from the horrendous worry about how he was being treated there with reports of it not being so good due to their very apparent overwhelm, I worried about him being in pain, being alone. There we were via Whatsapp (because we could not be together) discussing what we could do to ensure that he gets out of there alive, even if it means that we transfer him to a private hospital and pay the fees to care for him, all the while being unable to see or talk to him. Stress and anxiety begin and a feeling of frustration fill me for so many things are out of my/our control right now with whole families all over the world being made to worry incessantly about their loved ones who are vulnerable and not being able to do anything to help, even to see them to give them a hug or tell them that they love them. I knew that my Grandad was a fighter and a very stubborn man but from everything that I’d been seeing on the news lately with the low numbers of PPE equipment for the medical staff who were treating him, I wondered, was he potentially being exposed again to the virus just by being treated?
Just before we’d left on our 6 month adventure Josh and I seen my Nan and Grandad in their usual stiflingly hot home that was always kept at the average Caribbean temperature of 35 degrees. Despite their health problems with my Nan’s lack of mobility and my Grandad’s dementia causing him to burst into very random muses in the midst of our conversation, they had both looked well. I loved spending time with them – the contrast of my Nan’s usual wise and can do attitude with my Grandad’s fun loving personality. My Grandad would sit in “his chair” making jokes, reading the newspaper, teasing his children and grandchildren or watching his beloved West Indian Cricket Team play. My Grandad was a man with a few simple pleasures: A lifetime people pleaser who would often get himself into trouble by constantly trying to appease all 7 of his children at the same time, he was a man who loved the simple things in life: minimal conflict, his impressively large family, home cooked meals (infact he wouldn’t eat food from anyone else but his family and he never dined in restaurants), cricket and a healthy love of his home country: Jamaica.
He often used to day dream to me out loud about Jamaica. Though both him and my Nan were born there, they had both been in England for around 70 years and my Nan, unlike my Grandad who went to Jamaica at every opportunity that he got, she had no interest in going back there. My Grandad on the other hand could think of nothing else: The warmth of the sun, the laid back way of life, the fresh fruits and vegetables, the landscape, his extended family, everything about Jamaica I heard him relay with such pride and joy. He really brought it to life for me. And even in these past few years when his memory wasn’t what it once was he still remembered with vivid detail the country he loved so much.
How could it be possible that my strong and extremely stubborn Grandad who had been admitted to hospital many times before with a variety of different health concerns was unable to fight this virus now? – he was usually able to fight everything. Not just his health but the very sudden, unexpected and infinitely painful death of his youngest child Cynthia, my Aunty Cynth. A pain which is difficult enough for me – but for a parent must be unbearable each and everyday. But what could I do to save my Grandad? As it was the NHS were working around the clock under increasingly dangerous circumstances to care for the increasing numbers of people who were being admitted into their care. And without a vaccine or a cure we were all just sitting ducks. For elderly people like my Grandad, at the ripe old age of 85 this evil disease was fatal. His survival depended on his immunity and his will to live, and though I could attest to his will to live to spend time with his growing family and return to the Jamaica that he so loved, I could not attest to his immunity level as he had already been hanging on for almost 2 weeks with only a few visits from his family to boost his morale.
Distressed with the increasingly toxic atmosphere of our family communications with some people wanting to place themselves at the head of the organisation and care of Grandad without consulting anyone else, a few of us Grandchildren had decided to start our own pro-active Whatsapp group so that we could talk seriously about what we were going to do to help Grandad without being subjected to more religiously inspired judgement and controlling behaviour. Suddenly, we had a plan! We were going to research a private institution where we would not only be able to better guarantee the standard of his care but we’d be able to see him more frequently too.
The following day I got the call that I did not expect.
I was still 5 hours behind the others in the UK so I was still groggy and feeling more then a little confused when I answered the phone around 7:00 am in the morning to a chorus of distressed sounding crying. I refused to believe that the tears I was hearing was in relation to my Grandad so as they continuing cried down the phone all I could do was ask: “What’s happened, what’s happened?” when in truth I already knew what had happened I just didn’t want to believe it. Initially I felt numb as I pondered on the irony of our conversation just the night before, all of us committed to doing whatever was humanely possible to ensure that our Grandad wasn’t a Covid 19 statistic. He wasn’t just a Covid 19 statistic. He was our beloved Grandad and it wasn’t his time to die!
How evil it was that this virus didn’t give us the time to say goodbye, how cruel that he died in isolation on his own whilst so many of us, separated through various quarantine restrictions, countries and time, yet all the while we were planning, and earnestly committed to getting him out alive. How many hours were spent worrying about him, about whether he was being recognised for the wonderful man that he was. His warm, kind and jolly spirit. The big heart he had. His sense of humour. Was it seen by these NHS workers being worked within an inch of their lives to deal with this crisis? Did they realise how loved and adored he was? That he left behind a family who would not be able to grieve his death? – the utter unfairness of it all. The pointlessness of a disease that preys upon the most vulnerable – our irreplaceable and treasured members of our family, our Gran’s and Grandad’s.
The far reaching effects of the Coronavirus had completely knocked me for six. Forget about all of the quarantines, food shortages, the countries closing their borders, businesses closing down and an almost guaranteed recession, I had been saved by the knowledge that that which is most valuable to me in my life: my family, were going to be just fine since my Grandad always pulls through. He always does.
But not this time.
My entire family was in pieces. That which is usually soothed by shared tears and the physical closeness of the ones we love in grief was made worse by the fact that we were all so far apart and would have to remain so for the foreseeable future as the UK was now officially in lockdown.
JW.BORG is the nickname of JW. ORG given by a Youtuber who makes Youtube videos about the shenanigans of The Jehovah’s Witness organisation. His videos are made entirely from Lego and aside from their intentional humour they are also extremely accurate representations of the way that that particular religious organisation is run. He calls them BORGS because the Jehovah’s Witness organisation which through not fault of my own I was a part of (childhood indoctrination!) and of which unfortunately many members of my family still adhere to is so strict and cult-like that it dulls the feelings of the the followers so much as to make them almost robot like in their non-feeling and sometimes shocking heartlessness. I have seen this myself with members of my own family and I thought that there couldn’t possibly be another opportunity to see it again but unfortunately it reared it’s ugly head again upon the death of my beloved Grandad.
I am vehemently against any organisation (religious or otherwise) that purports to know things about the human experience and life before and after the earth came into existence. Things that they cannot possibly know and therefore DO NOT KNOW. Religions highjack our very innocent but naive desire to know facts about life and the universe by giving the false impression of knowledge. Religions provide comfort to people who do not want to acknowledge the facts about the universe: that there are things that we have no way of knowing (including the existence of any God’s), mixed with people’s desire to know that they will receive justice in this life and the answer to what happens when we die. None of these things are answered correctly by any religions simply because there is no way for them to know the answer. What they can do though is PRETEND to know, offering authority as a guarantee to gullible, impressionable people (most who were brought up in religious households in the firstplace, the first stage to brainwashing), and asking for FAITH to believe (in other words NOT EVIDENCE).
It always saddens me when I hear of otherwise intelligent people falling for this trick. The question people should be asking is HOW they know. Everything else is irrelivant. If I point to 1 specific book then you best believe someone else will come along with another. HOW people know things is the only thing that is reliable not to mention honest.
Fact: Prophesy can be given by any human being at the rate of chance. Fact: You do not need a God or Religion to be good. How do I know this? – I know this because I had both, left both and feel much more empathetic and compassionate then I ever did when I was religious. In short, it is not religion that makes a person good, because being good is not exclusive to the religious. Infact if you follow the doctrine to the letter (and not by cherry picking the parts you like the sound of), you will undoubtedly be pretty damn bad. It is people who are good. So no need to believe in things that cannot be proven or that are divisive i.e religions. So many of them, they cannot possibly all be true but they certainly can all be wrong. And probably are since they are the inventions of men wanting to gain power and position.
Arguing about what the bible says so fervently vs what the quaran says as some family members were doing for 72 hours nonstop is completely and utterly irrelevant if neither one of the doctrines are true. Does the obvious need to even be stated?? What a ridiculous waste of time and energy.
Unfortunately though, many of my family members are very religious and in my honest opinion personality differences aside it has been that religiosity and always that which has caused conflict in my family. When my Aunty Cynth died it was the same and again, with the recent painful passing of my Grandad now the arguments of JW.BORG’s vs the Muslim member of my family reared it’s ugly head and the disagreement, judgement, disrespect and clear inability to listen from those naturally divisive and evidence lacking members came to the fore in the worst and most embarrassingly pathetic of ways. For me, I do not expect much better from people who are brainwashed to start with especially when I’ve seen how they have treated the non-religious persons in my family over a number of years. So I wasn’t hurt or surprised by their shameful behaviour I was just disappointed and upset about those non religious persons in my family who have been forced to be mediators and caught in between this drama because the unconscious behaviour is so strong in those who do not or cannot think for themselves.
Believing that we would have to keep our original flights back to the UK with Virgin we had extended our stay in Miami but I had a niggling feeling that Virgin too, would also cancel our flights. We had been checking their website and all flights that week apart from ours had been cancelled. We didn’t think that we were that lucky to have every other flight cancelled apart from ours so we waited for the inevitable cancellation. But it never came. What did come instead was through our own diligent efforts to check the status of the flights and it was only through that that we found out (eventually) that as predicted, our second flight back home to the UK had now also been cancelled. We never received an email from either airline that had cancelled on us to inform us of this. Just aswell that currently I had no faith in any airline to honour their own advertised flight status. We were essentially playing “Flight Roulette”. After everything else, I really didn’t need this additional stress. I just wanted to get home now before Tramp Trump and his impulsive self closed the border!
My friend messaged me the following day about a scheme being run by Virgin Atlantic to repatriate (bring home) stranded Brits. She told me that I just needed to sign up on their website and then they would bring us home on one of their emergency flights. Considering they had cancelled on us at the lastminute we went ahead and signed up with them and thankfully they contacted us a few days later and put us on the next available flight out of the US back to the UK.
I have been back a few days now and life couldn’t be more different from when I left. Everything is closed and we are only allowed out twice a day: once for shopping and once for a walk and/or exercise. Of course shopping is a challenge as most things are low on stock or completely out of stock. Arriving home my cats who are pretty used to us taking off whenever we feel inclined weren’t too fussed to see us waltzing back in after being gone for 6 months, but everything else is much the same. The lodgers that we had renting our room had moved out the day before and left the house exactly as it was when we left it. We asked them to make sure they did a thorough clean of the house before we arrived as I did not wish to return from my travels to pick up the Coronavirus as soon as I entered my own house. My beautiful bike, which has been in storage for about 3 years (I know, terrible right?!), has now come out, had a wash down and is ready to be rode around Streatham as part of my sanctioned 1 hours exercise a day.
Sansa: “What Quarantine?”
On yer bike!
Though we had lots of different adventures over the 6 months nothing had been quite as unpredictable and challenging as our last week of our travels. And my Grandad’s death, along with my Aunty Marie, who passed away when I was in Brazil back in October, weighs heavy on my heart.
However we are immensely relieved that all of this relentless craziness only happened in the last week of our travels – and that we only returned 1 day earlier then originally planned. What timing! Had this have happened at the beginning or the middle of our carefully planned travels it would have been a complete and utter disaster which we probably would never have recovered from. But as it stands we have had 6 wonderful months of memories to look back on in 2 very special countries that we both loved: Beautiful Brazil and Captivating Colombia.
In many ways, especially with respect to working together, and just in the kinds of things we like to do, these 6 months have solidified our plans for our future. We have kept in contact with our families back home and in some instances they have heard even more from us since we’ve been away. We have missed them, but not in the way that has impacted our enjoyment of the experience, indeed it has only highlighted our passion to travel to beautiful, exotic places even more and to start making serious plans about our real “project escape” – moving to France for a year. Though we have amended that slightly too: we’re now going to spend 6 months in the South of France for a year and the other half in Lisbon so that we can do a proper comparison so that at the end of it we can make the right decision for wheres best for us.
We had an incredible experience that was for the most part happy and joyful with lots of memorable moments and it is with these that we armed, ready to survive the however long quarantine that is to ensue.
Salsa and Arepa’s
No doubt about it, Colombia had really impressed us. Medellin is a thoroughly modern, grown up city which is already in my opinion competing with many of the major cities in the world. The mild spring-like climate was wonderful and the backdrop of the surrounding Andes mountains, lush trees, plants and flowers make it very green and lush. There were lots of fantastic restaurants, a strong Colombian culture with a high standard of living and extremely low prices.
Cartagena is where the soul of Colombia resides. Right on the coast of the Caribbean sea the strong Colombian culture is infused with colourful Caribbean soul and it is a combination that blends effortlessly. The beautiful historical architecture, the sense of romance, and the music make it an alluring place to spend a holiday. And contrary to popular belief we were not bored despite largely spending a whole month there because if you love architecture as I do then you cannot be bored wandering down the quaint, narrow streets with their abundance of colourful colonial architecture with vividly coloured flowers bursting from almost every balcony. Also, you cannot possibly tire of the salsa music, which is played loudly and proudly from most restaurants and bars, many with live bands. And Cartagena has another thing which deserves a mention: It’s close proximity to other “nicer” beaches (as the city beach is not very nice at all, infact we never ventured onto it at all) but other beaches aren’t far and it also has a world class shopping mall: La Serrezuela.
The Good, The Bad and the Ugly:
Aside from our coffee plantation tour and on our first night in Palomino, I never got bitten by any mosquitoes in Colombia. I kept waiting for it to happen as I assumed that being in a hot climate, and particularly in Cartagena which was almost as hot as Bahia, it would definitely happen and I had prepared myself for the onslaught of the diabolical and pointless sucking beasts. But it never came. Since I am allergic to mosquitoes, I cannot stress how happy I was to have not been bitten to within an inch of my life which is usually then followed by very uncomfortable itching and swelling for days afterwards. I didn’t even bother to wear any mosquito repellant after a while as it was clear that there were no mosquitoes around! The contrast to how many times I was bitten in Bahia cannot be understated.
Nope, there were no cockroaches. Now I am not a lover of many creepy crawlies but spiders and cockroaches surely have to be the worst, cockroaches topping the list of being the very creepiest of them all. They are simply abhorrent. Alas, though we saw many a cockroach including a JUNGLE COCKROACH IN OUR VILLA in Bahia!, I didn’t see any in either Medellin or Cartagena. I saw different varieties of beetles yes, and don’t get me wrong I don’t like them either, but what I did not see in Colombia was cockroaches. And that makes a gigantic bit of different to my opinion of a place and quite frankly my peace of mind as I do not like to feel repulsed or scared that one is going to scurry across my foot at any minute! Ugh.
Cheap as Chips
Colombia is very cheap! I have asked Josh to explain how this can be and he has tried to do so many times but I just don’t get it. Food is cheap here as are the transportation costs, accommodation and activity’s. Even prices for clothes and household goods can be haggled for in the right places. Alcohol isn’t necessarily cheap but it’s still cheaper then in England! In addition, the standard of living is quite high. Most of the many modern apartments that have sprung up in the city of Medellin are of a high standard and the restaurant scene which is alive and well has both a high degree of design and culinary prowess. We ate extremely well in Colombia, trying most of the best restaurants both in Medellin and Cartagena and it wasn’t just Colombian food either. Cartagena, being the most expensive city in Colombia (due to it’s heritage status) is still cheaper then most places I’ve been to in Europe and it’s a very vibrant and beguiling city.
Despite this being was one of things that I had been dreading about coming to Colombia as I had heard that Colombian food wasn’t very good, I was pleasantly surprised by the quality of the food. Questionable sounding dishes such as “Sweaty chicken” and “Tripe” (no thank you) was easy to avoid. Corn, grilled chicken or fish with rice and plantain was the staple in Cartagena, and of course being in 2 of Colombia’s most exciting cities meant that they also had alot of good international cuisine too such as Japanese and Peruvian.
Arepa’s were Josh’s and my sisters go-to snacks since they are both gluten intolerant and Arepa is made from ground corn so is perfect for non gluten eaters. Resembling a kind of pancake, the best Arepa’s are the Choclo ones as they are sweet, but there are lots of different varieties – around 60 types would you believe! We will definitely be trying to source them back in the UK.
Obviously I’d heard salsa music before but not like this. Since arriving in Colombia I have heard and been introduced to the most incredible salsa music, including discovering “the voice” of salsa – the man responsible for bringing salsa music to the masses: Hector Lavoe. Born in Puerto Rico, Hector, a man with an incredible voice and an impressive repertoire of music, had a tragic life and death but he made a huge impact on salsa music throughout the America’s and I’d never heard of him before now. Without a doubt for me, the salsa music that I heard was THE most enjoyable part of my travels in Colombia!
La Serrezuela is a beautiful shopping mall in the heart of the old city in Cartagena. A shining example of how an old building (formerly a bull ring) can be restored and reborn to provide a completely different functionality from what it once was. The original circular structure was kept and a thoroughly modern and glamorous mall was built around it. Spacious with incredible views of the city and made from high quality materials including dark wood, polished marble and glass, it also smelt delightful and all of the shops within were individually designed not like many of these clone like shop designs that you see in most malls.
Cartagena’s old town is a maze of streets surrounded by the iconic walls filled with Spanish colonial architecture painted in bright colours of the Caribbean, you could get lost just strolling around (and we did, many times!)
The plane ride as we arrived in the “city of eternal spring” Medellin was awe inspiring. The city is built within a “bowl”, surrounded by lush mountains on all sides so the city was very green and lush. It was like living within a spring garden. Very beautiful.
Fernando Botero is Colombia’s most famous artist. Born in Medellin and very talented naturally he is beloved by the residents of Medellin and Colombia as a whole. He creates sculptures and paintings of people in his trademark style: all of Botero’s muses are small and plump with rotund bellies, big thighs, voluptuous bums and all sorts, but the detail in his work and the way in which everyone from children to elderly people smile when they see it is testament to his ability to connect to people through his art. Medellin also has a museum which we visited in the centre of town which is dedicated to him and it features some of the pieces of artwork that he donated to the museum.
Vera at Tcheressi Spa and Hotel
Vera is an Italian fine dining restaurant located in the Tcheressi Spa and Hotel which is named after Silvia Tcheressi, the Colombian fashion designer and owner. A refreshing blend of the old stone architecture that adorns this characterful city and classic, elegant interiors, clearly Silvia knows a thing or two about understated glam: Me likey.
This Peruvian restaurant located in the El Pablado neighbourhood of Medellin was an instant hit. The food was outstanding, still the best food for originality, creativity and flavour that I had in my entire travels, and it was cheap as chips. I simply cannot rave enough about this discreet but wonderful restaurant. The combination of flavours and textures in their dishes was spot on. I tried many different dishes and they were all signalling parts of my brain that had never been activated before! Their cocktail was also to die-for – best one I had on my travels so they clearly knew what they were doing with their ingredients.
Though it was a mere supermarket it deserves a mention because of how lovely it was to shop in! Kind of like a supersized Wholefoods but much better it not only had lots of niche brands but the way the displays were presented was standout. It had a coffee section where you could try different coffee roasts or find a new coffee maker, an interactive fragrance section, a beautiful ham and cheese station and a BAR where you could try out their cocktails. They really were thinking outside of the box: WIN.
Crepes and Waffles
Crepes and Waffles is huge in Colombia. You can find a Crepes and Waffles restaurant almost on every corner and for good reason: the restaurant is awesome! The variety of both sweet and savoury crepes that they have on their menu is impressive, but they don’t just do crepes and waffles, they make delicious salads too, using the freshest of ingredients, and it’s always creative and well presented. I really think that this franchise would be a hit in Europe, infact I think it would be a hit pretty much everywhere, especially if they were to introduce Vegan and Gluten free options.
Cafe Del Mar
THE place to be in Cartagena. Cafe Del Mar was the perfect spot to watch the sunset and seemingly the whole of Cartagena made their way there after a day of shopping and/or sightseeing to meet with friends, have some cocktails and watch the sun go down. It was very special.
I loved this restaurant in Cartagena not only because of the decor, a stylish mixture of grand colonial Caribbean and Latin American influences where the staff dressed better then alot of the diners. But because of the live salsa music that they had there most nights. The food was nice, though not outstanding, but the ambience of the restaurant, the service and the stunning decor more then made up for it. The cocktails we had at the bar was a hit too!
Also known at Jetsetmani, Getsemani is the new up and coming area in Cartagena. Previously a place where only the poor lived, it was going through a bit of a revival with gentrification happening all around. Along with having a strong Afro Colombian culture, it also had a lot of character with lots of boutique hotels, art galleries and small businesses now calling Getsemani their home. And the artwork that fills the walls was some of the most arresting that I had ever seen, anywhere. Showcasting beautiful black women, representing the women who live there, I thought the choice of colours and artful skill in these paintings was very impactful. There was a piece in particular that I fell in love with but I didn’t get a chance to go back there and buy it as by the time I was about to do so the entire city was in lockdown due to the Coronavirus and all such non necessity shops had closed.
Well, they don’t call it “the city of eternal spring” for no reason. The weather in Medellin was pretty perfect. Sunny, blue skies, in the early 30’s everyday and with no rain, you would be simply miserable to complain about the weather in Medellin. It was hot but not humid which meant that you could walk around without sweating. The perfect climate. Cartagena on the other hand was very hot, more in line with the Caribbean part of the world of which it was a part. Though the heat could be intense at times, especially when walking around the very busy and congested streets it was still very enjoyable and I could imagine that if you had a nice pool to swim in then you would be perfectly content. It never rained there either. But apparently, we were there in their “cooler season” and if that is the case then I cannot imagine how hot it must get there and I wouldn’t wish to find out!
These beautiful women are the Afro Colombian women you see in Colombia wearing the bright dresses in the colours of the Colombian flag. These days they make their living by standing in small groups on the street corners accepting money by having their pictures taken. They are very distinctive and are kind of the representatives of Cartagena.
This cafe was great. Spacious, which was perfect when we needed to “social distance” with lots of places to sit and lounge, it served fresh coffee made locally which you could buy and they also ran coffee tasting sessions in the cafe. In addition, it was decorated beautifully with a kind of Amazon theme that was very tastefully done.
This interactive science museum was simply incredible. A labyrinth of incredible educational games, quiz’s and interactive activity’s aswell as having an in house planetarium and aquarium it offered literally hours and hours of entertainment that is suitable for people of all ages. Parque Explora shows effortlessly how science is not by any stretch of the imagination boring and used in the right way can infact be more enjoyable to traditional forms of entertainment. It blows any science museum i’ve been to out of the water that’s for sure!
Delicious food in beautiful surroundings in the heart of Medellin.
Santa Lena Cafe
Santa Lena has the biggest cafe menu that I’d ever seen! Usually I shy away from restaurants with large menu’s as it usually means that the food will not be of a very high standard but I was pleased to find that with Santa Lena’s this is not the case. Also their restaurant in Laureles is the perfect place to do some work and get some tasty grub at the same time.
Views from the top of Penol Rock, Guatape
Though it was a gruelling climb up some 700 steps to get to the top of Penol Rock in the beautiful resort town of Guatape a few hours outside of Medellin, the stunning panoramic views overlooking the city was more then worth it.
Walking Tours: Coffee, Getsemani, Medellin
Before arriving in Colombia we’d never considered doing a walking tour before but it turned out to be a very good idea to do it as all of the tours were informative, culturally relevant and interesting.
Joaquin Antonio Uribe Botanical Gardens
The residents of Medellin were very lucky to have these beautiful botanical gardens within easy reach of the city.
Azul Selva Cafe
Best place to get coffee in gringo-heavy El Pablado. Though technically the coffee may be better in other places (like Velvet or Pergamino for instance), the mere fact that every gringo and his dog had taken up residence in the other coffee shops means that Azul Selva was always a much better option. Plus, the food there is great and it had been beautifully designed.
The small village feel of this beach town was very charming and the surrounding nature, from the Sierra Nevada mountains to the beautiful lakes, beaches and countryside was picture perfect, but the grunginess, smelliness and down right dirtiness that seemed to be the norm from the people who seemed to be drawn to the place: “backpacker types” – did not add up to a feeling of cleanliness or anywhere that I was particularly enthused to be. Plus the water is cold in most of the hostels in the area and even in our hotel too, the food overall could have been better and it just has a long way to go before coming off the backpacker trail into being somewhere that I would be happy to return to again for it’s apparent laidback nature rich beach lifestyle.
Medellin being in the heart of Colombia does not have any beaches but Cartagena does. Unfortunately they are not very nice beaches. But even nearby beaches such as Playa Blanca Beach, which is only about an hour away from Cartagena by boat or car was not very clean, with petrol fumes polluting the water and the air.
The Beat App
They had the audacity to ban Uber in Colombia but then force us to use an inferior replacement service. The Beat app (which I don’t think is actually Colombian but which you can use throughout Colombia), doesn’t update in time when you’re trying to use it for navigation so is pointless, it may not neccessarily have anything to do with the app and more to do with the drivers but most of them don’t seem to know where they are going and they ask you to provide directions!, you cannot choose which type of vehicle you want and they have opted to copy almost everything about the Uber app, even down to the little car icons that moves but which doesn’t move in time so it’s rubbish. Bring back Uber!
Thankful that I was able to see the Colombian Barrios from above on our cable car ride to and from Arvi Park, I was left surprised just how sprawling this urban metropolis was. Shack like houses crammed on top of one another – a health and safety hazard for sure, people were forced to live cheek to jowl in this environment that had them competing for the basic necessities of a decent life with opportunity.
Beach Scammers on Playa Blanca
Those women who felt the need to scam not just 1, not just 2, but all 3 of us when we had our beach massages on Playa Blanca are an unfortunately testament to the “low level” culture of people in Cartagena thinking that all tourists are walking banks and that we are ripe for abuse. Not cool.
I was under the impression that similarly to the Botanical Gardens, Arvi Park would be worth the journey to go and see it. I didn’t know what was in the park but judging from the fact that most of the city had beautifully manicured trees, flowers and plants everywhere you went I thought it wouldn’t be too much of a stretch to imagine that this national park might be something special but I just ended up confused and disappointed in the end.
Unfortunately JW.ORG aka JW.BORG has reared it’s ugly cult-like head in Colombia too with them standing on the street corners with this plaques begging for conversations. Utterly pointless. Religious brainwashing clearly knows no borders.
Cartagena Taxi drivers
It is very disappointing that a particular mention should have to go to the Cartagena Taxi industry but it has to be mentioned due to how utterly diabolical it was. When you want a taxi you can’t get one as they don’t stop if they don’t feel like it and their windows are blacked out so you can’t see in. Most of the drivers do not have the foggiest idea where they are going and they do not own sat navs so they are reliant on you (tourist or otherwise) to give them verbal directions in Spanish to tell them where to go. There are far too many of them in Cartagena to warrant the need, they overcharge and do not have a metre in their cars, they are sleazy and hang out of the window whistling at you as they drive by and when you DO NOT WANT ONE they curb crawl and constantly harrass you as you are walking down the street beeping at you as they go. This is so frequent that it appears to be the culture and it is annoying as hell! I went out of my way to avoid them at all costs.
Unfortunately prostitution is a thing in Colombia, especially in the tourist-centric cities of Cartagena and Medellin. But it’s not just the gringo’s who are using this service, infact comparatively they use it the least. I’m sure that for some women who live in the Barrios with no chance of proper employment this is what they have convinced themselves is a necessity however in many of these cases these women are coming from broken homes and are simply being taken advantage of. Though I did enjoy being amused whilst sitting in the Hari Krishna restaurant in Medellin watching men come and go, offering their funds to the women standing outside of the church who were obviously prostitutes, it was also quite shocking to see their business being done in full view of families of shoppers in the middle of the day. Also, there were many signs up warning of child prostitution so it’s clearly a bit of a problem there.
There was terrible pollution in Cartagena, which seemingly got even worse the further out of the old town you went. They really need to get a handle on it!
Dodgy Residents of Cartagena
Call them opportunists, call them perves, call them dodgy dudes, or all of the above. There was no doubt about it (unfortunately), there was a distinct difference between the people in Medellin as opposed to the people in Cartagena and it wasn’t for the better. In Cartagena the men were what I like to describe as being “on heat” 247 – ogling you as you walked by, shouting out things at you that I’m very glad that I could not understand because it was in Spanish, winding down their windows if they were driving past to have a good look, and generally exhibiting an extremely high degree of sleaze like behaviour. They stared as if they meant to eat you up, would call out, whistle, beep, ogle, lick their lips you name it. And they didn’t care not one jot that I was with Josh. I would not wish to be a woman searching for a partner amongst those kinds of candidates I can tell you.
The homelessness that I saw in Medellin came as quite a shock. Especially since we had seen how much money had clearly been spent in the city on it’s infrastructure, restaurants and modern apartment blocks. But there was no doubt about it, they had a homelessness problem. People were literally sleeping rough on the banks of the rivers and congregating not too far from some of the most expensive parts of the city.