Safe Return from South America

Posted February 12, 2015 by explorationsacademy
Categories: Colombia

Tags: , ,

d262ac1ff9268901ce34c38be49482b2I don’t know about you, but I grew up in an era when Paddington Bear was a literary hero, and that endearing character was a feature of my imaginal world for many years.  Paddington, if you aren’t familiar, was a lovable creature from “Darkest Peru,” trying to make his way in urban London with little to go on but his innocence and charm.  I confess that my earliest images of South America date back to those days, and having never set foot on that continent myself, I can only look longingly at the images our students and teachers brought back with them in the way Paddington might eye a jar of marmalade.



Jack shows his affection for the Colombian delicacy of hormigas culonas, or Fried Ants…

In any case, our intrepid group of adventurous, if weary, travelers made it home safely the other day, and we’re delighted to have them back.  Various products of their expedition will be available in the near term, including three public presentations.  I’d like to invite you to attend one of these events if you are able.

• Friday, February 13th, our Term End Event will feature presentations by each of our three Winter Term clusters, including the Theatre and You’re On Your Own (YOYO) cluster as well as the Colombia cluster.  This event begins at 5:30 in our Lower Level Theatre with an appetizer potluck.

• Monday, March 2nd, as part of our Outreach Week, a presentation featuring just the Colombia expedition will take place at 7pm in our Lower Level Theatre.  This will be a slightly expanded version of what is presented at the 2/13 Term End Event.

• Thursday March 19th, at the Whatcom Museum Rotunda room, as part of the City of Bellingham’s travelogue series, students and staff will once again present their slide show of images and stories.


A page from Sonya’s field notebook…

Once again, I would like to extend my most heartfelt and sincere gratitude to everyone who has followed or in some way been part of the students’ journey in Colombia.  We know that these expeditions represent a huge undertaking, for families, faculty, donors, and students.  We undertake them because we know the profound impact they have upon students’ lives and perspectives.  This is a key way we prepare students to be effective global citizens, but we cannot do it without your support.  We are very grateful for everyone who — in whatever way — made this trip possible.  Thank you!

Colombia Update #7: Salento

Posted February 4, 2015 by explorationsacademy
Categories: Colombia, Student Activities

Tags: , , ,

photo[16]The expedition is nearing its conclusion!  Our group of Explorations students and teachers has headed  from Medellin up to the mountain town of Salento, where they are staying at a coffee plantation, studying the process of coffee growing and processing, and learning about the ecosystems in which coffee is grown.  Kiira writes:

Our group arrived in Salento after a windy bus ride through the coffee plantations at the heart of the Zona Cafetera. By this point in the trip, students have become accustomed to the loud radio music that nearly all Colombian bus drivers prefer, and the weaving and passing of other buses, motos, trucks, bikes, and whatever else is on the road as we make our way to our next destination. Empanadas, bananas, and mangoes made for good travel food along the way.


photo[3]Salento is a small mountain town whose primary export is coffee, but more recently the town has become a hot spot for travelers due to its proximity to the Parque de Los Nevados and the Valle de Cocora. On our first day here we woke up to cups of hot coffee made from beans  grown and roasted at our hostel, after which we headed down to the plaza to catch a jeep ride up the valley for a day of hiking.


photo[2]We hiked from Salento up through pasturelands full of friendly cows before entering the jungle on our way to Acaime nature reserve. After making our way across small suspension bridges and following a small creek to a pass, we made it to La Casa de Los Calibris – the hummingbird house. The couple who run the reserve greeted us with cold drinks, and watched as our eyes widened to the buzzing air around us. Nine species of hummingbirds were zooming between numerous bowls of sugar water, and all we had to do was sit back and watch with awe! Interpretive signs in Spanish gave us a deeper appreciation for the biodiversity of the region.


photo[8]After we had our calibri fix, we hiked up and over into the next valley, the Valle de Cocora. En route we stopped at a mountain top finca for a lunch of hot chocolate and fresh cheese, which we ate as clouds and thunder rolled in overhead.


photo[4]The wax palm is the national tree of Colombia, and we had the chance to see them towering high over us as we walked down through cow pastures and farms back to town. Once endangered due to overharvesting for their flammable wax, this reserve, as well as others in the area, have been created to honor them.  Our group had a fun time admiring their grandeur as we hiked.


photo[14]Our second full day in Salento was equally exciting. That morning we visited another nature reserve, getting a tour from our guide Nicholas, who helped to establish part of the jungle outside of town as a preserve. His local knowledge about plants and about the conservation movement in Colombia added depth and context to our tropical ecology readings. Walking through the dense green foliage was the high point of the day for many students.


We made it back into town for our daily bandeja, the local dish that includes enough food for a working man on a finca in the mountains and includes rice, beans, a fried egg, avocado, sausage, bacon, and a fried plantain. We have been eating well!  Top things off with frozen jugo con leche (think fruit milkshake) and most of us were ready for a siesta. Alas, that was not in the cards – we headed out next to tour the coffee farm that also happens to be where we’ve been staying during our time in Salento.


photo[10]Tim, the charismatic owner of the farm, covered everything about coffee production — from growing conditions, to grading and selling the beans, to roasting and drinking the coffee. It was a treat to tour the farm and then roast our own beans before freshly grinding and brewing cups for us all.


photo[11]After another bandeja it was time for bed, and all was quiet at the hostel. Tomorrow we will travel over and into the Andes to our final stop on the journey, Bogota.


photoEveryone is in good spirits and the students are ready to start processing all the amazing experiences that this trip has thrown their way!

Colombia Update #6: Cartagena to Medellin

Posted February 2, 2015 by explorationsacademy
Categories: Colombia, Student Activities

Tags: , , , ,
photo[8]Our group of intrepid travelers has headed inland, leaving behind the Caribbean coastline and heading back up into the Colombian highlands.  Kiira writes:
On Thursday morning we rose early to pack up and get ready for our move back into the mountains. After doing a deep clean of the Alex Rocha Center and making sure all of our knives and liquids were tucked into our checked luggage, we hopped on the bus to the airport.  Alex and his family joined us on this final bus ride in Cartagena for an extended goodbye.  After a closing circle led by Alex, and many hugs and good wishes, we were through security and boarding our Avianca flight to Medellin.
photo[5]Our shift from the Colombian Caribbean to a valley in the Andes was quite stark. In addition to all of a sudden finding ourselves in the second largest city in Colombia, the cooler mountain air and the difference in city culture came as a big (yet welcome) change from Cartagena. From the airport our bus wound down switch-backed roads lined with brick houses on steep hills, and into the valley to where our hostel is in the center of Medellin.
photo[4]Our group was happy to arrive at our hostel in the Candelaria district of the city, where we are centrally located to all sorts of city attractions. Hot showers and beds made the group feel at home after a week of what was essentially indoor camping at the youth center.
photo[9]Yesterday we hopped on the metro and saw the city from a local perspective. Their elevated trains and trams run high above the city, putting all it has to offer on display for our group. We rode one tram to the top of the valley, passing over stacked suburbs of brick houses with brightly painted doors and steep winding roads.
photo[3]At the top of the tram line we had arrived in Parque Arvi, a natural preserve far above the city, where we took a guided hike through the trail system. Plants and vegetation look very different here from the last time we were in the woods (actually better described as jungle!) near Santa Marta, and students noted the similarities and differences, both natural or cultural, that we’ve seen in the various regions of Colombia we have visited. After lunch, we headed back to town in our little gondolas, watching lightning storms roll in over the city and experiencing the first rain we have seen since our first days in Barichara. Students danced in the rain on the patio of the hostel once we were back, celebrating the change in weather and this final leg of our trip.
photo[7]Today we woke to a breakfast of mangoes, bananas, and rolls from a local panaderia, and headed to the Museo de Antioquia at the Plaza Botero. We perused the art museum, whose collection is primarily composed of works made or donated by Fernando Botero, a sculptor native to Medellin and whose work appears in big cities around the world. He is known for playing with the volume of his subjects, and his round depictions of bodies have been a notable feature in many of the Colombian cities we have visited on this trip.

Touching the butt of a Botero is encouraged!

After our wander through the museum, we headed to the city center’s public market for another local experience.  While our group was in awe of the hustle and bustle of the marketplace and all of the meat, fish, produce, and other goods available around us, the sight of 14 gringos was even more exciting for vendors and marketgoers — everyone commented on how out of place we looked! But the students prevailed, collecting fruits and veggies enough to create a meal for our final night in Medellin this evening.
photo[8]Students are currently holding a discussion on Marquez, and preparing readings for the next leg of our trip. Tomorrow we take the bus to Salento in the coffee growing region of Colombia, where we will continue to explore and enjoy our time together, while also making time for needed reflection before heading back home at the end of the week.
photo[10]Reports from all our staff reflect the positive ways in which the students have been working together and savoring their diverse experiences.  Spirits have been high, intestinal bugs have been few, and the level of inquiry the students are bringing to their travels is notable.  The group has worked well together, with shared leadership and efforts made by individual students — often with no adult guidance — to draw in anyone who is not feeling included.  All this, while absorbing copious amounts of Spanish vocabulary, meeting and bonding with numerous Colombians, and studying regularly, using their thick readings book and faculty leadership to maximize their learning.
In short, as the expedition winds into its final few days, it is clear that this is one of our most successful overseas expeditions, and we remain profoundly grateful to the parents, donors, and other supporters that have worked to make it possible for these fortunate students.  Thank you!

Colombia Update #5: Service in Cartagena

Posted January 30, 2015 by explorationsacademy
Categories: Colombia, Student Activities, Student Reports

Tags: , ,

Alex provides a tour of Cartagena

Kiira writes:
We have been in Cartagena since Saturday working with Alex Rocha and his students in the barrio San Francisco, a neighborhood about a 20 minute collectivo ride from the old colonial city. Life in this barrio looks much different from places we have visited so far on this trip — being away from the tourist center of town, we have had the opportunity to live and work in a real Colombian community.
Our days have been fairly regular with service work and excursions to explore the history of Cartagena.  In the process, we have gained an appreciation for “Colombian time,” in which meetings and schedules are often bent less around the clock than around what matters in life. Waking up with empanadas, mangoes, and coffee for breakfast easily spills into time playing soccer and dancing on the street outside the center before school.
photo[1]After time for our own Explorations classes and a siesta in the heat of the day, we have enjoyed teaching after-school English classes at the center. On two occasions we ventured into the old city to explore the cobbled streets and Bougainvillea-lined balconies, sip on tropical fruit palettas, and take a dip in the Caribbean. Today we held class atop the old city wall and talked about Gabriel Garcia Marquez, having just toured the sites he writes about in town. We are in heaven. Students continue to enjoy patacones (fried plantains) and coconut rice as staples of all meals.
photo[7]Sonya writes about playing with the Colombian students:
Children’s screams of “gringo, gringo” cut through thick air ablaze with scents and sounds. They run down the narrow street with impressions of small feet and laughter, overjoyed at our return. Little hands reach up with a clear message and purpose: “Pick me up, let’s play!” With one child on my shoulders and one in my arms we walk to the new Alex Rocha center. I put them down and am instantly surrounded by pleading eyes and sharp voices saying, “Hombros por favor” in the most pathetic voice they can muster. I lift one over my head and onto my shoulders. As I run chasing their friends I can hear the glee in their voices and giggles. With aching shoulders I try to put the child down, but she clings to me with surprising strength.
Our group left Cartagena with a fond goodbye, made difficult because so much bonding took place in so little time.  In departing, the Explorations students, so moved by the people of the barrio and by Alex Rocha, pooled a significant amount of their spending money to leave a group donation to support the continued work of the Alex Rocha Center.  They then departed for the airport and caught their flight to Medellin.  Our next report will reflect their Medellin activities.
Once again — though it may not be news at this point — the experiences of this trip are proving to be very powerful and truly moving for our students!
photophoto[5] photo[6]

Colombia Update #4: From Santa Marta to Cartagena

Posted January 27, 2015 by explorationsacademy
Categories: Colombia, Student Reports

Tags: , , , ,
photo[3]Our group has concluded their jungle trek, and by now has journeyed from Santa Marta, their home base for the trek, to Cartagena, to begin their service project.  But let’s not get ahead of ourselves!  Often the stories and photos that reach Bellingham are not in chronological order, or even related clearly to each other!  But the group is doing a great job of getting stuff sent, so here are some of their stories, patched together with a series of images that are hopefully aligned with the stories.
America reflects on the travel to La Ciudad Perdida:
photo[6]During our time in Colombia we had the opportunity to take a five-day trek in the humid, tropical forests of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta. The jungle is still populated by indigenous peoples related to the Tayrona people. Of the four associated tribes, we were able to have the most in-depth experience with the Kogi tribe. At one of our three primary camp sites, we had the privilege of having one of their tribal leaders, Ferman, give us a lecture about his culture. What fascinated me the most was how they kept track of time. At the age of 18 the shaman gives young people a gourd and a stick. These symbolize man and woman, and sun and earth.
photo[4]These gifts also as serve as part of a coming of age ritual, in which they are sent from their village for four days and four nights. Within this gourd is a mixture of crushed shell and coca leaves. The shells have been cooked over wood, boiled in water, and turned into a powder. The coca leaves are put in a sack with hot rocks to dry out. Once the shell is in powder form and the leaves are dry, they are put into the gourd. Then the repetitive ritual begins, involving putting the stick in your mouth to cover it with salvia, then dipping it into the shell and coca concoction, followed by rubbing the stick onto the neck of the gourd. This process is done over and over throughout the life of the gourd, gradually making it thicker and thicker and more and more yellow. The growth of the neck of the gourd symbolizes the individuals’ thoughts, and is considered a diary and thought process which is only interpretable by the shaman. Overall, the Kogi tribespeople are very peaceful and down to earth. The tradition, which takes so much time, is passed down through the gourds through generations.
photoNoah writes about the reaching the ruins and the following transitions:
We reached the top of the ancient staircase of 1400 steps leading up to La Ciudad Perdida. The spectacular sight of the circular terraces coated in moss and well-kept grass had us all mesmerized by its sheer size and beauty. We walked across the terrace with a calming breeze at our backs, watching the tall palm trees gently sway back and forth. We looked over the edge of the ancient structure, gazing upon miles of lush green jungle, untouched by modern man. We climbed to the highest terrace and sat for awhile, absorbing 900 years of Tayronian culture. 
Kiira picks up the story:
photo[2]We spent an additional day in the Santa Marta region upon our return from our trek. A short drive out of town lies the Parque Nacional Tayrona, which is home to some of the most breathtaking Caribbean beaches. We hopped in a small boat that shuttled us out for a day of snorkeling and playing in the waves. It was a much-needed day of rest, and was a highlight for all.
On Saturday we traveled by bus to Cartagena, where we met up with Alex Rocha and to start our service project. Alex is a native of the Barrio San Francisco, the neighborhood where he still lives and operates his youth center. As Cartagena is an epicenter for tourism, knowledge of English is of high value. Alex and his staff offer free English classes to underserved students in the neighborhood that would otherwise not have access to this advantage. The center is continually bustling with kids of all ages playing soccer, practicing their language skills, and building community.

Intro at the Alex Rocha Center

Nina writes about Cartagena:
We drove through the streets asking for directions to the Alex Rocha Center, and eventually arrived in a neighborhood that did not look like what we expected to be our destination. There were small houses and narrow streets, and the sun was beating down as children quickly ran out of the way of our giant van. People sat on their porches, watching we we passed through. We were eventually led to what is currently under construction as the new Alex Rocha Center, a place where doors were being installed even as we arrived! This was our first chance to really experience the culture and community of Colombia, acting less as tourists and more as friends with Alex and his family — the entire neighborhood came out to greet us!
We dropped off our bags and walked to Alex’s home, where we were fed a home-cooked meal. We began conversing with children who had specific sentences of English perfectly memorized in order to introduce themselves. Our first night was spent mingling with the community and speaking a fair amount of Spanglish, many of us not really sure of what was going on. Eventually the idea of heading to the historic center of Cartagena was introduced, so our ragtag group split up and hopped into trucks-turned-taxicabs, known here as collectivos, seeking a different kind of city experience. The town was lit up with yellow light as circus groups took the metaphorical stage in front of a huge, beautiful church. We sat, eating chicken kebabs, feeling eternally sweaty from the humidity. Alex Rocha sat to my left, and our teacher to my right, and I wondered about what impact our group could really make on this community in a matter of five[1]
Today was another packed day in Cartagena.  We camped out at the youth center, participated in a typical Colombian day of loud music, dancing and soccer in the streets, and time with family. This week we look forward to teaching English classes at the center, walking through historic Cartagena, and getting at least one more swim in the Caribbean.

Bacchus Joins the Circus!

Colombia Update #3: Return from the Trek

Posted January 23, 2015 by explorationsacademy
Categories: Colombia, Student Activities

Tags: , , ,
Our group has returned to civilization from their five day jungle trek!  A few photos and a brief overview of their journey have made it to North America, with student-generated narratives to follow in the next few days as Internet access allows.
Kiira writes:
photo[8]We awoke Sunday morning buzzing with anticipation for our Ciudad Perdida trek. After a breakfast of fruit and coffee on the rooftop of our Santa Marta hostel, we packed our bags and headed over to Turcol, our guide company, to meet Marco and Edwin and begin our adventure.
The group pared down their packs and left anything not absolutely needed for our jungle days behind — we packed light, knowing that bunks and good food were waiting for us at each camp.
We traveled in style to the trailhead, in an open-air jeep decorated in full color!  The jeep ride took us 2.5 hours out to the trail head at Mamay. Edwin and Marco were ready to show us the path to the lost city, and share with us along the way their insights as to why this place is so special.
Walking with packs is something Explorations students do well.  They know how to hike, how to support each other, and how to reach a common goal.  In this case the common goal was the ancient ruins of the Tayrona people, dating back to 650 a.d. The difference here was the fantastic new environment. From oropendula nests hanging from high trees, to mariposas of all kinds, to burros careening up the trail with enough goods for all the hikers, walking to Ciudad Perdida was unlike anything these students had experienced before.  Add in a layer of thick, tropical heat, and bugs to make even the wariest traveler pull out her Deet, and we have the perfect combination of travel and adventure!
For most of the journey, we kept to our Colombian routine of hard work in the morning, followed by siestas, classes, and dinners to round out the day. In addition to Edwin’s robust knowledge (his family has been involved with the lost city since it was first discovered by looters, his father being one of them), we were also lucky enough to be able to visit with the local Kogi people whose ancestors built the ruins we were so keen on seeing, and whose villages we regularly passed through during our trek.
On our fourth day, we reached the ruins of Ciudad Perdida.  There, we spent the morning feeling the magic of the place… We laid on the terraces that were the foundations of this ancient city, and felt grateful for the ability to visit such a wild and holy place.
The return to civilization was relatively quick, owing to a shorter exit from the jungle.  After five days of trekking, students returned to the town of Santa Marta, and were in good spirits after showers and dinner.  Tomorrow the group will spend a day on the water in Tayrona National Park before heading to Cartagena and our service project there.

Columbia Update #2

Posted January 20, 2015 by explorationsacademy
Categories: Colombia, Student Activities

Tags: , , , ,
Kiira writes:
It feels as though we have been in Colombia much longer than six days. Something about traveling long hours in foreign places stretches time, which is wonderful for our group as we try to glean as much as we can from our time in South America.
Barichara, the most picturesque and well-preserved town your mind can conjure, is full of white walls, cobblestone streets, and views that go off into eternity. We took a few days at our hostal to get acclimated, practice our Spanish, and begin to feel more at home in Colombia.  On our second day we walked the Camino Real de Guane, a short walk from our perch in Barichara.  [A piece about that hike appeared in the last post.]
While still be unaccustomed to the heat and humidity, our group has taken advantage of the afternoon siesta time to catch up on sleep and work on course material. In addition to digging in on Spanish, students also started working on Gabriel Garcia Marques’  Chronicle of a Death Foretold and began reading to prepare for tropical ecology studies on our upcoming jungle trek.
On our third day in Barichara, Oliver, who is teaching the Spanish component of our expedition, sent students out in groups with a scavenger hunt with the goal of gathering all the goods we needed for a midday feast. After practicing with each other and getting up the confidence to talk to locals, groups dispersed from the main plaza and returned an hour later laden with goods and in good spirits after pushing their limits in Spanish. We dined on pan, queso, mango, dulce de guayaba, granadilla, pitaya, uvas, platano, y aguacate. Some of those fruits have names in English, others don’t. [The curious reader may want to consult a Spanish-English dictionary!]
Here is Jack’s perspective on collecting lunch and speaking Spanish in Barichara:
Today I attempted to speak Spanish with locals.  On a scale of 1-10, I think my speaking was about at a 4, and my understanding was at about 2. Attempting to speak was a huge confidence boost for me, though: I now know that people like it when you try to speak their language, and they aren’t offended if you’re not good at it. I’d like to improve more over this trip because I sometimes feel embarrassed that I cannot communicate in the language of the country I was born in.
Kiira again:
Our final meal in town was at the best restaurant yet, a short walk down the ridge from our hostal overlooking the Andes. The highlight of the meal was patacon, deep fried platain topped with shrimp, cream sauce, onions, peppers, and five pounds of deliciousness!
On Friday we woke early to our first rain, packed out gear, drank our cafe con leche, and headed for the bus station. Three buses later (and another day of travel under our belts) put us in Santa Marta, ready for our time on the Caribbean coast. The group is looking ahead to our Ciudad Perdida trek and to spending time near the water.
Bacchus writes:
After 20 hours of traveling, we crawled up the stairs of our hostel, grateful for beds but literally in the dark about our surroundings. That all changed the next morning as we congregated on the roof top terrace to eat fresh-cut papaya and pineapple, and sip coffee looking out over the Caribbean. But one can only look out on the sea for just so long before the sirens’ song beckons. So we streamed out the hostel in single file and meandered the streets of Santa Marta.

photo[1]Santa Marta is a different beast than Barichara. Whereas Barichara is all colonial charm, white walls, and views without end, Santa Marta is a real city, covered in grit, and serenaded with unrelenting vehicle horns. There are hustlers hustling and teenagers congregating, with nothing to do but point their boom boxes at one another to see whose is loudest. Nonetheless, at the beach, everyone is innocent.  We were no exception, as everyone splashed each other while jumping into the sea, oblivious to the strolling vendors selling shrimp, flip flops, and imitation sunglasses. Frisbees were thrown, bodies were covered in sand, and we gringos took on the customary pink tone that screams, “I was at the beach.”
Only hunger was sufficient to induce our return to town, where we ate a quick lunch before returning to the hostel for a siesta and our afternoon classes. Much of the material focused on the next leg of our journey, a five day term to Ciudad Perdida, the lost city.
By now our group has departed upon that trek; our next post will share stories of that experience.  By all accounts, the group is working well together, learning rapidly, and savoring their amazing time in Colombia!


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