Days travelled: 169
Countries Visited: 10
So here we are, an adventure within an adventure. After around 150 days travelling we had reached somewhat of a stalemate in our plans. We had arrived in Colombia, were initially challenged and to be honest a little underwhelmed with what we were experiencing but we still had some time to kill before heading to our next destination, Brazil. Now geographically Colombia and Brazil make sense to travel in succession, they are bordering nations. However, logistically its an absolute and expensive nightmare. But we had very important reason for veering from the classic gringo trail of heading up and down the west coast of South America.
The first reason was visas. It is necessary for Australians to obtain a visa for Brazil before leaving there home country. It also comes with a hefty fee of $160USD per person (it should be noted that fee is solely because of the extortionate fee our government charges Brazilians in return, cheers guys). BUT the good news from our travel agent was that a visa waiver was in place between June and September for the Olympic period, score! So had we not spent so much time in Central we probably would not have been so stressed to enter the country before the September 17 deadline. At one point we considered ditching Brazil altogether but I was absolutely not willing to do that after spending time there with my family and absolutely loving it, I have a whole list of things I want to show Brendan. Plus we both really wanted to go to the Paralympics and soak up the atmosphere as well as watch my friend compete.
SO, after all this we were left with two options, head to Brazil the slower, cheaper, more difficult way, via boat down the Amazon, or the faster, more expensive, easier way (via plane). We had pretty much settled on the boat since funds were starting to look a bit tight anyway, before an amazing opportunity came our way. Towards the start of our trip on recommendation we had signed up to a website called workaway, which offers work for volunteers or backpackers pretty much anywhere in the world in exchange for food, accommodation, sometimes money or sometimes training. We liked the idea but we a) hadn’t found anywhere we were happy to spend that amount of time for as most require at least 2-3 week commitments, and b) we weren’t able to see much value in not spending money as opposed to actually earning money. However with our Rio situation, we worked out that although we would not be earning any money the money we would save through having our accommodation and food provided during this period would literally pay for our flights. Plus we were both a little bored and looking to get involved with some sort of project again.
So receiving the email that we were invited to spend 3 weeks to a month working in a surf lodge on the beautiful Caribbean coast of Colombia we could not have been more excited. We were delayed from going straight away since Brendan developed a severe infection in his leg. I had to seriously put my nursing skills to the test and perform some minor surgery on him in less than ideal conditions to get him in shape to go. But after my interventions and a few courses of antibiotics we left the nearby city of Santa Marta and set off around 30km down the coast, into an area very close to the famous Tayrona National Park. We had already visited Tayrona and after only one day decided that the lodge we are working at is in a far superior area, and most of the locals had already told us this. We showed up to literally kilometers of unspoiled beaches, rivers, palm trees, jungle and crashing surf. These are all the same things that Tayrona boast, with the spoil-factor lying with the hundreds of tourists that flock and camp there every day. Our new home CasaGrande surf was completely wild and completely untouched. I immediately felt a sense of calm. Plus when we turned up they were filming a car commercial here, so we knew we had arrived somewhere pretty special.
We were both a little hesitant about how we would go with the sleeping arrangements. We had the choice of hammocks or a tent. After seeing how old and manky the tents were we decided in the former. Luckily we had the pick of having the best ones and settled on two overlooking the waves and Palm trees. We had slept in hammocks earlier in the trip for a few nights which was fine but although we had mosquito nets and pillows I was not sure how I would go for 3 weeks. A few nights in I am coping ok though. The next thing to consider was what we were doing for work. A grand total of one person speaks English here and he basically doesn’t leave the office so we were having to really rely on testing our Spanish out. Brendan offered to help with construction but quickly got shifted to landscaping as the bar they’re building is happening on Caribbean time (sometime in the foreseeable future slash possibly never). I decided the job I was most qualified for and would most enjoy was bartending. After introducing ourselves to all the staff and checking out the beach we were snug in our hammocks to start work ‘whenever we kind of felt like it’ the next day. I could definitely get used to falling asleep to the sound of these waves.
1 week in.
So we’ve spent a whole week at Casa Grande Surf now and it is definitely starting to feel like home. The biggest adjustment we definitely both had to make was to get used to the idea of doing nothing. This was a particularly difficult adjustment for me, years of work in hospitality and then hospitals I’ve had it drilled in to me that there is never anything to do. The Colombian work motto is ‘why do today what you can do tomorrow?’ So that took some time. An important life lesson that Casa Grande and Brendan are teaching me is that sometimes being out of your comfort zone doesn’t necessarily mean to do something crazy or extreme, sometimes it literally just means being without your usual comforts, being in the company solely of yourself, having a lot of time to think and not a lot to distract yourself with, and just be ok with it. Just be ok with simply being. This is something I’m trying to put in to practice every day here as well as trying to use the beach to get a bit fitter again. Plus of course I’m here to work! More about that now.
Brendan settled in to his work nicely, raking leaves, digging trenches, or doing handyman jobs fixing lockers and doors. Meanwhile I started learning the ways of the bar as it dawned on me that my job would in fact involve speaking a decent amount of Spanish. But still, I was up for the challenge. I knew what everything within the bar itself was called, it was just other questions I would have problems with. My teacher was an Argentinian, whom are notoriously firey and have notoriously difficult Spanish to understand. A great combination for learning. It started off ok, the first shift I just watched. I could understand the basics of the bar, making cocktails, the prices of drinks and what we sold, and the very basics about the inventory. However towards the end of the first shift and the start of the second I got sick of just standing there so decided I better try and take some initiative. I tried to help with basic things like cleaning, fetching beers, lining up ingredients he would need for the next cocktails but when I did any of these things the only word I could understand out of his mouth was a very firm no. I was so embarrassed being told off in front of customers and not being able to understand what I was doing wrong so I went ahead and broke the number one rule ‘don’t cry for me Argentina’. Not in front of him, but still.
The next shift I took a different approach and decided to repeat everything he was saying to me in whatever Spanish I did know to show him I was understanding what needed to be done. Just because I couldn’t understand all of the Spanish didn’t mean I couldn’t hand someone two beers and the correct change! This seemed to work as he left me alone behind the bar for the rest of the shift then took off for a few days, leaving me to run things! I even earned my first tips. It was fun getting to choose the music and make some tropical cocktails and feel useful again after so many months off work. On the days I’m not working the bar I’m painting signs or tables around the camp. At the moment it looks like a 4 year olds finger paintings but I will have to keep practicing! The free time is divine, beach walks, playing with the kittens or little girl that live here, swimming and surfing, the other day we set up an open air cinema with some sarongs, pillow and my laptop. We’re even starting to like our hammocks. The food is basic but really delicious and filling enough. It’s nice to have a routine with eating and not have to think about when/where to eat all the time. For breakfast we usually get eggs with Arepa (Colombian cake type thing made from maize) or Yuca (a cross between potato and maize). For lunch it’s usually rice with lentils and meat and salad. Dinner is whatever the señoras in the kitchen feel like so can be anything from ham and cheese toasties to roast chicken. It is usually accompanied by a fresh squeezed juice with whatever fruits we have around which is welcome in the heat. Our colleagues are all really nice despite the language barrier and after our first weekend away we were happy to be back and find that it is already starting to feel like home.
So even though a few of the days have admittedly dragged with not much business coming through all of a sudden we find ourselves with only a few days left until our time here is up. We have certainly learned a few things. Brendan learned that the tools we have access to in Australia make his job as a builder about a million times easier, and that nothing happens quickly in the Caribbean. I learned to be comfortable with sitting still, and rekindled my obsession with reading. I HOPE the kitchen staff learned that fruit and vegetables and protein are essential to maintaining a bunch of hard working human beings thanks to my begging and pleading. Although the food was tasty, the lack of nutritional value and excess of starch is not something I will miss. I learnt I had the resilience to suck it up and sleep in a hammock for three weeks, actually quite comfortably. I learnt (the hard way) RIP my favourite dress that it is perfectly reasonable and logical in a Colombians mind to put bleach in a laundry detergent bottle without any labeling. We’ve learnt that mosquitos and sandflies can and will persist in biting you through nets, repellent and clothes.
We were able to trade some English for some Spanish and get to know our coworkers a little despite the language barrier. At the end of the day we got to live in an absolute paradise without spending a cent and that experience is once in a lifetime.