Saturday, November 30, 2013
On Saturday my host and his daughter took me to the mud volcano of Totumo about 50 miles outside of Cartagena. Driving along the turnpike Highway 90 in Northern Colombia we passed rich fields with views of the ocean and rolling hills with cattle grazing. A prettier drive could not exist, so I was somewhat unprepared for the "Volcano."
We turned off the main road and headed down toward a cienaga, and there at its side stood this 15 m (49 feet) high mound of gray gunk with dug out stairs
We paid our $5000 peso admission (about $2.50) and climbed the man made rickety stairs to its peak. About 30 people were waiting at its summit to climb down some rickety ladder and submerge themselves in this small pool of unctuous thick gray mud.
Local legend has it that the natives thought that the volcano was the work of the devil, but when a local priest threw holy water into it it turned into a benign mud bath. Since that time tourists have been flocking to the pool to take advantage of its so-called therapeutic benefits. Once in the pool of mud you float, it being so thick that it is impossible to sink.
Your body is covered with gray ooze and you are floated across the pool where two or three men with baseball caps rub this slurry across your body, supposedly massaging it into your skin. The younger and prettier the bodies, the more time is spent massaging.
You can then attempt to stand in the mud and rub the mud all over your body, face and through your hair. Most people spend 15 to 20 minutes in the mud pit before deciding that they have gotten all they can get out of the mud volcano experience.
Upon ascending another slippery ladder you are met on an open grid by another man who rubs your body down to rid it of excess mud, then you are sent down the hill and down to a cove in the cienaga where women with plastic basins douse you with murky water to remove the mud. Once "clean" you head back to your cars, stopping perhaps for a drink, a snack or a souvenir.
I rather doubted that such a small mound could be a real "volcano," but after investigating it I found that 700 known mud volcanoes exist on the earth. They are usually connected to some under ocean volcanic vent. Those that exist in Yellowstone are known as mud pots, for they have none of the true volcano formation. Totumo is the most famous in Colombia.
The true treat of the day was turning off the highway and stopping at an ocean-side palapa for a lunch of fresh fried fish and a beer, then slipping into the ocean for a really rich cleanse in the welcoming warm waters of the Caribbean coast.
My age spots and wrinkles have not been removed, my hair is no more manageable and I have not lost weight by the visit to the volcano, but it was a muddy good time.
Sunday, November 24, 2013
Nothing has a set price.
This is the first thing you must learn in a third world country. The art of bargaining is a must, and for many North Americans who only bargain for a house or a car, and who find that quite disagreeable, bargaining for just about everything seems like a waste of time, and and an imposition. After all, everything has its fair price.
Even we, as North Americans bargain, although we may not think of it that way. When we go to the store with better or lesser prices, be it groceries or electronics, we are bargaining with our purses.
But to the micro-merchant, the guy selling on the street, with no overhead of rent, utilities or for that matter, bookkeeping, what is a fair price is what he can get by good bargaining. Making the equivalent of 50 cents or one dollar on a item is extra food on the table or a beer from the corner store.
For the astute buyer it may mean the difference between paying the rent or coming up short this month. To be a good buyer you have to be a good bargainer.
I don't know when this love of bargaining came to me. I don't think I had ever done it before I moved to Mexico. But certain things were always bargained for, be they artensanias, food at mercados or necessities for the house.
The basic formula is when you are interested in an article you ask "How Much?" and the merchant will give you a price double of what he expects. Then you begin bargaining from the bottom, while he bargains from the top price. Eventually you end up at the fair price, what he must charge in order to make a profit. If you don't like the price, you walk away, at which point the merchant will come back with a lower price if he really wants the sale.
It is a song and dance between cat and mouse, but one which is expected in third world countries. The tourist who pays the price asked is thought of as a chump, an idiot, and this gives North Americans (and Europeans and Canadians) a reputation of being rich fools.
If you want to get the lowest price you must go to the street merchant, but this is fraught with danger, for if the product is defective you have no recourse to return it...receipts are never given. Bargaining at shops can be done, but usually the shop salesmen don't have the authority to lower the price more that 3 to 5 percent. Some shop girls must take the customer to the manager who has NO, NEVER written all over her face.
There is nothing that makes a buyer feel prouder than getting a good bargain, and there is nothing that makes a good salesman prouder than getting a good price. You have, after all, just been in the creative art of bargaining.
Friday, November 22, 2013
Cultural differences can lead to misunderstandings. Ask me, I know.
Yesterday I went into the kitchen to prepare oatmeal for breakfast. The Senora was there heating milk for my coffee. When I told her I wanted some "avena" and I would make it in a small pot with just water, she looked horrified. " Just with water?" she asked. At which point she sent her son to the corner store to bring back some cinnamon bark, added more milk to that heating up on the stove, threw in the package of cinnamon, and half a bag of oatmeal. She would not have me making oatmeal with just water.
The cultural difference here is that in Colombia oatmeal is a cold drink made with milk and cinnamon, stirred and blended and served over ice. In the US oatmeal is hot cereal.
I failed to tell her that I wanted cereal, and she assumed that I wanted a cold drink that would take a good half hour to prepare.
"Poor children at the Sta. Rita," she chided me. "You have to explain everything." making a remark that the children at the day care must suffer because I do not explain.
It was a good lesson to learn, to not assume that my simple desire for cereal did not translate into what her culture had taught her to assume about oatmeal.
But I will say this, when the drink was served it was simply delicious! And now I have a good recipe for a refreshing oatmeal drink.
Tuesday, November 19, 2013
Okay, the day of the phone booth has passed. Clark Kent will have to find another place to disrobe, and most of the world has found that cell phones, even in remote areas are the order of the day. But in many third world countries, some people are so poor that having a cell phone (the cheapest phone is $25, and unlimited service is about $12 per month) is not a possibility.
So up springs a new micro business, corner cell phones. No booths, just a wooden table with a sign, and someone to collect the fees. Just about every corner or block in Cartagena has a micro business that sells cell phone time for 100 pesos a minute. (That's about 5 US cents per minute). You pick the carrier, Claro, Tigo, Movie Star depending on the cell phone you want to call. Unlike in the US you cannot call between house phones or one cell company and another, so you must know the number and the carrier of the phone you want to call.
So if you need to change clothes better duck in a store, the cell phone table is not a good place for stashing street clothes or hiding your identity. But it is a great place and price for staying connected!
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