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Thursday, September 14, 2017

El Papa! El Papa! Colombia hosts Pope Francis

This past Sunday, I had the good fortune to see Pope Francis in the flesh. I’m not Catholic, but I quite like Francisco; he’s far more enlightened than many of the leaders in our government. Also, we must be honest—Pope Francisco is one of the most important leaders on our planet, with a huge amount of influence, if only as a figurehead.

Last week, the Pope spent 5 days in Colombia. For weeks beforehand, we saw posters all over the city with the Pope in his robes taking a step forward. That was the theme of his visit: Let us take the first step. “Demos el primer paso.”

Let's take the first step
The purpose of his visit was clear: to bring a message of forgiveness to Colombia, a country that has recently signed a peace accord with the FARC guerillas, but still remains a nation wounded and divided by 50 years of horrific conflict. For background, you should know that the peace accord was brought to a public vote and the majority voted against signing the peace accord with the FARC; many Colombians believe that it is wrong to help reestablish the guerillas into civic life after all the violence and strife they have caused since the mid-1960’s.

All of the speeches he gave had the same message—forgiveness, reconciliation, and unity are possible. He met with both sides of the conflict—people who had endured violence and those who had caused it.

Video from Al Jazeera about the Pope's visit to Colombia

Colombia being quite a religious country, having the Pope visit was a very big deal. The people of Cartagena were thrilled to have him end his visit here and hold Sunday mass in their city, as well. It was a great honor to host the pontiff, and several of my students were thrilled to have the chance to sing in choirs that performed for him.

On Sunday morning, I waited alongside many Cartageneros to see Mr. Pope pass by in his Papa-mobile. What a drive-by! You’ll see from the video that it was very speedy passing. But it was also impressive how impassioned people were to see him, even for a split second, many of them holding up babies and rosaries to receive the Pope’s holy blessing as he passed.


Afterwards, everyone rushed into the walled city to the place where he would be doing the noon Angelus prayer, but we found that it was accessible only for those with tickets. Luckily, though, the Pope was making some rounds in the walled city so I got to see him a second time, this time right in front of Norbert and my favorite gelato shop. I’m pretty sure that makes the ice cream sacred now, right?


Later that afternoon, I watched the television coverage of the rest of the Pope’s visit to Cartagena from my friend’s hospital room right on the bay. He was taken by helicopter to fly over the harbor and bless the statue of La Virgen del Carmen, and he flew right over us! There were many boats anchored around the statue, trying to get a bit of the Pope’s blessing as he passed overhead.

For the last event of the day, he presided over Sunday mass at an enormous makeshift church that they created in Cartagena’s port. It was funny to see all the Catholic symbols surrounded by massive cargo containers. The crowd in attendance was gigantic and many had been waiting all day for this opportunity to pray with the Pope. I watched his ceremony from the television screen, and I was moved when he asked his fellow people to pray for him, while also praying for their loved ones at our home, Mother Earth. Later on, while watching the TED talk he gave (See below), he ended his talk asking the viewers to think of him with tenderness, and I think that’s a brave and beautiful thing, to request love and blessings and tenderness from the world around you.

Thursday, September 7, 2017

Merman and Mermaid Explore San Andres!

Hello friends! Norbert and I just spent 4 days in a glorious place called San Andres Island, part of a Colombian archipelago in the Caribbean Sea around 230 miles off the coast of Nicaragua. From the air, Norbert and I gazed down at the crystalline blue waters and I thought--THIS is what the Caribbean looks like! I know Cartagena is on the Caribbean coast, but the gorgeous beaches and clear warm waters give Cartagena's coast a run for its money. (The sea in Cartagena is indeed warm, but it's color is more on the muddier side...)

 The minute we landed, Norbert and I jumped into a taxi and headed for the marina where a boat was waiting to take us on a snorkeling tour around the island. And four the next 4 days, we only got out of the water to eat and sleep (in hammocks). Our first stop was a shallow sandbar that was teeming with sting rays that couldn't have cared less about our intrusive presence. While we gazed at them through our masked, they glided through the water like underwater birds and fought one another for food. I was in awe of their gracefulness and beauty, and I didn't want to get back onto the boat! (I was a bit more willing after seeing a GIANT barracuda nearby.)

Click PLAY to watch Norbert's awesome video!

The next stops were pretty cool: an underwater sculpture garden, a sunken ship, and a coral formation called The Pyramide where Norbert and I had a great time admiring a gorgeous spotted eagle ray.

Click on the Map for more info!

 Back on land, we had a lunch of local specialties, including conch, which we later found out was in "veda," meaning restaurants aren't supposed to serve it because it's currently closed for the season to let the conch repopulate. We spent the rest of the afternoon wandering the island on a local bus, trying to make it to our apartment rental. We eventually made it and quickly found our way to the beach next door. From the shore, you can walk across a long sandbank and reach a tiny island called Rocky Cay, which was cool to explore. It was late afternoon and the only people on Rocky Cay besides us were 3 boys from the nearby village, fishing for the dinner. It's always impressive to see a child do something with such expertise--such as scaling a fish--that I wouldn't know how to do myself.

 We woke up feeling very excited the following morning because WE WERE GOING DIVING! And Norbert and I love any opportunity to pretend we're little fishies that live under the sea. The first dive of the morning was a rather deep one (we went down to about 80 feet) along a wall of coral that dropped into the deep blue sea. We saw lots of amazing and colorful fish and coral, but the most interesting fish we came across was the bat fish--a fish with wings and HANDS! It was my first time getting acquainted with this strange species, and luckily, we saw several of them on all 4 dives, so I had lots of chances to admire them and their awesome strangeness.

The second dive was a bit shallower, and we actually started at the underwater statue garden that we'd seen the day before. On this dive, we saw another eagle ray (so majestic!) and swam through several caves. I can't even describe all the many species that we saw, but Norbert took many underwater videos to capture some of the magic.

 That afternoon, we went back to Rocky Cay and saw several local boys jumping off a halfway submerged shipwreck in the distance. So of course, we had to swim over and explore for ourselves. I won't go to much into it because, again, my mother reads this blog, but suffice to say that exploring a half-submerged cargo ship that's been sitting in the surf for 45 years was insanely cool. I didn't jump from the highest deck like the local boys, but I did jump from the lower one! And watching the afternoon sun from the shipwreck as it set on the island was one of my favorite moments of all time, as well as swimming back to the shore with the nearly full moon rising behind us. What a magical afternoon! AND we saw a HUGE HUGE and I mean HUGE sting ray on the swim back! So big I thought it was a rock!

We awoke with excitement yet again the next day--MORE DIVING! We did two dives off a boat this time (the others had been from the shore), and the set up was somewhat similar to the day before. One deep dive and a shallower one. On the shallow dive, we went through many extensive cave systems (where you go in and come out the other side). Some of them were quite narrow so the Brazilian who was with us didn't make it through them all. At one point, we thought we'd lost him, which is a freaky feeling when you've got an oxygen tank strapped to you and 35 ft of water above your head. But our guide found our Brazilian friend and onward we went, exploring more gorgeous coral and admiring more magical sea life. Norbert saw a sea spider and caught it wriggling about on camera! We saw more bat fish (!!) and plenty of crazy colorful fishies that just make me smile. Of course, we saw a few more eagle rays along the way and I was content... 

That afternoon, we headed back to the shipwreck, this time wielding our cameras to attempt to capture its awesomeness. (Yes, Norbert swam with our Canon SLR over his head--it was in a plastic bag, don't worry!) It was just as amazing as the previous day, and this time I was even able to jump off a higher deck! (but still not the highest.. I'm a chicken and I won't deny it!) I'm not sure if the photos can do this place justice, but we gave it a try. Something about that place really inspired me, and I'm already working on an essay about the experience. I'm a sucker for dilapidated, run-down places, what can I say.

The following day, we rented a scooter and went swimming at all the beaches we hadn't visited yet (because let's be honest, we were pretty obsessed with Rocky Cay). More snorkeling, more cool fish (and more bat fish!), and more good food. This place was a breadfruit paradise. If you're not familiar with it, you gotta try it! Soo delicious and nutritious!

We're definitely going to come back to San Andres Island for more exploring, but also to check out it's neighbor, Providencia, where we've heard the diving is even more spectacular! The locals were friendly and spoke a really interesting creole language that reminded me of Jamaican creole. We also witnessed a traditional funeral on our last day and learned about the islands connection to Mobile, Alabama.

View of San Andres on our way back home - it's just 8x2 miles!

I'm sure I'm missing a lot but that's all I've got for now. Also, if you can, please send prayers to my hometown of Miami and all the people being affected by Hurricane Irma. Here's hoping that everyone stays safe and dry.