Category Archives: Travel

Colombia 2015: Libertad y Orden

Let’s start with the first thing that comes to every American’s mind when you mention the South American nation of Colombia.


In the shadow of Colombia’s Catedral Primada, two Policia Nacional patrol Plaza de Bolivar, between the Colombian Congress and Supreme Court buildings in Bogota.

When I told people I was planning to spend a week or two driving around Colombia, virtually everyone expressed concern about my safety (and sanity). A beautiful tropical country, bisected by the northern Andes and boasting both Caribbean and Pacific coastlines, Colombia seems to be better known for drug cartels, guerilla warfare, and kidnappings. Colombia’s bad reputation was well deserved in the 1990s, but a “Colombian Miracle” has transformed it into a great destination – even if you don’t drink coffee.

Fifteen years ago, Colombia was embroiled in a four-way civil war: the players included communist guerilla groups like the “FARC;” right-wing paramilitary groups that sprung up to oppose the guerillas but took on a terrorist-like life of their own; powerful regional drug cartels (especially Cali and Medellin); and the struggling and outnumbered Colombian military itself. Drug trafficking and violence were the norm. Guerilla and paramilitary groups financed themselves with drugs and kidnapping, while the drug cartels amassed military-like troops and weapons to protect their turf. Colombia was the world’s biggest supplier of cocaine, and huge sections of the country’s roads and territory were out of the government’s control. Millions of Colombians were displaced from their homes. In 1999, the situation was so bad the Colombian government formally ceded vast territories to one of the guerilla groups.


National Police on a motorcycle, zipping down a side street in Cartegena, Colombia.

But Colombia is in the midst of what some have called the Colombia Miracle, and what almost anyone would call an amazing turnaround. Starting in 1999 and accelerating with the 2002 election of a new get-tough president (Uribe), the Colombian government expanded its police and military forces. The U.S.A. provided money, personnel, weapons, and intelligence assistance. Colombia targeted the drug trade and the guerilla and paramilitary forces, assassinated and captured key leaders, and even had successful “peace talks” with some guerilla and paramilitary groups.

It’s working. The drug cartels have mostly fractured or disappeared. Most of the paramilitary groups have disbanded and disarmed, and the communist guerilla groups are greatly diminished and confined to areas near the Ecuador and Venezuelan borders. Even the guerilla FARC has very recently (just this month) reached a peace agreement with Colombia and claimed that it will stop military training and focus on peaceful means. Drug production is down significantly. In the cities, the police are everywhere and are highly visible (literally so, often in fluorescent yellow-green uniforms), and much of life is back to normal.


Riot police in Cartegena, Colombia. With these guys around, the risk of an actual riot seemed very low.

Meanwhile – and not coincidentally – the Colombian economy has boomed. Poverty and unemployment levels have plunged; GDP and incomes have soared. Colombia’s highways – though often small and very curvy through the mountains – are in amazingly good shape, thanks to a massive road-construction effort. A mixed blessing of that booming economy is that they’re packed with cargo trucks.

There may be lots of lessons – pro and con – in the Colombia story. The successful strategy had great emphasis on obtaining military and police control, modest efforts at negotiation, and little focus on direct assistance to the 6 million displaced refugee-like Colombians. But the plunge in poverty rates and violence, and rise in incomes may have helped more than direct assistance ever could. The government is reported to have used – unapologetically – some tactics that might make many Americans squeamish (though none worse than their foes were regularly employing). The United States’ financial and military involvement in Colombia’s recovery has been perhaps our most extensive and most successful nation-building exercise in recent history. It’s worth noting, though, that the still-problematic leftist FARC organization was in some ways Colombia’s version of Cuba’s Castro regime (with whom the U.S. is now thawing relations). It’s a complicated world.

The U.S. State Department still has an ominous-sounding travel advisory about Columbia, and did not seem to sanction my chosen itinerary.  But I had a great trip through Colombia – even taking a rental car (with a fellow American buddy) through long sections of remote countryside (from Bogota to Pereira to Medellin and on some tiny side roads through the mountains) that were dangerous FARC and cartel territory not very long ago.  The national tourism board uses a clever slogan that gives a nod to Colombia’s awkward history: “The only risk is wanting to stay.”


“Libertad y Orden” on the Colombia Coat of Arms. That’s an Andean condor (not an eagle) up on top.

“Libertad y Orden” is Colombia’s official motto; it means “Freedom and Order” (that’s “order” as in “law and order,” presumably). A few years back, Colombians surrounded by a siege of civil and guerilla war had little of either. But in a country now seemingly blanketed with an intimidating but hopefully-benevolent police presence, there is surely much more “order,” and – judging from the bustling streets and highways and from the faces of the people we encountered – there’s apparently much more “libertad,” too.







Double Ironman trip: South Africa and Taiwan (via Hong Kong and Macau): But there’s still so much to be done

My Ironman trip around the world — with Scott Humphries and Shane Merz.  Imagine getting the chance to spend almost three weeks circling the globe with a couple of your best friends — yukking it up, exploring two continents, and — oh yes — doing two Ironman triathlons without coming home in between.


Hong Kong at Night, from Kowloon looking south.  A stopover after Ironman South Africa and before Ironman Taiwan.



Shark Rock Pier, Nelson Mandela Bay, Port Elizabeth, South Africa.



Scott Humphries, me, and Shane Merz in Hong Kong.



Kenting, Taiwan. The last few steps of the six-continents Ironman plan.

IRONMAN PANGEA: SIX CONTINENTS. Some years ago, after finishing our first Ironman (in Brazil), my friends (Scott Humphries, Shane Merz) and I got the bright idea to complete an Ironman triathlon on every continent. The quest required a couple of trips to Europe, retreated briefly to Ironman Texas, and made a trek to Scott’s native Australia. There isn’t actually such an event in Antarctica, so we were down to two remaining continents — Africa and Asia.   Someone (me, I fear) got the further bright idea that we should finish off those two continents with two back-to-back races, in a single two-week period without coming home in between: Ironman South Africa (in Port Elizabeth), then the inaugural Ironman Taiwan (in Kenting, the tropical southern tip of Taiwan).


Scott celebrating his Taiwan finish


COLUMBUS WAS RIGHT – OR WAS IT GALILEO? OR…PYTHAGORAS?:  I knew this already, but for the first time I was able to verify for myself that the Earth is round. We left Houston headed eastbound toward South Africa, then eventually got home via Hong Kong, and Taipei from the west.   There were nine flight legs in all, plus a bus, a couple of ferries, a handful of trains, five hotels, and more taxis and shuttle vans than I could count. The logistical absurdity of the adventure required schlepping 100 pounds each of triathlon gear (bicycles, cases, wetsuits, etc.) literally around the world.



Shane on the bike in Taiwan

IRON AGE MATH: L = M50-54. Competitions like this are done in age and gender groupings – usually five-year gaps like M (Men) 30-34 (years old), M35-39, and so on. So sixty-year-old females (F60-64) compete against one another – not really against 25-year-old (M25-29) men — although we’re all on the same course at the same time.   For this purpose, you are considered to be whatever age you BECOME during the calendar year. So even if you don’t turn 30 until November, you’re treated as being 30 all year long.

August 2015 will bring a very round-numbered birthday for me, so I was in the “M50-54” age group. Gulp. Seeing “The Big 5-0” associated with my name for the first time was a little startling, but seeing it in this context took some of the sting off.  In fact I’d be more proud of those race finishes if I were, for example, M70-74. (I sometimes claim to be 82 years old because – modesty aside – I look pretty good for an 82-year-old.) Besides, the 50-year old group is often just as fast as even much younger men; the patience and wisdom to pace one’s self is a strong virtue in such events.

I think I’m going to use the more elegant Roman numeral, “L” to denote my age (Come August, that is. I’m still XLIX for another couple of months, thankyouverymuch).


20150326_153228_resizedWHO CAN GO THE DISTANCE? WE’LL FIND OUT, IN THE LONG RUN: The races themselves? An Ironman event is a 2.4 mile offshore ocean swim, a 112 mile bike race, then a 26.2 mile (marathon distance) run – all in one day with just 5 minutes or so in between to change your shoes. It usually takes us around 13 hours – starting at sunrise and usually finishing in the dark. The hilly South African bike course was especially brutal (imagine mixing 5,000 feet of vertical climb and nasty winds into those mileages), but at least the area’s much-discussed great white sharks resisted the allure of the nearly 2,000 black-wetsuit-clad swimmers out in Nelson Mandela Bay. (Before the start, the race announcer told us we might be “lucky” enough to see dolphins swimming near us in the bay, so we should look for their dorsal fins. I had a mild suspicion that this was an ingenious fib to prevent widespread panic should anyone spot a shark out there making an otherwise-harmless appearance.)

Taiwan was hot but less windy, and the water was crystal clear for our South China Sea swim. Most important, we all finished both events in good health and even better spirits. The Continental Ironman Quest is complete!

1012_006651.jpg0995_013866.jpg0995_068440.jpgIMG_1796.jpg1012_013046.jpg0995_032143.jpg0995_071893.jpg0995_071894.jpg1012_010700.jpg1012_012776.jpg1012_014921.jpg1012_018287 (1).jpg1012_026523.jpg1012_028122.jpg0995_036308.jpgIMG_1799.jpg1012_026556.jpg1012_029265.jpg1012_034223.jpg


Shane and Scott at the Big Buddha just outside Hong Kong.


GOOD FRIENDS, GOOD HEALTH,  AND GOOD FORTUNE: There’s no way any of this intercontinental athletic foolishness would ever be happening (for me) without my two very close friends Scott Humphries and Shane Merz. (You’ve surely heard these names before, e.g., here and here and here . . . ). It does not escape my notice that Scott and Shane have jobs, wives, and kids. How they pull this off, I do not know.  We did a lot of philosophizing during the trek — maybe we were influenced by the those big meditating Buddhas?  One overarching observation:  we were extraordinarily fortunate to have good health and good friends, together with the ability, the means and the freedom to roam and see the world in a way only a tiny fraction of earth’s inhabitants have done through all of its history.



Evening in Hong Kong


JIMMY BUFFETT GETS INVOLVED:  Our Ironman-related travels had already taken us to some amazing places:  Zurich, Rio, Sydney, Germany, the Caribbean, Hawaii and more. This time, we had a week to mostly “kill” between the two races – mixing some sightseeing in among short workouts to stay in shape. We spent four days in Hong Kong and two in Macau, China (a former Portuguese colony with Las Vegas-sized casinos where we watched a guy playing US$100,000 hands of Baccarat).

We rode from Hong Kong island to Macau (on the Chinese mainland) via the high-speed express ferry; we chuckled that it was a “fast boat to China.”  That phrase is a line from Jimmy Buffett song, “Last Mango in Paris.”   In the song, a man reminisces to Buffett about his life of international adventures, then finishes, “But Jimmy, there’s still so much to be done.” I adopted the phrase as a motto of the trip.

This is the year I turn L years old. The six-continents Ironman quest is complete — but there’s still so much to be done.



Mandalay, Myanmar: Maha Muni and more

The last of a dozen or so posts from a long stay in Burma. The first was here.





Only males can approach the golden Maha Muni Buddha in Mandalay. It’s one of just a handful of Buddha statues actually cast during the human Buddha’s lifetime. Supposedly Buddha himself gave it a hug, and some Buddhists think his soul lives on in there. It’s one of their most sacred relics, so it’s especially odd that even the most devout and dutiful Buddhist women of Mandalay are never allowed to go into the chamber and see it up close, while a non-believing American male was free to wander up, take some pictures, hang out, touch the statue, and more.


When you go up on the platform, the custom is that you take some pieces of gold leaf and press them onto the statute. That’s what all those wart-like bumps are on Buddha’s body: gold! The individual sheets gold leaf is so thin they’re hard to handle; you can buy a few tiny sheets (bigger than a postage stamp) for a couple of bucks. But the centuries of pilgrims adding gold to the Buddha have made its body a barely-recognizable blob. I pressed myself back against the side walls to try for better photographs, then dutifully pressed my slivers of gold leaf onto big Buddha’s shoulder and headed down the stairs.


Though the semi-belief that the statue is “alive” with Buddha’s soul inside mostly conflicts with Theravada Buddhist teaching, the monks nonetheless brush the thing’s teeth and wash its face once a day. Can’t hurt, right?  At a minimum, surely it’s good karma.



Burma has been governed for decades by a fairly oppressive military junta, so my perceptions of their army were anything but kind and gentle. It was striking, then, to see this soldier spending his day off and some of his surely-modest salary to bring a tiny handful of flowers as an offering to the Maha Muni. He was also nice enough to stand still for a photograph.




Even the local craft and industry revolved around Buddha. Just a few blocks from Maha Muni was Marble Street – home to dozens of businesses and hundreds of craftsmen dedicated to carving, polishing and selling Buddha statues out of big chunks of marble. Junior craftsmen carved the bodies, leaving the carving of the face for a master artist to do later – thus the blockhead Buddhas you see in the pictures.





The Shwe ba Daung (aka Po Win Daung; aka Pho Win Daung) caves are a couple of hours west of Mandalay (a little west of Monywa, the place where we left our boat on the Chindwin), but my photography of the caves didn’t seem to warrant a blog post all their own.   There are hundreds of caves in the complex – large and small – most with big carved stone Buddhas and many with elaborately painted walls. They’re mostly 400 to 800 years old. Those Buddhas were carved in place (they’re bigger than the caves’ doorways): the cave-diggers just left the existing stone in place in the shape of the Buddhas and carved out the open space of the caves around it.



I packed my camera bags after seeing the sun set at U Bein bridge in Mandalay, so that’s my final image from a great photography trip to Burma.


Fresh Princes of Mingun (Myanmar)








The boys in these pictures are the ones with the gold trim on their tops.

One of the first things we saw in Mingun was a ten-year-old boy in heavy makeup and a purple satin outfit.


The Buddhist equivalent of a bar mitzvah is the novice ceremony. Almost all young Burmese Buddhist boys become monks – though they may only remain a monk for a few days. Buddha himself was a Hindu prince who became a monk, so the boys start the ceremony dressed as a prince (circa 500BC), then shave their heads and don the austere robes of a monk.


In the town of Mingun, we ran a across a boy in one of those prince costumes. We got a few pictures in front of the enormous never-finished temple there, then followed him to the pagoda where they were about to start the first phase of the ceremony initiating a couple of dozen boys as new monks. There was a live band playing as loud as any rock concert. As usual, they tried to share their food with us. The steps to the pagoda were lined with uniformed ladies handing each attendee a cigarette(?!).  I wasn’t exactly sure why there were a couple of dozen girls in costumes similar to the boys. Some girls do become nuns, but I don’t think that’s what was going on. But the boys were whisked away and the girls stayed around for a few more pictures.


Ordinarily, there’s more variety in the prince costumes. This ceremony was unusual because it was sponsored by a single family, who provided for costumes and monk-supplies for the whole group (I assumed maybe the others were from poor families). The two kids in yellow were – as best we could tell – the son and daughter of the couple financing the whole affair.





The boy in purple is about to start a ceremony where he’ll become a monk, too.




This big white pagoda in Mingun was built just 200 years ago by the then-King Bagyidaw in honor of his wife / cousin.


Chindwin River, Myanmar: PJs, ABCs, Face Paint & World War

  One last post (#7) from the Chindwin River in Burma.  The first was here.



Don’t let that knife scare you. This lady is making a mouthful of Burma’s version of chewing tobaccco: betel nut. It’s a big reason so many Burmese have terrible teeth. The house behind her was a WWII Red Cross outpost.




A couple of hundred people followed us around in the village of He Hlaw. I had a small parade trailing behind me when I spotted this eighty-something old man in his own front yard. That’s his very bashful wife hiding behind the balcony rail.

 *  *  *  *  *


Sponge Bob PJs at “church.”

I’m sure if I’d given it any thought, I’d have assumed that most cheap fuzzy pajamas were made in China or Thailand or Bangladesh or somewhere like that, so maybe I shouldn’t have been surprised that folks in Burma’s rural Chindwin River region (surrounded by those nations) might have them. Still, I’d never have guessed that colorful fuzzy fleece PJs – some with characters like Sponge Bob, Angry Birds, and Hello Kitty –would be popular all-day everyday wear for school, church, chores and socializing.

Strangely, fuzzy polyester pajamas decorated with video game mascots were among the most modern things you’d see in a place where people cook on campfires and transport things around town by oxcart.  Life on the Chindwin mixes a handful of modern advances into a setting with a few elements of the early 1900s and several aspects not much different than they were hundreds of years before.  Several towns had an electric generator – but usually only for a few lights at the monastery and maybe a handful of houses (nobody seemed to have any sort of home appliances).  In some areas, there were motorbikes in town. Diesel motors chugged up and down the river constantly. Areas of the river that were near roads or big towns had cell phone service (alas: Burmese networks that did not communicate with my TMobile phone). Most towns had a small store of some sort – sometimes with a half dozen cans of warm Coke or Sprite (alas: not Diet Coke) in inventory.

If you look around, you actually see a lot of written English — presumably a holdover from 120 years of British occupation.  Several brands and logos (alcohol, packaged food, soap) were in English. We saw school kids reciting (for us) the English alphabet and even writing simple stories in English. Still, hardly anyone could speak more than a word or two (Hello, goodbye, thank you) of English. I made the mistake of trying to speak some English to a schoolteacher who I had just watched teaching the English alphabet to her kids – she understood nothing. Though we regularly saw English on the walls of schoolrooms all over the Chindwin, we met no more than a handful of people there who were at all conversant in English.


English ABCs, fuzzy PJs, and thanaka facepaint in the one-big-room grade school in the Shan village of Heinsun.

(Coincidentally, I read an article in the Economist this week on almost this exact topic.  It focused on Mexico and China, but the issue was that despite years of written classwork aimed at teaching English, very few students can actually speak any English, mostly because none of their teachers can actually speak English.)

One conspicuous remnant of ancient times in Burma is thanaka — a beige paste made from ground-up tree bark and worn as a face paint.  It can be a sunscreen spread over the entire face, or a decorative cosmetic applied in patterns.  It’s everyday wear for lots of women and kids, and young, unmarried men.



Some thanaka (and PJ) examples:



Yellow Angry Birds PJs. His grandma is wearing an inside-out green sweatshirt, and a pink towel as a fashion item.



Another outside force that changed the area was World War II. An elder in He Hlaw village showed us a Buddha statue that had been damaged in WWII bombing, and introduced us to this old fellow who had fought in the war. I had to ask: Who had bombed the village? And which side did the old guy fight for? The Allies bombed it, after Japan had invaded and taken over most of Burma. And the old man had fought on both sides, switching (maybe twice?) as control of the area shifted from British to Japanese to British.


What I saw on the Chindwin echoed what I’d seen before — in Bolivia, Guatemala, even rural Cuba.  People on the Chindwin live very modestly, in conditions that we as American would find impermissible. Their homes are made of sticks or bamboo; most have no lights and none have air conditioning or appliances.  I don’t recall seeing anyone with eyeglasses and none of the communities had doctors.  Many have no more than a couple of changes of clothes. They sleep mostly on very-thin mats on wooden floors.  If American children were growing up in such conditions, the State would probably put them into foster care.  If groups of American adults were living that way, they’d take to the streets in angry protest. But the people of the Chindwin are happy, proud, dignified and content with their lives.  Maybe it’s because they don’t know of anything different or better than their own world, but the fact remains that they surely seem happier than many of the people in far weathier or more advanced areas. They are not bitter; they are kind and welcoming to gawking strangers who arrive toting expensive cameras.  They work hard to take care of themselves, their families, and their communities. We tend to assume that these folks need to learn from us about all our great modern advancements; we should learn a few lessons from them instead.


_JCE2574 2

Most larger villages had a grid of wide, street-like paths with homes built along each side of the streets just like a suburban neighborhood.  This lady was cleaning up the “street” in front of her house. It’s just dirt, but they sweep it regularly to keep it neat and tidy.







I’m the reason those kids have their hands in the air in that last shot in the grid above.  One amusement of the trip was to teach groups of kids to do a “Clap, clap, whoop” — clap your hands twice, then hoist them overhead with a shout.  It was tough to get a picture while demonstrating that, but great fun in a situation where we didn’t share a language.