Sunday, June 29, 2008

Tickets Booked for Bogota

Well, we've booked one-way tickets to fly on Wednesday from Cartagena to Bogota, on Avianca.

Though for price and scenery reasons, we'd rather take a bus, the bus from Cartagena to Bogota takes roughly 20 hours!!

We checked several airlines and Avianca turned out to have the best price on the days we were trying to go. The final price was COP 486,000 for the two of us... about $142 USD each (one way!!)

We don't have a real firm plan yet, but we think we'll stay a few days in Bogotoa, and then take the bus down to a very small place out in the country called San Augustin. San Augustin has some ruins that Dave wants to see. From there we'll probably bus back to a town called Popayan, and fly back to Cartagena from there.

Our Colombia Geography Lesson

Colombia is considerably bigger than Guatemala was, and the bus rides between the big cities are very long. Even the bus from Bogota to Cali is 12 hours.

We noticed that the U.S. Embassy is having a 'flag raising' ceremony at 7:30am on July 4th. We will be in Bogota then and can attend if we want. It might be fun just to meet the Americans who call Colombia home. (But Dave's initial reaction was "7:30am!!!!")

Day Trip to Barranquilla & Passport Renewal

Barranquilla is a big city up the coast from Cartagena.

When Dave inquired about getting his passport renewed while in Colombia, the U.S. Embassy said that it can be done from Bogota, where the Embassy is (a very long way away), or via the Consular Services office in Barranquilla. Since Barranquilla is only a 2 hour drive up the coast, we decided it would make a nice day trip, to go and drop his paperwork off.

To get to Barranquilla (without your own car) there are 2 options... there is an express bus that goes that way, and there are 'shuttle vans'. The problem with the bus is that the Cartagena bus terminal is far outside the city. So you have to take a taxi there, then take the bus, then a taxi in from the Barranquilla bus station. It ends up costing more money and taking more time.

So we chose the MarSol shuttle bus, which picked us up at the door of Club Nautico and dropped us off not too far from our destination. It is 19,000 pesos per person one way (about $11 USD). MarSol Cartagena: 656-0302 MarSol Barranquilla: 369-0999

The road part of the trip was pretty uneventful. The road between Cartagena and Barranquilla is a nice 4 lane highway, with few cars on the road. We went through one toll booth and at least one very serious-looking police checkpoint (we didn't have to stop). The road runs along the coast, so you can get glimpses of the ocean. For the most part, the land is farm or ranch land, punctuated with a few very upscale housing developments. If you didn't know better, you could be in South Florida (about 30 years ago, before it go so built up).

Though we thought the shuttle bus was supposed to be 'door to door' service, they let us off on a main drag in Barranquilla, and most of the passengers continued on to Santa Marta. We had a vague idea of where we were and where the Consular Services office was (the streets are conveniently numbered). But it was a hot day, and we had to get all our paperwork done by 11:30 when the office closes, so we took a taxi for 5,000 pesos ($3) to the office.

The office was in big building called something like Centro Commercial Americano. In the lobby, you had to give up your ID to receive an electronic pass key that lets you in and out of a turnstile at the base of the elevators. There is a guard who is supposed to be watching the turnstile to make sure that there is no funny business with the pass cards. I guess they would not give a passcard to anyone who looked like a 'bandito', but there was so much coming and going at the lobby desk that it can't be a real security measure. At least using this system they can theoretically tell if anyone is left in the building when they go to lock up at night.

The consular office is on the 5th floor, and in their lobby is a nice and polite Colombian policeman, just hanging out.

When we entered, a lady behind the partition said in heavily accented English, somewhat rudely, "Sit down." So we did.

But we had not gotten Dave's passport photo done yet... Dave had been warned by another cruiser not to do it before we got there. So he went up to the little window and tried to ask about the passport photo. It was already 10:30 and we were worried about getting the whole thing done by 11:30 when the office closed for the day. He was told, rudely again, "I am busy with the other guy, sit down."

So we asked the policeman where the photo place was. He didn't really know, but after a discussion in Spanish with him and another guy waiting, we knew of a photo place very near by. Assuming that the closest photo place to the Consular Services office would know of the correct requirements... we walked off in search of photos. Well, that place was closed.

We then grabbed a taxi for a 4-5 block ride to another photo place (Photo Japon, a chain in Colombia). We asked for US Passport photos, they said OK, and after about 10 minutes, we had 6 copies of Dave's smiling face in our hands.

We walked back to the Consular Services office and the lady said "Why didn't you wait for me, those photos are no good!" I am still not clear why. They looked like perfectly good passport photos, within all the proper size limits, etc. But she wouldn't accept them.

NOW she hands us the list of 'approved' photo shops and gives us detailed directions how to get there. (Sorry, we lost this paper, but be sure to call the Consular Services office to find out, before you have pictures made. There is one in Cartagena, one in Barranquilla, and one in Santa Marta).

It is 11:15 now, and Dave hasn't even started filling out the paperwork. But she said she'd wait for us. She told us that we didn't need to wait for the photos to get printed, but come right back with the receipt, and she would pick the photos up from the photo place later.

We paid the normal passport fee of $75 in cash (they will accept either USD or Pesos), and gave her a phone number and an email address. She said it would take 3-4 weeks and she'd let us know when it was back. She did NOT take Dave's current passport, but said he must bring it back with him when he comes back to pick up the new one.

By 11:45 we were finished, and were heading for lunch. Dave got a recommendation from a previous taxi driver to 'Casa del Marisco' (also known as Asados Tony), on the corner of Calle 72 and Carrera 61B. So we went there (another $3 taxi ride). There are 2 big shopping centers within a few blocks of the office, which probably would have been a better choice. We had a good (but not exceptional) 'Almuerzo Ejecutivo' (executive lunch) at Casa del Marisco... large soup, rice, meat, very small salad for 6,000 pesos ($4). This seems to be a standard weekday lunch offering in many Colombian restaurants, and is considerably cheaper (and probably faster) than anything that was on the menu they gave us. So ask for it if you go into a restaurant.

While at lunch, we called the Baranqilla number for the MarSol van, and they said they'd be there to pick us up in about 20 minutes. It turns out that they sent a small taxi to get us (and 2 other passengers on the way) rather than navigating the big van thru the busy city streets.

Again they didn't take us to our door, but dropped us off downtown near 'The Clock', about a 10 minute walk from Club Nautico.

We met 3 other American cruisers on the van... they were headed for Santa Marta for 2 nights, just to explore. One of the 3 was originally from Colombia. So she ccould speak the language fluently and knew her way around pretty well.

Dave, in his usual fashion, pumped her for travel advice, which we are now using to plan our trip inland towards Bogata and Medellin. They must have found some interesting stuff in Santa Marta, because we haven't seen them around the marina yet (it's been 4 nights now). We may check out Santa Marta when we go back to pick up Dave's passport.

Monday, June 23, 2008

Back on the Boat

We had an uneventful trip with Spirit Airlines. As usual, we were stressing about getting all our 'stuff' back safely and worrying about a recent change in Spirit's policy for checked luggage to Cartagena. But it was a 'no big deal' in the end.

It was a bit of a shock when the heat hit us as we stepped out of the plane. Though Florida is about the same temperature and humidity, there is a lot more/better air conditioning in Florida. The boat was closed up and very hot when we got aboard. It took hours of a/c with our small window unit to make it barely cool enough to sleep.

We can't wait to get off the dock and back out to where the breeze works for us, and we can go swimming to stay cool. But we'll be here for a few more weeks to get Dave's passport renewed at the US Consulate.

Saturday, June 21, 2008

If It's Tuesday, It Must Be...

Today's title refers to an old movie entitled "If It's Tuesday, It Must Be Belgium", about some travelers on a 2-week tour of Europe. They could only keep track of what city they were in by looking at the date. I saw it 20... er, maybe 30 years ago, and I think of it nearly every time we travel. That's certainly the way we feel by now...

We have been gone for only 2 weeks. In 14 days we have driven over 2,000 miles, driven through 4 states, and stayed in 8 different places. (Many thanks to the friends and family we stayed with).

We made phone calls to another 50-odd friends, just to chat a little and say hi (if we didn't call you, so sorry... You can still get us on Skype (soggypaws) or on our Cartagena cell phone 011-315-367-0134).

We also went to a Melboure Yacht Club TGIF, went to a funeral, bought some land, went white water rafting, went hiking and fishing, played golf, visited the Florida State Museum, and visited Walmart (3 times!), Kmart, Target, Staples, PAFB Exchange, Office Depot, Home Depot, Circuit City, Publix, Bealls, West Marine, and 3 boat-related places in Ft. Lauderdale just yesterday.

Plus we made purchases from about 5 different online stores. We sent 3 different pieces of electronics off to be repaired.

We are doing our part for the economy! We bought a total of about 125 lbs of 'stuff'... everything from a 20-lb watermaker pump to 'extra dark chocolate' and underwear. We are also carrying back a bit of 'stuff' for the friends watching our boat (10 lbs worth of engine mounts).

We were again sitting in the hotel last night stressing over getting all the 'stuff' in our 2 big suitcases we bought at Goodwill, plus the 2 smaller ones we brought with us, without going over the 50lb per bag weight limit. Dave packed and re-packed the bags about 4 times. We finally got it all in... hopefully it will all ARRIVE with us. Three of the bags weighed exactly 50 lbs.

We had a crisis moment when I was checking Spirit Airlines regulations online and saw a restriction limiting passengers to 1 checked bag per person on the Cartagena route. We had already pre-paid for 4 bags on the return trip, and so decided not to worry about it. It turned out to be a non-event at the airport (it may be mainly aimed at passengers FROM Cartagena, due to the increased drug smuggling concerns and extra security there).

Anyway, we are really glad to be heading back 'home' (to the boat) and a slower pace of life. We plan to hang out in Colombia for another 3 weeks or so, and then head back to Panama.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Land in North Carolina Part 2

The View from Our Lot

Well, after spending a few days looking around at the options for land, our realtor (and our own independent research) convinced us that what we wanted... a good buildable lot with a killer view, close to the town of Waynesville, but with a 'remote' feeling, did not exist in the $50K range.

After John and Sandy showed us around for a few days, we really liked the Waynesville area. It has a very old North Carolina quaint downtown. But it also has a Walmart and other shopping within a reasonable distance. There is a great recreation center, golf courses, and there is all kinds of hiking and National Forest land within about a half hour's drive in any direction. And Waynesville is about a half hour's drive from Asheville, NC, where there are malls and 'culture'.

We looked at a lot of 'cheap' lots, but they were either low elevations (not the cool air we were looking for), or no view, or so unimproved it was daunting, or they were marginally improved (roads, but just a steep slope, no water, electric, septic, etc). Or they were a half hour's drive to the nearest store. The location that John and Sandy's house was in was pretty perfect (close, but not too close to town, etc), so we were really trying to find a place in that general area.

John & Sandy's House

Our realtor, Yvonne from Keller-Williams, finally dug out a listing that had expired a year ago for 1 1/4 acre with a great view at 4,000 feet (cool air!), with roads, electricity, water, a septic permit, and a leveled, filled spot of land to put a house on. Since it's a lot, it doesn't have an official address yet, but the Lat/Long is 35-26.43N 83-02.95. See location on Mapquest

It is a bit scary to plunk money down on real estate, with the economy the way it is, but it should turn out to be a good investment in the long run. Just like 'they ain't making any more waterfront', 'they ain't making any more good buildable mountaintop lots'. (or, location, location, location, as my Mother used to say). We ended up paying more than our original budget of $50K, but we think we got a fair deal, and it will be a good investment in the long run.

Though we originally were looking for land we could pull an RV into, we opted for a 'subdivision' with a few deed restrictions (including no 'temporary housing'). After seeing some of the falling-down trailers in the non-deed-restricted areas, that seemed the best compromise to protect our investment. But I'm sure if you come visit us in a motor home, you can pull in and stay for a few nights.

Don't worry, Florida friends, we're not planning on MOVING to North Carolina. Our home is still in Florida, this is just a 'someday, summer home' for the hot summer months.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Rafting the Upper Pigeon River

Dave and John Getting Ready to Load Up

The day before we left North Carolina, we managed to fit in a river rafting trip on the Upper Pigeon River. We used Wildwater as our 'outfitters' and had a thoroughly enjoyable trip.

The Upper Pigeon trip is only about 2 hours long, and is a good compromise between 'too tranquil' and 'too exciting'. It has one Class 4 rapid and a number of Class 3 rapids. Only one person fell out of a raft in the group of rafters that went down with us (5 rafts wtih 4-6 people per raft).

Our Guide, Travis

The Raft Behind Us on a Class 3

We had hoped for a warm and sunny day, but we ended up with kind of a misty cloudy day. The water temp is VERY COLD in the mountain stream, and a little sunshine would have been welcome. I was really worried about getting too cold.

We did get drenched on the trip, but Dave and I had snagged the optional spray jackets at Wildwater, and we stayed pretty warm and dry (at least the part that was under the jacket!). Our friend John had opted not to take a jacket, and was pretty chilled by the time we got to the bottom of the run.


Here we are 'surfing'. You go through the rapid, and then circle back around and put the bow into the waterfall. Everyone leans forward, and a skillful guide can hold the raft there for a minute or so. When we did it, our raft filled to the brim. Fortunately they are self-bailing.

Our Gang, After the Trip

Friday, June 13, 2008

Land in North Carolina

On Tuesday we went to look at some land that some friends had found on a mountain top near Brevard, NC. We have been looking at this lot for almost 2 years (it went off and back on the market in that time period). 6 acres for $60K, and it has a stunning view.

We were talking with our cruising friends on Tackless II about splitting the cost of the lot and being able to pull motor homes in there, and eventually have 2 homesites.

But... it is about 3-4 miles in on barely-improved roads. You'd really need a 4-wheeler to be able to get in and out consistently, and it would be really difficult to get a big motor home up there. It has also been sold recently (the realtor sign is still on the lot, though).

We have been looking at some other lots, but NC is no longer 'cheap'. On Friday we plan to run around with a realtor in the Waynesville area.

Our friends John and Sandy's house is beautiful with a fantastic view and is located strategically close to the convenience of Waynesville, NC. But it wasn't in the $50K range to purchase!

They have a nice log home with a big porch along 2 sides. The 3 remaining lots in the neighborhood we can find on the MLS are in the 'over $100K' range.

Dave and I are struggling with what we really want to do. We obviously don't really need land in NC right now. But if we wait 10 years, what would it cost then???

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Cool Mountain Air and Green Vistas

We've been having a ball in North Carolina. It is beautifully cool here right now.

Monday, we left Atlanta (my sister's house) and drove north toward Waynesville, NC. We took a few side roads and stopped and had lunch at a pretty restaurant overlooking a stream.

One place we stopped was a pottery shop (Mark of the Potter) in an old mill on a stream. Dave had to see the 'huge' trout we'd been told about.

Wednesday we went hiking on Big Creek Trail at the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. It was a nice hike on a shady, mostly level path, along a river. We went swimming in a 'pool'. (Except it was so frigid, I declined to get more than my feet wet). John took his fly rod along, and we stopped and fished for trout in the pools we found.

Yesterday, we drove 30 miles up the Blue Ridge Parkway and met some old boating/ham friends at the Pisgah Inn for lunch. Great drive, great lunch, great view. And really nice seeing Bob and Caroline, who have recently bought property nearby in Hendersonville, NC.

On Saturday we plan to go on a short whitewater rafting trip down the Pigeon River.

Monday, June 9, 2008

In the U.S. June 5-20

Though we had planned a trip back to the States in June, it has taken an unexpected twist.

Jimmy & I in the Bahamas with a big lobster, about 1974

My 'little' brother Jimmy passed away last week, after a year of struggle against a very virulent form of Leukemia. He was only 46.

It wasn't really unexpected, in the grand view of things, but it happened a little sooner than anyone expected. Though we knew things were getting worse, a few weeks ago my daughter had visited him and said he was feeling good and talking about plans for July and August. So we didn't advance our plans any. We had planned to stop in and visit as soon as we got to the States, but didn't quite make it in time. Instead we were able to attend a Celebration of Life for Jimmy with our family and his close friends in St. Augustine.

Brothers & Sisters with Jimmy 2nd from Left

Now we are on our way to North Carolina to visit with John and Sandy from s/v Caliente. The original plan for this trip was to see North Carolina during the summertime, with the idea that some time in the future we might want to buy a small plot of land for a 'mountain retreat'.