Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Life in the Country, Paisa Style

Almost a year ago we decided to take a major step toward our dream of retiring to the country.  Debi, our daughter,  was living near El Carmen de Viboral, an hour from Medellín.  We had visited in February and liked the zone very much. After talking for years about doing it, it was Debi who spoke God’s will to us. Why not just rent a house or apartment in El Carmen and try it out. "Just DO it!" The cost of living is much lower than Cartagena. I'd always said I could live most anywhere as long as there was internet so I could work on translations and keep in touch with friends, etc. Now it would also be a question of administrating our small effort at tourist lodgings at our big house in Cartagena.  So Norman would travel back and forth.

We set out on July 10, Norman and I,  with our Mazda 323 packed to the hilt,  me doing all the driving as usual. Our first stop was San Juan Nepumoceno, to say goodbye to Carmen,  the hotel owner who'd become our friend since we visited Los Colorados National Park a few years ago and whom we'd stayed with many times on short getaways. Turned out it was really out of the way as our goal was Montería, but that shows you, friendship is more important than time.


We stayed the night at dear friends' Jairo and Betsy. Norman gave her a new look that evening and we were on our way early in the morning. We aimed for Rionegro where we'd stay at the Boteros. We hadn't seen Norman and Anita since Debi was a little girl, though she had been their guest several times, until February when we had gone to spy out the land and they hosted us.

We found a small house with garage to rent in a good neighborhood of El Carmen right away and set up house with inflatable mattresses and no furniture.  We scoured the second-hand shops and found two double beds and a dresser, some stools and that was it. We found stores that sold household gadgets super cheap and got many things there. Someone had given us an old refrigerator that needed defrosting almost once a week, but it was a blessing.  Norman stayed about 10 days and had to go back to Cartagena, leaving me with Debi to adapt to life in Paisa country. The scenery is gorgeous, the air clean and pure.  We'd found paradise. Well, almost.

The first Friday we went a little nuts grocery shopping at Hojarasca, an organic store and restaurant and ecological center. It only opens on weekends. Such fresh, delicious and healthy produce!  After a while I started taking vegetarian cooking classes, and that's been a great outlet. I've finally learned how to use my kitchen knives, scald, sauté and make all kinds of great foods with local ingredients (frijoles, jicama, victoria squash,  cidra) and made new friends in the process. My Wednesday afternoon class is a highlight of my week, followed by yoga therapy where I participate as far as my barely flexible knees permit. Our instructor thinks the rest of me is very flexible.  Norman didn't believe it.

When the rains began we discovered that our rented house had a big problem along the back wall. The empty lot behind it filled up with water which seeped through our wall. Good thing no one slept in the back room. The patio roofs also leaked. The owner had the main patio roof replaced.  This is where I hung up tons of laundry every ten days or so when we rented a washer by the hour.  In Cartagena we had a sunny backyard to put laundry out in. Here it was raining a lot and cold, too. We got a lot of clothes hangers and lifted the laundry on them with a long stick to hang from the ceiling bars. Usually dried in a  couple of  days.  We got a new stove with oven so Debi could bake and sell brownies and cookies.

Another fun thing at the house was that the next-door neighbor decided it was time to start building his house. This meant waking us up hammering and pouring cement early every morning. I was especially lucky as my bedroom shared their wall. Even earplugs didn't help.

Though we had the car, we mostly walked and used the car to go to  Rionegro or on an outing to explore.  I lost a little weight but generally feel great with more activity.  So many new things to try out. Yummy local sausages,  buñuelos, arepas of fresh corn always  available,  tamales, pan de achira.  We found hamburgers for 75 cents, lunch for anywhere from $1.25 to $3.50 USD.  Norman and I love to have coffee in the plaza with a fresh pandebono. It's kind of the local pastime. That and eating a sausage with mini arepa or having ice cream which is sold everywhere.  Though El Carmen is a small town it has about 50 rural roads lined with farms, and on weekends all those people seem to pour into town to eat ice cream and do their town shopping.  It's a regular fashion show. Old men in sarapes and felt hats, most old women with long grey hair, the younger ones mostly use an iron on their long hair. Norman says all the women have the same hairstyle. 

We have a good cultural Institute that offers classes in music, video production,  writing and of course ceramics, which have made El Carmen famous. We love the pottery.  Debi has taken some classes. There's an annual theater festival,  ceramics festival,  farmers' festival, Andean music festival and other events.  During the theater festival there was a tango concert with dancers,  in the park. Great stuff.

In February we moved to a rural small farm three km from town. We're living in an old adobe house, typical in the  country, with fireplace.  The only negative is that part of the farm is rented to a flower grower. He cultivates daisies/chrysanthemums which do not require "as much" fumigation as hydrangeas, which are common in the region and their cultivation is ruining the soil. But we have a little garden with chard, basil, tarragon, rosemary, thyme, arugula, green onions, jicama and some potatoes. The owner planted red and pink roses and some orchids. I love the flowers. Azaleas, too, even carnations. We enjoy four Mandarin lemon trees, several  varieties of guava, some figs and a few other trees not producing yet. I can hang my laundry outside again where the wind makes the trees clap their hands. We were able to get our own washer and new frig. Happy day.

After a month we got internet out in the boonies from the local cooperative, and we love to work on the computer or read in our outdoor living room which is glassed in on two sides. We have TV by satellite, too, and a landline that works.  My favorite part of the day is when the sun is setting. The sunsets are spectacular as I watch from the glassed-in area while finishing my work. And recently I discovered,  thanks to the Google Sky app on my dumbphone, that we can see the Southern Cross.  In all the years I have lived in Colombia,  the night sky was always a stranger, only Orion bridging the northern and southern skies assuring me that it was the  same heavenly vault.  Now the night sky is my friend here, too. They say that people get most depressed between 5:00 and 6:00 pm, but my God is Lord of the evening,  too, and I love that hour.

Some things have either surprised me or almost freaked me out. There was the morning the florist's cow decided to find out if the grass is greener our side of the fence. I  was glad her owner chased her out before I could try out my stick with the piece of leather attached to it.  It's the typical country walking stick here, handy in case a dog comes at you. Or a bull. Or a burro.

Another day the neighbor's burro came down our lane to see what he could eat. Twice. Emma,  our chihuahua-mini-pin mix from Cartagena, has become a happy country dog and chased Mr. Burro back up the hill. Twice. She is quite comical lording it over her territory and is my hearing dog and watchdog, too. She does have it in her blood to chase small animals, though. At the first house she cornered a mouse in the middle of the night. Brave Emma Lee. Here she thinks she should hunt the birds, of which there are many colorful ones. Sad to say she's caught two that've gotten stuck behind the set in, glass walls.  Instinct.


Last week I got up one morning and put on my slippers. After taking two steps I felt something pricking my big left toe. Off with that slipper! I shook it, and out dropped a spider.  Oh thank you, God, that the local arachnids are not poisonous!  It didn't  bite through, and when paralysis didn't set in within half an hour I figured I was safe. I include a close-up of my assailant. Now, I know you're always supposed to check inside shoes in the country, but I didn't.  I do now. Trust me. PIcture me waking up to use the bathroom at 3 a.m. and feeling around for my slippers so I can shake them out before I relieve myself.

My neighbor right over the fence has seen a harmless black snake in his woods, but I  haven't had the privilege.  Having grown up in California,  I have a very healthy respect for our slithering friends.  Now the florist tells me he's seen three different snakes among his mums. Fine with me as long as they stay in the greenhouse.

Last night I almost picked up what looked like a small ball of black and yellow yarn. Debi and I  have been knitting so it could have been yarn. Turned out to be a large worm. I scooped it up in the dustpan and liberated it down the hill on the grass. OK I tossed it out there.  It probably survived.  Worms like that are often poisonous.  Another close call.

So life out here in the country is a different experience, one we've always wanted. Bottom line, we love it. The clean air and tranquility are priceless. We are being renewed and invigorated. Who cares if we have ride the bus with all the windows closed during dry season because of the dust? What are a few (thousand) bugs I've never seen before? What if I run out of propane because I have no idea what an empty tank feels like. I've got a great supplier who rescues me within a couple of hours. Every day's an adventure. And do we feel inconvenienced? Not really. We feel really, really blessed.