Cartagena de Indias

We arrived at the first official stop of our honeymoon adventure last Thursday morning excited, bleary-eyed and with a depleted supply of tissues. As we approached the immigration counter to get our passports stamped, Drew and I made the unspoken and unanimous decision to begin Operation: Spanish Language Revival immediately.

We greeted the immigration officer with a “buenos días” and then proceeded to white-knuckle it through a series of extremely basic questions about our travel plans. At one point, the officer – who seemed as charmed as he was amused by two sickly gringos doing their best to hold their own with him – asked us about our professions. We paused, considering how to explain that we recently quit our jobs and are thoroughly unemployed (in that split second I somehow also entertained explaining to him the word “funemployed”). Instead, we mumbled out “planeadores urbanos” – stealing a proud shared grin for pulling that term out of absolutely nowhere and getting an affirming nod from our new best friend, the Immigration Officer.

I just looked up Planeador Urbano to write this blog post, and am proud to share that, as it turns out, we are on record as two Urban Gliders (as in, engine-less planes) currently backpacking around the country, with no known date of exit. Whoops. (The term is actually “planificador urbano.”)

Cartagena de Indias welcomed us warmly. In fact, it was less than 10 seconds on the sidewalk outside the airport before we were both drenched in quantities of sweat previously unknown to humankind. We spent the next three days seeking refuge from the heat, recovering from the journey and our lingering illness, exploring both the Old City of Cartagena – a UNESCO designated world heritage site – and beyond, and of course, eating and drinking everything we could get our hands on.

In the food and beverage department, some favorite local specialities include:

Acquainting myself with an arepa con huevo. First snack in Colombia!
  • Jugos naturales – fresh juices. Blended drinks with either milk or water and unique Colombian fruits. One we tried in the Bazurto Market had tomates de arbol and lulo, both tart fruits that were balanced out with several generous servings of cane sugar.
  • On many more than one occasion we also enjoyed this sweet lime drink that is carted around by street vendors. It is prepared in a big glass container with tons of ice (and sugar) and slowly melts throughout the day. I regret never following through on my desire to request skipping the standard serving cup and just fill my water bottle with this deliciousness.
  • Arepas (above) – a Colombian must. We picked up our first one fresh out of the fryer near the western wall of the Old City about an hour after landing. They’re about 1/3 corn, 1/3 filling (egg, cheese, meat, whatever) and 1/3 grease. Mmm.
  • Ceviche – even though this is really a food of Peruvian origin, it’s all over Cartagena. The fishing profession is big here, and the result is a myriad of delicious uncooked seafood dishes, as well as plenty of cooked seafood dishes. The latter is usually served with coconut rice, fried plantains, and salad.

Probably our favorite two culinary experiences were on either end of the hipster spectrum. One day we took the bus (more on the bus from Drew soon) a few miles outside the Old City to the aforementioned Bazurto Market, which is a loud, fascinating, terrific open air market where you can buy everything from a washing machine to bananas, charcoal to baby chicks with dyed-blue feathers (actually maybe this is pretty hipster? Anyway.).

We bought some mandarins, a guava, two passion fruits and one of something else we still haven’t confirmed the name of (see brown/yellow oval shaped fruit above – we think maybe Níspero – any ideas??), and then sat down on a piece of concrete amidst the chaos to munch on our haul. Bazurto is characterized to most tourists as “dangerous and dirty” so we were blessedly relieved from the throngs that are a constant within the Old City and also somewhat of a spectacle to all the locals. They laughed, we shrugged and laughed, too.

Drew drinking the Leticia: copoazu-infused rum, cacao, tequila, pineapple, cacao and fermented yucca. An absolute knockout of a beverage.

The other best food thing that happened was actually more of a drink thing that happened. At the recommendation of some foodie friends (thanks, Aditi and Ben!) we stopped in to Alquímico, a local cocktail bar that prepares its own liquor infusions made from – yes, you guessed it – the many wild and wonderful local Colombian fruits. We planned to have a quick drink and then keep going towards some more ceviche, but ended up spending almost three hours at the bar with Steven, our bartender from Medellín and next new best friend (sorry, Immigration Officer).

Steven shared with us the origin of each of the infusions and liquors, warned me about the salt made from ants that was rimming my cocktail (so tasty), upon learning we were recently married advised Drew on the phrase “Happy Wife, Happy Life” (sometimes, a concept is so good and accurate it traverses all languages and cultures 😉 ), and prepared his signature cocktail – a mango-infused rum, tequila, ancho and lime concoction – for us on the house. He also shared some pro-tips for Medellín that we’re looking forward to putting into practice in a couple of weeks.

Beyond the food and drink, Cartagena was visually quite wonderful and had an amazing urban park full of iguanas, tiny monkeys and a sloth (perezoso, which also means “lazy” in Spanish, just like “sloth” has the other meaning in English) just chilling in the trees that we loved. It was really neat to see some homages to Fernando Botero (who is Colombian but actually from Medellin) and Gabriel Garcia Marquez (who spent time in Cartagena and set Love in the Time of Cholera, and other novels here) around the city, as well.

The mosquitos are coming out and it’s time for dinner, so I’ll leave you with these photos, until next time!

Old City, New BRT: Notes on Transcaribe

From time to time – we can’t help it – we’ll be sharing some more focused, topic-specific, and, for lack of a better word, nerdy reflections on the systems and situations we’re encountering. I am instituting the “nerd alert” tag on such posts so feel free to skip if you don’t care about the intricacies of transit, or coffee, or whatever strikes our fancy.

I’m also backdating this post, which is about Bus Rapid Transit in Cartagena, to when we were interacting with the system. (We’re generally trying to post in something resembling chronological order, but there are always going to be exceptions.)

I am always fascinated by urban formality and urban informality. We can think of formality as carefully controlled, regulated systems or structures, often with the explicit or implicit involvement of a robust public-sector entity – think a shiny new apartment complex or a public transit network that shows up on Google Maps – and informality as more organic, ad-hoc, disorganized systems or structures, like a network of jitney vans or a tin-roof squatter community. Without getting into it too much, it’s certainly not the case that formality always entails greater wealth or “economic advancement” than informality, but there’s definitely some association there. (Feel free to blast me for a simplistic depiction of informality in the comments.)

One feature of the urban landscape that has often stood out to me when traveling is the sharp juxtaposition of formal and informal elements – as when the high-rise we stayed in in Bangkok was flanked by a disorganized slum. So I am fascinated by Transcaribe, a modern and formal Bus Rapid Transit system situated within the often informal contexts of Cartagena.

(Bus Rapid Transit, or BRT, is a transit typology that seeks to obtain many of the benefits of a full-blown rail transit network with the much cheaper rolling stock of buses, by providing some of the off-vehicle amenities essential to rail transit: dedicated right of way, i.e. bus-only lanes; off-board fare collection; level boarding, at purpose-specific stations; and all-door boarding.)

The recent collapse of Chariot (Ford’s private luxury transit service) underscores the persistent reality that private transit is not economically viable in the United States. But due to a range of factors including different land use development patterns, different vehicle ownership rates, different cultural norms, and different levels of subsidy for private vehicle operation ranging from artificially low gas prices to excessive supply of lane space in otherwise dense urban contexts, private transit is alive and well in much of the world.

Cartagena, like many cities in Latin America, has a flourishing private transit scene. Brightly colored vans of 15 to 20 seats pass by very frequently, with their destinations indicated on the windshield and shouted by an on-board attendant. It costs 2100 Colombian pesos (COP), or about US$0.66, to ride. They’re heavily ridden and by all accounts easy to use once you have a good mental map of Cartagena – but god help the new arrival trying to figure out how to get around or where to catch the bus.

Informal private transit in Cartagena. (Photo: El Universal – Colprensa)

Into this context arrived Transcaribe, a formal public-sector bus system that debuted in November 2015. The core of Transcaribe is a BRT network currently consisting of two dedicated corridors, and the system also includes a range of feeder routes and hybrid routes that run along dedicated rights of way and then continue on all-purpose streets. This latter enables riders to benefit from high-speed travel along the BRT lanes and then reach more far-flung destinations without changing buses.

We rode Transcaribe for just one round trip, to and from the Bazurto market, so have an extremely small base of experience. Nonetheless, following are my observations on the system. (Worth noting that our one round trip was very easy and successful.)

What’s Present

  • Dedicated right of way. This is THE crucial component of BRT and I’m impressed with how much lane space has been dedicated for buses on some of the city’s most hotly contested streets. The key examples are:
    • Avenida Pedro de Heredia, Cartagena’s most major thoroughfare, where a typical cross-section now has two or three lanes for private vehicles and two or three lanes for BRT. I don’t readily have a “before” cross-section for comparison, but this is at least a 50 percent reduction in private vehicle space on the busiest street in town. (Compare, favorably, with the long-overdue Van Ness BRT project in San Francisco, which reduces private vehicle lanes from six to four, a measly 33 percent drop that doesn’t leave room for buses to pass each other.)
    • A BRT-only street runs through the old walled city, while private vehicles have to go around it or wade through its narrow streets choked with pedestrians. This is the kind of advantage that makes transit truly competitive against private cars. (Also, interestingly, the pavement of this street is colored a light pink, the better to blend in visually with the palette of the old city. Historic preservation meets modern transit!)
  • Off-board fare collection. You pay via a wireless tap card (like London’s Oyster card, or SF’s Clipper card), which, happily, can be used to tap in multiple people for the same trip (good for tourists). It costs 4000 COP (about US$1.25) for the tap card, and 2500 COP (about US$0.80) per trip, so this is about a 20 percent price premium over the city’s informal transit. Nevertheless, the system is attracting plenty of riders.
The author at Centro station. Level boarding platforms and a sizable queue can be seen. (Photo: Sara Draper-Zivetz)
  • Level and all-door boarding. The stations are spacious and visually prominent, and maybe even accessible for people with physical disabilities, though I’d be leery of getting wheels stuck in the 6-inch gaps between platform and bus. (Despite these positive features, which are aimed at reducing dwell – the time the bus spends stopped at the station – Transcaribe will have a hard time competing for low dwell with the informal buses, which hardly stop for more than two seconds as they let well-prepared passengers on and off!)
  • Frequent service. The Spanish-language Wikipedia article claims about 5 minute headways on most routes. In our anecdotal experience we never had to wait more than a few minutes.
  • Shiny new rolling stock. Seriously, these buses are really nice, and obviously they’re only a couple of years old. What a breath of fresh air, especially coming from the land of BART, which has the oldest commuter rail fleet in the US.
  • Supportive transportation policy. The system is in full expansion mode, with total buses in service increasing from about 200 to about 330 in coming months, and planners recently increased the ultimate total fleet size from 650 to 850 vehicles. Moreover, Cartagena has lately embraced the so-called pico y placa system (which restricts some vehicles from high-traffic areas at peak times on some days, based on the last digit of the license plate) to reduce vehicle congestion and encourage transit use.
A shiny new articulated Transcaribe bus. (Photo: Wikipedia)

What’s Missing

  • A system map!! Neither in the various bus stations nor on the website can you find a unified map of the bus system.
    • Perhaps this is because they’re actively expanding the system (two new routes began service just last month) and don’t want to constantly reprint soon-to-be-outdated maps?
    • But that doesn’t excuse the lack of a web map, and despite some decent third-party resources, I still have no clear idea of the Transcaribe service area.
    • The route-by-route maps are also a little difficult to follow: street names aren’t shown on the map, and stops are indicated by the name of an adjacent business. This works well if you already know the city, but one of the benefits of a putatively formal system is that it should be useful and legible to the newcomer as well as to the local.
  • Automated fare payment kiosks. At least, I didn’t see any at the three stations we visited. Instead there are one or two (usually one) human-attended ticket booths, which is good for helping people navigate the system (the attendant kindly indicated which routes would work for our trip, which, see above, would otherwise have been difficult to figure out) but bad for the service rate, leading to some pretty long lines of people waiting to buy or reload tap cards (visible in the above “level boarding” photo).
  • On-board electronic information signs. Compared to physical elements like dedicated ROW and frequent service, this is more in the “nice to have” category – but then again, we almost missed our stop.

Overall Rating

4 out of 5 buses.* Transcaribe is a promising addition to Cartagena’s robust transit scene, and while they could make some important investments in wayfinding and system legibility, it seems like they’re pouring that money into more service instead, and it’s hard to argue with that.

Next week we’ll be in Bogotá, home of TransMilenio, one of the oldest and best known BRT systems, so it’ll be interesting to contrast the BRT experience in Cartagena and Bogotá. (At least TransMilenio has a system map!)

* This rating is based on basically nothing.

We made it! (?)

A moment of transitory victory as we successfully closed out of our Day Street home-for-a-month, packed and re-packed our bags, and bundled ourselves off to the airport!

We’ve faced down quite a few challenges to get to this moment:

  • The big closeout of our Oakland home;
  • Gracefully wrapping up our jobs (harder for Sara than for me, because 1. hers is a much smaller organization in which she occupied a much more structurally vital position and 2. I’ll be continuing to work a few hours a week, time permitting, from the road!);
  • The smaller closeout of our SF pied-a-terre;
  • Designing a set of stuff to bring around the world, and then actually acquiring and assembling the stuff;
  • Saying goodbye to so many friends and loved ones!

Both Sara and I have been under the weather, me for more than a week now and Sara potentially following in my footsteps, so, sitting in the airport, it sort of feels like we’re dragging ourselves across the finish line here. But of course, this is more of a starting line than a finish line…

Next stop, Colombia, via a rough red-eye itinerary through Panama City. (In fact I am writing this in Cartagena – it turns out blogging from the airport isn’t so easy – more to come soon!)

Tomorrow to fresh woods, and pastures new

Welcome!

Either you’re lost in an internet rabbit hole and have somehow found yourself here – a place where whatever answers you seek from the world wide web will surely not be provided – or you’ve come here to follow along on our – Drew and Sara’s – extended, indefinite honeymoon world tour!

We write today from Drew’s childhood home on Day Street in San Francisco, where we are staying until our fast approaching departure on January 23. We are currently living among packing lists and clothing piles, malaria pills and ziploc bags, a small dose of anxiety and many high hopes for the adventure ahead.

Colombia is one of the most ethnically, linguistically and biologically diverse countries on the planet. It is home to nearly 50 million people.

When we take off on 123 (fitting, no?) we go first to Colombia. Our plans for our time there include improving our Spanish; getting to know the cities of Medellín, Bogotá, and Cartagena (each of which promises these urbanists a different kind of delight and learning); drinking copious cups of coffee (or at least bearing witness to Sara doing so) and hiking in the Zona Cafetera; unwinding from a demanding 2018; and finding a rhythm for the long(er) haul ahead of us.

Drew may also cycle up one of the longest climbs on earth – fifty miles straight gaining about 12,000 feet of elevation in the process – because everyone has their own special definition of fun!

Though this journey is many months (and really, years) in the making, we intend to do much of its planning in real time. We expect to cross over from Colombia to Ecuador in late February or early March, and hope to make it to Peru after that. Then maybe we’ll go to Mexico. Then there’s some time in Canada to think about, followed by bike touring in Europe perhaps, then we have our eyes on Japan, and how can you overlook South East Asia? And of course trip to Australia with a stop in New Zealand is in order…

We’ll provide updates on our moves as they start to take clearer shape here. And in addition to our written travelogue, Drew will be helping you all follow along with us in map form! You can click here to visit the map (it may look familiar), which will also show you the blog post that corresponds to whatever destination you select that we have marked and written about.

We are excited to have our dear friend Derek join us in February in Colombia, and then meet up with Drew’s parents Howard and Wendy in Quito in early March, just as they end their own South American adventure. Sara’s mom may also join us in Peru later in March. We are eagerly accepting suggestions for more friends and acquaintances to connect with, and if you’ve been to any of our destinations above and would be willing to share your favorite food spots, neighborhoods, public parks, transit lines, etc. we would be most grateful.

We also very much hope you will considering joining us at some point along the way – the invitation is open and standing!

We’ll be traveling with our backpacks (Sara’s 55L North Face Terra and Drew’s newly acquired 70L Osprey Farpoint – for those who are into the gear aspect of these kinds of things) and not much else. As such, we kindly request that you refrain from commenting when you see our typical commitment to high fashion make a precipitous decline in photos come late January.

In 1967, Sara’s grandparents left their home and life in Los Angeles for what would become a twenty year multi-national tour in the U.S. Foreign Service. At their farewell party, a friend gifted them a notebook with bon voyage messages from their friends and family included within. This inscription adorned the first page. Sara stumbled upon it during a recent visit to her nearly 93 year old grandmother in Carlsbad, CA.

Beyond the support of our packs and our trusty 30-something bodies (??), this adventure is also being supported in every respect by the generosity of our community. From the many local friends who helped us pack, sell, and/or haul our entire lives into a corner of the Levitt/Scheffers garage (see previous post), to those further afield who have cheered on this admittedly harebrained plan with love and enthusiasm. From the extended family and friends whose gifts for our wedding will keep us fed and sheltered in the weeks and months ahead, to our immediate family who have provided guidance, encouragement, and given so much of themselves to let us realize this dream. Oh and the Academy. We’d also like to thank the Academy.

We are stepping away from our home and work and people in the Bay Area eagerly, earnestly, and with so much gratitude for the life we’re leaving behind. Future posts may reflect on this more, or maybe we’ll just stick to food pics and hashtags, but it had to be said, before we go.

Onward, into the great unknown, with the internet explaining it all in real time!