Tuesday, 19 March 2019

Home Sweet (as) Home

Sarah and I spent the night before our departure from Utah on the floor of the Salt Lake City Airport.  We were getting good at this, as we'd already spent a night sleeping in Denver airport on our way there.  A fairly boozy dinner and a couple of more beers at the SLC bar drifted us off quite nicely, and it was soon time to groggily awaken to say goodbye.

We were both flying to Los Angeles, but on separate flights.  And Sarah was heading onward from there to Paris, while I was returning to New Zealand (however briefly).

Why, you ask, was I making a return trip across the Pacific?  Well, before we departed on our holiday, I'd had my application for a grant of New Zealand citizenship approved.  But to make it official, you must physically attend a citizenship ceremony within one year of being approved (or, as I flippantly put it, shake hands with a mayor and say you love the queen).

I flew from LA to Auckland and spent a day and a night there.  My awesome friend Julie happened to be visiting from Christchurch, so she very kindly picked me up at the airport and we spent the day visiting various beer-related venues before I met up with mate's Brendon and Kim with whom I'd be spending the night.

Eaaaarly the next morning it was off to Christchurch where I had a lovely breakfast/brunch with a couple more friends before meeting up with Sarah's mum Olwyn.  As my citizenship ceremony was actually being held at Akaroa, 90 minutes drive from Christchurch, and as we were meant to be there by 07:30, we'd decided to make a little holiday of it and spend the night near to the site at Barry's Bay on Banks Peninsula.  We stayed at the lovely Half Moon Cottage, a pretty, cozy backpackers with a very nice rambling garden. Dinner was (appropriately Kiwi) fish and chips at the Akaroa chip shop.

My ceremony was to be held on Waitangi Day at the Onuku Marae.  Waitangi Day is New Zealand's national day, which commemorates the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi, largely regarded as the country's founding document,, betwee various Maori Iwi and the Crown.  Onuku was where the treaty was signed by three chiefs representing a huge swathe of the South Island, and was the site of the official commemoration for the region. So the whole affair was a pretty big deal.

It was a cold and grey day (the only one I experienced in my two weeks in NZ) that began with a Powhiri (official greeting ceremony) and the commemoration proceedings, with several speeches, including one by the Governor General and another by the former head of the South Island Iwi, Ngai Tahu, on the past and future of the treaty and the relationship between Maori and the Crown which was one of the best political speeches I've ever heard (probably at least in part because he's a retired politician and can say what he wants without having to worry about pleasing enough people to get re-elected).

As I said when a news reporter asked me later, doing my citizenship ceremony there and then gave me a strong sense of the history of the nation and and an even greater feeling for what I was becoming a part of.  There were about fifty of us there becoming official Kiwis originating everywhere from Afghanistan to Zimbabwe. My pink floral suit was a big hit, with the Department of Internal affairs reps asking for a photo with me and the Christchurch mayor (dressed in her mayoral robes and chain) joking that she felt overdressed when she handed me my certificate.

Afterwards Olwyn and I joined everyone else for a fabulous BBQ put on by the local community before we headed back to town for our own little celebratory dinner at her new home.

I'm very happy and proud to officially be a Kiwi, and it was great that I had Olwyn there with me to celebrate the special day.

The next afternoon I headed up to Wellington for a bit of a visit with friends and the old home town.  My friends Steph and Jonny who (yet again) kindly welcomed me to their home had a BBQ, lots of good beer and several good mates waiting for me shortly after I got off the plane.

And soon after that I was off over the hill for a weekend of wine, cheese, boardgames and fun in Martinborough with my former brewery mate Annika, her partner and my good friend Dylan and fellow Canuc-Kiwis Dave and Gina.

After Martinborough we made a quick overnight visit to Dylan and Annika's “country home” near Masterton where Annika and I brewed a beer together (first one in ages for both of us!) and I planted the native tree (a Ribbonwood) that I'd been gifted at my citizenship ceremony in their expansive and lovely garden.

Back in Wellington on Monday I arranged my first NZ passport (big ups to the NZ Passport service for probably being the most helpful and efficient government department I've ever dealt with anywhere in the world).  I spent the remainder of the week catching up on developments in NZ brewing and Wellington friends. Fortunately lots of the work in the brewing and hospitality industries, so doing both of these at once in the middle of the week was actually quite simple.

The final night before my departure was spent with a big crowd of mates at the Yeastie Boys pub quiz, where our team triumphed and I swapped shirts twice to leave with Sam's fabulous Gunamatta t-shirt, which will motivate me to slim down a bit on my travels, as Sam is rather smaller than me!

My final 36 hours were spent in Auckland, again with Kim and Brendan. I had lots of fun talking to one of Kim's school classes, just blethering away about engineering, brewing, walking Te Araroa, travel and life generally.  And a further great time at a Wellington Phoenix match with my hosts and mates of Brendan's visiting from Aussie for the match.

They had their own plans the next day, so after brunch we said goodbye and I concluded my visit to NZ in a very appropriate fashion with the Auckland City of Ales beer festival before heading straight to the airport for my return trip to LA.

In a surprisingly chilly Los Angeles I got to spend a few days with my good friend Nick and his son Sebastian. Nick and I spent most of our time playing boardgames, which I won't bore you with the details of, but a few non-gaming highlights included a fabulous lunch at the Mexican seafood restaurant across the street and my bemusing Nick by insisting on taking regular public transport (not even the express bus!) to and from the airport.

Back at LAX it was time to cross another continent and another ocean to be reunited with Sarah, this time in Barcelona, Spain.

Bluebird, Blackbird, Snowbird

The story of our time in the US is going to be a short one, as it was mostly about a family visit with Sarah's dad and step-family and there's only a few things that will be of interest to general readers.

The primary reason we were in Utah in particular was for the skiing.  Sarah only skied a couple of days, and I only went for one. But it was a good one.  Bright blue skies, not too cold and enough terrain that you could ski all day and not cover the same bit of ground twice. It always takes a little while for me to get my feet under me, but once I do I usually manage pretty well (as I'm fond of saying, I'm brave and I have a low centre of gravity).  I even managed my first time skiing in powder okay (though I did fall down in the easy bit right at the end of a run as several familiar faces passed overhead on a lift).

In addition to the skiing there were a few other fun activities we got into:

The Sundance Film Festival was on, so one afternoon we drove the 90 minutes to Park City to check it out and see if we could catch a movie. It proved to be no problem.  Mid-week there were still tickets available for a variety of shows up to a couple of hours before they started. We ended up watching the world premiere of a documentary about Steve Bannon, which was good and the Q&A with the director and producer after, which actually really added to it.

I wasn't a huge fan of Park City itself.  It's jam packed full of overpriced stores selling pointless goods, and there were truly ridiculous numbers of temporary no parking signs and barriers and people directing traffic and telling you when you could cross the street.  And the city owned garages had tripled (or was it quadrupled?) the price of parking during the festival. But the festival itself was awesome. Still mostly volunteer run with a very real sense of community spirit behind it, and screenings taking place all over town (the one we went to was in a very nicely retrofitted room in the library!) We also had some of the best Gin! I've ever enjoyed at the Alpine distillery.

Speaking of drinks, we had a fair bit of Utah beer as well.  It's worth mentioning this so I can comment on Utah's unusual alcohol laws.  There are two types of license to sell alcohol from a shop: a beer license (usually at supermarkets, corner stores, etc.) and a full license (for full on liquor stores).   If you have a beer license you can only sell beer of 4.0%abv or under (same goes for all draft beer). Which many breweries have responded to by taking (for example) their 6% IPA and brewing a version of it with 50% water added at the end, leading to a lot of thin and unsatisfying beers.  Why not just focus on styles that taste good at 4%? Or at least brew low alcohol versions of other styles from scratch with recipes designed for the strength? That said, once we realized this and went to a liquor store to buy beer we had some great full strength beers, including a 10% Imperial stout and a cracking 9.6% double IPA.

I guess none of this should have been terribly surprising in the state that's the centre of the Mormon church.  Speaking of which, we did have a decent look around central Salt Lake City. It's an incredibly clean and nice looking city.  The volunteers at the LDS (Latter Day Saints, what the members of the church call it themselves) holy sites were incredibly friendly and happily took “I'm not religious and not really interested in being proselytised to,” for an answer.  But it also felt rather soulless and boring. Downtown was practically empty (on a Thursday afternoon) with ridiculously wide and pedestrian unfriendly streets.

I've saved what was perhaps my favourite activity for last: a visit to the Hill Air Force Base museum.  It featured USAF (and a few other) aircraft from the second world war on, including some really cool stuff like a B-17 and B-29, P-38 and all seven of the Century Series (a series of supersonic USAF fighter planes from the '60s and '70s) all parked in the same room.  But the clear star of the show for me was the SR-71C Blackbird. Like many tech-nerds and engineers roughly my age, I'd jbeen fascinated by this plane (still the fastest ever built) since I was a kid, and so the chance to walk around and get right up close to one made me feel giddy and childlike again. I had a huge smile on my face the whole time, due also in part to how excited Chris was too, and how enthusiastic the museum volunteer, a USAF veteran who'd worked on bases that the Blackbird flew out of, was about sharing his knowledge and excitement.

Other than all this, of course, there was lots of time spent at home with the family.  Everyone took turns preparing dinners and cocktails for the whole lot (we made a Tex-Mex feast with creamy-rum-infused-Peruvian 100% cacao flavoured hot chocolate).  People did burpees whenever they said the word “delicious”. And everyone spent a good lot of time out in the lovely warm spa pool.

Huge thanks are, of course, due to Chris and Julie for arranging this whole trip and getting everyone together.  After six months on our own it was just wonderful to have seen my family, Raj and all the Sparkses and Clarkses in quick succession!

Thursday, 14 March 2019

Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, PLUS a Cartagena Fashion Show

We said our goodbyes with Raj as he headed to the airport and we to the minibus station just down the street and around the corner.

We still had a flight out of Cartagena in five days and had been debating what to do in the interim.  There were nice beaches at CCC and Taganga (where we'd been in 2013). There was some particularly beautiful coastline a but further afield at Tayrona National Park a bit further afield.  But we eventually decided to head for the hills of Minca, just above the city of Santa Marta in the mountain range of the same name.

The Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta are home to Colombia's highest peaks, but Minca sits within them just 20km as the crow flies from the Caribbean sea. It took most of a day to get there from Cartagena. A four-hour trip along the toll road to Santa Marta, an hour or so of walking between bus stations, grocery shopping and finding an ATM, then a final 45 minutes heading up into the hills on a good, but winding asphalt road.

Minca is a pretty little town that reminded me a lot of a slightly smaller, slightly less tourism-developed version of Mindo, just outside Quito, Ecuador.  It's got a few little tour companies, some shops selling basic food and drink, lots of cute little restaurants and guesthouses, several brightly coloured murals, a relaxed atmosphere and a very pretty location.  It felt like the kind of place you could imagine modern-day hippies coming to hang out for a week or so, with many ending up staying for years.

Most of the prettiest places to stay in the area are in the mountains outside town, though these require a long walk or paying for a moto-taxi back into town every time you want to go to the shop (and many of them don't have kitchens, using their remoteish locations to “encourage” guests to eat at their restaurants).  We settled for a happy mediu, staying at Casa Colibri, a charming guesthouse run by a French-Venezuelan couple a hundred or so stairs up and behind the centre of the village.

The kitchen was separate from the main building, up still more stairs under a thatched roof with a nice view out over the town and surrounding hills.  It was a lovely place to prepare and eat our meals, while the terrace down below had hammocks and lots of pillows and was good for lazing about, drinking our home-made limeade, sometimes fortified with Medellin rum.  In short, the whole situation was idyllic and relaxing.

We did actually get out of our hammocks several times during our stay.  On one day we took a couple of hours walk further up into the mountains to the La Victoria coffee plantation and the adjoining Nevada brewery (I wonder how long it took after deciding to name the brewery after the mountains it was set in for someone to point out that calling it “Sierra Nevada” might lead to a letter from an American lawyer?)

The walk was all up a road, but it was a pretty beat up one, with minimal slow traffic and lots of shade provided by the forest, so it was a very nice walk.  And the coffee and beer, while maybe not quite up to the standards of what we'd had in Medellin, were both good (three of the four beers [coffee stout being the exception] were way out of style, but we'll made and tasty.)

I liked the walk so much that I took a longer, solo stroll up to Los Pianos, a viewpoint way above town that looked down over Santa Marta to the ocean and (were it clearer than when I visited) up to Cerro Cristobal Colon, Colombia's highest point at over 5000m.  Most of this loop was even less busy, with just a few Moto taxis passing me during most of the five hours or so of walking, and most of the rest of the “traffic” consisting of local villagers walking or leading donkeys through the (once again) pleasantly shady forested road.

We also spent a full afternoon at Pozo Azul, a delightful swimming hole 45 minutes walk upriver from Minca.  Pozo Azul isn't actually particularly Azul (blue), but it was a pretty spot to hang out. Big jungle trees overhang its several pools and waterfalls flowing with cool (but thankfully not freezing cold) mountain water.  We'd been there briefly on a Sunday when it was packed full of Colombian families making a day trip from Santa Marta, but on a Tuesday it was pleasantly busy but much more relaxed, with mixed groups of Colombian and foreign tourists coming and going as we sipped the beers we'd brought (Club Colombia Oktoberfest… showing its four month age a little, but surprisingly good) and went for occasional swims in several of the pools, which grew emptier as you scrambled further and further up the river.

All in all, Minca was a fine way to relax after what had been a surprisingly bustling couple of weeks in Colombia (except perhaps, for the fact that Sarah got absolutely savaged by biting flies on our last day or so.  Fortunately they looked worse than they itched).

Our very final days were spent back in Cartagena.  We'd considered spending them in Baranquilla or elsewhere, but apparently the relaxation of Minca had left us feeling a bit lazy, so we returned to the familiarity and beauty of the old Caribbean emerald (the old town was packed with shops selling the gems to tourists) for the last couple of days before our departure from South America.

These days were perhaps a bit anticlimactic from a storytelling perspective.

We got to know the neighbourhood around our Airbnb a bit better, venturing out in the evening to enjoy the street food on the neighbourhood's main drag.  Sarah had a whole vegetarian pizza made by a man and a woman who dragged their electric pizza oven out onto the corner every evening. I had a couple of nights of super cheap but super tasty steak, salad and potatoes.  And we cooked one more meal at home, this time sharing the kitchen with the family whose home we were staying in and a guy from CuraƧao who had come to Colombia to meet an internet friend.

We, of course, enjoyed sitting on the terrace again, watching the sunset over the walled city.  We, of course, made several return visits to the park to hang out with the iguanas and the sloths.  We, of course, had a few more Colombian beers in the sun.

I also returned to get my waistcoat taken in a bit.  It fit perfectly in the chest, but for some reason the tailor had overestimated the size of my puku (tummy).  They took it and asked me to return in a couple of hours. This turned into several more visits, each an hour or so apart, while they waited for the power to come back on to operate their sewing machines.  Eventually as sunset was approaching they gave up waiting and simply had one of the women who worked in the shop finish off the alteration with a manual sewing machine.

And as the suit had been Sarah's idea, she also prodded me into doing a “photo shoot” in old Cartagena on our final full day in town. We wandered around, taking fashion-style snaps throughout the brightly coloured streets and bougainvillia of the old city.

I think these lovely images are a fine place to say farewell to Cartagena, and to South America.  So I'll see you again next time on another continent!

Old Friends in the Old Town

As with Medellin, we were revisiting Cartagena.  We'd been with my family during our first visit around New Year's 2013.  We had company once again, but this time it was Raj, our Couchsurfing host from Dushanbe, Tajikistan in 2012.  Raj works as a doctor and had been attending a conference in Atlanta. He had some free time before returning to his family home in India and, to our absolute delight, chose to spend some of it coming down to visit us in Colombia.  We'd kept in occasional touch, but this would be our first reunion in over six years.

We were staying at an Airbnb in a residential neighborhood maybe twenty minutes from the tourist heart of Cartagena in its old city.  We walked along a busy road next to a huge empty lot on our way there for the first time, but discovered that it actually sat amongst lots of strikingly painted white homes connected by twisty narrow streets.

The place we were staying was a pleasant two bedroom apartment featuring a huge terrace outside with views of the ocean, the huge Castillo San Felipe and the old city in the distance.  We did a bit of shopping and waited for Raj's arrival. We spent our first evening catching up over dinner (we took turns cooking during our six days together) and making (very rough) plans for our next few days together.

The next day we went into the old walled city for a look around. It was just as gorgeous as we remembered, and the pretty, done up section of town had expanded to include the residential neighbourhood of Gethsemani where we'd stayed during our previous visit (after saying goodbye to the family and vacating the fancy resort where we'd been staying).  The old city is full of brilliant colours, sixteenth to eighteenth century buildings and, even moreso than during our last visit, foreign tourists. In 2013, the memory of the Colombian civil war was still fresh enough that many chose to stay away, but by 2019 the cruise ships had descended and we spent a good chunk of the day amongst grey-haired throngs following little flags on extendable pointers.

We also checked out the city centre, where the old city meets the new, and enjoyed some tasty fruit juices and cheese pastries before heading back home for an afternoon on the terrace with a tasty, vegetable-heavy dinner and a few beers.

As it turned out, we weren't alone on the terrace.  It was shared with two other apartments, but in this case it was a few iguanas.  Raj attempted to photograph the one that came closest, but it seemed to climb a tall pot plant in a spiral, always on the far side from Raj, making for an entertaining little game of hide and seek.

The following day we set out to explore some of the huge, untouristed expanse of new Cartagena (simply NEW, not the ultra-modern parade of bright white beach hotels in Boca Grande district).  We took an Uber to the main Bazurto market. A lot of reviews online claim that it's dirty, dangerous and not that interesting. This is obviously a function of the city being inundated with cruise ship passengers who have never been to a market in a developing country before.  We found it to be a bit grubby, but lively, friendly and lots of fun to explore.
And unlike in the old town, you could just sit down at a juice stand, order your (delicious!) tamarillo and passion fruit juice, chat with the proprietor, hand him some money and be charged exactly what a non-tourist would. Indeed, just generally people around Bazurto seemed delighted to see visitors checking out their part of town and were amazingly solicitous and helpful.
Including when it came to locating a fabric store and selecting some material.  For what, you ask? Well, I needed some nice new clothes for my upcoming NZ citizenship ceremony and had decided to have them made in Colombia.  I'd found a tailor earlier and he'd told me to select some fabric and come back with it the next day.

We did this at Bazurto, then returned to drop it off at his shop in the old town.  It was no more than thirty square metres, but there were clothes and fabric everywhere, and half a dozen women working at sewing machines, while the head tailor, Vincente worked at his own machine in the back.  After he’d measured me up, I suggested returning in ten days or so to pick up my suit, but he seemed distressed at this prospect, worried that this would give it too much time to get lost in the small, but very busy shop.  We agreed that I'd be back in three days time.

On this day we also made a revelatory discovery.  The central park, near the clock-tower gate of the old city was busy with animals including lots of large iguanas and (this was the revelation) a mother sloth and her baby!  (This of course, implied that there was at least one other sloth in the park, and as it turned out there were at least two others, a young female and the male, which we never actually spotted).  We sat and watched the sloths for ages before finally heading home for the evening.

All three of us had, at some time in the past, taken Salsa lessons.  And seeing as we were now in (arguably) the home country of Salsa, we decided we might do well to refresh our memories before hitting the city's dance clubs for an evening.  We took a ninety minute group lesson, during which Sarah and Raj made decent progress and I got comfortable with precisely one step (out of six we learned), spending most of the rest of the lesson trying to get pack in time with the music, stumbling over my feet and laughing at myself.  “Try again with a couple of beers,” was the instructor's advice.

That afternoon we'd decided to head to the beach. We just hadn't decided which beach.  The ones in Cartagena itself are okay, but not the white-sanded, turquoise-watered beaches that you think of when you think “Caribbean Sea”.  Such places exist near Cartagena, but they're a bit far from the city and are reputed to be crowded and packed with people selling overpriced goods and services you probably aren't interested in.  Eventually we decided to visit one of these, Playa Blanca, anyway.

We got a (very good value) forty minute Uber ride out there and found its reputation to be entirely well founded in all respects.  It was JAM packed with people. And there had been parking attendants banging on our car windows trying to pull our driver into their lots.  And there wasn't a metre of beachfront that wasn't filled with a restaurant, bar, cafe or guesthouse. There were lots of people offering massages, drinks, oysters, etc.  But they weren't particularly pushy. And most importantly, the beach was gorgeous. And the water was clear and warm. We ended up spending a couple of pleasant hours under one of the only (and curiously under-occupied at that) trees on the beach.  We found a speedboat ride back to town with a minimum of hassle and negotiation. And as it turned out the bouncing, splashing trip back with 22 other tourists, three crew and four hundred horses on the back of the boat turned out to be possibly the funnest part of the whole day.

The next morning we woke early and went straight to Castillo San Felipe.  It seemed super busy the previous evening, so we'd skipped it and come back, finding it all but empty just after opening.  It was a pretty cool place, and reminded me surprisingly of the fortifications in Luxembourg city, which, though in an entirely different setting, were completed at roughly the same time and were (like the Castillo, even though Cartagena is a port city and was attacked by both the British and the French by sea) designed to defend the city from attack by land.  

We had one more short visit with the sloths and iguanas in the park before deciding to head home (via a barber where Raj had his hair cut) for a restful afternoon.  Because, of course, this was Raj's final night in Cartagena and we still had yet to put on our dancing shoes and hit the salsa club.
Most of the best known ones, even for locals, are in the old town.  We picked one out at nine o'clock. It was quiet, but looked a likely spot and had inexpensive drinks so I could take the dance instructor's advice and have a few while we waited for things to get going.

The inexpensive Colombian rum isn't quite as good or as inexpensive as the Guyanian stuff, but it was still pretty tasty and a big glass with ice came to something like four dollars, so who am I to complain?

Sarah, Raj and I all had a couple of dances with one another, and everyone managed at least one with a (presumably, given our skills) patient local partner (tip for non-dancers, Merengue is waaay easier than salsa).  But by and large we spent most of our time sitting at the bar soaking up the festive energy of the crowd (even on a Wednesday!)

By the time we caught our taxi home we felt like we'd absorbed a good lot of Colombian culture (as well as rum) and could say our farewells the next morning with a fully satisfactory Cartagena experience behind us.

Our time with Raj was wonderfully fun.  It was great to catch up with him in person and to share our fond memories of Cartagena with him.  And of course it was all thanks to his deciding to spend his holiday with us!

Wednesday, 6 March 2019

Cafe y Cerveza y Memorias

We'd visited Medellin on our previous visit to Colombia, and it probably already ranked as our favourite city in the country.  Our second visit was very short, but it certainly cemented Medellin's place in our hearts.

We arrived early in the morning and after a walk, a metro ride (on the only subway system in Colombia) and another walk, arrived at our hostel.  We also had a wee bit of a nap before hitting the town again, this time going to the north bus station to procure tickets for our onward journey the following evening.

From there we recreated one of our favourite days in Medellin, walking alongside the metro tracks back into town.  We revisited the lovely botanical gardens, complete with big green land iguanas in amongst the trees. We revisited the venerable old Cemeterio San Pedro, whitewashed and filled with flowers.  We even walked down a side street to visit a particularly striking church and found ourselves having a blackberry milkshake across the street at the exact same cafe where Sarah had enjoyed one six years previously.  South American blackberries are bigger than those elsewhere and have a subtle earthy/herbaceous flavour that distinguishes them.

By the time we'd walked all the way back to our hostel, we had to almost immediately head back out again to make good on our plans for the evening.

We'd met Valentina through Couchsurfing after I'd searched for members in Medellin who had an interest in beer or brewing.  She very kindly agreed to show us around some of her favourite breweries in Medellin.

But before we even got going with the breweries we started with a couple of coffee spots.  We met Valentina, her sister Laura and her girlfriend Laura at Rituales, a cool cafe in a neighborhood that was packed full of bars, restaurants and so forth, almost all of which have sprung up in the past five years.  Sarah had a filter coffee, while I had a flat white, which was quite possibly the best coffee I've ever had in my life. And for good reason! The coffee works directly with growers in the hills outside of Medellin which, while technically part of the city, are quite separate from it, as they're poorer than the urban residents and receive pretty much no services from the municipal government.

The cafe roasts the coffee themselves and then takes it full circle by returning it to the farmers and giving them the opportunity to try the final product, a chance that almost no coffee farmers in Colombia ever get!  This means that they have the opportunity to taste the difference that different terroir, growing conditions and bean fermentation processes make, in turn giving them a better understanding of how to control, modify and improve their processes. And this higher quality coffee gets bought at a price 40% higher than the national marketing board pays, leaving everyone happy with the situation.  It was awesome that one of the company's founders took the time to explain all of this to us during our visit.

Following another cafe visit, which proved another exception to Sarah's observation that places that grow coffee (and Colombia in particular) drink lousy coffee, it was time for some beer.

We visited two breweries, Cerveceria Libre and Madre Monte.  They were both little brewpubs serving tucked away in spots that we would've struggled to find on our own.  And I'm delighted to say that their beers were very good! Particularly memorable were the coffee stout at Libre, and the Berliner Weisse and Foreign Extra Stout at Madre Monte.  Despite the fact that it was after 22:30 at the time, the brewer at Madre Monte took the time to show us around the brewery (almost exactly the same size as Wild and Woolly had been back in NZ), and to chat about beer and brewing with me (my Spanish improved markedly with the clear context and lots of technical brewing terms that are the same as in English to draw on!)

The rest of the company was great too. We had a fabulous night out with Valentina and the Lauras, talking lots about beer and Colombia and Medellin and both her and our upcoming travel plans.

The second day of our whirlwind visit to Medellin began on a more sombre note, with a visit to the Museum of Memories, which documented and provided, if not closure, then at least sombre commemoration of Medellin's dark recent past.
I was familiar with the violence that racked the city when the drug cartels controlled the city, locked in a war with the government and justice system.  But I knew less about the times surrounding this, when Medellin was at inthe centre of mass migrations, and right wing groups sought to stem this tide by murder and arson, especially directed at the city's growing black population.  Nor did I realize how central a role Medellin played in the years-long war between the government, the conservative paramilitaries, the left wing guerillas and those who simply wanted a fairer, more equal society. The stories ofbsome of the hundreds (thousands?) of social justice activists and “communist sympathisers” who were disappeared or murdered were particularly poignant.

The museum was very well designed and presented but, unsurprisingly, left us feeling a bit melancholy following our visit.

We'd originally planned some specific activities for the afternoon, but decided that we'd just spend it walking down the vibrant corridor of the new LRT line and around the city's heart at Botero Plaza once we reached its end.

As an illustration of how Medellin has become safer (or at the very least more tourist friendly) you need look no further.  Just six years earlier, the square had seemed, if not precisely dangerous then at least pretty seedy and not the kind of place I'd want to hang around at night.  Now it was packed with visitors and locals enjoying a sunny afternoon and posing for photos with the many statues by the square's namesake artist.

The street with the LRT was also very pleasant to walk up and down.  It's entirely free of traffic (save for the trams of course) and full of pedestrians browsing a wide variety of businesses, including a fancy little dining district that was kind of reminiscent of the little court that Auckland bar Lovebucket sits at the back of.

And to top it all off we had lunch on the large patio of a bustling little restaurant which served perhaps our favourite meal in Colombia, with vegetarian soup, lots of salad, memorable aji (chili) sauce and delicious spicy beans accompanying our mains.

From there we rolled back down the hill to the metro and up to the northern bus station.  As the sun went down the lights came on in the neighbourhoods clinging to the sides of the valley high above central Medellin, looking like thousands of brilliant stars sending us on our way.

It was, I suppose, a little downhill from there.  A thirteen-hour overnight bus journey is downhill from most places.  But our time in Medellin had left about as happy as could be and excited for our trip up to the Caribbean coast.