Sunday, August 30, 2009

Hiking with Pal

I woke early this morning to the sound of church bells clanging and roosters crowing. Glancing around the room, I sighed with relief and went back to sleep. Ahhhh.... I though, no roommates.

For the sheer kick of paying only $7 per night for a place to stay, I spent Friday night in a shared dorm room at a backpacker hostel, the ecolodge Renacer Guesthouse. One night was more than enough. Especially since my roommate for the evening was Alistair from the UK. A lovely man, friendly enough, but it just felt really uncomfortable, especially when I came into the cramped little room wrapped in nothing more than a towel, and there he was. Awkward indeed. But maybe the first time always feels that way.

Needless to say, I like my privacy, and by the next morning I had reserved a private room at Hospederia La Roca, a charming little hotel that feeds directly into Plaza Mayor. A big comfy bed, private bathroom, endless hot water and a TV with cable. Plus, the location can't be beat, and the architecture and layout are stunning: like an old Colonial mansion set in an English garden, with 2 large, open air, hydrangea-filled courtyards in the center. All this for only $10 more per night. Is there any question?

My stay at Renacer wasn't all for naught. The lodge is very nice, immaculately clean (as actually all the hostels and hotels have been so far), and tranquily set up in the hills a good 10 minutes from town. Although a bit too removed for my tastes, the area is great for hiking, and the trails behind the lodge lead to trickling waterfalls and a birds-eye view of the town below. For this hike I joined up with a family of three from Canada: single-mom Stephanie, the adventurous Jordan (9) and the well-mannered Ariel (12). We were led the entire way by Pal, a local dog who clearly had taken this path many times before. Anytime we were lost or unsure in which way to head, the kids would insist we follow Pal. And every time, the kids - and the dog - were right. He was the most reliable guide I have ever known, and we couldn't beat the price for his services!

Now let me take a moment to speak about this family. Stephanie works in education in Canada, and through some clever program has been paying into a fund for the past four years that allows her to take the 5th year off of work - fully paid. So what does she do? She sets off on a 10-month backpacking tour of Central and South America with her two kids, who keep up with school via emails from their teachers. Her kids are smart, well-adjusted, adaptable and open-minded. Not yet teenagers, they have already been exposed to more of the world than most adults ever will be. And they seem to love it; the travel bug is permanently a part of who they are.

I have heard about people traveling with kids like this, but have never actually seen it with my own eyes. I have so much respect for Stephanie, and feel relieved to know that a nomad like me can continue being a nomad, even once children become part of the equation. I wonder though why this type of lifestyle has to be the exception? Why can't backpacking through developing countries with kids be considered normal? Why must our adventurous traveling lives end if we have children? Don't we owe it to them, to the next generation, to expose them to everything we possibly can? Aren't we doing them a huge favor? Stephanie certainly is. I would love to catch up with these two in 15 years and see where life has taken them. Jordan, he'll probabably be a world-class surgeon working for Doctors Without Borders in Ghana or Guatemala. Ariel, well she of course will be Canada's Foreign Affairs Secretary, or the Secretary General of the UN. All because their mom was smart enough to make the right kind of sacrifices and give them this amazing opportunity. Something I will certainly keep in mind as my own future unfolds.

So now, back to Villa de Leyva, the setting for this tale. I am in love with this little town. I am already thinking English teacher by day, yoga instructor by evening/weekend. I could open up a little yoga studio and cater to locals as well as backpackers looking for some exercise during their travels.... Hmmm.... Maybe get myself a horse to get around on...

And why not? Villa de Leyva is something like paradise, without a beach. This perfectly preserved colonial town is so picturesque, straight out of a movie setting. All the low-lying buildings are white-washed with dark orange roofs, and they line narrow streets paved with massive cobblestone (over which I am constantly tripping). The weather is perfect; breezy and cool but never cold. A good percentage of the 10,000 person population is children, who spend much of their days flying kites in the gigantic main square, Plaza Mayor, bigger than any plaza I have ever seen. The people are warm and friendly, and everyone seems to own and adore a healthy, happy dog (I haven't seen one icky cat anywhere!).

This town is so safe and peaceful, I would eat my shoe if I got mugged here. It's just not possible.

And so I continue to wonder... where is this scary, dangerous Colombia I keep hearing about?

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