CooTrans Oriente

Speeding down, swerving in and out of traffic along the ‘Ruta Caribe’ at 100-120 km/h is the well-known and distinctive mode of transportation known as the ‘CooTrans Oriente.’ These auto-buses are affordable, widely used by the locals, and timely by arriving and departing every 20 minutes from town to town on their way to and from Barranquilla.

Established over twenty-five years ago here in the Atlantico department, CooTrans Oriente has become a mainstay when it comes to transporting people, goods, and services along the coast. Because of my Spanish classes and/or due to my technical training sessions, I am often riding the CooTrans Oriente multiple times per week so I have been accustomed to the norms and rules of this transportation enterprise here on the Atlantic coast.

I have taken a lot of buses in my life so far and most have been boring and uniform in design, color, and the attitude of both drivers and passengers. However, the CooTrans Oriente is unlike any other bus I’ve ever taken before. First of all, it’s colorful with every color represented in the spectrum from white to black, red to green being shown in the exterior of the bus. Each driver is allowed to design the interior and you can often see shag carpeting used for the steering wheel or for the gear shifter.

The conductors of the buses will pay tribute to Jesus Christ, God, and the Virgin Mary with religious scripture and sayings from the Bible. In addition, often, the drivers will highlight their family members and pay tribute to them by putting their names on the front dashboards in colorful font and lettering. CooTrans Oriente is a small company but it is extremely unique in allowing the drivers to personalize the buses, especially the designs for the interiors and the back windows.

It is very difficult to imagine bus drivers in the U.S. or in Europe being allowed to design their own buses or being able to display religious symbols or sayings so openly. Each bus is similar in its CooTrans Oriente lettering and the exterior has the same colors in mostly being red and blue. However, it’s a different story when it comes to the side and back windows. I have seen various tributes to video games like ‘Gears of War’ to displays of fandom for the popular ‘Juniors’ football team of Barranquilla to intricately designed religious murals depicting ‘The Last Supper.’ It is a real joy to just watch the buses go by and try to see the different symbols, designs, and murals that each make them unique.

More than just the colors and designs of CooTrans Oriente is the culture of the bus itself. Passengers will help each other out and have also helped me out tremendously. When I’m standing up on the bus after a long day of meetings or classes and I’m carrying two bags of groceries from the grocery store, a fellow passenger will allow me to put one of my bags on their laps to ease my carrying load a bit. It’s an extremely thoughtful and kind gesture, which I have not seen replicated elsewhere in the world thus far.

Also, it is common and allowed for venders to come on the bus to sell different snacks and drinks for those passengers thirsty and/or hungry enough to want to partake in especially if there’s a lot of traffic. There is also a more personal touch on this bus as you have an ‘Ayudante’ or helper who is present to take your money for the bus fare instead of loading your money on a card or putting the money in a machine near the driver as I’m used to from riding the buses back home.

Traveling on the CooTrans Oriente is quite an experience in of itself. Drivers will often offer a rolling stop to you when passing by the bus stop, which means you’ll have to hoist yourself and climb up the stairs quickly to catch the bus before it departs without you. Certain drivers will not follow the speed limit on the highway and will usually drive very quickly at 20-30 km/h above the normal speed for autobuses. This can be a bit harrowing to deal with at first but by driving very fast, you do catch an amazing wind breeze sitting by the windows which helps alleviate the Caribbean heat. The ‘Ruta Caribe’ for part of its highway only has a one-way express/lane for either direction. There is also no barrier in the expressway present, which would separate the drivers who are going in the opposite directions along the route.

There has been many times where the bus drivers will end up driving in the lane heading in the opposite direction to avoid traffic or speed ahead of the cars/motorcars/taxis in front of them to reach their final destination quicker. I have to be honest in that this rash decision-making honestly terrified me at first but the bus drivers here are extremely experienced and knowledgeable. They will only drive onto the lane heading the opposite direction if they don’t see any cars/trucks coming head on. I am not sure about the safety record of CooTrans Oriente but I do know that the seats are very comfortable and are made of some sort of leather material. So far, I haven’t witnessed or been involved with any accidents while riding the buses so I must say that the drivers here are quite good and that they know what they are doing.

Also, without any doubt, there will always be Colombian music played through the speakers for the passengers to enjoy during their travels. Sometimes, it’s Vallenato, and other times it’s Champeta, Cumbia, etc. There was one time recently where they had a music video playing with an actual TV at the front of the bus, which was pretty cool to see. The music video had scantily clad women dancing next to the main hip hop guy as he rapped in Spanish about their physical characteristics that he enjoys the most. None of the parents with children on the bus seemed to mind the video though.

Overall, I have enjoyed riding ‘CooTrans Oriente’ so far during my time here in Colombia and will continue to do so. The buses will take you to any part of Atlantico department from what I have noticed and it’s an affordable, cost-effective way to get around from town to town. The passengers, especially those sitting down, are very courteous and will help you out with your bags and even give up your seat for you. For female passengers, especially, the ‘Ayudante’ will lend his hand to help you ladies off of the bus and able-bodied men including myself will give up our seat for you whenever necessary as well.

In many ways, ‘CooTrans Oriente’ reflects the Caribbean Colombian culture. A deep love of their music, being colorful and animated, very open with kindness and warmth even to strangers, and having a wild side as well that comes out every now and then. There’s also the distinct feeling that like the people, the CooTrans Oriente doesn’t take itself too seriously, and knows how to have a good time even when driving down the highway at 120 km/h.

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‘The Godfather’ – Film Review and Analysis

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“I’ve spent my life trying not to be careless. Women and children can be careless, but not men.”

One of the great classic American films of the 20th century, The Godfather, directed by the legendary Francis Ford Coppola and based off of the novel of the same title by Mario Puzo is often considered to be the most influential film that created the ‘organized crime’ or mafia/gangster genre in cinemas.

Since its’ release in theaters in 1972, it has garnered a cult following among fans who led to ‘The Godfather’ becoming a trilogy with Parts Two and Three both released in following years. Because of its significance culturally and historically, the Library of Congress preserved it in the United States National Film Registry in 1990. Because of its success at the box office and with film critics alike, ‘The Godfather’ garnered many Academy Award nominations and won four Academy Awards including ‘Best Actor’ for Marlon Brando and ‘Best Picture’.

In addition to adding to the legendary career of Brando, ‘The Godfather’ also introduced to Hollywood a young Al Pacino and a very talented Robert Duvall. Both men would have extremely successful careers in American film but I believe that it was ‘The Godfather’ which helped catapult their early careers into noteworthy stardom.

Drawing parallels to the real life ‘Five Families’ of New York that dominated the Italian mafia during the 20th century, the fictional Corleone family, led by Don Vito Corleone, is highlighted as being the ‘pariah’ and at odds with the other crime families throughout the film. Vito Corleone, played by Marlon Brando, acts like the quintessential mob boss whose cunning and intellect has made him to this day a very quotable character that has become apart of American popular culture.

In The Godfather, we see Vito nearing the end of his reign as boss of the family and looking for his eventual successor. Vito has three sons: Sonny, the oldest whose lack of foresight and hotheaded temper makes him a liability albeit is the favorite initially to replace Vito as Don of the Corleone family. Fredo is the middle child and is a consistent womanizer. Considered neither to be reliable nor intelligent, Fredo is kept to the side often and is not a suitable person to lead the family due to his lack of cunning and intellect. Michael, a U.S. Army Veteran and the youngest child of Vito Corleone is portrayed as being very innocent and often has requested to be kept out of the family business if he can avoid it.

However, as the viewers of the film can understand and interpret, a mafia family reels everyone in to its business whether or not it’s intentional. One of the best aspects of The Godfather is watching the changes in Michael’s behavior and demeanor as extenuating circumstances involving the family forces his hand and he is forced to take on more responsibilities and duties as a Corleone and the son of Vito. His loss of innocence and the transformation that occurs with Michael from dignified U.S. Army Veteran to cunning, ruthless Mafia boss is a great strength of this timeless film.

For those critics who are against violent Mafia films and choose not to watch them, that is fine but it should be considered that there is more to this movie than meets the eye. Above all else, it is the story of a father trying to repent for the sins of the past and trying to keep his sons from avoiding the same mistakes that he has made.

The relationship between Vito and his son, Michael in particular is memorable for how Vito expects so much from Michael considering he is the most levelheaded and intelligent of the Corleone brothers. There is one great scene in the film where Vito and Michael are discussing the ongoing drama of the war between “The Five Families.” Vito laments to Michael on how he is sorry that he was thrust into the mafia business when he expected his son instead to become “Governor Corleone” or “Mayor Corleone.” Michael simply looks at his father lovingly, and says: “We’ll get there, pop. We’ll get there.”

Other classic scenes that I enjoyed involve the courtship between Michael and a beautiful Sicilian woman named Apollonia. What I liked most was highlighting the very old-school dating process of asking Apollonia’s father for permission to date and then later marry his daughter with all respect given. It’s a touching moment in the film, which reveals that Michael’s humanity has not been totally wiped out because of the mafia. It was also great of Director Coppola to show the traditional procession of the Sicilian wedding and how all of the townspeople were involved in wishing Michael and Apollonia well.

Without trying to spoil the rest of the film for those of you readers who haven’t watched The Godfather yet, I can’t recommend it enough to avid movie fans. The directing by Francis Ford Coppola, the cinematography, the acting performances by Al Pacino, Marlon Brando, Robert Duvall, James Caan, etc. are phenomenal and they deserved every heap of credit that was bestowed upon them at the Oscars and elsewhere.

The Godfather is simply more than just a mafia film in my opinion. It is a story about a complex family, fathers and sons, human nature, and the thirst for power and respect. Have an open mind and see this film if you get the chance. I promise that you won’t regret it even if the running time is three hours in total. You can always tell your friends and family that I wrote a blog post that you couldn’t refuse to read.

The Heat Is On

One undeniable fact about life here on the Atlantic coastal area of Colombia is the constant heat and humidity. For me, this has been the biggest adjustment that I have had to get used to over the past month or so. Considering it was 20 degrees Fahrenheit and extremely cold when I left New York in mid-January, it was quite the shock to my senses to be experiencing 90 degree weather and 70% humidity on a daily basis here in Colombia especially during the months of January and February, which I have always associated with the Winter season. However, one of the great things about human beings is that we are very adaptable to our environment and our bodies can adjust to different climates without too much trouble. For example: Instead of bundling up in layers, you wear light clothing and show more skin.

Especially in this day and age, it is much easier to deal with the climate then in decades or centuries past. Due to modern technology, it’s much easier to deal both with the heat and humidity than ever before. For my fellow Peace Corps trainees and for those of you out there who want to visit the Atlantic coast of Colombia in the future, I have listed some tips and advice on how to beat the heat:

  • Wear light shirts and pants, preferably of cotton material. Heavy clothing is heavily discouraged and it will give you a chance to upgrade your fashion choices by wearing what the locals wear. Jeans are common here culturally and because it is also much harder for the mosquitos to bite you if you cover your legs as well.
  • Before you leave the house or apartment, wear sunscreen that is strong and reliable. If you’re not careful, you can get a severe case of sunburn and heat stroke. Also, it’s important to put on mosquito repellant in the exposed parts of your body not covered by clothing when you’re walking or running outside in the heat.
  • Wear a hat and put on sunglasses to reduce the sun’s impact on your face and eyes. This has been great for me in protecting myself from any skin problems or eyesight issues because the sun is quite strong.
  • Make sure that you drink plenty of water and hydrate continuously throughout the day. Bags of water are commonly sold here and are great for re-hydration. I would avoid sodas, sports drinks because they are not the best for hydrating yourself. If you need some sugar, then they are good options but Water is king when it comes to keeping your body temperature in line. Lack of hydration can be a real problem here so make sure you’re drinking a couple of liters of water each day.
  • Try to reduce your activities, movements outside during the hours of 2 to 4 PM. In my own experiences here, the heat is strongest and the humidity most oppressive during the mid-day. I would recommend staying inside during those hours and keeping cool at the local café or library. Strenuous physical activity during these hours could be detrimental to your health. It’s also a good opportunity for a nice descanso (rest) if you have some free time after school is over.
  • Besides water, indulge in some ice cream and natural fruit juices to keep your energy levels up. This is my favorite item for this list as I am a sucker for ice cream and cool beverages. It cools you down and it’s a nice reward for yourself after a hard day or week on the job.
  • Travel and time permitting, going to a local villa for some time at the pool and indulging in some cool refreshments is an afternoon well spent on the weekend. Going to the pool is one of my favorite ways to beat the heat and it’s nice to swim, lounge around and relax with friends.
  • Take advantage of the mornings and evenings when it is much less hot and humid out. I’ve heard from my fellow trainees that running in the early morning or exercising in the evening is preferable. I would agree completely that you have to be flexible and try to pick the times of the day where the heat isn’t as extreme and you can exercise without sweating puddles.
  • Hanging out at the library or the local Internet cafe where you can read a good book, catch up on work, and/or use the Wi-Fi is another great option. These places usually have air conditioning and/or strong fans too to help keep you cool.
  • If you’re feeling adventurous, heading to the beach for a day trip or to the local mall, Movie Theater are other great ways to keep cool and round out the ‘Top Ten.’

Finally, do not forget to invest in having a big fan ready to use for those humid nights in your bedroom. Sleeping in 90-degree weather is not easy so make sure you have a fan at your disposal to rest more comfortably. I hope this list is useful for those reading who are thinking of visiting hot and humid places. Despite the challenges that warm climates present to the human body, I still prefer it to the cold and snowy weather that I grew up with in New York. In addition to that, shoveling two feet of snow can be a real pain in the butt.

Carnaval!

 

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“A large crowd gathers to dance, listen to music, and enjoy the beginning of Carnaval 2016 here in Colombia.”

Carnaval Season here in Colombia has officially come and gone. Life here is starting to return to normalcy and I’m sure some of the locals are already beginning to count down to when Carnaval will be back in 2017. This was my first Carnaval ever and I can firmly say that it was some of the most fun I’ve had in a while. In addition to the festive parades and diverse costumes, there were also the live concerts, the neighborhood parties, and the street foods/drinks to add to the already festive atmosphere. Unfortunately, I was unable to make it to Barranquilla’s Carnaval this year but I still was able to enjoy myself by attending other parades, parties, and festivities in the Atlántico department.

The biggest highlight for me during the Carnaval celebrations was attending ‘La Gran Parada’ in one of the major towns located outside of Barranquilla. It was really cool to experience the parade from the seats and be able to enjoy a cold beverage and a warm snack while both the kids and adults danced, sang in their unique costumes as they came streaming down the main parade route.

Historically, Carnaval has been known as the main celebration associated with the Christian festive season that occurs before the period of Lent. There are many Carnaval festivals that happen around the world. The most famous one takes place in Rio de Janeiro, which attracts about a 1 million visitors to Brazil each year. Carnaval in Barranquilla is the 2nd largest in the world and brings in hundreds of thousands of tourists, partygoers as well. For those of us from the United States, we are more familiar with the Mardi Gras celebration and the infamous ‘Fat Tuesday’ which is also known for its size and scope of partying as well.

Before ‘Ash Wednesday’ and the beginning of Lent and the Easter season for Christians around the world, Carnaval represents a shedding of inhibitions, and an enjoyment of the pleasures in life. Some people see it as indulgent in heavy drinking, eating greasy foods, and fraternizing with the opposite sex but other people see it as a way to reconnect with their diverse culture, spending quality time with their family and friends, and enjoying a break from work and the daily grind. For my first Carnaval, I spent the festivities mainly meeting new people in my community, enjoying the company of new friends and my host family, and checking out the cool costumes and cultural dances that make up this very unique holiday.

I also had to deal with the tradition of young children and adults throwing great amounts of Maizena (corn starch) and white foam spray all over random strangers. It occurred multiple times where my clothes and my body, face would be covered with both substances during the festivities. Needless to say, I had to wash my clothes extra hard in order to get the cornstarch / spray out of my clothes and hair as best as I could. Besides getting messy, it was nice to drink a beer in public, eat some good food, watch the parade, and then reconnect with my fellow Peace Corps trainees later to celebrate together.

Carnaval was originally introduced to Colombia and Latin America from the Spaniards during the early days of the colonization hundreds of years ago. However, the celebration has evolved over hundreds of years to reflect the diversity in Colombian culture. In addition to European elements, Carnaval combines those traditions with those of the African, Amerindian indigenous cultures. It is a really interesting mix of cultures combined together and is reflected in the costumes, music, and dancing styles that are put on display in events like ‘La Gran Parada’ and ‘La Batalla de Flores.’ As for the types of music, they are various and diverse.

They include the popular Cumbia, Rumba, Vallenato, Reggaeton, Porro, Mapale, and African Congo music. Finally, it wouldn’t be Carnaval without the King and Queen of the festivities being anointed. For each town and city that is involved in the celebrations here in Carnaval, they must appoint a King and Queen to lead the main parade, to dance up a storm, and to wave to the partygoers in the stands. As far as I can tell in Colombia, being the King or Queen of Carnaval (Rey / Reina) is a huge honor and is very competitive between the young men and women vying for the title to represent their town or even the city of Barranquilla.

After experiencing my first Carnaval, it’s going to be difficult to top that kind of day party in the future. It truly was one of the best times I ever had in terms of celebrating a holiday. The only way I could top it in 2017 and beyond is if I was able to spend some free time and head to Barranquilla for the big kahuna there. I don’t know if it will be logistically possible but we’ll see what happens. If not, there’s always the biggest carnaval in Rio but that can wait until after I finish my Peace Corps service.

 

A Trip to Minca

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This past weekend, I was able to make my first road trip here in Colombia with a few fellow Peace Corps trainees. When I found out that we would be going to visit a current volunteer in the Magdalena department, a different and very unique, beautiful part of Colombia that is much different from where I have been currently living in Atlántico.

It was quite the trip for the four of us trainees, as we had to use three different modes of transportation such as cars, taxis, and buses in order to get to our final destination. However, the scenery and landscape changes that we were able to see and enjoy could not be matched. Going from the savanna/dry flatlands of Atlántico to the lush tropical mountains and hillsides of Magdalena was quite fascinating for me. It was almost as if we had transported ourselves to a different country but in fact, we were only four or so hours away from our original starting point.

This small road trip was able to put into perspective for me just how biodiverse and unique Colombia is as a nation. I have only seen a little bit of the wide range of landscapes and scenery that this country has to offer but I have been really impressed with how different it is even when just describing the Atlantic coast. Along with China and the United States, Colombia ranks as one of the most bio-diverse and naturally rich countries in the world, which is amazing considering its size compared to those two aforementioned countries. I really do hope to see as much as Colombia as I can and to be able to see how diverse and unique it really is.

Getting back to the trip, it was smooth traveling for us all even when we had to take a car halfway up the mountain to about an altitude about 1,000 meters. Our host, a current Peace Corps volunteer in Colombia was generous, gracious, and showed us around the town of Minca and all it has to offer. When you’re up in the Sierra Nevada Mountains, you can indulge in a lot of different outdoor activities.

Minca recently has become a more popular tourist hotspot with cafes, restaurants, and small hostels being filled with French, German, and other European tourists. It is difficult to conclude whether or not the locals of Minca have benefited or not from this influx of tourists who have come to see the natural sights and sounds. I would argue that this is part of a growing trend for Colombia as more and more tourists come to explore the country given that the safety and security situation has been improving.

During our short stay in Minca, we were able to meet some of the locals who have benefited from the Peace Corps’ volunteer being there to help with their English. In addition to working full-time at the school, the volunteer here gives English lessons to adults and also those business owners who would like to have a decent level of proficiency for dealing with the incoming tourists. I really admired the hard work and effort that the volunteer has put in to the community there and the close comradery, affection that the local people have for the volunteer too.

In addition, the teachers and students at the school in Minca welcomed us with open arms and allowed us to observe their lessons, answer their questions, and answer our many questions as well. I believe that it will be vitally important for myself, as a volunteer-to-be is to establish a productive and successful working relationship with my Colombian counter-part. It’s also important to really get to know all of the students in the school on some level and be able to interact with them, which should help when it comes to classroom learning.

We were truly lucky to spend a day with a current Peace Corps volunteer and to observe them at work and at home to see what kind of life may await us for our two years of service. Minca is a really peaceful, unique town nestled in the Sierra Nevada Mountains. The beautiful vistas, and the cascading waterfalls will stay in my memory for a long time.

Even if my site placement puts me far from that type of location and environment, I definitely hope to be able to visit the Magdalena department of Colombia soon again. If for anything else for the fact that I really enjoy hiking up the mountains, breaking into a sweat, and then cooling off by diving into the cool, refreshing waters of the many waterfalls to be found there. Stay tuned for more road trips in the future. Colombia is a very big country and I hope to visit more places here in the future.

The Beauty of Magdalena

Location: Magdalena Department, Colombia.

Photos taken with the iPod Touch, 6th Generation.

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