Day 146 – Plant Therapy – From Cocora Valley to San Pedro via Yoga

Word of the Day 

Dendrophilia: the love of trees. The term may sometimes refer to a paraphilia in which people are sexually attracted to or sexually aroused by trees.


Since starting my travels I have often oscillated from one extreme to another in an effort to derive some kind of balanced existence. This has taken many forms: periods of aggressive partying will be followed by abstinence and a renewed interest in the gym; after travelling with friends I have enjoyed some alone time (and vice versa); from the bustle of city life I’ve yearned for the tranquility of a beachside bungalow or a mountain retreat.

One of these switcharoos was required after the work I had put into my recent attempts at self-improvement. In search of relaxation and serenity my destination of choice was Salento, a breezy 9 hour bus ride through steep winding roads from Medellin.

Salento

Salento sits in what is known as the Zona Cafetera, or Coffee Region, of Colombia, as its consistent year-round weather conditions are perfect for growing the stuff. It is a quiet little town surrounded by lush countryside which for me (and anyone old and British enough to remember) is reminiscent of the backdrop for Postman Pat, with hills and trees so green and perfect that they must be fake.

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Other than visiting one of its many coffee farms, which is a pleasant way to spend a few hours, you can also play Tejo, a Colombian sport/pastime (depending on who you ask, a bit like darts) which involves throwing heavy metal pucks at a gunpowder-filled target 20 metres away, creating a mini explosion on a successful impact.

My game, including a cameo performance from two visiting Profumos (hi Proffo and Steph) was, as usual, accompanied with a bottle of aguardiente, so we sensibly played the gringo version from half distance. Still, with the neighbours’ pucks whizzing past our ears at great speed we were relieved to emerge unscathed.

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Tree Love

The real draw that brings the backpackers to Salento is a tree – Colombia’s national tree – the wax palm, which is most prevalent in the nearby Cocora Valley.

I didn’t realise I was a dendrophile (not in the sexual sense, I might add) until recently but, on reflection, I have been fascinated and surrounded by majestic trees since my early childhood. Living in a house called Redwood, named after the giant conifer in our garden, I also loved the weeping willows of our neighbours, the towering oaks at my first school ‘Oakwood’ and the ancient yews of the nearby Kingly Vale (see below). The mystical power of trees is hard to put into words but Herman Hesse does a pretty amazing job here (thanks for the assist Julia).

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The wax palms of Cocora Valley are very different from all of the above but truly spectacular as these trees, sometimes growing as high as 60m, all trunk and no leaf, seem to have somehow outpaced evolution. With no obvious need to be so tall relative to one another or their neighbours they are really just showing off.

Often compared to the Truffula Trees in Dr Seuss’s The Lorax, their dimensions and general appearance are certainly surreal. With the perfect sunny day and a mountainous backdrop we couldn’t help but keep taking photos.

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Yoga Love

Returning to El Viajero in Salento after 6 hours of walking, a free yoga session put on twice a week by this excellent and great value hostel (shout out to my El Viajero amigos) was the perfect way to stretch out and wind down. Yoga, a traveller staple, has not played a huge part in my trip but I have enjoyed it when available, always feeling energised and motivated by the practice.

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The yoga sessions in Salento were hosted by Vladimir, an excellent instructor with an immediately warm and loving energy. He was spiritual in a genuine and unforced way, and sang beautifully at the end of each class.

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I felt somehow drawn to Vladimir and was not surprised to find out that he was a practicing shaman. After my recent ayahuasca experiences I hadn’t been planning on taking any more plant medicine, but they say the plants call you when you’re ready, and I had a strange feeling that I was supposed to meet Vladimir at this time. It turned out he was hosting a san pedro retreat on the only 2 days I had free before meeting friends, cementing my belief that the universe wanted me there.

San Pedro

San pedro is an Amazonian cactus, one of the three main ‘power plants’ along with ayahuasca and peyote. Albeit less potent than ayahuasca, san pedro is also a psychedelic, well known for its healing properties and its ability to rekindle people’s love and enthusiasm for life.

Not having any ailments to be healed, nor feeling short of enthusiasm or love for life, I perhaps didn’t need a san pedro retreat like some of the other participants, but I thought it would be an interesting experience, and it was.

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The ceremony, conducted entirely in Spanish for 12 people, started at 10pm and finished at 11am the next morning, without interruption. We drank, chewed and ate the san pedro, also known as ‘huachuma,’ throughout the night while sat around a bonfire getting increasingly ‘chumado’ while singing and chanting with the assistance of tribal drums, guitars, panpipes, rattles and various other instruments. It felt a lot less weird than it sounds. No photos were allowed during the ceremony but this was the aftermath.

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We took turns to pass around the Talking Stick (that’s my inaccurate translation from whatever the Spanish was) whereby each person got to hold a stick and speak to the group about anything on their mind. My statements in Spanish were short and jovial, as the huachuma only made me feel a little silly and spaced out, but for many of the people involved this was an extremely emotional coming of age. Most of them cried some combination of happy and sad tears, and left the following day as new people, rather like I had felt after my ayahuasca experience.

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Perhaps the language barrier softened the impact of the shaman’s words, but for me it was an unusual and entertaining night rather than a life-changer. Having said that, watching the sun rise from complete darkness behind the mountains was a beautiful sight that I will never forget, as was this goat doing yoga on the verandah.

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Next Stop: Carnaval de Barranquilla

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Day 50 – San Sebastián

Whether Chaucer or someone else coined it, the proverb Time and tide wait for no man has been around for hundreds of years. Raising my bat to celebrate a shunemployed half century I now understand it better than ever.

Managing a travel day, like managing a workday, is all about prioritisation. The difference is that at work there is usually a clear winner for what you should be doing.  There is no “should” when travelling; there is only “do and do not” (thanks Yoda) and options are limitless.

While I’m enjoying my freedom it’s easy to get sidetracked; time is only on your side if you force it to be. After 4 days of pancake-flat water at a renowned surf spot I’ve realised there’s not much I can do about the tide.


Time 

Shunning the structure of the working week I anticipated an abundance of ‘me time;’ I would be gaining 40 plus hours each week, surely resulting in time aplenty for my stated travel objectives and other favoured but neglected pastimes such as reading, sitting and Netflix.

That assumption proved naive:

  1. A pleasant but unforeseen effect of publicising my shunemployment was a succession of coffees, lunches and nights out. It was brilliant catching up with so many friends, some of which I hadn’t seen in years, but it’s no surprise that retirees wonder how they ever had time to work.
  2. Time evaporates when travelling. Days not filled with activities are spent researching destinations, arranging transport and accommodation. Personal time can be hard to come by, especially when sharing a bedroom with 11 people.
  3. To top if off I’ve been writing this blog which takes forever. I just hope someone out there appreciates the lack of spelling misteaks.

As a result my first 50 days have whizzed by, I’m still only 71% of the way through Sapiens and haven’t watched a single minute of Stranger Things 2.


Tide

With the Biarritz surf scene approaching its annual low tide I made the short trip across the border to San Sebastián, or Donostia to the Basque Country locals. Famed for its culinary scene, San Seb boasts more Michelin stars per capita than any other European city, an almost unmatched selection of pintxo (tapas) bars and a surf season that extends a couple of weeks beyond its French neighbour.

I rocked up at the Etxea Surf Hostel next to San Seb’s premier surf spot, Zurriola Beach, increasingly conscious of the need to spend my time on things I actually want to do, like surfing. In the lounge area an American guy was freestyling on the guitar. He was a strong musician but a dubious lyricist:

I smoked a bunch of joints, in the morning and the night,

I smoked so many joints, most I’d had in my life. 

Listening to Johnny Hash did not feature anywhere on my to do list so, in line with my new views on time management, I left him to it.

The hostel turned out to be incredibly social with a great atmosphere. While this photo taken on night one by a local bike saddle suggests I was escorting my nieces and nephews to the nearest skate park, the age range in the hostel turned out to be quite broad.

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Despite a few travellers in their 30’s I was clearly the oldest guest until the perfectly named and excellent human being Jerry Valentine spared me that honour.

Jerry is a very young 55 year old retiree from New Jersey who spends his time either chasing waves or saving lives at Avalon beach on America’s Jersey Shore. Give him a high five from me if you see him next summer.

Avalon swimmers will feel extra safe with Crawford, who lifeguards at the same beach, on duty. Stacked like shelves, the de facto fourth Hemsworth brother combines with Jerry, 35 years his senior, to form an unlikely but perfectly balanced travel partnership.

Last but not least is Sebastien – Chile’s answer to Steve Stifler and my first official new BFF – a surfer, skateboarder and future Warren Buffett. Being hilarious in a second language is a skill I do not possess but value highly and the Stifmeister has it in abundance.

I’ll let you guess who is who in the photos below.

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Rather than maximising personal time I took the opportunity to hang out with this crew, which swelled and ebbed as others rolled in and out of town. We were not collecting Michelin stars but enjoyed the rest of what San Sebastián has to offer.

We walked everywhere, taking in the beautiful scenery both in the city and its surrounding hills. We drank Spanish wine, local cider and monster G&Ts. We think we enjoyed but don’t really remember a couple of 5am finishes at the entertaining but creepy dabadaba.

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One thing we did not do a lot of was surfing. One surfable day out of five was a poor return but I was encouraged to catch a couple of clean waves; a glimmer of hope.

Not surfing freed up plenty of time to live like locals, eating delicious and reasonably priced pintxos. To contextualise the brilliance of this city may I introduce Bar Sport.

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If you were to put Bar Sport on Old Street roundabout in London it would contain a selection of strippers and people wanting to knock you out. In San Seb it’s a fine culinary establishment serving exquisite pintxos while Real Madrid entertain on TV.

(Vegans please look away now)

Goat cheese with jamon and chutney, crabmeat vol-au-vent, pig trotter and mushroom fritter, sirloin steak with piquito peppers, foie gras on toast, king prawns on a stick, squid stuffed with crab and two glasses of Rioja for €25.

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It was absolutely banging; I can only imagine the culinary wonders available in this city for those willing to spend serious euros.

Despite the lack of surf in San Seb there was plenty to do (and eat) over 5 days and I would highly recommend a visit. Whether you have time and cash to burn or just want to escape for the weekend on a tight budget, a trip to San Sebastián is both time and money well spent.


Next stop: Bilbao

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