There’s often more to someone than meets the eye. The first time I met Manu, he changed from a tuxedo to a mariachi suit. He sang beautiful traditional Mexican songs for his beloved wife, Sonia, in front of a crowd of 100 people. He and several of the guests at the wedding then changed into zumba outfits and showed the crowd they also had quite a few dance moves. It was Manu and Sonia’s wedding day. All the guests agreed it was by far the most entertaining wedding they’d had the pleasure of attending.
At this point you might think Manu is a professional entertainer… the guests at his wedding certainly did. He’s actually a lawyer. With a true love for the art of entertaining. His years of experience as a mariachi certainly made for a surprise performance on his wedding day that his wife and guests won’t soon forget.
When asked what it was like growing up in Mexico, the largest Spanish-speaking city in the world (population surpasses 20 million), he says:” You need to be creative and learn multiple ways to get to the same place. You really need to organize your time. It can be complicated to make a plan with friends and manage to all arrive at the same time. There’s lots of traffic, and depending on the area, there can be some level of insecurity. On the bright side, you’re constantly stimulated by new and interesting ideas. It feeds your curiosity. For example, people often spontaneously perform in the bus or the metro… My experience growing up in Mexico City was wonderful.”
Football was also an important part of Manu’s life in Mexico. At 15 years of age, he started playing professionally and was earning a salary. In short, every young man’s dream. “I quickly realized that there was a high level of corruption in the football industry. I played professionally for 5 years, and then realized I needed to make serious choices for my future.”
While he opted for legal studies, Manu was tempted by a completely different profession… as an opera singer. “My interest in opera started rather comically. I had a crush on a girl in high school and I saw her in the hallway. I followed her out of curiosity and saw she was entering a classroom, so I went into the same classroom… and that was my first opera class. I ended up really enjoying the classes.”
This would eventually lead Manu to mariachi performances.”My opera classes had thought me how to use my voice. I thought it could be a good way to earn an income while studying in Mexico. I bought my mariachi suit and my microphone. I performed solo, both in the streets and in restaurants. Every time I picked up the microphone, I felt nervous. But as soon as I sang the first notes, the nervousness disappeared.”
“When I was 21, I backpacked through Australia for 6 months. I knew I had to leave as far away from my comfort zone as possible. I needed to know what I was capable of when faced with major challenges.”
This turned out to be a life changing experience for Noémie, originally from Narbonne (France). After travelling through Australia, she returned to Southern France to save money. Three months later, she was ready for her next adventure. She spent 7 months in Southeast Asia – Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, South Korea. “These travels changed my perspective on many levels. Buddhist culture and values made a particularly lasting impression on me. When I returned to France, I immediately noticed that consumerism was rampant in my own culture. For this and many other reasons, I decided to study sophrology.” It can be described as a relaxation therapy that combines a series of physical and mental exercises aiming to reduce stress and lead to optimal health and well-being.
After completing her studies, she was inspired to travel to India: “I fell in love with the country. I also discovered the most beautiful hand sewn fabrics. They’re simply magnificent. There’s so many details in these fabrics. Each piece is truly unique.” From this love for ancient clothes and fabrics came an idea. Noémie found a talented tailor in India who could transform the traditional fabrics into beautiful (and more modern) clothes. “I’m also learning how to sow with a tailor in India and in France, as I eventually want to make the clothes myself based on my clients’ preferences.”
In terms of making contacts and finding trustworthy partners in India, she says that things fell into place naturally: “I found an excellent tailor, Papi Benwari. He introduced me to his son who has a three-storey warehouse filled with the most creative Bollywood costumes. I can spend hours looking through these costumes! The colors and patterns are amazing.” Noémie plans to bring these original fabrics to France, along with other goods that she intends to sell in local markets. She’ll work with her clients to transform the material into unique pieces.
“There’s a beautiful saying that one hears regularly when traveling in India – Sab Koch Milega. It means ‘everything is possible’.”
The mercado (market) is truly a magical place. I’ve so far had the opportunity to visit mercados in Colombia, Peru and Bolivia. It’s always one of my first stops when I arrive to a new town or city. The smells and sights are at times enough to make you forget what you came to buy in the first place… Some are immense mazes, while others are more modest in their offerings. Irrespective of size, most all mercados have fresh goods. Exotic fruits, veggies and local dishes served in generous portions.
Maracuya. Banano. Zanahoria. Frutilla. Carambola. Lulo. Granadilla. Uchuva. This is where you come to learn what nature offers locally!
Once you’ve eaten to your heart’s content, you can meandre from one booth to another for hours. If you don’t find what you’re looking for in a medium sized market, chances are you’re not looking hard enough. Goods are usually organized neatly by category. Hardware, flowers, books, electronics, beauty products, shoe repair shops, toys, clothes, meat, fish, spices, warm meals, fresh juices, fruits and veggies all have dedicated sections to facilitate the experience.
You can find most anything in a mercado such as the one in Chiclayo (Peru), Mercado Modelo. It’s one of the most interesting markets in Peru. They have a renowned witchcraft section where all ills and predicaments can be solved with the right potion, powder or healing concoction.
Love potions are of course extremely popular. “Sigueme, sigueme” (follow me, follow me) is a best-seller. Your crush isn’t paying you much attention? No problem. Simply buy this product and discreetly blow a small amount of powder towards the back of his or her head. In no time, the person will be head over heels in love with you (or so the product claims). They also sell medicinal plants, bones and animal spoils. You may also be offered ayahuasca, an Amazonian plant mixture and powerful hallucinogenic.
While all local products might not be to everyone’s liking, the experience of walking through the mercado is a feast for the senses well worth the detour.
Northern Peru was unexpected.
Destinations in Southern Peru had taken up so much space in my mind (Machu Picchu, Cuzco, Nazca…), whereas I’d never heard of places such as Huaraz, Chachapoyas, Cajamarca, Leymebamba or the impressive ruins of Kuelap.
We were greeted by the majestic Cordillera Blanca. Blue lagoons coloured by glacial waters. Traditional fabrics that brighten up the landscape and fascinate the imagination in their combinations and boldness.
We travelled throughout the region by bus, often at night. The hairpin mountain turns and high speeds weren’t always restful, but night buses save both precious daylight hours and accommodation fees. While it might prove slightly more challenging to reach some of the destinations, Northern Peru offered a sense of authenticity, better prices than major tourist destinations in Southern Peru and fewer tourists – for now.
The Santa Cruz trekking circuit in the Cordillera Blanca cost roughly 25% of the total cost of the Inca Trail leading to Machu Picchu. While both treks were breathtaking, dinero stretches further in Northern Peru. And the trekking is world class.
While walking through the narrow streets of Cuzco, the former imperial city of the Incas, artists showcase traditional Andean music. As the city is situated at 3400m, you can take your time to catch your breath, adjust to the altitude and enjoy the local sights and sounds.
‘I’m Jennifer Pisso, but my spiritual name and how my friends know me is Jen Shmily. It’s an acronym for See How Much I Love You. I am Colombian and I was born in the city of Popayán, known as the “White City of Colombia”. My profession is social communicator and at the same time I alternate with music, ‘Rumbatherapy’. I have a relaxation program that helps people discover their self worth. It’s an inside-out process where you discover that if your inner self is balanced, automatically you reflect it on the outside. ‘It’s incredible how you can connect with people. Everyone is important for me, because I can learn about them, so I get the best version of myself. Behind each face and action there is always a story. Stories that can be strong and sad also fill me with hope, especially when you face the reality of a world and a society where you can see humans but not always their humanity. However, in the small details of life, such as watching a child smile, joining others for a good cause, observing a sunset, is the perfection of life.’ ‘I’ve always been linked to projects and organizations with a purpose. I have supported peasants in search of their rights, I’ve supported blind people and the hearing impaired. I love teaching people about my country, sharing traditions and cultures. I love good music and literature. I share my stories and poems with the Museo de la Palabra, which is part of the Foundation César Egido Serrano in Spain.’ ‘Also, I’ll soon publish my book “Cicatrices de una Guerra”. I wrote it in collaboration with three colleagues. It portrays part of the armed conflict in the Cauca region of Colombia. Despite the war, these people rise from the ashes and move on. For this and more reasons, I think writing is the best therapy for self-recognition and at moment, I have written in the media and online.’ ‘I like to be in constant movement. I am curious by nature and I enjoy every moment that I share with people. I think that although life is constantly changing, we have a mission here and now.’ ‘When I meet foreigners I am an open book, I teach them the different faces of my country. I’ve forged a beautiful friendship with many of them, and they hope to return to my beautiful Colombia. When they return to their countries, they remember the kindness of the Colombians, fall in love with the mountains and landscapes of the region. I believe that they enjoy the smiles of the people and in the last years, the image of Colombia has changed. This allows people to discover a little paradise in the world. I feel a great emotion when they tell me “Colombia is incredible because despite the problems, Colombians always have a smile”. Without a doubt, our best dress is the smile. So they clearly can say: “the risk in visiting Colombia is that you stay.”
‘My father completed a postgraduate degree in engineering in Germany, and that’s where I was born. Our family came back to Colombia a few years after the fall of the Berlin wall. We were originally from Medellin, and that’s where I’ve lived ever since we returned.’
When asked how he felt about the increase in visitors in his home country of Colombia, he says: ‘ The image of Colombia is really changing. It took 20 years for this to happen. Some tourists are particularly interested in our country’s history with drugs, narco trafficking… while others come to enjoy everything we have to offer and have fun.’
‘When I went back to Germany for my studies, I took the opportunity to visit as many places as I could… Italy, Switzerland, Belgium, Slovakia… I soon realized that I’d visited more places and countries than many Europeans. When I talked with people, they’d say ‘oh you’re from Colombia! You must know all about South America!’
”While I knew my own country quite well, I realized that I really wanted to know more about South America.’ After traveling through the southern continent for the past 6 months, he feels more connected to South American neighbours. Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay, Chile, Bolivia, Peru… When asked if he’d been to places where he could imagine himself living or staying longer term, he answered fairly quickly: ‘Buenos Aires. While I was there, I had a feeling I could live there… Every night you have something to do. It’s very culturally vibrant. There are so many creative people in BA.’
In terms of connecting with locals, ‘Couch Surfing’ has been a great way for Thomas to connect with locals as he travels through South America. He was pleasantly surprised at his hosts’ generosity, most notably the time taken to help him discover their city or town. ‘One host met me and my friend for the first time during his lunch break. After lunch, he gave us the keys to his apartment without hesitation and invited us to go directly to his place while he went back to work.’ The trust that exists between hosts and travellers is impressive.
‘I once stayed with an older gentlemen who had backpacked through Europe 40 years ago. He told me the story of how he was lost and walking through a train station. A couple saw him and offered to host him at their place. It was the same concept as Couch Surfing back then, just more informal.’
When asked what he thinks motivates strangers to help other strangers, he adds: ‘I think they have a previous experience that motivates them. They quickly feel the good intentions of the people they’re hosting, they have children of a similar age, or maybe they received a helping hand in the past. Others have told me that they love to hear stories from travellers. They want to travel and learn from the people they’re hosting.’
Taganga once was a small fishing village. It became very popular with the backpacking crowd for it’s proximity to Tayrona National Park, it’s many options for cheap diving certifications and afffordable accommodation.
Originally from Medellín, Milena’s been working in the coastal fishing village for the past 3 months. She was looking for change after several years working in the real estate industry.
“I wanted to see myself in a completely different environment. I knew Taganga fairly well as I’d been coming here on vacation for the past three years. Friendships I’d made here during these trips kept me coming back year after year. ” She ended up befriending the owner of a local hostel where she’d stayed a few times. As he was leaving for an extended period with his family for holidays, he asked her if she wanted to fill in for him as manager at the hostel. “At first I was surprised, because we’d only met on a few occasions. This job opportunity also came with a lot of responsibility.”
It was a great opportunity for Milena to try her hand working in the tourism industry, but it was so much more than that. “I came to Taganga to make memories, new friends, practice my English, teach Spanish, discover new cultures… and learn how to swim.’ Before moving to Taganga, Milena was fascinated by the water and had always wanted to be able to swim. Now that she’s mastered her swimming lessons, her next objective is to take diving lessons at one of the many schools offering PADI certification in the area. “In the next few years, I’d love to have my own hostel, possibly in a more remote mountain village, where I could raise my family in a healthy environment.’