Medellin, Columbia…..Comuna 13, Grafitti and Death!

 

 

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In central Medellin there are a series of impressive photos posted on the pillars which hold up the metro above.

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It has been while since I’ve made an entry and a lot of interesting experiences have been happening.  I’ll share a few and will begin with my present location of Medellin.  Medellin is a city of 2.5 million.  I’m really not a city person and after the first day here this introverted personality was ready to leave.  But I know myself well enough that I need a few days in a place to begin to find my way around and discover the beauty, the people, the music, and all the cool inspiring things about a place.  I’ll be here for 4 weeks and after a week and a half I find this city really inspiring!!  So here goes.  In some places you’ll find some Spanish mixed in for my Spanish speaking friends…

Interesting Places visited in Medellin ….

Formerly very dangerous areas

As many of you know, Medellin, Columbia, during the time of Pablo Escobar was known as the murder capital of the world. Some of these photos that follow reflect the north eastern part of Medellin, on up the mountain which was one of the areas controlled by the drug cartel‘s and the gangs with as I said in other photos, many people being murdered from day today. This, along with Comuna 13, was one of the most dangerous areas in the city. This is a city with vision to care enough about its people to invest in this transformation, and it continues to be transformed. The people who lived in the shantytowns could only get  to their houses by climbing many many many steps. There were no roads., No plumbing, no electricity, etc. It would take them as much as four hours to get down to the central part of Medellin. In the past number of years, the city has installed water and electricity in the homes of these people, has put in a Tram line which you can see in the photos, as well as a couple of gondola lifts (left my skis at home!) so the people who live here can get down to Central Medellin now in 40 minutes rather than 4 hours. Many of the children now actually come down to Central Medellin for school which was unheard of before. 

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The North east part of Medellin which I’m told was probably the second most dangerous area during the conflict.

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The gondola/cable car built by the city to improve the conditions, for people living in this formally dangerous, crime ridden area, economically as well as much better access to services, education, etc.

 

Como muchos de ustedes saben, Medellín, Colombia, durante la época de Pablo Escobar era conocida como la capital mundial del asesinato.  Estas fotos reflejan la parte noreste de Medellín, en la cima de la montaña, que era una de las áreas controladas por los carteles de la droga y las pandillas, como dije en otras fotos, muchas personas son asesinadas día a día.  Esto, junto con la Comuna 13, fue una de las zonas más peligrosas de la ciudad.  Esta es una ciudad con visión para preocuparse lo suficiente por su gente para invertir en esta transformación, y continúa siendo transformada.  Las personas que vivían en los barrios marginales solo podían llegar a sus casas subiendo muchos muchos escalones.  No había carreteras, ni tuberías, etc. Les llevaría hasta cuatro horas llegar a la parte central de Medellín.  En los últimos años, la ciudad ha instalado agua, electricidad y tuberías en los hogares de estas personas, ha instalado una línea de tranvía que se puede ver en una de las fotos, así como un par de telecabinas para que la gente  quienes viven aquí pueden llegar al centro de Medellín ahora en 40 minutos en lugar de 4 horas.  Muchos de los niños ahora en realidad bajan a Medellín Central para ir a la escuela, algo que no se había escuchado antes.

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Kinds looks like Patch Adams!!  Welcome…Bienvenidos….

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Comuna 13 graffiti and murals below

 

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Don’t mess with a motorcycle grandma!!

 

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These steps are an example of the only means people in Comuna 13 and in the North east part of the city had for getting to and from their homes, down to central Medellin.  Now with the addition of escalators below and cable cars, the people have much more access, and more quickly, to central Medellin.

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A photo of typical housing in Comuna 13.

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The two sides of a face representing past and present…

Comuna 13

Today I took the metro to this area because I wanted to see what was considered the most dangerous area in Medellin during the time of the drug wars and of Pablo Escobar. People died there most every day for one reason or another. Now it has undergone an incredible transformation thanks to the people of this area and the end of the conflict and the forward thinking, visionary Medellin city council.

It was originally settled by people who moved there from the countryside and other Colombian cities looking for work. There are other reasons as well such as having been forced off the land that they had bought from farmers. They were forced out of their homes because they were considered illegal which then contributed to building a shantytown made from whatever materials they could find, mostly wood and pieces of tin. They had no water, no electricity, no services provided by the city of Medellin because they were there illegally so the city would not help them out in any way. Again their only way down to the central part of Medellin was through a long series of steps which could take hours to get to Medellin in the central part. This of course was a breeding ground for unrest and is when the guerrillas and drug cartels moved into this area to get the support of these people to fight the government in power. So the guerrillas (FARC for example) offered people food and clothes in exchange for their loyalty. It was a real struggle for the people to find enough food from day to day just to live.  It’s an interesting question to ask oneself what one would do in such a situation when the only source of food is being offered by the ‘good guerrillas’ as they were initially considered. Esteban, my guide, told me the story that at one point the children of his grandmother had no food and had not eaten for a while. They ask her for something to eat and she was heartbroken that she had nothing to give them. It was just about at that time when one of the guerrillas appeared at her door with a lot of food and asked her if she would prepare this food because tomorrow he was bringing more people and they would eat this food at her house. She prepared it and they came and they ate, and all the food that was left over they gave to her. Then she and the children had plenty of food for awhile. Again, it is an interesting question to ask what one would do in the same situation when the government/city was not providing any services  and yet this other group which appeared to be good guys was offering all kinds of support.

I wanted someone to take me through this area, which is also known for its incredible graffiti with a message, and I wanted the person to personally have lived there or still be living there and who knew the history of this place as it directly affected him and his family. So when I got off the metro, there were various people who wanted to take me on this tour but in this case I needed someone who spoke English, although I generally choose the Spanish speaking tours, because I wanted to understand as fully as possible the heart and soul of this place and I was concerned I’m no fluent enough in Spanish.  I didn’t want to miss anything. I was fortunate to meet Esteban who is 17 years old and who was born in this area and continues to live there. Just a little more background on him. He lived most of his life with his grandmother because his parents were busy trying to somehow make ends meet. So being self motivated he learned English by going to a place there in Comuna 13 where gringos came and taught English for free. He’s an intelligent self motivated guy and is planning on going to Canada next year for his university education. He still lives in this area and took me to the house were he was born and where his grandmother still lives. He doesn’t live with his grandmother anymore but does live close by. I was very fortunate to meet his grandmother who was very kind and gave me something to drink. She sat there while he carefully explained the history of this place, of this house, the events that happened here, and what his grandmother went through.

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Esteban’s grandmother in her house as Esteban tells some of the history and stories of this special place.

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Esteban and his grandmother in her house, the house in which he spent his growing up years.

 

It’s kind of complicated but the guerrillas were eventually run out of this area by government troops and paramilitary. The paramilitary stayed longer, essentially took over when the military left and began to kill anyone who sided with the guerrillas. The paramilitary gradually became the bad guys and began killing a lot of people, anyone suspected of siding with the guerrillas. If any member of your family was in any way associated with the guerrillas. Even if you weren’t, that person and you were killed. If you were outside after a certain hour, you were shot.  Even during the day, if it seemed you were following one of the paramilitary, you were considered a spy for the government even if you were a child, and were shot on the spot.  Bodies were dismembered, and put in plain view of the people as a warning.  Some were put in bags and on occasion when a mother, for example, knew it was here child and lifted the bag into here arms, it exploded killing her as well. At one point the paramilitary wanted the grandmother’s house so she had to take what she could, leave immediately and find another place. Eventually she was able to come back and her house was empty because the paramilitary had stolen anything possible. Her two sons, who were in the military, we’re also killed. Esteban showed me where a mass grave is located and at this time I could see they are still excavating to determine how many bodies probably are there. Eventually the government was able to clean up this mess and began to see the value of providing services to these people.

At that point, they felt it would be in their best interest to make life easier for those who lived here. So the city mayor put in place a policy that replaced each family’s shanty and built each person a brick house and also installed electricity and running water and bathrooms. They also built trams, escalators and cable cars so people would not have to struggle so much using the steps and have good access to services much more quickly. They also put in streets so it became accessible by vehicles of various types.  This continues to this day.

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One can see Central Medellin in the distance.  Imagine the four hours it would take to walk there  with only steps available…..and the difficulty for many of the older people.  Thanks to Mario for getting us to this place.

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The tranvia also built by the city  for above stated reasons.

 

Now it is a very vibrant community with lots of art, dance, and music. There is graffiti everywhere on houses and walls and this is sanctioned by the city government. Murals and graffiti are still being painted and we saw evidence of this today. (See the scaffolding photo below). The government is continuing to build streets to other parts of this area so everyone has access to services. If you are an artist and want to paint some kind of graffiti or some kind of painting on a empty wall you need to get permission from the city  and tell them what you want to do. Then they will give you permission if they approve of your idea and it fits with the community. They do not want just anything on the walls. If you want to do a painting on the side of somebody’s house you would have to get their permission from the owner and then you could do so. The graffiti all has meaning and tells the stories of the people’s struggles and their history. It is not meaningless graffiti. It’s quite amazing what the stories are that are told by each painting. Most of us hear all the horror stories of the conflict here, the murders, the danger, etc., and it makes most of us want to avoid risking visiting here. But I can tell you I  felt very welcomed there and it seems the people were proud to show to the rest of the world what they have done with their community.  And I felt completely safe. I intend to go back and spend more time there on my own.   I told Esteban that if I ever lived in Medellin, this is where I would want to live. If you ever have a desire to visit Columbia, I strongly encourage you to make this visionary city, and Comuna 13, a priority.  It will change you.  And there is nothing to fear.  (Just don’t go walking down the street by yourself at two o’clock in the morning drunker that a skunk!)

 

With each painting below it is interesting to try to imagine what each represents related to the period of conflict.

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Even the steps are painted….

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The graffiti and murals continue to expand…..this one above in progress….

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Two sides of the face.  Can you imagine the story of each?

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Ceramic mural art

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Now let me add a few photos of a mural done by dear Nepali friend, Shramdip.  There is a little story to this.

Shramdip Che

Yesterday, when I posted some photographs of Comuna 13, I got a note from my dear Nepali friend, Shramdip, asking me if I had seen his mural that he painted while here. At that moment I did not remember seeing his mural from the photograph he sent to me which is the first one below. Then I had this moment when I remembered looking at this unique painting with a friend and remarking how beautiful and unique it was.  It did not occur to me to look at the signature of the artist, much less think of Shramdip because I had forgotten or did not know that he had been here. Fabulous.  So I went back today on my own and took some photos of it but it was a bit obscured by the top of a tent which was leaning against it at this time. But I did get some and especially his signature which he signed: “With love from Nepal“.  Shramdip said that each time he passed this house, the mother and daughter kept asking him to do a mural on the side of their house.  After some serious thought about what might best represent this home, he decided on the symbol of woven bracelets because that is what this mother and daughter made each day as a way to express their talents and to generate some income.

If you do not know Shramdip, you are missing another one of the dearest of souls on this planet and a really talented intelligent artist. Now he is traveling around the world supporting himself by painting murals and doing incredibly beautiful tattoos. You may have seen some of them that were posted on my timeline.  He has an amazing story along with his sister both of whom were born and lived in Kathmandu. I was introduced to the two of them by my brother and sister-in-law who lived and worked in Kathmandu for a period of time. When I visited Kathmandu later, I met Shramdip and his sister, Saveeta, in person, they invited me to spend a night in their humble loving home and I was thrilled to do so. I will say that as an expression of their generosity and kindness, Shramdip gave up his bed and room so I could sleep there while he stayed elsewhere with a friend in another house.  Saveeta is now studying in Germany. If you knew their story, and one day perhaps Saveeta and or Shramdip will be kind enough to share it with all of us, you would understand better how remarkable these two people are and how they have accomplished what they have accomplished. Incredibly inspiring.

Thanks so much to both of you. My love is always with you. Shramdip is presently in Ecuador and I hope he’s there long enough that we can hook up. How joyful that would be.  ❤️❤️🦋🦋🕉🕉🕉🙏🙏

Now for the photos of Shramdip’s mural art in Comuna 13…..The first photo is his which he sent to me and the other two I took today while there again.   Notice his signature and website.

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A few final thoughts about my time in Medellin

 Now after a month here I am just about ready to leave for the Amazon and Iquitos, Peru. But maybe a few reflections at this point on Medellin would be useful to remember. So I would say the most touristy area is Poblado.  It’s like a district of the city and is kind of at the opposite end from where I am staying which is not touristy, is more quiet, and yet there are lots of little restaurants and cafés in the area. Close to the metro stop Floresta.  If I wish to go to the central part of Medellin, it is about 2 1/2 miles away. The central part of Poblado is another mile. It’s very easy to hop on the metro just a few blocks from where I’m staying and go to any of these places in the city in no time at all. The metro system is quite good, and then there are what they call Trams, like trains to take you other places, and ultimately the gondolas which take you up to the highest points of the mountains around here where the people live. As I mentioned before it’s where the poor people lived and where there was a lot of crime, murders, etc.  And my most important find in the upscale district of poblano was a Harley Davidson dealership! Felt like home!

I took a day trip to Guatepe and found the village itself, the Pueblo, to really be very interesting. It is being preserved and highly restricted in terms of how you paint your house and what kinds of additions you might want to add on. They’re trying to keep the original construction and appearances. And they’re doing a great job.  There is a huge rock just outside of Guatepe and they have carved a stairway up to the top. It’s something like 700 steps and it’s pretty much straight up. There are great views from the top.  It is certainly worth the climb.

I have met some interesting characters along the way. After a couple of weeks here, and seeing mostly what I wanted to see in the city, I spent a good deal of time just sitting in the parks and the cafés drinking coffee, talking to people and making some lovely friends, and just having a relaxing time.  It was a good time and I have had some time to do some minimalist art drawings, which is a new direction for me. I’m kind of a minimalist in the way I live my life, the way I travel, so it’s a good fit. It’s also more convenient than trying to again buy paints and canvases and find a place to paint and then deciding what to do with those canvases. I could take them off the frame and FedEx them home which is what I did with two drawing tablets full of poetry that I have written as well as drawings that I’ve done while here. 

I’ve tried the National drink, Guaradienste , and rather like it. I like the flavor which is similar to licorice or anise.  About 30 something percent alcohol.

I found, eventually, my favorite café which makes the best coffee that I found in the city and learned to know and appreciate Subías and Gabriel (Gabby).  Neither speaks English except for the guy who is wanting to learn English. Gabby on the other hand speaks no English and she has been here a couple of years now coming from Venezuela. She doesn’t particularly care for it here because she says people don’t treat Venezuelans very well.  She’s a really nice young woman about 36 years old. She carries a sense of sadness which I think reflects not feeling “at home.“ Not feeling like she’s at a place where she belongs. That of still being someone lost without a country and not being fully accepted in the new country.  

Sabias, on the other hand, is Colombian and 24. This café, Nakama, is owned by him and a partner.  A very likable young man and I’m certain he will find his way in this world. He wants to learn English and I am wanting to learn more Spanish, so we have interesting conversations, delightfully so. I’m so appreciative of people like this with whom I can teach a little  English and at the same time learn more Spanish.

I would say that Medellin is quite visionary in what it is doing for the people who were disenfranchised during the era of Pablo Escobar. They’re making it possible for as many as possible to have work, they’re making it possible for the people to have access to the city and to all that is available. The city’s vision has reduced crime and murders. It has given the people a purpose to live and to feel like maybe to some extent the city Council is on their side too. I’m told that Medellin, with its great progress and vision, is held up as a model city for all of South America.

 

 A few stories of folks I met while in Medellin….

 

Outta Jail Traveling Neo

 Meet Neo from Canada.  Yesterday I was climbing rocks and exploring Guatape here in Colombia and later while in Central Park having a coffee I had a conversation with Neo.  He’s probably in his late 30s and has a fully outfitted bicycle nearby. He seems like an ordinary guy  and he had been traveling the world for the past three years as a way of being permitted not to do more time in jail. Well that peaked my interest so I asked more questions.

He told me he had been actively protesting  the oil pipeline in a non-violent manner through writing poetry and speaking in the free speech zone in Vancouver. Apparently there is an area in Vancouver where you can go and speak your mind In public. Other places you are not permitted to do so, I understand. Rather nice concept, I think. He had been protesting for some period of time and apparently he was quite outspoken and became well known to the people and the authorities. Apparently they had been tracking him (there often is a bit of truth in paranoia!) for an extended amount of time and finally arrested him on some charge claiming he had a mental disorder. They slapped him in jail for 30 days so he immediately asked if he could call his wife or his attorney. Both were declined. He had no way of getting in contact with his wife and child.  I asked if he had been evaluated by a psychiatrist. He said yes and was given a diagnosis of schizophrenia. He asked for a second opinion and said that a second psychiatrist stepped into the room for about 30 seconds and said “definitely schizo.“ So the police department said ‘you just increased your time in jail to 90 days.’

After serving sometime in Jail, he states they were about to put him on a lot of heavy medication which he wanted nothing to do with. So somehow they were able to negotiate that they would release him if he left the country. He’s been traveling the last three years and Now was thinking he might be able to go back to Canada given that time period away.

Neo also said that the police assigned an undercover agent to his wife unbeknownst to her. They begin spending some time together and the undercover agent told her that Neo was dangerous and could kill both her and her child. not sure he got this info.  According to Neo he has never been violent in his life. The bottom line is that his wife and the undercover agent eventually got married! Hummm….

He is still writing protest poetry and showed me some of it. He has a unique way of writing short rhyming lines that get right to the point. Rather interesting. He also has a book that is available online free to those who wish to read it.

This was only about a 20 minute conversation and I had to leave because my group was leaving. I would have enjoyed talking with him longer. And learning more of his story. He seemed like a very interesting guy in an interesting situation. I have no idea if what he told me was true, or how much of it was true, but he certainly presents himself well. It’s also true that some types of schizophrenia do not become evident until there is some sort of stress or pressure in a given situation. Early in my career as a psychotherapist I led a number of groups composed of persons diagnosed with different types of schizophrenia. It was very interesting and very much a learning experience. Based on my limited knowledge of schizophrenia and the limit amount of time I spent with Neo, I would say he certainly did not fit that diagnostic category.  

I wonder how I would have responded had I been related to in such in a manner based on this information. I certainly see the potential for becoming quite upset and angry and perhaps giving some kind of expression to it, at least vocally, which would do nothing more then serve as evidence to these authorities that I indeed was exhibiting symptoms of paranoid schizophrenia. It would be a no-win situation for the powerless. The teacher in this for me is to wonder what I would have done had I been wearing those same shoes. Of course, we don’t know! But it is worth asking the question and doing some self examination.

I’m not forming any opinions about Neo but only sharing the information as he passed it on to me. Found him to be a really interesting guy and enjoyed our conversation a lot. I wish I hadn’t had to leave quite so soon.

Isn’t life fabulous? Full of such variety and so many interesting people. I often wonder what each new day will bring and try to remain open.

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                         David, Medellin Columbia, and Deportation 

This afternoon I went to the most upscale and probably touristy part of Medellin. It’s called Poblado.  Some pretty fancy hotels, upscale restaurants and shops. Even a Starbucks!! I stumbled on, or rumbled on, a Harley Davidson dealership! That made my day! Almost bought one!

As I was walking up one of the streets there was a guy sitting on a bench, slender, about 40, and he began to speak English to me as I was passing. So I stopped momentarily figuring he was asking for money, which actually he was. He said that when he tells most people who walk by and who speak English that he has been deported from the United States, they leave immediately. My response to this is to be intrigued. I want to sit down and hear their story regardless of how much it is true. And curious, I am interested, and hopefully I will gain a bit more understanding and compassion even if I don’t believe them.  However, I became very intrigued with his story and sat down and listened to as much of it as he was willing to share. He arrived here last evening from Bogotá and slept on the street. He was deported from the United States for apparently being illegal. Again I cannot vouch for the truth of all he said to me but after being an old guy in this world for a long time and studying human behavior most of my life it becomes a little more evident when somebody is just BSing all the time. There was something authentic about David so I listened carefully and ask some questions. He was living in California with his wife and children. His wife is a US citizen. He was taken to the United States at the age of 10 with his parents who crossed the border at that time illegally and quite easily. That was back in the 70s. Since that time David completed school and found work, paid his taxes, never was on the dole, and contributed to the economy of the great United States of America. He even had a legal residency card.  His brothers and sisters were born in the states and they were not deported, at least not yet!

David said that ICE came to his house, knocked on the door and told him he was illegal. They took his legal residency card and put him in detention where he waited for three months until two days ago when he was deported to Bogotá where he had to turn in all his identification and papers to the US Embassy. That means he has no ID. He filled out some papers and the embassy said he could come back in two months and he would be eligible for an ID and possibly have his legal residency reinstated and return to the states. In the meantime, with no ID he’s not been able to do much. His wife cannot even send him money because he needs an ID in order to pick up the money, which is true. I ask him if he had brought money into the country with him and he said, very little, that you were not allowed to bring anything into the country with you. Once he gave his identification and papers to the US Embassy in Bogotá, they very generously told him he was now free to go! Where, what, and how was of no concern to the embassy.  At this point he is dependent on other people to do anything. He is from Columbia and says he has family on the coast and needs money for some food, a night in a hostel, and a bus to get to the coast where then he can possibly get some temporary help from his family.

I will admit, I am a bit of a soft touch sometimes for people like this. I may get taken from time to time but I really don’t care. I had a sense that he wasn’t BSing so after further conversation I gave enough money for some food and a place to sleep for the night. He’ll figure out the bus ticket to the coast. And he went down the street and bought food. When I gave him the money I told him, “you know why I am giving you this money but the truth is I don’t care what you do with it.  People in my position know that often times,  just giving money, it ends up being spent for alcohol. If you want to spend is all on alcohol, that is your prerogative.  (There  was no alcohol on his breath.) I give it to you because my heart says to give it to you. My responsibility ends there. Your responsibility begins there. Whatever you do, don’t give up. Stay positive. These experiences which often can be devastating are sometimes just the beginning of something great. I want that for you.” With kindness, he said I reminded him of his father. His eyes were glistening.  And it wasn’t manipulation or high drama!

He’s got up and asked me if I would stand up too because he wanted to give me a hug. I did and we did. Oddly enough, as I reflect a bit, I feel like perhaps I am the one most blessed in this exchange which was not my thought or intention. Poorer but richer!  Strange how these things work sometimes! I am grateful.

 

 

         And finally my dramatic exit out of Medellin via Viva Air  (Avoid!)

So every time you travel, you learn something new that you probably should’ve known before! I flew from Medellin to Lima and then to Iquitos. I’ve been in Peru three times before and always had a return ticket. This time I did not and it did not occur to me that a ticket to indicate when you are leaving is required in order to enter the country.  The site I booked with did not have that Information listed.

I arrive at the international airport in Medellin and get in line for Viva air. Let me say I arrived four hours early for some reason. Let me be right up front and say clearly I don’t recommend Viva air. Avoid this airline at all costs if possible. The whole thing was absolute chaos. By the time I got to check my bag, all of which had been done on line, handed my ticket to the agent who looked at it and said I need a ticket to show him that I will be leaving the country. I never felt so disliked in my life!  🤡🤡 I had an hour before my flight was to leave so I had to back up, pull out my iPhone and quickly book another flight. The freaking airlines kept telling me that the flight I booked was already full. Tell me why it was still listed as an option online. Then the site would not except my credit card. Eventually another site did. 

Anyway, I booked a flight to Ecuador where I will be going next and got to the gate for Lima just about time to board. That was also a chaotic scene. And as some of you know, they make those airplanes for little people not for people who actually have legs which were in my chin!  🤣🤣. Not complaining. Just laughing a lot.You were not permitted to move to a whole row of empty seats to stretch out unless you paid a freaking fortune right on the spot. Oh well! Same deal on my flight from Lima to Iquitos.

The bright side about Buddha being a pest?  I did learn a little trick about having a ticket to show you would be leaving the country when you are not sure of the date or the place that you will be flying to.  There is a website called “visa reservations“. They will book you a legitimate flight itinerary and charge you about $30. Then you just don’t need to take that flight or complete the booking unless you want to and then pay the remaining amount. Otherwise you were only out $30. This is legitimate and was started because when you apply for a visa at the embassy they encourage you not to book the flight quite yet but they want to know you are serious about going to the country for which you have applied for a visa. So, “Visa reservations“ takes care of that issue for people. It’s a great little tool to have in your back pocket. Apparently, this organization gets the ticket to you by email within six hours.  You can also book a ticket through Expedia, pay the full price, and cancel the flight within 48 hours to receive a full refund. 

 

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