Unmastery — 12 January 2024

Narayan Subramoniam
7 min readJan 12, 2024

It’s been hard to get back into writing, into school, and into a rhythm of life after travelling so intensely and joyously. But this year is starting off with a bang with my final semester of ‘school’ and an interesting social experiment I’m committing to (with?) myself. Read on for a detailed summary of all that I did in Colombia with a friend and a brief intro to my no smart phone experiment.


The last issue (I know, it was a while back) covered the first bit of Cartagena, but I’m not sure if Katherine and I knew completely where we were going and how. We ended up flying to Medellin next, followed by a absurdly short flight to a city near Salento, followed by an overnight bus to Bogota — the capital of Colombia. The route is here:

I have to say this is an excellent route. You start off in a beach town and warm up from a Canadian winter. Then land in a bustling city vibrant with its people and the best metro system I’ve taken in a while. Cities are cities everywhere, so a bit of calm in the mountain town of Salento was great. We topped it off in Bogota where we were both touristed out and opted for more chill activities with friends. I’m also weirdly sensitive to changes in altitude, so gradually working my way up to Bogota’s 2,644m height helped me acclimate and feel smug climbing up a mountain in Bogota

Montserrate: a lot of pitstops, all loved.

There’s tons of videos on what to do in these places and I’m sure y’all will figure out something great. I am writing this piece more than two weeks out from my trip, so how about I write just a couple of sentences on what I remember from each stop and I’ll stop gushing about Colombia until the next time I go there?

Cartagena: a Colonial beach city

I remember humidity on my face and afternoon naps lasting two hours. Warm waters where I lolled around for hours. The activity I’d absolutely recommend would be snorkeling. Such a peaceful way to go about spending a day. I feel taking kids out to go snorkeling would be a surefire way to get a generation of great marine biologists.

Medellin, or how to embed hope within infrastructure

By far the best stop on the trip. If you had pick one place in Colombia and you like cities, this is it. We flew into Medellin in the day and got a glimpse of this sliver-shaped city tucked on top of mountain ranges. We saw it at night again with the barrios in the background ascending into the night. It was probably 15 minutes until I more or less ran to the metro.

Step aside, Sally Carrera

There’s something so damn endearing about rail metro. The idea that a city supports your decision to support you and yours. That you deserve to travel quickly to your destination, away from the congested car traffic. That you too have a spot, have a chance, even if you can’t afford a car or the time to sit in traffic. Medellin’s metro is also famous in that its cable car system (the first of its kind) was deliberately designed to offer opportunities to the poorer barrios elevated in the mountains.

No symbol has helped more than Medellin’s cable cars. They soar over its mountain slums carrying 40,000 people a day, connecting the poor with jobs and opportunities in the city’s wealthier neighborhoods. (source)

I remember a moment sitting in the cable car and having a young family walk in. A father, probably in his late twenties wearing worn clothes except for a marvelously clean purple baseball cap. A son, not more than 10 years old with simple clean clothes. The two of them talked like this was their daily commute, heading into the big city on cable cars that outline a mountain in between two valleys. His kid had a scuff on his white shoes, his dad quietly rubbed the spot away before the two of them got off for their day.

Yes, Medellin has a history. But the city takes a breath after you raise that point, and then shows you the future.

Salento: mountain town

The town itself, you could skip over. Except you could spend the evening playing tejo in the town’s only joint. But woh my, don’t you dare skip Cocora Valley.

A googled image.

Start off in the midst of the world’s tallest palm trees, hike for about 45 minutes and end up in a misty mountain top with Canadian pines around you. Colombia’s equatorial position means that latitude is less of a determinant of vegetation than altitude. So the flora doesn’t change much as you go north-south as much as you go up-down. Pretty neat.

Bogota: Colombia’s Ottawa

Y’know how Canada has the cool city (Toronto) and then the capital? I feel I can make a half baked analogy with Colombia. Katherine and I were out to lunch with a sandwich at this point of the trip. So I didn’t do any free walking tours. We also spent Christmas here, a serious family time occasion here, so most things were closed. But it was great to see one of Katherine’s exchange friend and his buddies.

A peak into the life of 20-somethings shooting the shit at each other, drinking the English away till all that was left was a lovely Spanish that I was glad to experience.

Journalist’s square in Bogota. The loose bricks are from folks throwing it at cops during protests. Walking felt like cosplaying as clay xylophones.

An interlude on travel

Travelling with Katherine cemented some opinions I have on travel now.

  1. Spend three nights in the first place you land, and at least three nights everywhere else. The first night’s a write off from flying, you have a structured ‘basic’ second day, and the third day you end up doing things you want for yourself. Really like the place? Stay on.
  2. Don’t book too many things in advance. This obviously has a cost premium but I think the flexibility is worth it. Nothing’s better than making spontaneous friends and slightly modifying your plans. Of course, fewer things are worse than not having a place to crash but the actual risk of this is quite low if you have an emergency cash fund.
  3. Fly less. Without even mentioning the environmental impact, travelling by bus or rail (check ahead for safety) is just so much more cooler. You see these snapshots of life as you pass by, people are more social (the fear of falling a couple thousand feet does wonders for silent faith), and it’s usually cheaper. Of course, it takes more time but you’re realistically padding 2–3 hours in front of a plane journey.
  4. Go easy on food the first couple days, stick to fruits and veggies. I used to get shit traveler’s diarrhea, but I load up on fruits and veggies the first day and that seems to help. Could be nonsense, but hey no diarrhea.
  5. Fun and risk are correlated. Most people are unreasonably (imo) risk averse when taking a little bit more risk (e.g. travelling by bus on a well travelled route, sleeping in a dorm-style hostel) results in a lot more fun (usually meeting whacky Germans on busses and hostels). And of course, it’s cheaper.

I got a dumb phone (ish)

If you’ve met me, I’ve probably mentioned my idea of doing a 90’s semester. Only having a flip phone, keeping my laptop at uni and mimicking a university terminal, and using paper notes primarily. Since this is my last ‘real’ study semester, I bit the bullet.

I got a dumb flip phone two weeks back, the return period just ended and I’m committing to a semi 90’s semester. I’ll still keep a laptop at home because I’m terrified of not being connected but this flip phone business is FUN. So much joy in flipping it up to answer a call, flipping it down in disgust at spam calls. I just figured out how to type special characters (!@#$%^&*();:) and I may never look back.

Of course, I still have a smart phone as a backup if I desperately need Maps or if my sister sounds the alarm on the family whatsapp chat needing attention. No real zen improvement in the two weeks. But I do expect to improve at typin lyk its the 90s lol thx 4 reading

The Road Ahead

The Masters does feel overwhelming but I feel like I have a great support system to fall back onto. Thank you :)

Just about to start reading Sanderson’s Stormlight Archive Book two. The only author I’ve actually bought the e-book for. This biweek’s article is a Wikipedia page of a route I’d like to take someday: The Hippie Trail.

This biweek’s quote comes from my second re-read of Samuelson’s Seven Ways of Looking at Pointless Suffering

My rough-and-ready theory of true love is that it involves the reconciliation of two seemingly impossible tasks: our beloved must give us everything good that your parents gave us, and our beloved must give us everything good that our parents failed to give us. True love makes us feel simultaneously at home and on an adventure.

Till the anniversary of Ukraine’s 1918 declaration of independence from Soviet Russia,