Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Halloween

Triqui triqui Halloween,
Quiero dulces para mi.
Y si no me das,
Se te crece la nariz.


Halloween didn’t fall on an ideal date. Last year it was a Saturday night and this year it was a Wednesday. Not exactly great for kids who have school or adults who have work the next day. Nevertheless, that didn’t stop parents and children from celebrating this day, which I have been told is officially named “Day of the Children.” Although, everyone I have talked to has called it “Halloween.”

My Spanish class had a party. Everyone brought food or a beverage. I brought aguardiente. We had a good time. There are many Chinese and Germans in my class. The only other American I know at Universidad Nacional is a 6'8" guy named Andy, who is from Washington, D.C., and for the record is a good friend.

I left class with my friend Daniel, who is from London. We bought masks, which both resembled a devil. We didn’t prepare for Halloween. I visited my friend Cindy, a 9-year-old girl who spends a lot of time at the beauty salon near my apartment. Granted, her mom, Aleyda, who dressed up as a witch, runs the salon. Cindy dressed as a flower. Despite her age, she is one of the smartest people I know in Bogota, and is a great actress. Dan and I spent time at the beauty salon taking pictures.

Then we drank some aguardiente and went to Zona Rosa, a popular and posh area for nightlife. We met some Colombians and had a good time. However, due to the local elections, all the bars and clubs were closed the previous weekend. And because it was a weekday, many adults didn’t celebrate Halloween. However, this Friday and Saturday there are parties and Halloween festivities. Thus, Halloween is not finished...

Sunday, October 28, 2007

Election Day

It was a cold, rainy day in Bogota, but the buses and street corners were filled. It was a special day all across Colombia. No, Shakira didn’t release a new album. It was local election day. White tents were set up in parks and side roads for voters to choose their candidates. The Colombian army guarded these tents and could be seen on almost every block. It was nothing new. I see them each day. Still, I don’t know if I can ever become completely accustomed to seeing men dressed in camouflage, carrying AK-47s. Many members of the army are young and poor. All 18-year-old men are required to serve one year in the army or with the police. Though, like many places, if you have money, you can have your name removed from the list, thus skipping this duty. Leading up to the election, cars drove around the city with loudspeakers, people handed out flyers, and there were several small protests. But today, for all I know, was a peaceful day. Samuel Moreno beat the incumbent Enrique Penalosa for mayor of Bogota. I don’t know much about him. However, I read in El Tiempo that Moreno studied in Bogota and in the U.S., where he earned his masters in public administration at Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government. It was there that he became good friends with Felipe Cauldron, current president of Mexico. The worst part of the election for me was the fact that it ruined all the Halloween spirit, and people didn’t wear costumes last night. However, Halloween parties will take place next weekend. This is actually a good thing. I still need to find a costume.

Monday, October 22, 2007

Observations of Bogota (Part I)

Arepas
Colombians love arepas. You can find them everywhere, in street stalls, convenience stores, and restaurants. When I’ve talked about food with locals, they’ll usually ask if I’ve had arepas and if I like them. The truth is, I only eat them if someone gives me one.

So what is an arepa? It is a flat, cornmeal patty, usually about four inches in diameter and a half inch thick which is grilled, baked, or fried. Their bland taste is often compensated by adding grated cheese before they are cooked. Chocolate arepas are popular as well. Now those I enjoy. They’re made from sweet corn and are very thin and eaten like a sandwich with chocolate inside. Anything can be added to arepas as they serve like tortillas. They have such little nutritional value and don’t have much taste so I try to avoid them altogether. Just don’t tell any Colombians I said this. It’d be like telling an American I don’t like hamburgers or hot dogs.


Bikes, Buses, and Cars
Bogota is a big city, about eight-million people big. There is no train system. People travel mostly by bus or car. Depending on your license plate tag, you can only drive in Bogota on certain days. For example, my friend Luis Carlos, who lives in the neighboring town of Chia, can’t drive into Bogota on Tuesdays and Fridays. If he does, he will likely be pulled over by police and receive a hefty fine, the kind of fine that will keep him from driving anywhere for a while. The people I’ve talked to obey this law as it is strictly enforced. Without this law it would be utter chaos. As it is now there is too much traffic, especially between 5:30 and 8:30 in the evening, when people are finishing work. At this time cars are lined up bumper-to-bumper on the main roads and the side roads are clogged.


In the evening the buses are no different. The main public transportation is the Transmilenio buses, a fleet of big red buses that travel along the main roads throughout the city. There are two lanes blocked off on the streets just for Transmilenio buses, which have only been around for a few years in the constantly expanding and improving city bus system. The bus drivers often drive like they are rushing a pregnant woman to the hospital. I’m often swearing at them under my breath. At peak hours I’m standing between a half-dozen locals who are all at least six inches shorter than me, and the driver accelerates toward a red light and then slams on the brakes nearly causing a Colombian-Gringo sandwich. This brings me to another point: personal space. In the United States we value our personal space, in the grocery store, on the bus or train, anywhere. In Colombia it doesn’t really exist. Riding Transmilenio is sometimes like dancing close to someone in a discoteca. People are simply rude. When the bus stops people try to enter it at the same time people are trying to exit. They push, lean, and generally have no consideration for anyone but themselves. Don’t get me wrong, Colombians are friendly people when you talk to them. However, on the streets and in the bus, they are assholes. They tend not to push me as much as others, I think, because I’m much bigger than most. Also, now I expect to be pushed so I brace myself for it and I’m virtually always the stronger person. This probably sounds like I’m in the middle of a rugby match and many times it feels that way.

While Transmilenio is the main bus system, there are thousands of small buses that drive throughout the city. These smaller buses have routes, but no particular stops. They stop whenever they see a pedestrian put his hand in the air or wave his hand or finger. They too drive like they are late for a hot date, but it is often less crowded and you can find a seat. In addition, they will always stop for you. They cost about a thousand pesos versus the 1,400 peso fee to ride Transmilenio.

Riding the bus does have its advantages as the main roads are often clogged as I said earlier. It’s a wonder there aren’t more accidents. Drivers like to weave in and out of traffic, often not signaling. They use their horns instead, often beeping like assholes. For instance, a bus will stop to pick up someone on the sidewalk, thus causing a queue. The cars behind the bus will often hold down their horns in obnoxious fashion. It makes me want to punch the drivers in the face. Every little second or space not filled causes discontent among the drivers. The traffic lights are even set up for this in-a-big-hurry attitude. They turn from red to yellow to green so the drivers don’t have to anticipate green lights.


Maybe this is why my favorite thing to do is walk, if possible. Walking, too, has its risks. There are bike lanes along the sidewalk that you must avoid, unlike in America where the bike paths are often on the side of the road. Biking is fairly popular, although there seem to be more motorcyclists, who are required to wear reflective yellow or orange vests with a specific designated number across it. All in all, Colombians are great people, just as long as they are not trying to go somewhere.

Laundry
It took me over a month to find a laundromat. I wore the same underwear twice. Some days I didn’t wear any at all. I even washed some of my clothes by hand in the sink. I had paid a woman to wash my clothes but she charged me a small fortune – about $17 for a half-load of laundry. I was desperate. I asked around. Everyone said there were no laundry machines in Bogota, at least none that you could do yourself. You had to pay them a ridiculously high fee to do it for you. No thanks. One day I was walking down a side street in my neighborhood when I found an American-style laundromat. Hallelujah! It was much cheaper and much faster. It’s hard to believe a city of eight million is washing their clothes by hand. I have to believe if someone brought a decent laundromat chain to Bogota they would make a fortune.

Cell Phones
Llámame. No tengo minutos. Call me. I don’t have any minutes. This is something friends often say to one another, myself included. All incoming cell phone calls are free with no exceptions. There are no free nights and weekends like cell phones in America. Comcel is the biggest mobile phone company in the country. It is owned by the Mexican group America Movil, which is the largest corporation in Latin America and owned by Carlos Slim Helu, the richest person in the world. Slim’s estimated fortune is $67.8 billion. And we can’t get free nights or weekends.

To ameliorate this problem, I’ve recently downloaded Skype, an online software program that lets users talk to other users, all free of charge. It’s a great way to chat with family if you live overseas. You won’t have to spend money on calling cards or other services. My user name is: BrettGaramella if you want to talk to me. The Skype link is: http://www.skype.com/download/

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Fun and Games in Chia . . . Oh, and Lots of Food!

I had a relaxing weekend in Chia, the small town next to Bogota, where I visited my friends Luis Carlos and his wife Fabiola. Besides the fact they are wonderful hosts and always feed me until I need to adjust my belt buckle, they speak only in Spanish (Note: when Luis drinks he begins to speak English). So do their friends who often stop by. It’s great practice. I sometimes think I haven’t learned much, and visiting Luis this weekend proved otherwise. When I first arrived in Colombia, I understood some words but understanding the context was difficult. It’s still not easy, but I now can participate in most conversations and I usually understand the gist. Not only is it a great feeling but I am motivated to study even harder.

It’s been almost two months since I last visited them, and since then, the other noticeable change is my physique. I’ve lost between 10 and 15 pounds since leaving the United States. I’m on the move all the time and I eat less than I did at home. I also eat more fruit and less meat. I think, however, there’s more to it than that. There aren’t many overweight Colombians. Anyhow, I compensated for being flaco by eating as much as I could in Chia. Fabiola and Luis cooked a huge pot of bean and pig soup, which is comprised of big beans and pieces of pig skins. With rice and arepas (If you don’t know what an arepa is, read tomorrow’s blog.) it’s feast. To drink they served Cola y Pola, a combination of soda and beer, a Colombian favorite of mine, as well as lemonade, made by mixing limes with water and sugar. On Saturday night we played board games and Luis and I stuck with tradition by drinking aguardiente. As you’ll see below, I enjoyed trying on Luis’s Halloween costume. I’ve written enough. The photos below will do the rest:






Sunday, October 14, 2007

Viva Colombia! ...Casi

Sunday is the one day that most Colombians can relax at home, maybe watch some television. This afternoon I walked outside onto the deserted street and into a burger joint, just a block from my apartment. I was really looking forward for some type of meat on my plate since I don’t have an oven or stove in my apartment. I ordered a chicken sandwich and looked up at the television in the corner. A soccer game was on... or should I say futbol. There were a half dozen people in the room, all men, intently watching the game: Colombia versus Brazil. It was a World Cup qualifying match being played in Bogota. I’m not a soccer fan, but I figured I’d sit down and watch a little bit since Brazil was playing. For those of you living in a cave, Brazil historically is the best country in the world in soccer, or as some like to say, the New York Yankees of ... soccer.

They didn’t look like it, though. Maybe it was their uniforms. Colombia, donned in yellow jerseys, blue shorts and red socks looked flashy. They also played their part, controlling possession of the ball. I had started watching toward the end of the first half and didn’t leave until the end as Colombia failed to capitalize on several good opportunities. I talked with some of the guys there, who cursed a lot and helped me improve my pronunciation of these vital Spanish words. The chef/cashier whistled at every pretty girl that walked by the story. That’s what they do in the coast, said the guy sitting next to me, referencing the chef’s upbringing in the Caribbean coastal city of Santa Marta. The chef spoke so fast and with such an accent I couldn’t understand a word. Even I have trouble understanding him, said the same guy sitting next to me. It was a good way to spend a Sunday afternoon, at least if you like ties as both teams failed to score. In World Cup qualifying matches there isn’t overtime play or sudden death or penalty kicks. I knew there was a reason I didn’t like watching soccer.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

The Sweet Smell of . . . Teargas

It sounded like fireworks being launched. It was coming from the other side of campus, where my Spanish classes are each weekday evening. I had just gotten off the bus and was headed to class. I walked around the campus perimeter and as I got closer my eyes started burning and watering. The air in Bogota isn’t the cleanest but that couldn’t be it. As I neared the entrance, I saw the reason. Two armored police trucks periodically shot teargas over the entrance onto the campus property. Pieces of bricks and stones lay near the entrance and along the puddle-filled road leading to it. Another protest.

I looked on from a distance as students chanted something as two of them walked up to the entrance and pulled down their pants, bent over and smacked their bare behinds. I laughed. But I was also upset. Why another protest? What did this accomplish? Why did they have to vandalize their own university’s property? Despite my frustration I squeezed through a hole in the campus fence and shot some photos as the trucks shot teargas canisters near myself and the protestors. Granted, everyone ran. Teargas is no picnic. I’m still not sure where the firework sounds had came from, the police or the students. Unfortunately, I think I’m going to hear those sounds again.

Tuesday, October 9, 2007

Protest: Classes Canceled

I remember as a child I used to love listening to the radio in the morning when there was a big snowfall. I couldn’t wait to hear whether school was canceled. They call them snow days. I loved snow days, especially when I hadn’t finished my homework.

There are no snow days in Colombia. There are protest days. This month I began taking Spanish classes every weekday afternoon at the Universidad Nacional, which is the largest university in Bogota. Many of its students have strong political views. Yesterday, in the quad hung a gigantic Cuban flag next to the equally large portrait of Ernesto “Che” Guevara that is emblazoned on one of the buildings. Many people had gathered to honor the 40th anniversary of Che’s death. It didn’t surprise me. Graffiti is spray-painted on virtually every building on campus, with some having more than others, such as the political science building. The graffiti is mostly left-wing slogans and views. Che and socialism are some favorites. My first classroom had “ELN” and the Soviet hammer and sickle sprayed on the walls. For a well-reputed university, I am surprised they let students deface the property. But maybe that’s from being spoiled during my undergraduate days at the University of Vermont or the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.



Anyhow, back to my story. The Universidad Nacional has two entrances. I always enter through the one near the Transmilenio bus stop. I walked to the entrance and the security guard stopped me. He had never done this before to me, or anybody, as far as I had seen. He asked me where I was going? To Spanish class, I said. No, he said, there are no classes. The university was closed. What? There had been a protest.

I walked around the perimeter of the campus to the only other entrance I know of, which is near my Spanish class. I was kind of upset because I had to go pee. Pieces of bricks and other debris littered the street leading up to the entrance on Calle 26. The entrance was blocked off with yellow tape, and behind it workers in royal blue suits, wearing white gas masks and black boots were cleaning up the rubble. I began taking photos when a Colombian student approached me and said I shouldn’t take too many because I could get in trouble. He said there was a protest. Why? I asked. I never really got a definitive answer. Before I told him where I was from, he said he had studied at the University of Illinois and had been to Chicago. Small world. His name was Camilio and like many people I meet who have some English experience, he wanted to practice his English. We walked back to the bus stop, and on the way peed next to the fence surrounding the campus. It’s normal in Colombia to pee in public. I’ve seen men peeing on the sidewalks of busy streets in broad daylight. It’s not common, but it happens.

When I got home, I read a blurb in El Tiempo about the protest. It said the university closed around noon because a group of demonstrators, masked young men, had commemorated Che’s death by destroying the entrance. Three armored cars and a truck with police in riot gear arrived and controlled the situation. They used water and tear gas. Traffic was blocked for three hours.