Thursday, December 27, 2007

The Undefeated

Most men in his shoes would be dead. After all he is 90 years old. He has been hit by a car twice and suffered a heart attack ... since turning 85.

There is only one Rebello.

He immigrated from Portugal to my hometown of Danbury, Conn., when he was a young man. He has worked as a tailor since then. Exactly how many years? I’m not sure but his sewing machine looks like an antique. He owns a small shop on Main Street where the local police often stop by and look after him. The women love him. When he was young, he had a new woman next to him in the new car he bought each year. At least this is what his best friend, Louie Marchese, told me one time when we were waiting to go to lunch with Rebello one day.

Lunchtime is my time with Rebello. Bring up a story about women and Rebello will always have a new personal anecdote that he will elaborate upon with a shit-eating grin, “Brett, let me tell you, one time I...” He also is a good listener and he is as sharp as the needle he uses every day. Over the years I have gone to lunch many times with Rebello, my father, and some of Rebello’s friends. It has become a tradition at 12 noon, but not a minute after for he won’t wait.

I went to lunch with Rebello a few days ago, on Christmas Eve. My dad, brother, Rebello’s nephew, and a friend also came along. It was a great lunch and everyone was in good spirits since these get-togethers are less frequent because I doing a lot of traveling. I brought my new camera, the Nikon D300, that my parents had given to me for Christmas. I took some shots at the lunch table and then put it away. Then we drove back to Rebello’s shop. As we were walking out the door, I asked my dad if I should take some photos of Rebello in his shop. “Take the photos,” said my dad. “You never know what is going to happen in life.” So I did.

My brother then drove me home and did some last-minute Christmas shopping. About 45 minutes after we had left Rebello’s, the phone rang. It was my brother. “You’re not going to believe what happened...” he said. “Rebello just got hit by a car. An ambulance took him to the emergency room.” What? I was just eating with Rebello, and taking photos of him ... what happened? Rebello had stepped outside of his shop and had been run over trying to cross the street corner just a few feet away. He was probably going to the corner convenience store to buy a lottery ticket. (He likes the scratch-off tickets.) I’m still not sure exactly why he left his shop. Anyhow, that night I talked to my dad who had met Rebello at the emergency room. He called me and said that Rebello had broken a few ribs but had no internal bleeding. Coincidentally, Louie, who is 92, has been extremely ill in the hospital which is why he didn’t join us for lunch. Then Rebello got hit and also spent his Christmas in the hospital.

Today, Rebello returned to work and I had lunch with him. He was telling jokes and laughing at his own misfortune (or good fortune, depending how you look at it). I told him it was a good thing he left the Jesus picture on the wall. I had given Rebello a Fernando Botero painting for Christmas and my dad removed the Jesus picture Rebello had on his wall to make room for the painting. Rebello insisted that the Jesus picture stay on his wall. So maybe God is watching...

So how does he do it? I think it’s Rebello’s enthusiasm for life and will to work. After having a heart attack, his doctor recommended he take at least a month off. “If I don’t work, I don’t eat,” Rebello replied. He returned to work the next day. This happened again when he was run over for the first time. And yet again this week. I’m glad he did. Lunchtime just wouldn’t be the same.

Saturday, December 22, 2007

Sleepless in Medellín

Medellín has quite the reputation. In the United States many people think of it as a dangerous city because not long ago it was the home of drug kingpin Pablo Escobar. In Colombia it is known as a city with beautiful weather and women. As I’ve discovered with many things in Colombia, being here is often very different from what I’ve heard. One of my students, who grew up in Medellín, often tells me that it is the best city. In fact, Medellín was my first choice, but because of work I moved to Bogotá. Nevertheless, I wanted to see it for myself. Since I had to fly from Bogotá to Medellín before returning to the U.S. for Christmas, I decided to push my flight back a day and spend the night....

Because it was the holiday, many hotels were fully booked. When you travel really, really cheap, things like this don’t apply to you. Hence, I found a hostel a couple blocks from the best bars and restaurants in town. I was excited to visit Medellín as it had rained each afternoon virtually every day for the previous two weeks in Bogotá. When I left yesterday, of course, it was beautiful weather. The flight between Bogotá and Medellín was breathtaking, even though it took less than an hour. Unfortunately I didn’t have my camera on me to take photos of the low puffy white clouds, and the different shades of green farmland that looked like a giant quilt laid over the mountains.

My student’s friend, Fredy, picked me up at the airport. He had a small sedan that looked brand new. I asked him if he was renting it. He said he had owned it for years. Then I looked around the airport parking lot. All the cars were clean, quite the opposite of Bogotá. The weather too was warmer and felt great. Fredy chauffeured me around Llano Grande, a lush, green countryside about 40 minutes from Medellín. He pointed out several farms owned by President Alvaro Uribe, a Medellín native. Many of the farms contained greenhouses for flowers. While most Colombians live in cities, the countryside is simply beautiful and necessary to visit.

On our way into Medellín I told Fredy I wanted to stop at a good restaurant for bandeja paisa, a typical dish from that region. It’s not the healthiest food, but it is tasty and will fill up the largest of potbellies. It has an assortment of different food on a big tray. In particular, I enjoy the large beans, which is not common in Bogotá. As we rode down the steep, winding road above Medellín, Fredy pulled over near a restaurant; it was across from the full parking lot. The restaurant stood at the edge of the hill, providing a great view of the city. I don’t recall the name of it but the food was what I expected, leaving me satisfied. As I was eating, an old man with a goatee walked in with his family. “That is Botero,” Fredy said. Fernando Botero, a Medellín native, is the Pablo Picasso of Colombia. He’s probably as well known as the president. His trademark is painting and sculpting chubby people, which can be seen in many walls, parks, and museums. I first thought he was pulling my leg, but he said it with a serious face. Looking at several photos on the internet I can confidently say Fredy was right. I was a little shocked. It’d be like seeing Pablo Escobar 20 years earlier.

Though I was dining with the famous, I was staying with the common folk. Casa Kiwi is a clean and welcoming hostel. They have common rooms and private rooms. The common rooms were the only ones available. Hence I had to sleep on a bunk-bed in a room with 10 guys. When I arrived, the room was empty. Like I usually do when I visit a new city, I took a stroll around town. Though there was a lot of traffic, it was much less than Bogotá. The metro system was great, fast and spotless. I rode it north, where I took a cable (like some ski resorts have) up to the top of a hill called Santo Domingo. It was a poor neighborhood and reminded me a lot of the Santo Domingo neighborhood in Bogotá. It was a bustling place with Christmas decorations and people in a festive mood. Only two days earlier the local soccer team, Atlético Nacional, won the national professional league championship. I walked to the edge of a dirt road where I could take a good photo of the Medellín valley. Near the edge, several young kids were drinking and smoking weed. They were happy to pose for a photo. Then one of the kids, Pedro, put his arm around me and offered me some alcohol. I declined his repeated offers as I smelled the alcohol on his breath. Nevertheless, he led me to his mother’s home, near the top of the hill. Granted they were very poor – a tin roof and several children in one bed. It wasn’t much of a shock. I had seen the same thing in Bogotá. His mother looked nothing like him and had much darker skin. Yet she said he was his son. She welcomed me into her home and seemed very subdued compared to her hyperactive son. I took some photos and chatted with them for a while. Then it grew dark and I headed back down the cable. Pedro asked me for some money so he could take a ride but I didn’t want to hang out with a 18-year-old drunkard all night so I declined his request. On the cable I met a young local couple and they asked me where I was going. I told them to see the river and the Christmas lights. They were going to the same place. Thus, I had local guides.

For those outside Colombia, Medellín at Christmas time is one of the most lavishly decorated cities in the world. Río Medellín runs through the city and about two miles of it is decorated with strings of lights that change colors in random sequences. There are hundreds of Christmas trees and other decorations that line the river. It takes two months to setup and two months to take down. Paisas are serious about Christmas. A small colonial village on the hill near the river is called Pueblito Paisa. Though small, it took me an hour to appreciate the decorations as seen in the photos below:

The river was still the main attraction. Walking shoulder-to-shoulder along the side of it, hundreds of vendors were grilling food and selling nicknacks. I had a few beers with my new friends. Though what I needed was an energy drink.

By the end of the walk my legs were sore. We parted ways at the metro with the notion that I was going to go to bed so I could wake up early to go paragliding.

Five minutes after walking into my hostel bedroom I knew that wasn’t happening. There were a couple guys from Seattle, a few from England, and one from Australia, talking on and on about the women they had met along their travels. By then I had realized that Medellín women were better looking than those in Bogotá. It was only after we went to several bars and clubs that I realized they were some of the best looking women I had ever seen. Unlike Bogotá, most of the people living in Medellín grew up there, and for some reason it is a city with a really good-looking gene pool. For the sake of space and my own personal discretion, I won’t go into details about my night. I can only say that I had planned on having a few beers and nodding off at one or two. My night, or morning, ended with one of the guys from Seattle saying let’s chuck a beer before we head to bed. The girl at the front desk told me later that she had tried to wake me up to go paragliding but that I didn’t respond. It was a great night, only next time I’ll make sure to get a private room.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Christmas Lights in Bogotá

Some people I have talked to in the United States have asked me what Christmas is like in Bogotá. They have asked me if they have Christmas lights. The answer is an overwhelming yes. In fact, judging by the lights and decorations, if you didn’t know you were in South America you might think it was the holiday season in America. While Rolos have just as many lights as New Yorkers, they decorate their commercial centers, or malls, more than the U.S. It is a child’s fantasy: fake snow flying from the balcony railings, fake snowballs to throw at your siblings, the North Pole, Santa’s lap, and much more. I didn’t take any photos inside the various commercial centers because I rarely shop and didn’t have the motivation. However, last night I walked around my neighborhood, Chapinero, as well as Puente Aranda, snapping the shots you see below.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

The National Boxing Championship

They’re real and raw and not so concerned with image. Most of them are guys who are driven into the ring, guys who look at people walking by in three-piece suits and have an urge to pull them down. Boxers seem to live lives that have all the elements of a story, even before their ability in the ring makes celebrities out of them.
~ Gary Smith, Sports Illustrated senior writer on boxers

Unlike my trip last weekend, I planned on watching some of the best boxers in Colombia yesterday. That is why I arrived at el coliseo El Salitre an hour before the scheduled 4 p.m. start. It was a relatively short taxi ride. The best boxers had traveled to Bogotá and fought in qualifying bouts all week with just two undefeated fighters remaining in each weight-class (11 total). Hence, yesterday’s competition determined 11 national boxing champions, with the bouts in order from lightest to heaviest boxers, who would then fight in Guatemala and Trinidad for spots in the Olympics.

When I walked into the stadium, the first fight had begun. Unlike professional fighting or the Golden Gloves tournament I had watched in Chicago, there is little fanfare. No scantily-clad ring girls, no food or merchandise vendors, no ticket counter. Entrance was free. There was a room where they handed out press passes but they weren’t necessary. I could sit or walk wherever I wanted. The stands were virtually empty, except for the boxers and some family and friends. The loudest cheers could be heard from the boxers’ teammates. A handful of photographers stood around at ringside. The local television news stations were conducting interviews after they saw a fight they liked, but it would only be run as a secondary story to Bogotá’s own La Equidad competing for the Colombian professional soccer league championship.

For me, it was a blast. Since I’ve never been to a professional fight, it was the best boxing I’ve ever seen. Just after arriving I saw Cartagena Coach Felipe Noda Vazquez, who I had met last weekend, giving his 48-kilogram boxer instruction in the corner of the ring. When he saw me, he turned and shook my hand. Keep in mind this was during the middle of a championship fight.

Don’t take this example of kindness as a lack of seriousness. Halfway through the competition I needed to use the bathroom so I walked to men’s room, which is located near a room where the fighters warm-up. As I was walking in the warm-up room there was a big commotion. Someone was holding one of the Bogotá coaches back during an argument with another team’s coach as other coaches and officials and fighters swarmed around them. The officials cleared the room so I had to use another bathroom, and nothing ever happened between the coaches.

When I finished using the bathroom I was walking in the stands when I spotted a young boxer wearing a Cuba jacket. I asked him about it, since I had been to Cuba, and we started talking as there was a break in the action. He was from Córdoba, a region along the Caribbean coast. I showed him a few photos I had taken and before I knew it I was chatting with his teammates. It was difficult to understand them since they were from the coast. They spoke fast and chopped off the endings on many words. This is normal for costeños, or people from the Caribbean region. Out of the seven Córdoba boxers that had made the trip to Bogotá, three had earned a gold, silver, and bronze medal in their respective weight-classes. They were young guys, 20 or 21, and were mostly lightweights.

In fact, their only national champion, Óscar Negrete, had fought the very first bout of the day at 48 kilograms. He wore a white Yankee cap as seen in the group photo (above) that we took in the ring after the final bout. Negrete was the only boxer who knew some English phrases as he had traveled to Chicago in October with a few other Colombian fighters for the World Amateur Boxing Championships. Not bad for a 20-year-old kid from rural Colombia. He, like his teammates, were ordinary young men. They lacked any sense of entitlement that you encounter with national-caliber athletes. Negrete even asked me how I had heard about the boxing championship. I couldn't have an extensive conversation with him and his teammates since my Spanish comprehension and their accents clashed. Yet I enjoyed sitting with them in the stands – munching on a handful of flavored peanuts Negrete had poured into my hand – as we watched the heavier boxers square off in the ring. I think they felt the same, savoring their time in a big city until they made the 18-hour car ride to Córdoba.

Monday, December 10, 2007

Al Gore Tribute

Since I began my blog in August, I’ve only made a single tribute, and that was to Norman Mailer, when he died. Today, I’m going to make a tribute to a living man, Al Gore, whom I admire now more than I did when I voted for him in the 2000 United States Presidential Election. I think that in any country the majority of people believe that Gore would have been a better president, but there is no doubt he would have done more to help the environment. Witnessing the effects of air pollution in Bogotá has reaffirmed to me the major environmental problems on our planet. His effort to inform and encourage the public to take action to change the climate earned him the Nobel Peace Prize today in Oslo, Norway. It seems that Gore, like Jimmy Carter, has been more productive since leaving political life. The biggest things I admire about Gore are his heart and conviction after a devastating presidential loss. He has pursued his passion, spoken around the world, and attracted the support of average Americans as well as pop stars. While many politicians continue to equivocate, Gore continues to stick to his word and use his clout to do tremendous good for the world.

Sunday, December 9, 2007

Colombia Boxing

I had no idea I’d be watching some of the best boxers in Colombia today. I woke up at dawn to meet with some people I wanted to do a photo story on. I couldn’t find them so I took a stroll downtown. As I was walking down the sidewalk on Avenida 13, I saw a few young men in different colored sweat suits jogging past me. They didn’t look like typical joggers. I saw a few more of them pretending to punch each other. They were boxers. They looked like boxers. Then I saw some old men standing in a hotel doorway wearing sweat suits. I asked them if they were having a competition and if I could watch. They said yes, return at 2 p.m.

When I returned at 2 p.m. sharp it was pouring rain. The boxers were standing shoulder-to-shoulder, along with their coaches, in the hotel lobby. They had come from all different regions of Colombia to compete in the 57th National Boxing Championship. The week-long event began yesterday. The champions in each weight class then train in Cartagena for the Olympics, I was told. A few minutes after I arrived, three coach buses pulled up and the coaches told their boxers which buses to ride in. I asked the big coach, who was calling out names, if I could ride with them. He told me to go in the bus in the rear. I was excited to see the best Colombian amateur boxers. Though I felt kind of bad because the bus was so full that some coaches and boxers had to stand while I had a window seat. Oh well, first come, first serve. The boxer sitting next to me was from Nariño, a southwestern region, and looked young. Boxers ages 17 to 34 are eligible to compete, though the majority looked like they were in their early twenties.

It was a good half-hour drive to el coliseo Cayetano Cañizares de Bogotá, near El Dorado International Airport, in Kennedy. It was a raw day, cold and rainy. I expected to see some people at the gym, which was vacant other than some tournament officials. Nevertheless, I sat in the stands and chatted with some of the boxers. Each team sat together in different parts of the stands. They seemed relaxed, yet didn’t say much. They were a quiet group considering there were more than a hundred boxers from 18 different regions of the country. Just before the matches began at 4 p.m., I decided to run across the street and grab a bite to eat. Standing alone on the sidewalk, a boxing coach asked me where the best place was to get a cup of coffee. I told him I didn’t know this neighborhood. So we crossed the street together and sat at a table in a small bakery and convenience store. He was from Pinar del Río, Cuba, but now lived in Cartagena where he coached the best boxers. I told him I had been to his Cuban hometown and we had a good chat. When I told him I was a photographer, he asked me to take his picture, which I did near the arena as seen below.

The arena had less than a hundred spectators. I thought it was sad considering it was free and I could sit in the plastic chairs at ringside. The event reminded me a lot of the Golden Gloves tournament I had seen last April in Chicago. Though, the Colombian boxers were better as a whole, which isn’t surprising if you consider they are the best from an entire country rather than one city. Like the Golden Gloves, they wore headgear and fought three rounds. The event was great from a fan’s perspective because there was one fight after another. I enjoyed it, but after two and a half hours I was cold. The arena had a big open window and no heating. Also, my feet and socks had gotten wet from the pouring rain. I plan on going to the final bouts this Saturday and have heard the stands will be full. If not, I’ll have another great seat at ringside.

A Long Reminder of the Past

Colombia has had a history of violence. But so has the United States and many other great countries around the world. Countries, like people, can change, and often do. Bogotá is now a very safe city and good place to live. This morning I was taking a walk downtown when I noticed an example of this. A row of white, plastic chairs were lined up along La Septima, the main road in which I live. It runs the length of the city. Each chair had a white, wooden cross on it. On the ground lay a white brick with the name of a different person who was murdered by the police, military, or guerrillas. The chairs were ten feet apart and extended from downtown to Calle 100, more than 75 blocks, and a long reminder of the past.

Because it is Sunday, a couple of lanes are blocked off for bicyclers and joggers. There are also roller-bladers and people walking their dogs. It is a typical Sunday morning on La Septima. I saw people stop and read the names of those who were killed. Living in Bogotá today, it seems hard to believe that all of this really happened.

Saturday, December 8, 2007

The New Rich

It is hard to earn a lot of money in Colombia. Saving money is a big challenge too, even with the low cost of living. Although the economy is better than it has been in years, Colombia’s per capita income is $2,020 (U.S. dollars), according to the World Bank. An estimated 7% earn less than $1 (U.S. dollars) per day.

With that said, there is a significant minority of people living in Bogotá who are wealthy. I hung out with two of them today. One of my English students, Claudia, invited me to her apartment for lunch. She grew up in Medellin, and now is Colombia’s sales representative for McCain Foods, the world’s largest producer of french fries and other frozen foods. Her husband, Oscar, has lived in Bogotá his entire life and works for Proxor, a chemical company. They live in the most northeastern region of the city known as Usaquén. Their apartment complex is only two years old and is on the eastern mountainside that encompasses the city. As Oscar and I took a short walk outside of his apartment to the top of the hill that overlooks the city, he told me that the city’s most expensive real estate is being built primarily in the north. Below is a photo of his apartment complex. It includes tennis and squash courts, and a mini-golf course that you can see in the lower-left corner.

Claudia cooked me the traditional food from Medellin called bandeja paisa. We each had a large bowl of big beans and a plate full of white rice. In the center of the table was a tray of potato-chip-thin plátanos, small chorizos (sausages), and of course, arepas. There was also hogao to put on the plantanos and arepas. It was a good meal. The beans were a great treat. In Bogotá, soup and potatoes and meat are the norm. Beans are a rarity.

Later in the afternoon we went to Centro Comercial Santafé, the biggest mall in Bogotá. Claudia and Oscar have one-and-a-half-year-old twins, Sebastian and Daniela. I pushed them around the mall in their twin stroller as women smiled at them. The twins loved the lavish Christmas decorations and lights. I noticed a lot of children’s stores. Maybe that was because I was pushing around two toddlers. It felt as if everyone in Bogotá was there. The basement parking was like a maze, and nearly every space was taken. It just goes to show, Colombians may not have large bank accounts, but they still do a lot of Christmas shopping.

Monday, December 3, 2007

A Close Call for Venezuela

Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez lost ... barely. Venezuelans voted yesterday on a constitutional referendum, which included 69 proposals, of which the most controversial was giving Chávez unlimited terms and the ability to basically overhaul the country into his desired socialist state with many similarities to Cuba and his close friend Fidel Castro.

I am happy for the Venezuelans, especially for a friend of mine who is getting married in Mérida in three weeks. I believe a Chávez win would have ignited a civil war and the international ramifications would have been awful. I think his views are too extreme and his style too crass. I have been to Cuba and seen how socialism destroys people’s dreams and causes apathy. With that said, there are many great things about socialism, housing and healthcare and education for all. But what is education, a house, and good health without freedom of speech and the ability to live one’s dream? To me, the ends don’t justify the means. Nevertheless, I have to commend Chávez for using his oil wealth – the greatest in Latin America – to help the poor at home and in other Latin American countries. I also admired how he was a gracious loser.

However, he still has tremendous power until the elections in 2012. Though he lost, yesterday’s vote was basically a tie. That means a significant percentage of Venezuelans want socialism. I’m sure Chávez will continue to redistribute the wealth by discouraging private investment and increasing communal property. Though there was a large student movement against Chávez in Caracas, I wouldn’t be surprised if Venezuelans elect another far left-wing president in four years. For now, though, Venezuelans can still openly express their freedom of speech and hold onto their dreams.

Saturday, December 1, 2007

The Most Famous Hostage

Some people say she was the Hillary Clinton of Colombia. I view her more like Barack Obama. However, today she is the most famous hostage in Colombia and France, and perhaps the entire world. When Íngrid Betancourt was kidnapped by the FARC in 2002, she was an attractive, 40-year-old woman running for president in Colombia. There had been no proof of whether she was still living until yesterday, when videos were broadcasted by the Colombian government. The Colombian military had captured three FARC members who had videos of Betancourt, along with other hostages. I was eating dinner at a hamburger restaurant in Bogotá when the local news televised the image of a gaunt-looking Betancourt sitting chained in a FARC camp. Below are two pictures: this is Betancourt while running for president (above); this is the image I saw last night on television (below).

Until her kidnapping, Betancourt had lived an extraordinary life. She was born in Bogotá but grew up in Paris, hence her Colombian-French citizenship. Both her parents had significant roles as Colombian politicians before her birth. She had good blood. Her mother was a former Miss Colombia. In Paris, Íngrid attended some of the best schools. Then she married a Frenchman in the diplomatic service, had two children, and spent time living in various places, such as Ecuador and New Zealand. In 1989 she returned to Colombia, where she worked in the Ministry of Finance, and soon after entered the political forum to try and stop corruption and drug-trafficking. Her mother’s influence helped Ingrid rise in the political ranks and become one Colombia’s most popular senators. During that time she had a divorce and remarried a Colombian.

In 2002, Betancourt was an anomaly in a similar sense that Barack Obama is today in the United States. She was a young, good-looking woman running for president. All Colombian presidents have been men, and the vast majority have been old and ugly. She wanted to take a strong stance against corruption that had recently plagued Colombia’s presidency. In February 2002, she wanted to visit the FARC, who were based in the demilitarized zone (El Caguan DMZ) in the town of San Vincente del Caguán. Several politicians had been there for negotiations because the DMZ was considered an area off-limits for kidnapping and violence. By February 2002 all that had recently changed, and the Colombian government advised her not to go as they couldn’t guarantee her safety. She ignored the various warnings, including officers who warned her on February 23, 2002, at the final military checkpoint before arriving in San Vincente del Caguán. She was kidnapped by the FARC and remains as one of its estimated 60 “political hostages” today.

Since Betancourt’s kidnapping, her family has disagreed with President Álvaro Uribe on the best method to free her. French President Nicolas Sarkozy has strongly advocated for her release. In August, Uribe used Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez as a mediator with the FARC. However, these negotiations had a bitter-cold ending last week. During the negotiations the left-wing Chávez wanted the left-wing FARC to be recognized as a Colombian political party and revealed potential concessions to them. Uribe became upset and said Chávez had not followed the negotiation agreements, in particular Chávez’s push for Colombia to create a demilitarized zone for negotiations, which Uribe did not want. Chávez shot back at Uribe, cutting ties with Venezuela’s long-time neighbor.

Thus, the situation of Íngrid Betancourt is tragic. Chávez is a socialist whose views are widely seen as too extreme. Uribe’s views seem to be too far in the opposite direction, ignoring potentially helpful advice from Betancourt’s family and President Sarkozy, who sided with Chávez in the negotiations. This may have to do with the fact Uribe’s father was killed by the FARC in a 1983 kidnapping attempt. Jhon Frank Pinchao was a FARC hostage for nine years until he escaped in April. He said he was in the same camp as Betancourt and that she had tried to escape several times and was “severely punished.” While her plight has garnered much support in some European countries, her honesty and non-conformist stance as a politician, along with her duel-nationality has caused a somewhat negative or ambivalent response by Colombians. However, in this entire fiasco if there is a politician who needs to be punished it isn’t Íngrid Betancourt.

Monday, November 26, 2007

Clouds of Bogota

This may sound like a kind of hippie thing to say, but I’ll say it anyway because it’s true: I really enjoy looking at the clouds in Bogotá. This isn’t a recent discovery. I noticed it the first day I arrived. Here the clouds are much lower in the sky than in the United States. That obviously has to do with the city’s elevation of 8,661 feet above sea level. But I lived for a year in Aspen, Colorado, which is 7,890 feet above sea level, and I don’t recall the clouds being as close to the ground or as being as big and simply fun to admire and photograph. Yesterday afternoon I looked out my apartment window and saw the view below. Though I’ve seen many marvelous clouds in the sky (as you can see more examples here) I still stopped and gazed in amazement.

Friday, November 23, 2007

Air Pollution

Since arriving in Bogotá, I’ve had a cold off and on. Basically, I’ve been a little congested with a sinus headache at worst. I’m not alone. I meet and see many people who are blowing their noses and are stuffed up. The climate is partially to blame. It can be hot, cold, rainy, windy, blue skies, gray skies, cloudy, and clear all in one day. Sometimes it is all of these things at the same time depending on where you are in the city.

With that said, there is more to blame than mother nature. After riding the bus all day for my job and Spanish class in the evening I blow my nose. Then I look at the tissue and see a black residue. I think to myself, this can’t be good for my respiratory system. I read an article in El Tiempo yesterday that said there are about 20,000 buses running each day in the city. There are two bus systems in Bogota: Transmilenio and the older, smaller buses. Transmilenio is a fleet of extra-long red buses that have their own designated lanes for rapid transportation and avoidance of the perpetual traffic. On the normal streets and avenues there are large buses (buses), medium-sized buses (busetas), and vans or minivans (colectivos). Transmilenio costs 1400 pesos (US $ .80 aprox.) while the smaller buses cost 1000 to 1250 pesos (US $ .60 aprox.). (For more information on transportation you can visit a previous blog of mine). Most of these buses are full throughout the day, and overflowing at rush hours. You can see what I mean in the video below.

Thankfully for Bogotá, a city of over seven million people and growing, there are the tall green mountains that encompass the city as well as several large parks. The largest, Simón Bolivar Metropolitan Park, is five times bigger than Central Park in New York City. So why am I blowing black soot into a tissue? The answer is simple: the buses. Sure the cars play a significant part to the air pollution, but the buses are appalling. They run on diesel fuel that contains a high amount of sulfur, which is why many people I know have had bronchitis or other respiratory illnesses. The current diesel fuel contains 1,200 parts per million (ppm) of sulfur. The city’s environment ministers are proposing to cut the diesel fuel to 500 ppm of sulfur by next year and 50 ppm by 2010. Is this a good solution? I don’t think so. Sure, it will be better than what is happening now, but with today’s politics it seems as if the number of people and buses will keep growing. Cleaner fuel is not the best answer. I think Bogotá should try to emulate the train system in the country’s second most populated city, Medellín. (I’ve heard the reason Bogotá cannot change to trains is because the Mafia controls the buses. I have no proof, but I heard it from someone who has lived here for more than 40 years and is a reliable source). It is there that they have the Metro de Medellín as well as a Metrocable line in the works. However, even in Medellín the streets are becoming overcrowded with traffic. Nevertheless, a good train system is better than a good bus system. After all, who wants to have black soot in there nose?

Above is traffic a few blocks from my apartment on La Séptima, a major street in my neighborhood.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Viva Colombia!

It was the last soccer game of this year for Colombia and against Argentina, an unbeaten team in the 2010 World Cup qualifiers and ranked as the best in the world by FIFA. Let me make it clear, I’m not a soccer fan. However, given the chance to see some of the world’s best players is something I appreciate in any sport. So that is why I sacrificed for yesterday’s game at El Campín in Bogotá.

Sacrifice? Yes, let me elaborate. I had to wait two hours in line to buy a ticket on Monday. Granted, it was the middle of the day when most people are working. For yesterday’s game I was told to arrive early ... four hours early. This sounds extreme, but it’s true. When I arrived at four in the afternoon, half of the stadium was already full. And since there are no assigned seats, you have to arrive ridiculously early to claim a decent one. Actually, this isn’t exactly true. El Campín is a small stadium considering it’s in the capital of a soccer-crazed country, and virtually every seat is good. I found a seat in the second row. I was actually excited about this game. Maybe it’s the camaraderie of sports. Maybe it was the promise of a blue sky and bright sun. I bought a yellow Colombia jersey at the stadium and talked with two guys sitting next to me. They were your typical super fans, knowing each player’s talents and mother’s maiden name. They were friendly. Most people are. Part of this has to do with the fact that I was probably the only American at the game. I say this with seriousness. Anyhow, it had been gorgeous weather all day. In Bogotá, that means little. After arriving, it began to rain ... and rain ... and rain. It poured for a good two hours. I thought to myself, I waited in line for two hours and now I arrived four hours early for this shit?

It cleared, however, an hour before game time. Throughout the rain spell, fans chanted for Colombia while they beat plastic noisemakers together despite an empty field. It was a big game. Colombia had not beaten Argentina since 1993. In the first half it looked as if this trend would continue. Despite Argentina playing with only 10 players (One Argentinean player received a red card for tripping a Colombian player away from the ball halfway through the first half.) it led 1-0 at intermission. Before the game I had told the guy next to me that I thought Colombia was going to win 2-1, and reminded him of my premonition. I should have placed a bet, but I don’t bet on sports. Colombia scored on a free shot and a fast break in the second half to make me look like a genius. I didn’t know a whole lot about either team, but I had this feeling that Colombia would win, and whenever I get this feeling it comes true virtually every time. I have to admit that I had a great time at the game. The quality of play and the excitement is contagious. The fans used a lot of foul language, of which a few words I have added to my vocabulary. Of all these words, hijueputas was used the most, which in English means sonsofbitches. Every time the Argentinean goalkeeper had a free kick, the entire stadium yelled this word in unison. It was funny. Though if I had a young child, I might think twice before bringing him or her to a game. There weren’t many Argentineans present, but a young woman in an Argentinean uniform decided to stand near where I was sitting at halftime. She was called every name in the book, and some fans threw objects at her. One guy near me threw a half-eaten sandwich at her and hit someone else in the head. Despite this ruckus, there were no fights. I don’t think you’d want to get in a fight. The whole place had security guards, normal police, and riot police.

After the game ended the streets and sidewalks were clogged near the stadium. People beeped their horns to Let’s Go Colombia, and waved flags with pride. With the win, Colombia is ranked in second, behind Argentina despite last night’s game, in the South American World Cup qualifiers. Today I asked a friend of mine what would happen if Colombia won the World Cup in 2010 in South Africa. She said that it would be a disaster as it is not prepared for this. For now, Colombians can relish their victory, and as for me, I’m not placing any bets.