Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Snapshots of Bogota (Chapinero)

Below are three photos I took in Chapinero, my neighborhood, which is about a half hour north of downtown. The first photo is a church and central commercial center, aka mall. The second is a poor neighborhood on a hill to the east. The third is a local man I met in that neighborhood. He owns a '52 Ford but doesn't have e-mail. Go figure.

Monday, August 27, 2007

Oh, the Comforts of Colombia!

Like anywhere else, if you have money you can have all material possessions and comforts you want in Colombia. So far the language barrier has been the most noticeable difference between living here and the United States. There are, however, a few differences I’d like to briefly mention for my beloved readers:

1) Hace frio. It’s cold. I normally don’t wear or carry a jacket with me in August. In Bogota I’ve had to. Granted I am living 8,661 feet above sea level. But Bogota is north of the equator, so it is summer right now. The locals tell me September through November are warmer months than August as the weather is moderate year-round. They also tell me it’s been abnormally cold this summer.

2) Hace frio adentro tambien. It’s cold inside too. The idea of indoor heating is foreign to Colombians. Many people have air-conditioning, but when it’s cold outside, it’s cold inside. When I asked my friend Luis Carlos where I could buy a heater for my apartment, he told me two girls would do the trick. So far I haven’t taken his advice; I woke up today with the one thin jacket I brought.
There’s nothing like a nice warm shower when it’s cold. When I’ve gone to wash my hands or face, virtually every hot water faucet doesn’t work. Ok, ok, I can live with that. As long as I get a nice warm shower at night, I’m pleased. I’m now staying on the second floor of a hotel rented week by week. (It’s two blocks from my job and fully furnished). My floor only gets hot water in the morning, thus I’ve taken two ice-cold showers as a result.

3) El sanitario. The toilet. So I’m a little cold. Big deal. As long as I have a good toilet, I’m happy. The toilets here look like the ones in the U.S. Don’t be fooled. Like much of the world, you can’t put toilet paper in the toilet. You have to put it in the waste bucket. I first learned this when I was in Habana, Cuba. I saw a sign above the toilet with a stick figure dropping something into the toilet. Above this picture it said: “NO.” I figured it meant don’t throw paper towels or other items into the toilet. Hence, the plumber came to the house where I was staying and fixed it. My bad.

I know I’ve gone on a rant, but I think I deserve it. After all, it’s my birthday.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Snapshots of Chia

This is Chia, a small town that borders Bogota to the north and is home of Luis Carlos and Fabiola. Below are three photos. The first is of the nearby hills and mountains. The second is me standing in the town center with the church in the background. The third is the living room of Luis Carlos's friends after we enjoyed lunch (Note: I'm wearing Fabiola's white, pink-striped pullover because I didn't bring many warm clothes).

Monday, August 20, 2007

Aguardiente, Rumba, and My Colombian Wife

From what I know so far, in Colombia it is common practice to go everywhere as a family. Much of the day revolves around food and socialization. This bodes well for me as I enjoy eating and I´m very good at it too. Fabiola is a great cook and kept me well fed. She, like her family and friends I met, like to laugh and have a good time. So I fit right in, with my Spanglish and all. The famous Colombian writer Gabriel Garcia Marquez was right when he said, "five Colombians in a room invariably turns into a party."

As Luis Carlos had said after many aguardiente shots, "Every night is a party." However, Saturday we actually did go out to party in the neighboring town of Cota. Like I said earlier, Colombians like to travel as families. Luis Carlos's friends joined us, bringing their their two daughters, one of whom was 4, and a cousin and aunt. So it was two carloads full of Colombians and one gringo, as they like to call me. (Note: Although the word gringo can have negative connotations in some places, it is not deemed offensive in Colombia).
Ten minutes later we arrived at a large field that had a dirt area for parking, a long row of concession stands, and a stage for the bands playing. There were many security workers, and two of them flashed a light in the driver seat and then opened the trunk for a look. It was really a half-ass search, but it didn't really matter because the crime rate virtually doesn't exist in Chia and Cota. People just want to drink and enjoy their one night out (Colombians work six days per week but they make up for it with their numerous holidays and festivals). Many of the conncession stands sold corn, which is grilled and has bigger kernels and is less juicy than U.S. corn I'm used to. They also like adding a lot of butter and salt. It seemed like a weird mix, corn and beer and aguardiente. A large crowd had gathered and seemed to like it. Luis Carlos had brought an aguardiente carton and small plastic cups for shots. By then I had a steady buzz but he kept pouring me more shots. I'm a bad dancer but before I knew it we were all dancing in front of the stage as a band played with male and female singers. The female singers were half-naked, which I wondered how they felt because it was sweater-and-jeans weather.

The next day we went to visit friends of Luis Carlos and Fabiola for a cookout in Bogota. I woke up fatigued and had a slight headache and unsettled stomach. They grilled in a courtyard, mostly meat and some vegetables, such as potatoes and platanos. We sat around all afternoon as they grilled more and more meat, slicing it up and offering me more even after I said I was full. Looking around at the round bellies it appeared they ate like this often.

I sat next to the grandmother. Her name was Mercedes and she was 80 years old. Fabiola was laughing as she told everyone about my overindulgence in Cota. I told Mercedes about it and she threw up her hand, saying that it was good to have fun. Like everyone else, she only spoke Spanish, so our conversation was simple and usually involved a joke and a roar of laughter by everyone. For example when she asked me how I liked it here, I told her, "Colombia is very beautiful like you." Then I joked that she was my Colombian wife, and that we'd have beautiful babies. "But my hair is white," she said. "I love white hair," I said. We all had a lot of laughs.

Friday, August 17, 2007

El Banco

By my second full day in Colombia it was time to open a checking account. I had exchanged $100 in cash the previous day for 180.000 Colombian pesos. (Note: Colombians use a period where Americans would use a comma for money - so 1,000 pesos would be seen in a store as $1.000. But I´ll use a comma in order to make it clearer.) I exchanged it with Luis Carlos´s son because he gave me more than the bank would have. The previous day we had looked at the exchange rate, which was 1,750 Colombian pesos to the dollar. I saw on television that the U.S. dollar had risen. I think this was part of the reason I had such a favorable exchange rate at the bank. But the difference didn´t seem possible. It was now 2,017.60 for a dollar. Maybe it was because I had traveler´s checks. Although I doubt it. I´m still not sure. No one spoke English. I had to rely on Luis Carlos and what little I could decifer. The bank I went to was called Bancolombia, the most popular one in the country, and recommended by Luis Carlos. Because I didn´t have a credit card or job certificate or proof of Colombian residency, I could not open a checking account. At least this is what Luis Carlos had told me after talking with a woman in charge. The girl who exchanged my money was smiling at me. Luis Carlos said that she is a beautiful girl for me. So I told her she should come to our place for a party that night. She never stopped by, but she did hand me a stack of $1,614,080 pesos ($800) in demonations of 20,000 and 50,000. I told Luis Carlos that he had to be my bodyguard on the way out. But this was Chia; there was very little crime.

Thursday, August 16, 2007

Like Father, Like Son

Before I met my employer in Bogota and began my apartment search, Luis Carlos led me to his parent´s house, which was in a courtyard behind a tailor shop near the center of Chia. We walked past his parent´s large courtyard. Along one wall were large bird cages with nearly a dozen green parrots that looked alike. As I walked past them I naturally had to put my finger through the wire openings and pulled back when they tried to bite. Luis Carlos walked along the other wall, smiling.

Then we walked into his father´s workshop. The room was cluttered with hand tools and art supplies. His father, Pedro Antonio Mejia, was painting small wooden dogs with a small brush. He looked like an older version of Luis Carlos. He had the same bushy mustache, only his was white and blond. He was nearly bald except for some fluffy white hair on the sides of his head. He wore glasses and suspenders and had a potbelly like his son. After a brief chat with Luis Carlos, we walked upstairs to Pedro´s bedroom. Just outside his bedroom a diploma hung on the wall - it was Luis Carlos, who graduated with a journalism degree. Inside the bedroom hung paintings, figures, and small, ornate wooden carvings of Jesus, the Virgin Mary, and other saints that he had created. He obviously was a religious man. He also liked to drink. When Luis Carlos left he grabbed a margarita bottle from his shelf and we had a shot together. When Luis Carlos returned, he laughed. It was only later I found out his father was 85 years old.

That night, after dinner, Luis Carlos poured us each a shot of aguardiente. His wife, Fabiola, had cooked us dinner as she did for every meal. She rarely drank and was upstairs. Luis Carlos sat at the dinner table while watching the Yankees playing in New York on his small television. Either the television or music always seems to be on in Colombian homes. But I´ll discuss those topics later. So aguardiente is clear and warms the body. (Aguardiente probably got its name from the words for water and hot, agua and caliente. It is to Colombians what tequila is to Mexicans. I had told him I was cold. In Bogota it is hot during the day and cold at night. Because it is 8,661 feet above sea level it doesn´t feels humid. Luis Carlos didn´t have heating. Only the cold water faucets worked, and the shower was only hot when it wasn´t cold outside. Hence, I couldn´t take a nice, hot shower. But he told me Aguardiente would warm me up. One shot truned into six shots, and we had finished what remained in the 750 ml bottle. That is when he reached on his shelf and pulled out a carton of aguardiente. It seemed odd. Why would it come in a juice box carton. The carton was one liter. Luis Carlos said it was better from the carton. Sure enough, he was right. I then excused myself to take a shower and organize my belongings. When I returned downstairs, Luis Carlos poured me a few more shots against my will. He said he had had 34 shots. Granted he wasn´t drinking alone, as a friend of his had stopped by but drank only whiskey. I grabbed the carton and shook it. It was now only a quarter full. He told me that his house was also my house and that he considered me one of his sons. He had driven me all over Bogota looking for apartments and chauffered me around. I knew he was drunk but I had to smile and thank him. He had never asked me for a thing and even though it had been difficult communicating, he never stopped trying. The more he drank the more English he spoke. I was surprised. He had only used a word here and there and was now putting together complete sentences. As I joked with him later, drinking aguardiente is a great help when learning English.

Entering Colombia

As the plane hovered over the runway for landing I looked out the window in surprise. I saw herds of cows grazing on green farmland and beautiful trees parallel to the tarmac. They were trees I had never seen before. Was this really the El Dorado airport? Was this Bogota, a city of more than seven million people...

On a tourist visa I had read and been told that 90 days was the most I'd be given at customs. I hoped to talk with a woman. I got a man. He asked me, in Spanish, where I was staying. I told him in Chia with a friend. (Chia is the first town north of Bogota). Then he asked for how long. I told him I wanted three to six months. He shook his head and said no. Then stamped my passport and wrote 60 under the word dias. I wasn't worried. I'd get a renewal. He could have given me one month if he wanted. It's a strange business with those customs agents... I'm sure they have some guidelines but no one was there to monitor their decisions. Walking out of baggage claims I passed through a security checkpoint into a room with doors along the far wall to the outside. In the room some people waited in line to have their luggage put through a scanning machine. I didn't want to wait so I just walked outside where people lined shoulder-to-shoulder, some with signs, for the arriving parties. I walked along this human wall until a short, stout man with a bushy brown mustache said, "Brett." I had told him I´d be wearing a red shirt and blue jeans. Granted I wasn't hard to find. Colombia isn´t exactly a hotspot for six-foot white white men from America. It was Luis Carlos Mejia, the cousin of my friend in Chicago. I'd be staying with him in Chia until I found a place in Bogota. It was drizzling and I was glad he was there to give me a ride.