Sunday, September 30, 2007

Outside My Window

Looking out my second-story window is always interesting. The street below, La Septima, has three lanes each way and is often jammed with cars and buses as pedestrians try crossing. I have a great spot for people watching. Each Sunday two lanes are blocked off so people can walk, run, and ride their bicycles. This applies to many of the busy streets in Bogota, but only on Sundays. It is usually peaceful on Sundays since there aren’t many automobiles on the road as Colombians love to honk their horns.

This morning, however, I heard a band playing outside. I drew the curtains and saw hundreds of people in matching pink shirts marching down the street with pink balloons. Colombians often have festivals so I wasn’t exactly sure the purpose.... It was a march for breast cancer.

Late this afternoon I smelled smoke but I couldn’t figure out where it was coming from. About an hour later as I returned from running errands, I saw orange flames burning on the dark green mountain I look at every day outside my window. It was a forest fire. I saw about a half dozen small flames as the smoke filled the evening sky. No one seemed too alarmed.

Saturday, September 22, 2007

Rafting in Tobia

Many Bogota residents rarely venture beyond the mountains and hills that surround the capital. Today was my first day to see the Colombian countryside. I traveled over an hour by bus with about 20 fellow-English teachers and friends to the small town of Tobia. I enjoyed looking at the tall, pointy green mountains and deep valleys along the way. It reminded me of the Sierra Maestras in Cuba or the mountains in southern Italy. The bus was moving too fast to capture any good photos so you’ll just have to take my word for it.

It was an all-day trip that everyone seemed to enjoy. My bosses, Adrianna and Oscar, were nice enough to arrange the trip. It wasn’t the type of trip for people who hate getting wet and dirty. A sixteen-year-old local girl guided us up a river, literally. She was quite the guide and had the biggest pair of feet I’ve ever seen on a female. They looked bigger than mine. Anyhow, she tied knots around trees on the sides of a few rock cliffs and aided us as we pulled on the rope up an otherwise untraversable slope. On the river we hopped from one rock to the next. Along the way we swam across a desolate pool of murky water, jumped off the side of a cliff into a water hole, and slid down a smooth rock slide. The hot sun beat down on the warm water.

In early afternoon we walked down a dirt road to another river. As we walked, it began to rain. By the time we put on our life-jackets and helmets, it was pouring and cold. Six people rode with a guide in each big inflatable raft. Everyone had one paddle and one Spanish-English translator. Granted the directions weren’t difficult to translate: forward; back; stop; team. The weather suddenly changed just a little way down the river and it sun shone again. We were the slowest rowers, but no one cared. Well, no one but our skinny, 17-year-old guide. A few times he yelled above us as we conversed in English, not paying attention to his instructions. I liked looking at the steep green mountains and a few woman washing their clothes in the river as we passed by. As we paddled under a bridge, two young boys jumped off, a good 25 feet or so. Other small children swam in the water. One guy on our raft said how he thought it would be fun as a child growing up in Tobia. I had to agree. There were so many outdoor activities and the locals, like most people in the country, lived a low-key and relaxed life. The only activity I saw that we didn’t do was repel along a cable wire high, high above the river, from one mountain peak to the other. We finished the day with a good home-cooked meal by the pool-side where we first arrived. This day only reminded me of how much more I want to see and do in Colombia.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007


In the United States people flock to Wal-Mart or Target for cheap household items. In Colombia people go to Exito or Carrefour. While the size and number of items are comparable, there are several differences. For instance, every time I’ve gone to Exito I’ve seen several young men standing outside the entrance donned from head to toe in camouflage, holding AK-47s. It makes you think twice about shoplifting. Inside, however, it is very welcoming. In the women’s clothing section there are posters of beautiful models wearing lingerie that you’d only find in certain magazines in America. In fact, there are similar billboard-sized posters on the store’s edifice. The female workers are very friendly as well.

This morning at Carrefour a young woman helped me find a work desk and chair, lamp, and heater. The heater came with a free coffee maker, both made by Black & Decker, not a bad deal for $30. And the young woman pushed the cart around for me. Maybe it was my suit and tie I had worn to work. Anyhow, I thought the store would deliver the desk to my apartment. I thought wrong. She recommended a taxi. I was a good hour away from my apartment. It was near my morning class and was generally less expensive than other branches. I told her I’d return and carry the desk home another day. After all, there’s basically two ways I travel long distances in Bogota, by bus or foot. No big deal. The lines are short on weekdays. Yesterday, Sunday, I had waited a half hour in the “Less than 10 items” lane to purchase a basketball and a jug of water for my basketball clinic in Santo Domingo. (Sunday is the only day most people have off work, me included.) When I put my items on the conveyor belt, I had a bad feeling. There was a man training a young girl. She looked like it was her first day. Then he walked away and the girl swiped my card about five times. Then she lifted her head with a confused look. She waved for the man to return. He did and handed me my receipt. She had charged me twice for the chair. She had a black eye and cut on her nose. I felt like giving her another black eye because I didn’t understand what they were going to do to remedy the mistake as I waited. I felt impatient. Finally another woman came over, a manager I suppose, and asked me if I had another credit card. I said no. She walked me over to the customer service both and gave me 20,000 pesos, the cost of the chair, rather than deduct it from my card. She asked me where I was from, Germany? I told her the United States. You have trouble with Spanish, she said with a grin. Just speaking it, I said. I’d be back tomorrow night for the desk. Chevere.

Friday, September 14, 2007

The Colombian, the Gringo and the Priest

Andres and I practically fell into the bus as people pushed and shoved to enter from the Transmilenio platform. It was about a quarter past six, just about the worst time to travel anywhere in Bogota. We had a long trip, especially considering there were no empty seats forcing us to stand for the hour ride. We had already changed buses once. Once we arrived at the final stop, Portal del Sur, we stepped onto a green bus. Then we had to walk 10 minutes, crossing the same bridge we had the previous week, only now it was dark. It was safer by bus at night. We got on a third bus, a small white bus. “The white Transmilenio,” Andres jokes. Everyone could stand up straight. I had to duck because my shoulders nearly touched the ceiling. It was a bumpy, uncomfortable ride along the steep dirt road. Every time the rickety bus hit a pothole my head slammed into the ceiling. Some of the locals smiled at my awkward predicament. Andres laughed too. I’m probably the first foreigner on this bus, I thought, but I’m lucky. These people have been riding this bus their entire lives. The view made up for it. Thousands of white lights in the city’s valley could be seen along the way. It wasn’t just my first time on this bus. Andres had never ridden it either since his house was at the base of the hill. A local man helped us find the correct stop and pointed to an unlit area away from the road. We followed his direction and Andres said he knew where the church was. We had returned on this Wednesday night to attend the service and give the people the pictures I had printed and carried with me in a folder along with a CD of all the photos. The walk was different from the one we had taken before, but Andres knew the way and we soon saw the soccer field we had visited the previous Saturday.

The church was no different from the other homes next to it and we wouldn’t have known it was a church if the priest hadn’t told us so. Outside the door a dog barked at us. Andres knocked on the door lightly and someone opened it. As we walked inside, everyone turned and looked at us. There were forty people in the room with virtually no room to walk or move around. Everyone wore street clothes, jeans and sweatshirts and sneakers. They sat in rows in white plastic chairs. Along the wall near the door was a row of white plastic chairs. Two women stood up and moved down so Andres and I could sit. They put their children on their laps and sat down. The priest stood at the front, talking into a microphone. The people listened intently. A florescent light hung from the tin-roof ceiling above him. There was a normal bulb shining from the middle of the ceiling. Next to the priest was a tall white vase with a few dozen red roses. I couldn’t tell whether they were real or not. The windows on my side of the wall were not transparent, and several posters were on them. Other posters of bible verses hung along the four walls, including a bigger version of the poster Andres owned: Los Dos Caminos. The Two Paths. Andres and I arrived at 7:45. The service ended at 8:45. The priest talked the entire time without pausing. Apparently, Andres said, there had been singing when the service had begun at 7. Now it was a one-man show. The priest articulated his Spanish words but I still had a difficult time understanding what he was saying. After a while I tuned him out and watched a little girl crawl on the concrete floor below me, playing peekaboo and smiling. Her mother grabbed her a few times, holding her on her lap. She was restless. The rest of the audience was well-behaved and listened intently to what the priest said, laughing and saying Amen every once in a while. I noticed a pretty woman in the front row constantly nodding her head and smiling and saying Amen more than anyone else. As I discovered after the service, she was the priest’s wife. The woman to my right, near the door, kneeled down on the floor with her hands on her white chair facing away from everyone. For nearly an hour she was saying something in a quiet voice and nearly sobbing. I couldn’t tell because she had her head against her hands, and the priest was talking into the microphone. For the final five minutes the people bowed their heads and prayed as they recited verses while the priest kept talking into the microphone. I bowed my head too, but looked up every once in a while. The small girl near me was still crawling on the floor.

As the service ended the priest introduced Andres and me to the congregation. He, like most Colombians, had a hard time pronouncing my first name. Then I took the photos I had printed of the children on the soccer field and handed them to the priest’s wife. A group of children swarmed around her as well as many adults. Relax, she told the children as they tried grabbing them from her hands. I also handed her the CD. She said she had a friend who owned a computer, something very rare in this area. Then a group of teenage girls approached me. One of the girls, with big, pudgy cheeks and a big smile, asked me many questions. Where are you from? What is your job? What do you write about? What are you working on? What do you think of Colombia? Where else have you traveled? Where do you live now? They were giggling and smiling. I enjoyed the attention. Then I talked to the priest as Andres acted as my translator. The priest asked me if I’d return. I told him I’d be running a basketball clinic in nearby Santo Domingo on Sunday. He said he’d tell the children in his neighborhood. He asked me if I played soccer. Only goalie, I said, I’m better with my hands than my feet. The church was still crowded, probably because Andres and I had visited. They didn’t get visitors from downtown, never mind another country. About half of us left together. The city looked like a blanket of lights. I should have brought my camera. The girl who was crawling on the floor was now running around like a chicken and smiling as she put gum in her mouth with the wrapper as I told her no. She continued doing this. Then we came to a main road and they pointed to a bus and waved goodbye. Andres and I ran toward the white bus. Luckily there was a seat so I didn’t bang my head. The driver kept his foot on the brake down the very steep dirt path. He’s got good brakes, I told Andres. However, near the bottom he decided to start using more of the gas pedal, swerving around the winding road. When we stepped off the bus a woman asked me for my cell phone number because she wanted her daughter to learn English. Often when people know I speak English they want lessons. The only problem is they don’t have any money. Andres escorted me to the green bus, which I took to the red Transmilenio bus toward downtown. Even at 11 p.m., it filled up on its route. By midnight I crawled into bed, tired but feeling good as I thought about the children who will see the photos of themselves the next day.

Sunday, September 9, 2007

Basketball and Christianity

The puffy white clouds and clear blue sky reminded me of the previous week climbing Monserrate. Only now, I was on the opposite side of the city, which provided a much better perspective of the red-bricked communities that surround the city’s hills and mountains, especially in the south and west. It was one of those days that doesn’t feel hot or cold but just right ... a Goldilocks day.

We walked past workers laying down concrete for the first time on the dirt road, and beyond it where a dirt path was better suited for bikes than cars. Along this path we saw lots of dogs of different breeds, shapes, and sizes. Some were sleeping. Others were resting. And some were barking at us. I saw other animals too, a duck sitting in the middle of the road, a man’s fighting rooster who had a 3-0 record, and a pair of donkeys too busy grazing on grass to notice us. As Andres mentioned, it was a tranquil area, like a faraway land from the crowded city streets and shops. It was a good place for a relaxing stroll. Not everyone was enjoying the day. A small boy, about 3 years old, walked barefooted in our direction, crying. Andres asked him what was wrong and where he lived. The boy stopped and kept pulling up his shirt, exposing his round brown belly. He tried talking but he made no sense because he was sobbing so much. It was no use. Another boy, about 10, walked up silently. Andres asked the boy if he knew the small child. He shook his head no. The small boy was such a wreck he disregarded our warning not to step in the broken brown glass. He walked across it anyway, sobbing as he walked away.

Everyone else seemed happy. I stopped and said hello and took pictures of a group of children playing on the concrete stoop in front of a yellowish-orange house with green trim. The building stood in sharp contrast to the many red-bricked buildings. Perhaps the people living in it had more money. We hadn’t seen many other people along our walk. The next big group was near the top of the hill. Slightly below the path was a dirt lot with two soccer goals made from logs. A girl in a yellow shirt and blue jeans was riding a bicycle too small for her around the lot. I told her I wanted to take a picture with her and her friends. A minute later she returned with her friends, a dozen in all, who had been playing on the other side. Some hung from the goalpost, others stood by their bikes. Like most kids, they liked having their picture taken, huddling around my camera as they laughed at themselves. Along the right side of the field was a row of houses, and I saw a few parents watching. I walked over with Andres and talked with them. One of the parents was a priest and he pointed to his church next door, which looked no different than the other tin-roofed houses. I told him I wanted to send him some pictures, but he nor anyone else had internet or e-mail. He invited me to the church service for the children that night, but I told him I had to meet some friends. However, we agreed to return to his Wednesday night service, which was for adults and children.

Andres and I walked a little farther to the top of the hill and beyond it, feeling a little tired, we stopped in a shop for a drink. There were few shops up until this point. But now we were in Santo Domingo, a small, yet bustling neighborhood beyond the official city limits and perched on the hilltop. Inside the shop was a Rana stand. Outside, locals filled the main road, a dirt road, buying things from shops and stalls. This street seemed out of place, like it had appeared from nowhere. It had been so tranquil and desolate. Now there were lots of people and busses. We walked farther away from the city, down a hill, to a giant blacktop. Here stood a playground, official-sized basketball and soccer courts, as well as a police headquarters. It was a good playground, and looked slightly out of place when compared to the small brick homes around it. I saw three young girls playing basketball and joined them. Since I was twice their size they all played against me. They weren’t very good but they didn’t give up. They liked playing. After a while, I showed them how to dribble and protect the basketball with their other arm. They liked the way I dribbled. Of the three girls, one girl listened very closely and followed everything I said. I asked her where she lived. She pointed to the house near mid-court. It was about the same size as my apartment bedroom. She wore a key around her neck. I agreed to return next week for a basketball clinic. Before I left for Colombia, I had wanted to have a weekly basketball clinic for boys. Now I had girls. It didn’t matter. They had no one to teach them, and they were very poor. I felt like it was one good thing I could do for the community. After all, I’m not a Sunday school person. I’d rather be standing on a basketball court than an altar.

Saturday, September 8, 2007

Andres and Ciudad Bolivar

From where I live it’s about an hour to Portal del Sur, the final Transmilenio bus stop in the most southwestern region of Bogota: Ciudad Bolivar. It is an area that few foreigners ever mention, never mind visit. For Andres Cortes, the doorman at the hotel I had stayed in weeks prior, I’d be the first foreigner to visit his home.

I had taken a liking to Andres. He was 22 years old and always greeted me with a smile and friendly conversation. He had a good sense of humor and no sense of entitlement. We met at 1 p.m. at the bus stop and walked along the sidewalk next to a major highway, Autopista Sur. We talked about how beautiful a day it was and how unlike at Monserrate, I wore suntan lotion. We walked past a row of flower vendors, and the largest cemetery in the city. When we spoke, it was a combination of English and Spanish. I preferred he speak in English and he preferred I speak in Spanish.

It was a balance as we taught each other new words and phrases. Clumps of red-bricked houses, shaped like boxes, stood a few stories high on the green hill on the other side of the highway. We crossed a bridge over the highway. Andres pointed to a large brick building, explaining it was a large cigarette manufacturing plant. Then we passed local vendors. One of them sold shells to drink from and plants that looked like and were used like loufah sponges for showering. Walking down a side road I saw a young guy selling mandarins, which rested inside the hood of an old car.

He also had a speaker playing music inside the hood. It was an odd sight so I took a photo. It was about a 20-minute walk to Andres’s house. He knew it well and often ran most of the way because he was late for work. He pointed to the concrete plant in a vacant lot over the wall on the sidewalk. A hundred feet ahead he told me about a guy who had died one night at that spot. He didn’t know for sure how he died, but thought a boulder fell on him from the sidewalk. There was blood in the road for four days, he said. That was when it was a dirt road with large potholes. It had been recently paved. Like much of Bogota, big improvements have been made in the last few years. For instance, on a 2006 map I own there is no Portal del Sur bus stop. Andres’s neighborhood, La Estancia, stood at the foot of the hill. He was lucky. Other people living in Ciudad Bolivar had to take a bus or make a long walk just to reach Portal del Sur. This meant a two-hour commute each way to work downtown or the near northside.

On the way to his house, Andres asked me if I wanted to play Rana, the Spanish word for frog. Rana is a game that reminded me of pinball and bocce. Each competitor had to stand about 10 feet away from a wooden stand, which had three metal frogs on top with various round holes around them. Each competitor had six metal rings slightly smaller than the holes, which he threw toward the holes. Each hole had a different compartment and score. Getting it in one of the frog’s mouths was worth more points. The object was to get the most points. There was also a hook on the front of the stand. If you could throw your ring on the hook, you automatically won the game. Finally we arrived at a corner where we walked into a room with enough space for a counter, two small wooden tables, and a group of about six or seven men drinking Colombian beer. Along the far wall was a Rana stand, which Andres showed me. He introduced me to his grandfather, who stood alone behind the counter. I followed Andres to a door behind the counter, into his home.

Andres lived with his grandparents. His mother died a few years ago from stomach cancer. His father lives far away and he never sees him. There were basically two rooms in his house, the kitchen and the bedroom, where there were four twin-beds along the walls, and a small crib for his younger and favorite brother, Christian. It was a small room. It had enough space for the beds and some room in the middle. Stuffed animals, individual family photos, and decorations hung from the walls. A small black television played music videos on top of the dresser near the doorway, where four small boys stood with blank expressions on their faces. Two of the boys were his brothers, including Christian. The other two were his cousins. They gave me five but didn’t say much. Andres showed me a poster above his bed titled: “Los Dos Caminos,” or The Two Ways, or The Two Paths. It had many intricate drawings of people with the corresponding bible verse numbers next to each one. At the end of the path to the left was hell, and the end to the right was heaven. “When I wake up each morning, I look at this to make sure I’m a good boy,” Andres says with a laugh. We sit on his bed as there are no chairs in his house. And even if they had chairs, there was not much room for them. Then his grandmother entered the room with glasses of homemade blackberry juice. Then we walked into the kitchen and she handed us plates of rice and steak with peppers. It was a good meal, a special meal she had prepared for me. I had given them a special gift as well, a bottle of pure Vermont maple syrup. It was as foreign to them as the game of Rana was for me.

But I explained what it was, and figured they could put it on Arepas since pancakes weren’t common. While we ate, Andres told me about his family and the various photos on his wall. I asked about his neighborhood. No one had computers or Internet in La Estancia or the region of Ciudad Bolivar. They were too poor, Andres had told me. It must have been a heavy load for his grandparents. Andres had a sister but I never saw her. She had a severe mental handicap and rarely left the bathroom. He had a black-and-white photo of his other grandfather on the wall, the grandfather who drowned in a river after drinking too much at age 15. Yet, I never would have known any of this if I hadn’t visited him. Nor would I probably know that he works 84 hours a week as a doorman for pocket change. Or that he was robbed at gunpoint a few months ago, losing his entire savings but kept it a secret from his grandparents as to not stress them. Even when he told me these things they didn’t seem so bad, just the way life is. He always seemed so upbeat. Though I pointed to a picture of him above his doorway. Andres was 15 in the photo. He had a sad expression. He told me it was a difficult time for him but that he is happy now.

After lunch, we played Rana outside the store while Christian sat on a log and helped out. Andres beat me good. Then we walked up the hill so we could see the view of the city. Before I left, I had to go pee, but I couldn’t use the bathroom because of his sister. Inside the store, there was a small concrete shoot against the wall with two small curtains next to it. Andres told me to pee into it. So I peed with a bunch of local men literally right next to me drinking. For most foreigners it might have felt weird, but for me it felt normal. When you got to go, you got to go. It doesn’t really matter who is looking.

Saturday, September 1, 2007

The Running of the Guinea Pigs

The pretty women from Cali were not the only ones visiting Bogota today. The main street leading to the Presidential Palace had been closed for security because Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez was visiting President Uribe. Judging by Peruvian performers dancing and playing music in the street, there wasn’t much of a threat. Oh, but watch out for the Running of the Guinea Pigs! Farther down the street, on the large brick sidewalk, stood the competitors: three guinea pigs. Pedestrians stood around the guinea pigs and the track where they’d race. At the other end were 15 upside-down bowls resting in a U-shape. Each bowl was marked with a number and had a doorway cut into it for the guinea pigs to enter. The owner explained that if you put your money on the bowl that one of the guinea pigs decided to enter, you’d win a portion of the bets. I put a 500-peso coin on one of the bowls.
Then the owner talked to the competitors, “Ready children ... go children!” I didn’t win, but I think it was fixed. The first guinea pig blazed his way into a bowl on the left. The second competitor was a bit overweight, and waddled his way into a bowl on the right. The last guinea pig was mentally challenged. He only made it halfway down and stopped to think about what he was supposed to do. He never finished. I was banking on him. Oh well, I’m sure President Chavez would have enjoyed it. I certainly did.


Getting There
The weather is moderate all year round in Bogota and the sky is often a mixture of gray and white clouds. Sometimes it rains and I’ll look up and see the sun and a blue sky just a few blocks away. September through November is the rainy season. Today was the exception.

So I decided to hike up Monserrate, a mountain peak that provides a bird’s-eye view of the city. When I told the cleaning lady in my building I was going to Monserrate, she insisted I call a taxi to pick me up. (The most safe and reliable taxis have the telephone numbers 311-1111 or 411-1111 or 611-1111, basically any number with six one’s. Also, most of the taxis are yellow). She dialed the number for me and in less than a minute a taxi was in front of my apartment. The ride cost 8,000 pesos. My driver, Rene Moreno Cardenas, looked like a character in Reservoir Dogs with his shades and slicked back hair. This was my first time taking a cab alone, but a Jesus cross hanging from his rearview mirror comforted me. I’ve talked to several locals and foreigners who say they’ve taken taxis at all hours of the day and night, alone, without a problem. Others, like the cleaning lady, insist I call a taxi because it is dangerous. Latin women tend to be overprotective and worry a lot. Swedish women, like my mother, tend to think the opposite, which is probably one reason why I rarely ever worry. Anyhow, Rene Moreno recommended some attractions on the short ride down Carrera 7 or La Septima, the main three-lane road outside my apartment. To my left (the east) I saw hulking dark-green mountains that run the length of the city. Many of them look unclimbable because they are so steep. Monserrate is no exception.

The Hike
A white colonial mansion with a red-tiled roof, the Quinta de Bolivar, sits at the base of Monserrate and was once the home of Simon Bolivar. It’s now a museum. I didn’t go in. It was too nice a day. On the other side of it there were cable wires and train tracks that provided two ways for visitors to get to the top. I preferred the third option, hiking.

The path began on the left side of the mountain and was built for tourists. The entire path was made from stones and flat and was like walking up a sidewalk with many stairs in the steep areas. On the sides stood food and beverage stalls and small shacks, most of them with corrugated tin roofs and vacant and rundown. While the path was uninspiring, the view wasn’t. I’d constantly turn and look at the skyscrapers below and the countless red-tiled roofs around it and the city beyond to tall hills in the west that were covered in patches of shade from the white puffy clouds that seemed to rest on top of them. The sky was blue, but the clouds created its real beauty, hanging low like they always do in Bogota. It’s a great day to be alive, I thought to myself. There were some food stalls open and a few shacks where people lived. However, since it was a Friday, I often passed through stretches where I didn’t see a soul. A few locals, including a woman who was hiking barefooted while carrying her shoes, told me to be careful because it was dangerous hiking alone.

The local hikers were not the only one’s warning me. “It is best not to go alone,” says the Footprint Handbook on hiking Monserrate. “On weekdays, it is not recommended to walk up and especially not down.” When someone says I shouldn’t do it or it can’t be done that is just more incentive for me to do it. That, and I’m stubborn. But even more so, when I decide to do something, I have to do it, sometimes against sound advice. In this case, I think I was right. Most people I passed said hello. The only problem I ran into was a shortness of breath at a couple steep spots. I was nearly two miles above sea level when I reached the top.

From the Top
The view is spectacular from the top, but it doesn’t come as a surprise since I had a good panoramic view at many spots along the way. I was glad I had chosen a weekday to go up as it becomes much more crowded on Saturdays, and especially Sundays, the one day off for most working people. Atop Monserrate is a modern-looking white church with red-roofing and a red steeple. There is a large courtyard next to the church leading to a couple of fine-dining restaurants and a path with many touristy knickknacks and food stalls. The next mountain-peak over, Guadalupe, is higher and is best reached by car. I stopped at one of the food stalls and had rice and chicken with a great view of the mountain opposite the city. In this case, however, my photos do more justice than my words.

For me, hiking down is always less fun. Not only am I leaving the top, but it’s harder on my knees. I was ready, however, to go home. I had forgotten to wear suntan lotion and my arms and face were very red. I walked down with a 40-year-old local woman who hikes Monserrate once a week for exercise. I zipped up the light jacket I had brought to cover my arms and as much of my neck as possible. At the bottom I walked on the shaded part of the street as she walked on the opposite side, leading me to the right bus I needed to take home.

Once we arrived in a commercial area, a pretty woman was running toward me telling me to stop. At the top of the mountain I saw two pretty women and one of their mother’s. I offered to take a picture of the three of them since they were taking pictures. The woman stopping me was the older woman. I thought she wanted another picture. She wanted to introduce me to her friend, who liked me. To make a long story short, the four of us had a drink together and walked around La Candelaria, a district of downtown with beautiful colonial buildings and narrow cobbled roads, reminding me of Europe. We saw the Presidential Palace and took pictures in Plaza Bolivar, also a sanctuary for pigeons. In the plaza were rows of white crosses with the names of the Colombians who had died when the M-19 guerrilla group attacked the Supreme Court building in 1985. It was the anniversary. One of the woman spoke English and explained the history and significance of the buildings we saw. Both of them were from Cali, the second largest Colombian city and a lot warmer. They were flight attendants for Air Republica. The mother of the woman who spoke English lived in Bogota. Hence they were visiting. We both were. I had a sunburn and they were cold in jackets, jeans, and boots.

More Monserrate Photos.