Thursday, May 29, 2008

The Growing (Extreme) Left

It was just another day in Bogotá. When I left the primary commercial center in Chapinero, I saw people standing on the sidewalk. It was almost the end of lunch time. Didn’t these people have to return to work? They were looking down the street and whispering to each other. Then I heard a bunch of loud noises. It sounded like gunshots or firecrackers. I looked down the street and saw two city blocks with no cars or buses. What was going on? I asked some man in a business suit. There is a protest, he said.

There was a bunch of students roaming the street and sidewalks outside the Universidad Pedagógica Nacional. Most of them wore all black – black pants, black sweatshirts, black hoods, and black ski masks. Maybe this was one reason why the crowds of businessmen and locals on lunch break didn’t dare get too close. Maybe it was the long history of violence they have witnessed. Maybe it was the reserved nature of the local people. I think the bystanders’ reaction would have been different in, say Cali or along the coast. I had witnessed a couple of protests while taking Spanish classes at the Universidad Nacional. I had gotten tear gas in my eyes. How bad could this be? So I walked along the sidewalk toward these masked students. What could they do? I thought. Just then one of them threw some object toward the crowd of bystanders. As they quickly dodged the flying object, it landed with a thunderous boom! It was an M-80 or something like it. (El Tiempo called them “potato bombs.”) Other students had bottles stuffed with some type of explosive material.

I took photos of these student protestors throwing these objects into the crowds as a few of them hollered their frustrations with the government. Two masked students dragged a burger tent from the corner and burned it in the middle of the intersection as no one did anything. Not even the police, who I had seen outside the commercial center. Maybe like the people, they were scared, too. I saw a few masked men inside the classrooms and on top of the building’s roof. It seemed like a hostage scene from a movie. Yet it didn’t seem that scary to me. I kept taking photos and one of the students waved his finger at me and said I couldn’t take photos. I didn’t listen. A bunch of normal-looking students stood along the school fence as they began chanting things that I couldn’t understand. I'm almost sure it was a protest against the government and its sometimes violent stance against the guerillas. One student walked toward the crowd, half-preaching and half-yelling. The whole thing seemed surreal because normally Calle 72 and Carrera 13 are packed with pedestrians and traffic. Now four students, what looked like three males and one female, were throwing “potato bombs” in the street and into crowds of onlookers. One of them threw a "potato bomb" onto a big poster-sized advertisement at a bus stop. As the bomb exploded, the glass covering shattered to the ground as smoke filled the air. Then the four students began walking in my direction. Two of them pointed at me and began walking forward with bottles and potato bombs in hand. Some guy in the crowd warned me to be careful with taking photos and getting too close. As I realized the students were singling me out, I walked back into the crowd. I had seen enough. As I walked back to my apartment, I heard loud explosions going off as police directed traffic on the intersections near the protest. I couldn’t understand why they didn’t simply arrest these students. One man told me the police didn’t have the firepower to do it. Anyhow, a couple hours later riot police put an end to it, arresting 21 students and one adult. The university is closed for the weekend and until Wednesday of next week. The arrested protestors were brought to see President Álvaro Uribe, who had just flown back to Bogotá. He told them how ashamed he was as the television news cameras filmed this meeting. He also said that the police had the green light to go to any campus where there is violence. Apparently this precedent had not been set.

It seemed odd that this precedent had not been specified before. Maybe the reason was that most of the left-wing protests were at the Universidad Nacional, a large, grassy campus closed off from normal pedestrians and away from the financial areas. However, today’s protest was in one of the wealthiest sections of the city, where bankers and businessmen work. Economics and status were the real reasons Uribe finally made a stand. On a grander scale, this protest represents Uribe’s battle with the increasing extreme left in Latin America, and how his right-wing government can negotiate with his left-wing citizens and neighboring countries. Thankfully, Colombia needs peaceful negotiations with countries such as Ecuador and Venezuela and vice versa. For without peace there is no profit exporting goods and resources. And while these governments may have vastly different ideologies, they all value money.

Monday, May 26, 2008

The Colpatria Tower

It is the tallest building in Colombia, and located in downtown Bogotá, the Colpatria Tower resembles a male’s master of ceremony. Built in 1978, it is a skinny, four-sided building with 48 floors. It is an easy landmark to spot as there aren’t many tall buildings directly next to it. At night the entire building is lit and changes color.

Yesterday was my first time inside the Colpatria Tower. Because the building has limited visiting hours and the fact Bogotá is often cloudy in the afternoon, it can be difficult to find a good time to go. For visitors it is only open from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. on weekends and holidays. Maybe this is why only 400 or so people visit it when open.

On a sunny day, it is definitely worth the 3,000 peso entry fee. An elevator took me up to the 46th floor and then I climbed two flights of stairs to the 48th story. There is a balcony that wraps around the entire 48th floor with a metal fence to keep suicidal people from jumping. I was glad I arrived before the white clouds began turning gray. Below was a great view of Plaza de Toros de Santamaría and La Séptima. It also provided a unique view of Monserrate and the mountains that surround the city. The only disappointing part is that I couldn’t get aerial photos of the city traffic at night. Still, it is a good site to see, especially if you’re only in Bogotá for the weekend.

Sunday, May 25, 2008

Riding a Different Path

Lance Armstrong would love Bogotá, especially on Sundays. Why? Well, there are several reasons. Over the past decade, Bogotá has created the most extensive bicycle path system of any city in the world. With 303 kilometers of bike paths, many people can ride to work or for recreation without worrying about being hit by buses and cars. Each Sunday (and holiday), almost two million cyclists, joggers, and roller-bladers use the 70 miles of blocked off lanes along main roads. These lanes are blocked off from 7 a.m. until 2 p.m. All this at 8,661 feet above sea level.

Enrique Peñalosa, who became Bogotá’s mayor 10 years ago, was one of the most influential people behind the positive changes in a city that had been one of the most dangerous in the world. He made dramatic changes with the use of urban space. One of those changes was the bicycle paths. It helped create better health and a sense of community. Not bad for a city that only a few years earlier had a murder rate of 80 per 100,000. Many residents have told me that the city is more relaxed now. Besides the bike paths, one resident told me about the clowns and mimes. Because cars were often driving through red lights and not respecting pedestrian rights, Peñalosa put clowns and mimes at all the major traffic lights in Bogotá. When someone went through a red light, the clown would make a joke about them. At first it seemed odd, but soon the attitudes of the people changed and cars began respecting the red lights and pedestrians. These positive changes have led to the current bicycling and outdoor events, known as Ciclovía.

Every Sunday morning I pull open my curtain and look at the bicyclers and roll-bladers on the street below. This morning there were more joggers than usual. They were running in the city’s 10-kilometer road race. It’s always good to see people out exercising on their one day off. This is yet another reason why there are virtually no fat people in Bogotá.

The Bogotá bicycle path system is being used as a model for cities throughout Colombia as well as big cities throughout the world, such as Chicago, New York, and Paris. Still, these wealthy international cities have a long way to go until they reach the precedent set in Bogotá.

Saturday, May 24, 2008

The Science of Colombia

Although corporate and government corruption is commonplace, Colombia has made some of the most advanced science and medicine advances in Latin America. Many of these discoveries are used worldwide, such as LASIK eye surgery. Around 1950 the technique behind this surgery was invented by an ophthalmologist in Bogotá named Jose Barraquer.

Barraquer Eyes Video

Since then there have been many achievements. The first Latin American test tube baby was born in Colombia in 1985. In the same year the first heart transplant was performed here as well. Perhaps Colombia’s greatest discovery used around the globe is something known as “kangaroo care,” which helps premature babies grow and stay healthy without an incubator. It began in 1978 in Bogotá because there were so many mothers who were having premature babies without the money to pay for the necessary healthcare. Instead of keeping the babies in incubators, doctors told the mothers to hold their babies close to their breasts so that skin-to-skin contact provides warm and nourishment, hence the way a kangaroo mother carries her baby. This method has grown dramatically since then and is used throughout first world countries.

Kangaroo Care Video

The most obvious medical advances are with plastic surgery. I know a bunch of young women in Bogotá who have had breast implants. In Cali and Medellín it seems as normal as lipstick or high heels. Many foreigners come to Colombia for operations because plastic surgery is at least three times cheaper than in the United States, while the surgery is exactly the same.

Having grown up in America, I always thought the U.S. had far superior medicine compared to poorer countries like Colombia. I’ve learned that this isn’t necessarily true, and that often it is a better bargain here in Colombia. I am sure Colombia will continue to make many more discoveries in science and medicine that will help people across the globe, such as a Malaria vaccination. The only thing missing is a way to ensure that more people have access to these great discoveries.

Monday, May 19, 2008

The Bakery

Bread is a big hit in Bogotá, and seems as popular as coffee. After all, a fresh roll goes well with fresh coffee. It seems like every block has a panadería, or bakery. No exaggeration. The glass counters are full of freshly baked pastries, cookies, and rolls. They also sell refreshments, of course coffee, and bags of various chips. The supermarkets also sell the same things, but they are usually more expensive.

Since September, I’ve been going to the same bakery, located near my morning class. Although I’ve tried many different pastries, I virtually always order cancha mexicana and pan de coco. The former is a big domed-shaped bread filled with arequipe. The latter is coconut bread. Below is a picture of them both.

These items are also very cheap. What is seen above costs 50 cents (500 pesos for the mexicana and 200 pesos for each coco). The best thing about all these bakeries is that the bread is fresh!

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Teaching English

If you grew up speaking English then you probably can find a job as an English teacher in Bogotá, and many other cities throughout Colombia. You don’t need a teaching degree or certificate, though some schools do require it. The demand is definitely higher than the supply, especially in Bogotá. When advancing in business or any well-paying Colombian job, the first thing the interviewer will ask is: Do you speak English? This is why I have taught businessmen and women since I arrived. I work with an English institute and teach one-on-one classes. Many of these institutes pay less than if you taught at a high school or university. However, it allows for a flexible schedule and traveling. Like many other teachers, I’m living in Colombia on a tourist visa. The reason is that if you are approved for a work visa, it is difficult to change jobs if you don’t like the institute or school your teaching for. Private classes are another option, too. The going rate is about 20,000 pesos per hour, but this could change depending on your experience, student, commute, etc. The one thing I will warn native English speakers is that Colombians tend to be flaky. They might say they are committed to taking classes every day, when in reality they will often cancel and sometimes not even call to let you know they can’t have class that day. So if you do teach private classes, make sure your students pay you up front for a month or so at a time. If not, you may become frustrated and start looking for work elsewhere. With that said, if you can find a couple of really dedicated students, it could work out well for you. Teaching English doesn’t always have to be about money. You could exchange English classes for Spanish classes, so you both are learning a new language. Or you could exchange it for salsa lessons, which I highly recommend if you are living in Cali. The best thing to do is to try and meet many people when you first arrive to Colombia. Talk to the woman on the corner selling flowers or the man in the butcher shop. Just talking will help you improve your Spanish, and lead to many unexpected, yet pleasant surprises. Though I’ve met many great people in Colombia, below are two of my most dedicated students. I’m obviously going to miss them when I return to the United States in a few weeks.

Sunday, May 11, 2008


It wasn’t my typical Mother’s Day. I was surrounded by men who were drinking and smoking while loud gunpowder explosions popped my eardrums. Oddly enough, I had come here by choice.

I had come to see a neighborhood Tejo Championship.

Tejo is a popular sport throughout Colombia. Like billiards or bowling in America, it is a sport that is played by men, women, and children. However, it is more popular than billiards or bowling is in the U.S. It is played on weekends, and especially on Sunday. It is most popular among men whose age keeps them off the soccer fields. If I had to compare it to another sport, I might say bocce, but that would be a stretch.

So let me tell you about my experience and hopefully that will make it clearer. I was in a neighborhood called Gibraltar, which is located on the top of a steep, round hill that isn’t far from Portal Tunal (in the southwest of Bogotá). Like all the others around it, the tejo building was made of red bricks with a corrugated tin roof, only its roof was very high. Fittingly, there was “Costeña” painted in big letters on the building’s exterior. Costeña is a popular Colombian beer. So how did I find this building if it looked like all the others? I had befriended a family who lived nearby. The father of this family was playing in this tournament. The players were just arriving around 10 a.m.

In the meantime, I played rana with the father’s family in a small room next to the tejo room. Rana, or “frog,” is also a popular Colombian game, where two players stand about 10 to 15 feet away from a wooden stand, which has a few metal frogs on top with various round holes around them. Each hole has a different compartment and score. The metal rings are slightly smaller than the holes. The object is to get 200 points by tossing the metal rings inside the holes or frogs’ mouths. Throwing it inside one of the frog’s mouth was worth 100 points, but was as difficult as throwing a bull’s-eye in darts.

I didn’t get to finish my game because the first tejo game was beginning in the other room. There were two official-sized courts, and a smaller one inbetween for children. The official court is about 60 feet long. At each end is a stand filled with hard clay. In the center is a metal ring. Two pink, triangle-shaped packets of gunpowder are placed on the top and bottom of the ring. (For non-championship games, they use four gunpowder packets.) Each team has three players. Each player has one tejo, or metal disc that weighs about five pounds. Standing at one end of the court, each player has his turn to throw his tejo toward the ring at the other end. There is a yellow line that players can’t cross while tossing their tejo. Players must toss it underhand. One point is given to a team when the tejo hits a gunpowder packet and makes it explode. If it doesn’t explode, no point is given. If the tejo lands inside the metal ring, the referee uses a measuring device. If the tejo can fit through this device, two points are given. To get this two points, the tejo has to hit the clay with its thin-side exposed, not easy to do from almost 60 feet away. The first team to 27 points wins. It was a single-elimination tournament with seven teams of men. There are tournaments for women, too.

Though, on this day the women sat and watched as a few of them nursed their babies. The players and children stood and sat on a long wooden bench between the two courts. The championship court was blocked off with a rope, though they let me duck under it to take some photos. There were also a small bar and a woman grilling sausage, pig, and potatoes. It was a friendly and relaxed atmosphere. After all, there were no prizes given. The players were mostly poor men who work manual labor jobs. They play together every weekend and drink beer together afterward. It was a good place for male bonding. Most of the wives left after a couple hours. The men hung around until dinner time.

Two things amazed me about tejo: the heaviness of the tejo; and the ability of the players to consistently toss it with such consistent accuracy. I guess this is what happens when you play all weekend, every weekend. I could be wrong, but I think this sport is more popular in poorer neighborhoods because it is a cheap form of entertainment. The people who live in the area I visited don’t have computers or internet. Some have televisions, but only get a few channels. After working six days of manual labor a week, who wants to run around and play soccer? This is why tejo is so popular. It’s a place where a working man can go and play a sport and drink some beer with his buddies.

Monday, May 5, 2008

My Favorite Olympian

In the fall of 2003, I kept seeing the same name appear in the newspaper headlines of the local sport sections: Shalane Flanagan. Who is she? And why is she receiving more press than any member of our football team? Is she really that good? Being a senior journalism major at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, I pondered these questions from time to time. Toward the end of the semester I had a final paper due for my feature writing class. It was a good opportunity to find out about this mystery wonder woman, I thought. So I did. Before I wrote my lengthy profile, I talked with Flanagan, her parents, her coach, her teammates, and some competitors. I discovered she really was that good. A few days after I interviewed Shalane, she won her second national collegiate cross-country title. In retrospect, she may have been the best athlete I went to school with, which included Taylor Coppenrath, Ronald Curry, Ivory Latta, David Noel, and Julius Peppers. The reason she was such a mystery was twofold: she ran cross-country; and she was probably one of the most humble, down-to-earth star athletes I’ve ever met. Though she did tell me back then, “My goal is to be a name as common here eventually like Marion Jones, Mia Hamm, Michael Jordan, and Julius Peppers. I want to be known as someone like that.”

It seems she has done everything in her power since then to manifest that goal. Yesterday, Flanagan broke the U.S. women’s 10,000-meter record by 17 seconds with a time of 30 minutes and 34.49 seconds. It was the fastest time in the world this year and the fastest ever in North America. Not bad for her first 10k race. Normally, she runs shorter distances. She holds the American record for 3,000 and 5,000 meters. She had planned to run in the latter competition at the Beijing Games this summer. Being so good creates good dilemmas. "Initially, I planned to run the 5k in the (Olympic) trials and that still may be," Flanagan told reporters after her dramatic win. "I really enjoy the 5k, but every lap is hard. The 10k is very hard, too. I want to sit down and examine what my best chances for a medal are. I have no idea what I’m going to do. It may be a last-minute decision."

Whatever she decides, I’ll be rooting for her.

Sunday, May 4, 2008

Colombian Diet

Everyone I know who has lived in Colombia and the United States says the same thing: I lose weight in Colombia and I gain weight in the U.S. It doesn’t seem to matter what they eat. One of my Colombian friends visited her family in Miami for two weeks and ate the same exact food she eats in Colombia, the same portions and all. She still gained five pounds. So why do people lose weight, myself included, when they come to Colombia? Maybe it is the high Andean mountains. Most Colombians live in the western half of the country, including the three largest cities with elevations way above sea level: Bogotá (8,661 ft); Medellín (4,905); and Cali (3,280 ft). However, I don’t think the altitude is the primary factor. The food is simply less processed and more natural than in the United States. Virtually every restaurant, and many street vendors, serve all-natural juice, that is freshly squeezed or blended. Fruits and vegetables are common, as are meats and soups. The portions are also a bit smaller than in the U.S.

Colombian food is tasty, yet quite bland. I’ve never been offered any spicy food since moving here in August. Maybe I’m part Colombian, because most Colombians don’t like hot sauce or hot peppers. I’ve actually had fewer upset stomachs than I normally had when living in the United States. I do have an overly sensitive stomach, which is why I always have a bottle of Pepto-Bismol, but in Colombia, I haven’t needed it. The only thing exotic about the food may be the tropical fruits and vegetables that aren’t as common in the U.S. Otherwise, many of the dishes are quite the same as in America. It may be difficult, however, if you are a vegetarian since chicken, meat, or pork is served with every lunch or dinner plate. Arepas and empanadas are popular across the country, but each region has its own specialities. For example, potatoes are very common in Bogotá, while beans are more common in Medellín, and fish is more common along the Caribbean coast. The great thing about eating in Colombia is the price. I eat lunch at a small diner-type restaurant almost every day. I always get a bowl of soup, the main dish, and a glass of all-natural juice. It is all fresh and called menú del día or comida corriente (daily set lunch). It costs me 3,500 pesos (about $2). Besides the set price, there is usually a set time as well. I can always count on it being ready by noon. Many restaurants are like this. And my food is served as quickly as any fast food restaurant in the U.S. So for me, it’s a great deal: fast, fresh, and cheap. Below is a typical meal that I enjoy called bistek a caballo, a fried egg served on top of a beef steak. This dish also includes arroz (rice), papas (potatoes), yuca (yucca or cassava root), sopa cebada (barley soup), and jugo guayaba natural (natural guava juice).

A Food and Beverage Glossary

agua de panela (hot sugarcane water) – it is served hot, like coffee. It will give you some energy since it is nothing more than unrefined sugar and water. I usually have a small cup of it when I teach one of my English students in the afternoon. It is an alternative, or complement, to coffee or tea.

aguardiente – literally means “fire water.” It is a clear, cane-based spirit that can warm you when living in the Andean mountains. In México, they drink tequila. In Colombia, they drink aguardiente. It usually has about 30% alcohol content. You can buy it in the supermarket, where it comes in bottles or cartons. It tastes smoother from the cartons for some reason. The three most popular brands in Bogotá are Antioqueño, Cristal, and Nectar. This is also my preference order. One further note on alcohol: it is cheaper to buy a bottle of alcohol in a bar than to buy the same amount in individual glasses. This is the norm throughout Latin America.

ajiaco bogotano (chicken soup of Bogotá) – a Bogotá specialty that I seem to eat at least three or four times a week. It can be served like a stew. It contains a piece of chicken on the bone, a large chunk or two of corn on the cob, various kinds of potatoes, and lots of herbs. It is almost always served with a side of white rice.

arepa – a flat, cornmeal patty, usually about four inches in diameter and a half inch thick. They are baked, fried, or grilled. Its bland taste is often compensated by adding grated cheese before it is cooked. Arepas with chocolate or arequipe are also popular. Sometimes they are filled with a fried egg. Anything can be added to arepas because they serve like tortillas. Though, they have such little nutritional value and don’t have much taste so I try to avoid them altogether. But don’t tell any Colombians I said this. It’d be like telling an American, I don’t like hamburgers or hotdogs.

arequipe – is a sweet candy that looks and tastes like caramel. It is made by heating sweetened milk. Arequipe is found in many pastries, such as a roscón or cancha mexicana. Brevas con arequipe are figs filled with arequipe, and are popular in Cali.

bandeja paisa (paisa tray) – is the traditional food in Medellín and the Antioquia region. It is served on a very big plate, or tray, and is one of my favorite Colombian meals. It is not exactly the most healthy food, but it tastes great. Bandeja paisa is not only a lot of food, it is a large variety, too. It consists of at least three or four different types of meat (chicken, pork, sausages, chorizos, etc.) served with rice, beans (often in a separate bowl), an arepa, plantains, a fried egg, avocado, and a small salad.

café (coffee) – this is what foreigners often think about when Colombia is mentioned. Coffee is the country’s most popular export. For this very reason, the best Colombian coffee is often shipped outside the country, which is why coffee served in Colombia is not as good as one may think. However, it is still quite good and omnipresent. A tinto or trago (a small cup of coffee) is served at any time of day, usually with sugar. Colombian coffee is mild. The most popular coffee companies are Juan Valdez and Oma. Café perico is coffee with milk. Café con leche is a cup of milk with coffee added.

cerveza (beer) – the local beer is very good, including the popular Aguila, Club Colombia, and Costeña. American beer is rarely served and hard to find in liquor stores. Popular foreign beers are Corona, Heineken, and Peroni.

chicha – an alcoholic drink made with fermented corn, yuca, pineapple, etc. You can’t buy it in a supermarket, and therefore is made by the locals in the know.

cuchuco con espinazo – a native stew made with pork, wheat, beans, peas, potatoes, and various seasonings. It is popular in Boyacá.

empanada (meat-stuffed pastry) – small meat (sometimes chicken or cheese) pies that look like small calzones. Like arepas, they can be seen in most small restaurant or bakery windows as you walk by on the sidewalk.

feijoa (pineapple guava) – a green fruit the size of an egg. Its inside is made of a clear, jelly-like pulp that is sweet and high in vitamin C.

granadilla – is a fruit native to the Andean mountains, as it lives in altitudes from 1,700 to 2,600 meters above sea level. It also requires a lot of rain. It is a round, light-orange colored fruit. When you break it open, it is filled with tons of hard, black seeds. Around these seeds is a gelatin-like pulp that you eat and has a sweet yet acidic taste. You can eat the seeds, too.

guarapo – is a sugarcane, or sometimes corn-based alcoholic drink. It probably isn’t that healthy because it contains mostly raw sugarcane. It should only be served fresh, as it doesn’t keep long.

jugo natural (natural juice) – unlike most American juice containers that say “100% natural,” the juice here is the real thing. It is mixed with water, or milk (making it a sorbet), depending on one’s preference. Many street vendors have machines for squeezing the various types of fruits and vegetables, which include: curuba (banana passion fruit); guanábana (soursop); guayaba (guava); lulo (naranjilla); mango; maracuyá (passion fruit); mora (blackberry); níspero (loquat); papaya; piña (pineapple); tomate de árbol (tree tomato).

mazamorra – is a dessert popular in the Antioquia region. Corn or maize is boiled and sugar and milk is often added. It looks like rice pudding. In Boyacá, however, mazamorra is a meat and vegetable soup.

mute – a thick soup or stew that is served from a large clay pot with a wooden soup spoon. It contains beef and pork, as well as potatoes, beans, egg plant, onions, peas squash, and avocado. Many seasonings are added.

sancocho – a popular main course, usually a large bowl of stew containing chopped fish or some kind of meat, and vegetables such as yucas, yams, corn, and potatoes.

tamale – a meat pie made with corn dough and wrapped in plantain leaves. Inside is chopped pork or chicken mixed with potatoes, peas, onions, eggs, olives, garlic and other herbs. The whole thing is steamed and you can eat everything but the banana leaves.

uchuva, uvilla (cape gooseberries) – a small orange fruit about the size of a cherry. You can buy them in the supermarket or from a street vendor. They’re very sweet, and can be used to make jam or pies.