caryn arrives

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At the end of August Seth and I were overjoyed to welcome our first visitor to Bogotá. Caryn, one of our closest classmates from architecture school, stepped off her plane a little after midnight on Thursday night. The three of us promptly shuffled into a taxi, took a celebratory shot of Aguardiente, and went to sleep in preparation for busy days ahead.

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For her first day in the city, Seth and I wanted to show Caryn some of the major touristy sites. We were a bit worried that because of the ongoing paros (strikes) we would not be able to forge our way into the city center. However, on Friday morning President Santos deployed some 50,000 troops across the country “to assure normality,” thus making our stroll to the Plaza Simón Bolivar a cakewalk. We started our morning with a chocolate completo at La Puerta Falsa, followed by a quick visit to the Centro Cultural Gabriel García Márquez. Around one in the afternoon our friend Jeremy met us in the Plaza, and we proceeded to hike up Avenida Jiménez to the Monserrate cable car station. The weather was chilly and rainy, but lucky for us it cleared up just long enough to snap a few photos at the top. When it got cold again, we stopped at a food stall for some fried cow organs, potatoes, and plantains.

Feeling cold, wet, and tired, we took the cable car back down to the city and ducked into an artisan alcove in La Candelaria for a round of coffee. We browsed the goods for mochilas and other souvenirs for Caryn’s friends and family but to no avail. Jeremy then headed home while Caryn, Seth, and I wandered around La Macarena and admired Rogelio Salmona’s brick architecture. For dinner we enjoyed small bites and pan con tomate at Tapas Macarena, one of my favorite restaurants in all of Boogtá. The highlights of the evening included a peppery Tempranillo, jamón serrano gran reserva (18-month cured serrano ham), champiñones queso azul (mushrooms in a blue cheese sauce), pinchos de pollo Ketjap (chicken skewers in an Indonesian soy and peanut sauce), and langostinos cajun (cajun shrimp).

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Saturday, of course, was the first day of college football season. While Seth watched the Rice vs. A&M game, Caryn and I ate lunch at my beloved neighborhood corrientazo and drank beer in La Zona T. She had read about the Bogotá Beer Company in one of her travel guides, so we stopped in for a pint of Monserrate Roja (her) and Cajica Miel (me). After some much-needed girl talk, we returned home for a low-key evening of wine, cheese, and a movie.

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Sunday was probably my favorite day of the entire visit. Caryn, Seth, and I started the morning at home with a strong cup of coffee and decadent Nutella toast before walking fifty blocks along the Ciclovía route to Usaquén. There we enjoyed a leisurely lunch at Abasto, which consisted of sparkling Chilean wine, fresh-baked focaccia, grilled octopus in a summer vegetable ratatouille, and shrimp in an achiote-coconut sauce with plantain puree and starfruit. In order to recover from our food comas, we grabbed a round of espresso and explored the neighborhood shops. Caryn bought a painting, two tins of Colombian coffee, and I think eight jars of tropical fruit jams. Meanwhile, Seth and I finally found the perfect autumn-colored mochila for his mother. Exhausted from spending the entire day out and about, we opted for another relaxing night in.

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On Monday the three of us skipped breakfast in favor of a colossal lunch at Fulanitos, a vallecaucano restaurant. I insisted that Caryn order the bandeja, as it is one of the most traditional and iconic dishes in the country. Seth followed suit. All of those meats and starches, plus a serving of lulada, had everyone stuffed. Somehow, though, we were able to walk the fifty blocks along Calle 63 to the Biblioteca Virgilio Barco. After admiring more of Salmona’s architecture, we continued over to the Parque Simón Bolivar and then to the Jardín Botánico. We were a little cold, wet, and grumpy due to the rain, but we managed to flag down a buseta and warm up in the comfort of our apartment. Since it was Caryn’s last full night in the city, we decided that it was only right to celebrate with pizza, wine, and grappa at one of our favorite spots, Julia in Zona G.

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Caryn’s last day included a series of snacks. We first stopped into a frutería for avena (a milk and oatmeal drink), jugo (juice), and buñuelos (fried doughy balls). We then walked to 7 de agosto—first, to have a look at the various tropical fruits in stock and second, to sample an ensalada de frutas (fruit salad), jugo de feijoa (pineapple guava juice), and jugo de maracuyá (passionfruit juice). For our next stop, we braved the violent hail for Restaurante Las Margaritas‘s famous empanaditas. We finished off our day of local flavor with a visit to Café Devotion (La Botica de Café) for a gourmet coffee tasting. Caryn, Seth, and I returned to our apartment with enough time for our visitor to pack and for us to say our goodbyes. Quite appropriately, on the way to the airport we just so happened to hire the most erratic and unstable of drivers, thus catapulting Caryn back to the United States in true Colombian fashion.

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eje cafetero: day 1: the bus ride

One year and fifty-five days into our Colombian adventure, Seth and I had, quite shamefully, failed to leave the Sebana de Bogotá. After submitting a full (albeit interim) drawing set for Seth’s parents’ bay house, completing some personal projects (for me, an essay with to-be-determined results and for Seth, a series of diagrams for his parking website), filing our taxes, and renewing our work visas, we thought we were long overdue for a vacation. My office granted me the entire week off for Semana Santa, so throughout the month of March I planned a trip to the Eje cafetero, known in English as the Coffee-Growers’ Axis.

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Because my office is the principal architect for a well-known Colombian coffee chain, we have been talking almost non-stop about coffee, the Eje cafetero, and the supposed “authentic” versus the supposed “inauthentic” elements of the region. For example, our clients—who are undoubtedly the most stubborn yet simultaneously indecisive people I have ever met–absolutely despised a blue counter that we incorporated in the first of the new stores. “Blue?! This isn’t Cartagena!” they cried, insisting that shades of azure, turquoise, or sea green could not possibly exist among the lush vegetation of the coffee region. Café oscuro, yes. Café con leche or beige (shudder!), of course! Sure enough, Salento—a town situated in the geographical center of the Coffee Growers’ Axis—is saturated with these so-called “beachy” colors. Throughout our weeklong stay I not only paid attention to the hues of the town but also to the patterns and textures. The landscape is an extremely layered and rich scene, and I now understand that our designs (and for that matter, the clients’ vision) hardly do it justice. In fact, just before I left I learned that none of my coworkers had even visited Salento proper! The Parque Nacional del Café—basically, a Walt Disney-style amusement park dedicated to the production and sale of coffee—was the extent of their knowledge of the region. I was determined to bypass all of that nonsense for some peace, quiet, and quality coffee.

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Seth and I woke up bright and early to catch an Expreso Bolivariano bus out of Bogotá. Our bus was supposed to depart at eight, but due to a slew of illiterate morons who mistakenly purchased 8 p.m. tickets instead of the desired 8 a.m. tickets, we left the terminal an hour tardy. We then stopped at the other bus terminal in the south of Bogotá, which proved to be another monumental waste of time, and we were finally out of the city by ten. I promptly fell into a gentle snooze, and when I opened my eyes about an hour later, all of the bus windows were opaque with fog. Our water bottles had completely compressed, and our chip bags suddenly fit less snuggly in my bag. Seth and I packed my mochila full of nutritious snacks, so when we arrived in Ibagué for a thirty-minute lunch, we used the time to freshen up and sip some jugo de tomate de árbol. We re-boarded the bus and arrived in Armenia at four o’clock on the dot. The sun was hot and the views were plentiful. After a bit of shuffling around the terminal, we spotted a bus to Salento and hopped on it. On the bus we met a young Canadian lawyer named Patrick, who was on vacation with two of his female friends. He could not speak nor understand a single word of Spanish, so when a Colombian couple on the bus offered him one and then two and then three shots of tequila straight from their bottle, he thought it would be easier to go with the flow than to refuse. Our driver dropped us off in the main plaza of Salento around 5:30. Some of us were sober; others were not.

Having subsisted exclusively on snacks, Seth and I made a beeline for Brunch, an American restaurant northwest of the main plaza. (If you had been eating Colombian food ten months of the past year, trust me, you too would crave some U.S. goodness.) Seth ordered a burger, and I ordered a black bean burger. (Believe it or not, black beans are rather difficult to find in Bogotá—and even more difficult to cook!) Between us we also ordered a side of off-the-menu poutine, which was improperly made with white gravy but was nevertheless super delicious. Just as we dug our forks into the cheese and gravy-coated fries, the owner—an expat from Portland, Oregon—bursted out of the kitchen and cautiously asked us if we were Canadian. We assured him that we were not and that we greatly appreciated him putting together the dish, regardless of its level of authenticity.

After dinner Seth and I walked the two kilometers to La Serrana, read for a while, and fell asleep. We knew we had a busy day—or rather, a busy week—ahead of us and we did not want to miss out on anything due to something as trivial as lack of sleep.

[Brunch: Calle 6 # 3-25, Salento-Colombia]

zipaquirá

As I mentioned last week, Seth and I planned to visit Zipaquirá this weekend. Before we could even begin to formulate a plan, our friend Juancho sent Seth a Facebook message asking if we would like to accompany him and a friend on a mini-tour of the northside of Bogotá. Needless to say, we jumped at the chance.

We started our Sunday bright and early. Juancho and his friend Gabriela picked us up at our apartment just after eight in the morning. We promptly drove to the outskirts of Bogotá, where we stopped at a roadside diner for a quick breakfast. Bellies full, we drove through Cota and walked around for a bit before continuing on our way. By ten o’clock, we found ourselves in Zipaquirá. The four of us climbed the steps to the Catedral de Sal (Salt Cathedral), and Seth and I grabbed a tinto (sans aguardiente, no matter how badly the shopkeep wanted to up-sell me). I snapped a couple photos of the town.

The Catedral de Sal, dubbed The First Wonder of Colombia, is the largest deposit of rock salt in the world. In 1932, decades before any official underground church had been built, the miners carved a small sanctuary in which they could pray to the saints for protection before starting work. In 1954 the first Salt Cathedral, which consisted of three naves and a monumental cross, was dedicated to Our Lady of Rosary, Patron saint of miners. Because it was constructed inside an active mine, the cathedral eventually became too unstable for service and was forced to undergo renovation. In 1995 the second Salt Cathedral was inaugurated. It currently consists of fourteen small chapels (the Stations of the Cross), a dome, and three naves. 250 thousand tons of rock salt had to be extracted in order to build it.

When Juancho, Gabriela, Seth, and I first entered the grayish-white Cathedral, we could smell the sulfur wafting through the dark corners of the cave. What started out as a quiet and eerie journey quickly became a flashy and animated one. Each Station of the Cross boasted its own large, chunky cross and multicolor light show. I tried to snap most of my photos during the shows’ neutral phases, but alas, I did not always have such good luck or timing.

While the fourteen small chapels left something to be desired, the view of the main altar from the “westwork” was especially striking. The nave was incomprehensibly vast.

After spending a good two hours strolling around the Cathedral, we began our guided behind-the-scenes tour. We secured our hard hats and tiptoed blindly through the darkest corners of the mine. We learned how to hold a pickaxe and how to manually ventilate the shaft.

By two-thirty or so, it was time for lunch. Juancho, Seth, and I ordered costillas de cerdo (pork ribs) at a cozy restaurant at the bottom of the mountain, while Gabriela asked for ajiaco en cazuela. We drank some oh-so-fresh jugo de mora to wash it all down.

Afterwards we decided to walk off our calories in the central plaza of Zipaquirá. We admired the colonial architecture of the Palacio Municipal de Zipaquirá and the Catedral de la Santísima Trinidad y San Antonio de Padua de Zipaquirá, known simply as the Catedral Diocesana de Zipaquirá. I vowed to return to Zipaquirá on a Saturday in the not-so-distant future so that I could document the inside of the church without disturbing its faithful parishioners.

Juancho grew impatient with what little he thought Zipaquirá had to offer, so he hurried us back to the car. Next stop: the Cabaña Alpina complex in Sopó for postres (dessert). The four of us independently scoured the factory for the most delicious looking treats before eventually settling on the merengón de kiwi (kiwi merengue), cheesecake con salsa de mora (cheesecake with berry sauce), cheesecake de chocolate (chocolate cheesecake), queso con mora y arequipe (cheese with berries and a caramel-type sauce), and Colombian quesillo—a weird anise flavored cheese that I couldn’t quite bring myself to eat. Five desserts for four people? Sounds legit. We arranged our desserts on a patch of grass and enjoyed the sunset. I admired the houses sitting on the mountains in the distance, like a tiny toy village atop a serene and snowy hill. It was a sweet ending to an already perfect day.

To see more photos of our trip to Zipaquirá and Sopó, click here:

http://www.flickr.com/photos/aclearglimmer/sets/72157632003167023/

la calera + sopó

On Thursday afternoon, my boss invited me to Sopó (a small town northeast of Bogotá) for a presentation hosted by a potential client. Since I had not yet escaped the confines of the city, I jumped at the opportunity to see some Colombian countryside.

During the nearly hour-long drive, I saw lush, green mountains; stone cliffs; clusters of houses in the neighboring town, La Calera; fields of curuba plants; and many cows and horses. I suffered a rough bout of motion sickness due to all of the twists and turns of the roads, but other than that I thoroughly enjoyed the trip. Luckily, I was able to snap a few photos from the car. Please pardon the blurriness!

la ruta corriente

The following is a guest blog entry by my boyfriend, Seth. Whereas I still have trouble navigating Bogotá’s bus system, he has nearly mastered the North/South routes. This is what he experiences on a typical workday.

Every weekday morning on my way to work, I walk the short two blocks to the Septima (Carrera 7)—the North/South arterial closest to our apartment—in order to catch the bus that will take me to my office. The buses, as ubiquitous as they are diverse, project the brand of their respective companies in colorful, elaborate, yet often faded, paint jobs. Unlike the publicly planned though privately operated Transmilenio, which services regular stations in dedicated lanes like an above ground subway, these often ancient beasts lumber, weave, and charge their way through Bogotá’s traffic. Everyday I watch as a small herd of buses leaves a cloud of acrid smoke in its wake as it approaches the red light. In each windshield is a sign, tightly packed with the names of small neighborhoods and streets, that allows prospective customers to discern where the bus is headed. For my part, I look for anything that says ‘K7 a Cll 116’ or higher. This lets me know that it will stay on the Septima at least until Usaquen, where my office is located. It never takes more than a minute for an appropriate choice to appear.

On this particular day, a short red and green minibus brings up the rear of the herd in the middle lane. As the brief traffic light changes to green, the bus shifts gears to accelerate. I wave out my hand as if to hail a taxi, and the jalopy abruptly weaves into the right lane. I hop on the first step and grab firmly onto the handrail. The bus lets out a roar and begins to move before the door has closed. I pass through the turnstile and slide a two thousand peso note into the small dish built into the opening between the driver and the cabin. Looking steadfastly ahead, the driver reaches back between first and second gear to grab the bill. He holds it as he shifts gears again and changes lanes to avoid hitting a stopped bus. He makes change from the piles of coins separated into stuffed plush containers while swerving to collect yet another passenger who has waved him down.

The interior is a mixture of faded, dingy upholstery and tarnished metal. Completing the décor are a melange of rosary decals, images of the Virgen, and an oversized plastic Pontiac hood ornament. There is standing room only at the moment, but the crowd thins quickly as we move north. This is little consolation since the seats are so closely spaced as to make it nearly impossible for me to sit. The people in Bogotá, especially the class that rides the buses, are generally very short. It is common to see women under five feet tall and men under 5’6”. They fit comfortably in the sardine can seats. I must angle to the side or else firmly lodge my knees into the back of the person in front of me.

About halfway to the office, the bus stops for a man who deftly hops the turnstile. Unlike the usual peddler of snacks or books, this man has a thick New York City accent and occasionally lapses into English as he makes his pitch. He is a Colombian national from Brooklyn. Having lived in King’s County from a very young age, he has recently been deported after forty years in the States to a country he doesn’t know. In a Spanish vocabulary more limited than mine, he explains that he is formally trained as a Continental sous-chef. He wants to find work here in Colombia but can’t because he first needs Colombian documents such as his Cedula. He also has to pay the fine for having never served in the Colombian military. He tells us his goal is to eventually return to the United States, his home. A few coins, no more than two dollars worth, are deposited into his outstretched hand before he bids us adieu, and heads for the bus behind us. I am reminded of Molotov’s song “Frijolero,” which I just heard on the radio during yesterday’s commute. (Warning: Lyrics are explicit though mostly in Spanish.)

[photo courtesy of TransportPhoto.net]

first impressions

Seth and I have not even spent a full twenty-four hours in Bogotá, and we already feel like we have seen so much. We departed on a red-eye flight from Houston, hardly slept, and arrived in a mile-high city five hours later. Our new friend Juancho, whom we met via my mom’s neighbor’s college roommate’s deceased husband (!), so kindly met us at the airport and gave us a ride into town. Since I can barely think straight, let alone write complete paragraphs after the long day we’ve had, I will try to assemble a bullet list of my initial observations.

  • The second the plane landed, I felt dizzy and thought I was going to vomit. Altitude sickness, perhaps? After all, Bogotá is 8600 meters above sea level (or, you know, 8600 meters above Houston).
  • Apparently, having a private chauffer (a la Chuck Bass) is not a privilege reserved for trust fund babies. In fact, it is actually somewhat normal for professionals to have a driver.
  • Drivers in Bogotá are the craziest and most aggressive I have ever seen. Oh and, according to Juancho, most cars do not have seat belts. (Ours sure didn’t.)
  • Pedestrians never, ever have the right of way. Also, there are virtually no crosswalks. As you might imagine, the streets and the sidewalks are very chaotic.
  • In New York City, people joke that everyone has a psychiatrist; even psychiatrists have a psychiatrist! Well, in Bogotá, everyone has a maid.
  • I am not sure whether free-standing single-family houses are a “thing” here. Juancho and his family, for example, live in a very nice area at the north end of the city. They own a property which looks very much like a house, but it is connected to several other house-like properties. All of the houses aggregate to form a giant square bounded on one side by a gate. They share luxurious courtyards and green spaces.
  • For breakfast, we were served fresh rolls, cheese, and drinking chocolate. Did I mention Juancho’s maid cooks and bakes, too?
  • Our new apartment is pretty great. We have two roommates: one Colombian girl, who works at the Canadian embassy, and one Colombian guy.
  • Looking at all of those maps of Bogotá while we were in Texas really helped. As we walked around our new neighborhood, we were able to understand where we were and which direction we were traveling in. We were even able to find my future office!
  • For a late morning snack, Seth and Juancho enjoyed fresh rolls stuffed with salty cheese and guava. I ordered my first tinto (Colombian coffee).
  • Bogotá’s bus rapid transit system, the Transmilenio, functions just like a light rail. It could not be any easier to navigate.
  • For lunch, we were served sauteed thin-cut beef, stewed red beans, steamed white rice, a small salad, and a glass of fresh-squeezed unsweetened lulo juice.
  • Bellies full and feet elevated, we had a very satisfying forty-five minute nap.
  • After some aimless wandering around the posh part of town, Juancho introduced us to the Bogotá Beer Company. We each sipped a pint and compared politics, switching between Spanish and English.
  • Colombian ATMs allow customers to withdraw only COP$400.000 (approximately US$200) at a time, with a maximum of three transactions per day.
  • It was a sunny and warm afternoon. As a result, my face is very red.
  • The sun has set. I think nature has given me permission to go to sleep.

I cannot believe I am finally here!

[photo courtesy of Paola Castaño]