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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villa de leyva

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After our week-long vacation in Salento, Seth and I promised ourselves we would spend more time exploring Colombia. Thus we decided to spend our most recent puente (May 11-13) in Villa de Leyva, a small colonial town about three hours outside of Bogotá. (You might recognize the town’s name from the painting that we gifted my mom and Ken for Christmas!)

Seth and I woke up early on Saturday morning, took the Transmilenio to the Terminal Norte, took a second bus to Tunja, then took a third bus to Villa de Leyva. Just as our last collectivo began to shake from the transition between the smooth, paved roads of the highways to the rocky, raw “roads” of Villa de Leyva, a fellow passenger yelled, “Bienvenidos a Boyacá!” Everyone laughed.

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We arrived in the center of the town around two, found our hostel near Parque Nariño, and immediately set out in search of lunch. Since the weather was nice, we chose a restaurant in the interior courtyard of Casa Quintero, an open-house collection of eateries and boutiques on the southwest face of the Plaza Mayor. At Tierra Buena we enjoyed flavorful (!) dishes of trucha Villa de Leyva (trout with green olives, onions, and plenty of cilantro) and pechuga con jalapeños y cilantro while sipping on a pair of cervezas bien frias. Just as our food arrived, clouds suddenly began to collect and rain began to pour. While the rest of our dining companions sought the warmth and dryness of the indoors, Seth and I remained outside, huddling under our big red umbrella and listening to a couple of gringo guitarists practice their evening set in English.

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After lunch we snapped some photos in the plaza, strolled along the roughly cobbled streets, and ducked into some artisan shops. We stumbled upon one particularly well-edited boutique which offered only the most beautiful mochilas Arhuacas and handmade jewelry. I wondered why the shops in Bogotá were not as carefully curated.

On Saturday evening we found another courtyard collection of eateries and boutiques, so we decided to sit down for some red wine and live music. Rain began to pour (yet again), but Seth and I were able to find a table under a covered patio next to a warm fireplace. Al fresco dining is surprisingly hard to come by in Bogotá, especially outside the luxury zones of the Zona G and Zona Rosa, so we were especially thankful to have two consecutive affordable experiences.

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The next day we woke up before seven and walked the town in search of breakfast. We decided upon a particular outdoor cafe that I had researched called El Patio Van Gogh. The restaurant/hangout was basically an open lot, which had been dotted with a small outdoor kitchen and a series of picnic tables. Seth and I both ordered the Changua Boyacense, a breakfast soup which consisted of milk, two eggs, almojábana, queso paipa, and cilantro pesto. Served with a hot cup of café con leche, it was by far the most delicious breakfast I had eaten in all of Colombia. I was in culinary heaven.

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Bellies full, we began our six-kilometer hike to El Fósil, a museum with an almost complete, 120 million year-old kronosaurus fossil on display, in the same place in which it was found in 1977. Along the way we were surprised by how much the weather and scenery changed. During our short hike we traveled from the slightly humid climate of Villa de Leyva to an extremely hot and dry, desert-like landscape. I was glad to have my new Colombian fedora with me, even if it was only wide enough to shield my face—not my shoulders—from the sun’s intense rays.

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We explored the museum for a bit, then sat down for a snack of longaniza con plátano maduro. We then continued along the path to the Estación Astronómica Muisca (El Infiernito). The Spanish named the Muisca Astronomic Observatory—basically, a Stonehenge lite—”Little Hell” because of its many phallic monoliths, a tribute to male fertility.

Sweaty and sunburned, Seth and I walked back to town and prepared to go out for drinks and dinner. We chose a combo boutique/restaurant on one of the two exclusively pedestrian streets, ordered a bottle of Chilean Cabernet Sauvignon, and relaxed. Post wine, we were hankering for some complex carbohydrates and cheese, so we walked to a little Italian restaurant, La Ricotta, for a calorie fest. Shortly after scarfing down a bowl of Tagliatelle della Zarina (tagliatelle with salmon, vodka, paprika, and pomodoro), I was ready to call it a night.

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On Monday morning we returned to El Patio Van Gogh for a tropical breakfast of assorted fruits before boarding a direct bus back to Bogotá. Our trip to Villa de Leyva was exactly what we had wanted it to be: relaxing but slightly eventful. We came home with satisfied stomachs and fond memories.

To see more pictures from Villa de Leyva, click here:
http://www.flickr.com/photos/aclearglimmer/sets/72157633552077266/

 

[Tierra Buena: Casa Quintero, Plaza Mayor, Villa de Leyva-Colombia]

[El Patio Van Gogh: Calle 13, Villa de Leyva-Colombia]

[La Ricotta: Carrera 10a # 11-49, Villa de Leyva-Colombia ]

eje cafetero: day 6: cascada santa rita

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For our last day in the Eje Cafetero, Seth and I had big plans; we were going horseback riding! Since we had opted to walk to the Reserva Natural Sacha Mama on our second day and through the Valle de Cocora on our fourth, we had severely limited our destination options. I then remembered a poster I had spotted upon checking into La Serrana, so I decided to give it another look. It was an advertisement for a tour to the Cascada Santa Rita courtesy of Omar Hernández and his finest caballos.

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By ten o’clock, Seth and I were saddled up and on our way. Señor Hernández led us first through Salento, then downhill on a windy road, over a river and through a forest, eventually to the waterfall. He gave us time to climb down, swim around, and snap some photos. Although I was quite terrified of my horse for the first leg of our three-hour jaunt, I became much more comfortable and confident for the second. I even led the pack for a while, initiating trots here and there. My horse Estrella was very patient, if a little shy, and not once did she eject me from her back or send me rolling down a muddy slope!

Seth and I asked to end our tour in Salento so that we could grab some lunch. We stopped at Brunch for one last American food fix. I ordered a BLTA with actual crunchy bacon (!), while Seth devoured a plate of hot wings. For dessert we topped off with a chocolate and peanut butter brownie doused with hot fudge. I had heard several rave reviews about this brownie, and after eating dry, stale imposter after dry, stale imposter in Bogotá, I was not the least bit disappointed. Just as we were leaving the restaurant, we met a young couple from Wyoming who sat at the next table. Trey and Aubrey were in Salento for the week, but like us Trey was preparing to return to Bogotá for work. We exchanged contact information and promised to meet for a beer sometime.

We returned to La Serrana and lounged in the hammocks until dinner. Since many of the travelers that we had met were also leaving town the next day, Seth and I decided to enjoy one last supper with everyone at the hostel.

Dinner consisted of beef kebabs with red bell pepper; cucumber, tomato, and onion; hummus; tzatziki; and many glasses of Chilean wine. Seth and I met two girls from the south of Norway, Miriam and Hilda, who were vacationing in Colombia for a couple of weeks, but I spent most of the meal talking to a girl from Scotland named Emily, who had just moved to the States but was vacationing in Colombia for a month. When I told Emily that I had visited Scotland as a kid, her ears instantly perked. “Where did you go? Did you like it?” and then, cautiously, “…How was the weather?” I elaborated that I had spent most of my time in St. Andrews and a little town somewhere outside of Aberdeen called Oldmeldrum to visit family friends. Well, it turned out that she used to work in Oldmeldrum. While I could not for the life of me recall said friends’ surnames, I gave Emily all of the information I had. She was now living in Mobile, Alabama with her Houstonian boyfriend, so we mused about possibly running into one another again in the future.

Throughout the evening Seth and I also talked with Julian and Stephen, the usuals, and with Trey and Aubrey. The wine and conversation lasted until about midnight, and afterwards everyone said their goodbyes and went to bed.

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My time in Salento was definitely one of my more tranquil travel experiences. I did a lot of fun things, met a lot of good people, and got a lot of deep sleep. As much as I would love to return, I have many other Colombian sites that I must get to know. I might not ever visit Salento again, but I will always have memories.

To see more pictures from Salento and the Eje Cafetero, click here:
http://www.flickr.com/photos/aclearglimmer/sets/72157633191260038/

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

eje cafetero: day 4: valle de cocora

Although our plan was to take the third day a little easy, it was only easy by comparison. The fourth day, on the other hand, was the toughest yet, a day jam-packed with ten solid hours of hilly hiking.

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After breakfast Seth and I walked to Salento in hopes of flagging down a jeep that would drive us to the Cocora Valley. Once our driver had crammed ten people inside his vehicle (plus one, a certain Seth, hanging outside), we were on our way. Twenty minutes later we arrived in Cocora, a tiny town with a giant landscape. We immediately headed toward the Reserva Natural Acaime, a natural reserve about 4.8 kilometers from where we disembarked. Of the three principal hiking trails in the Valley, the Acaime route is the easiest; however, that is not to say that it is easy. Due to its steep slopes, sporadic rain, slippery mud, and not-so-stable bridges, most tourists opt to ride a horse instead.

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Seth and I completed the trek through the cloud forest on foot. We finally arrived to our destination about three hours after we had started, and we were beyond ready for a little snack. With the COP$4000 entrance fee, the reserve offered complimentary chocolate plus the option of a COP$1000 block of queso. We embraced the warm drink and fatty sustenance, admired the hummingbirds, and lamented the number of visitors. Seth and I were tired and cranky from our hike, and it seemed unfair that so many other people were able to benefit from the reserve without really working for it. Since we were not rewarded the peace and quiet for which we were hoping, we decided to move on.

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As I previously mentioned, the hike from Cocora to Acaime was quite steep and slippery, so Seth and I were not so keen on taking the same route downhill to the base. We feared that one or both of us would fall, twist an ankle, and be incapacitated for the rest of the trip. So instead, at the advice of the woman manning the reserve, we continued upward 1.8 km along a different trail to the Montaña viewing point. The path was everything I had wanted in a hike—serene, soothing, and intimate. This route was steeper and in some ways more difficult than the first, but because horses were not allowed beyond a certain point it was much less wet and muddy. Once Seth and I had lost the crowds and the sounds, he asked that I sit down in the middle of the forest and allow the fog to surround me. I sat as silently as I could and listened to the calls of the birds and the trickling of the rain. I don’t know if I had ever felt as calm as I did during those few minutes.

When we got to the end of the Montaña route, we saw a beautiful house. A Dutchman and his chatty Colombian “primo” met us at the viewing point, where we signed the owner’s registry and talked about our travels. “You have to visit Medellín,” he told us. “It’s so much better than Bogotá.” We assured him that we would.

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From the Montaña, Seth and I could have continued another 6.1 kilometers to the next destination, Agua de Estrellas, but a) I was not hardcore enough to do so and b) we were running out of daylight.

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SONY DSCAfter taking a few moments to catch our breath, we began our descent into the Valley. On the way down we encountered many photo opportunities, so what should have been a ninety minute walk took us somewhere between two and three hours.

Having snacked on little more than hot chocolate, cheese, and trail mix throughout our hike, we were famished by the time it was over. We thought we could squeeze in a quick meal of trout with mushrooms before catching the last jeep to Salento. Dinner was delicious, and on our ride back into town we met an American expat named Michael, who was working as a history teacher in Cali. He offered to host us any time we were in his neck of the woods, and since our apartment is almost too small to host anyone, we offered to take him out for a beer if he ever found himself in Bogotá.

Over the previous evening’s dinner at the hostel, Seth and I had made plans to watch the Colombia-Venezuela football match with Julian, Stephen, and Victoria. Well, we were both dirty and running tragically late, so we opted to rush back to the hostel for a super quick shower and then walk back to Salento (again!) to try to find the group. Lucky for us, the tall Irishmen were not hard to spot at all, and we were able to enjoy the second half of the game, which unfortunately resulted in a 0-1 loss for Colombia.

eje cafetero: day 3: coffee farm tours

On the third day of the most relaxing vacation ever, Seth and I awoke early and planned to take the day a bit easy. We were both somewhat sore from the previous day’s ten-hour excursion, so we thought we would take our time with our morning coffee before going on a couple of coffee tours for, well, more coffee.

At breakfast we met two young Irish men named Julian and Stephen and their Swedish travel buddy Victoria. They had been traveling in and around Colombia for the past month, and they were finishing their adventure in Salento. Since the three of them were going to be staying at our hostel the entire week, we resolved to spend plenty of time together.

After our usual meal of fried eggs and pan de queso paipa, Seth and I embarked on our hourlong walk to two of Salento’s well-known coffee farms, El Ocaso and Don Elias.

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On our first tour at El Ocaso, we met three Argentine guys, none of which were particularly fond of coffee. We learned about the two different types of coffee plants—the red kind (Arabica) and the yellow kind (Colombia); both types of plants are green when unripe, but their colors vary once they are ready to pick. When no one was looking, I sneaked a taste of each type. In their pure, raw form, their flavor was surprisingly similar, so I could understand why the coffee farms tend to throw both colors into the same batch and hope for the best.

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On our second tour at Don Elias, we met two Austrian girls, one lone Londoner, and a British couple. The two Austrian girls hardly spoke a word of Spanish or English, so they had a difficult time understanding our guide; the Londoner was particularly snobby, constantly complaining about how much she had despised her trip to Colombia; and the British couple, Katie and John, were the friendliest of all, and they told us a lot about their past travels. Out of all the countries they had visited in South America—and believe me, they had visited quite a few—they liked Bolivia the most. Seth and I likely will not be visiting Bolivia any time soon due to their costly travel visa requirements for Americans, but it was still lovely to hear about it.

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After sampling a cup of coffee at each farm, Seth and I were sufficiently tweeked and beginning to get a little hungry. We walked back to Salento’s main plaza for a hearty meal. The restaurant we happened to choose was very crowded, but a welcoming family from Armenia had a couple of extra place settings to share and offered us seats at their picnic table. They noticed that we were quite sweaty and sunburned, so they ordered us a pitcher of límonada and passed us one of their empanaditas. While we waited for our food, we talked with them about Colombia and the United States. Throughout our entire trip, the locals were constantly asking us what we thought of Colombia, insisting that we should leave Bogotá more often, and recommending more and more sites for us to visit. By the time my bandeja paisa and Seth’s trucha gratinada came out of the kitchen, we were ravenous and ceased almost all conversation.

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After lunch we hobbled over to an artisan commune that we had spotted on the previous day’s walk. I bought a beaded bracelet from one of the shops, and the owner showed us around the complex. We walked through a couple of stalls, a garden, and an outdoor kitchen and workshop. About twenty people approached us one after the other, all asking the same questions. “Where are you from? Where are you staying? How long will you be in Colombia?” Seth and I quickly tired of regurgitating the same answers, so we walked back to the hostel to relax and watch the sunset.

Seth and I made the mistake of eating lunch far too late, and by the time dinner rolled around we had not yet regained our appetites. That morning we had signed up to eat at the hostel, where they were serving chicken tikka masala with rice and stewed vegetables. Although I took most of the meal to go for the next day’s lunch, what little I did manage to eat of the curry was absolutely delicious. It was much spicier and more flavorful than any version that had ever come out of my kitchen, possibly due to the chef’s heavy-handed usage of ginger and cloves. Seth and I dined with Julian, Stephen, and Victoria and made plans to watch the Colombia-Venezuela football match with them the following night.

eje cafetero: day 2: reserva natural sacha mama

Thanks to ten hours of solid sleep and the natural alarm clock of La Serrana‘s roosters, Seth and I awoke at 6:30 ready for breakfast. We walked over to the eco farm & hostel’s “restaurant room,” where we shared our table with a family of four—an early thirty-something American couple and the husband’s parents—and ate two fried farm-fresh eggs, pan de queso paipa, and two cups of coffee with unpasteurized milk. As we admired the beautiful views beyond the building’s generous glass windows, we talked about where we were from, what we did, and where we were going. The younger couple of the two was living and working in Bogotá just a few blocks from our apartment; the husband was a teacher at an international school, and his wife was seven months pregnant with their first child. (Don’t worry; she was careful to avoid the farm-fresh milk.) Although we did have a few other breakfasts with them over the days, we failed to exchange contact information. Since they live so close, though, I am hoping to run into them on the street or at our neighborhood grocery store.

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After breakfast Seth and I began the two-hour trek to the Reserva Natural Sacha Mama, a—you guessed it—natural reserve. The walk was more or less made up of three segments: the first, from the hostel to the viewing point, was mostly at level; the second, from the viewing point to the river, was a steep downhill; and the third, from the river to Sacha Mama, was a shallow uphill.

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Pedro, the owner of the reserve, only gives one tour of his property per day, so Seth and I had to give him a call from the hostel and notify him when to expect us. Sure enough, he and his peppy puppy Simba (King of the Reserve) greeted us at the gate and promptly led us to the main building—a small, open-air house furnished with little more than a dining room table, a tent, and some lounge chairs. Upon arriving Seth and I removed our shoes, climbed the stairs, and began an hourlong session of bird-watching and coffee-sipping. We identified the different species on his chart and talked about different recipes for coffee drinks. (Pedro’s wife seemed especially interested in our iced coffee recipe, which features both panela and canela. Perfect for the warmer months, she thought.)

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Once we were properly caffeinated, Pedro led Seth and me on a slow hike through his personal rainforest. He allowed us to sample at least four different types of bananas, encouraged us to taste the coffee cerises (“cherries”) straight from the plant, and took our picture next to his oldest and largest tree, of which he was rightfully very proud. We discussed the exorbitant expenses of green certifications, and Seth and I were able to liken the process and its costs to LEED certifications by the United States Green Building Council. It was interesting to learn how much we had in common despite our seemingly different backgrounds and trades. Additionally, Seth and I very much enjoyed conducting a different kind of Spanish conversation, something that was not about architecture or the submission of legal documents.

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Pedro then took us back to the house, where he showed us the simple machines he used to remove the coffee beans from their plump red skins. He was an unusually small and careful producer, so his preferred method of drying the beans was to have them sit outside in the sun for two days or until they looked “about done.”

After our morning lesson, we shuffled inside for lunch. Pedro’s wife had prepared us a delightful vegan meal of a papa criolla, eggplant, and onion puree; a red pepper, carrot, broccoli, chayote, and onion sautée; and pineapple.

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Bellies content, we proceeded to the other building on Pedro’s property to learn about the second half of coffee production—the shucking and the roasting. At this point the dried coffee beans looked kind of like little peanuts, but before we could roast them we had to remove their thin shells using a large, loud machine. (Pedro typically uses the shells as stuffing for chairs or other rough outdoor furniture.) Once the beans were completely stripped, we began to roast them. “Twelve minutes,” Pedro insisted, but every two minutes or so he spooned out a few beans from the machine to check their progress. “Are they ready yet?” he would ask. A couple minutes later, “What about now?”

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Once the beans were indeed ready, Pedro transferred them to a very shallow wooden bowl. “Stir them,” he instructed Seth. “They need to cool.” As soon as some of the beans had cooled off, Pedro ground them and brewed a round of coffee—by far the freshest and most delicious I had ever tasted. About thirty minutes later the other beans were ready for bagging. Seth and I bought two of the 250-gram bags for ourselves, thanked Pedro, and began our two-hour hike back to Salento. Simba followed us for about a quarter of a kilometer before his owners summoned him back to his kingdom.

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I cannot speak highly enough about the innumerable shades of green and vivid colors on the reserve and the subtle sounds of the birds and the nearby river. The whole experience was more relaxing and informative than I could have ever imagined. Pedro was so intelligent, so patient, and so passionate about his work.

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On our walk back Seth and I encountered a bit of rain. We bypassed our hostel in hopes of finding a warm, comforting dinner in Salento. Around six, just in time for sunset, we ducked into La Gran Trucha, a semi-al fresco restaurant on Calle Real. Seth and I both ordered the trucha al ajillo (river trout in a garlic sauce), Salento’s trademark dish. Accompanied by two giant patacones (flattened, fried plantain) and two límonadas, the meal was a perfect end to an already perfect day.

holiday shopping: part two

Back in November, I wrote an entry about the Christmas presents Seth and I bought for our family members. Now that all of the gifts have been, well, gifted, I thought I would share the rest of the loot with you.

A traditional Colombian sombrero for Seth’s cousin, Travis:

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A smaller and darker Greg Norman-style Colombian sombrero for my dad, and a gray alpaca scarf for Mary Lynn:

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A cozy alpaca poncho for Seth’s Gran:

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A painting of the colonial town Villa de Leyva for my Mom and Ken. They immediately hung the artwork next to their wine room, which of course made Seth and me very happy:

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Seth and I had tons of fun sorting through the Colombian artisan markets and choosing the crafts we thought would best suite each person’s interests. We will likely go the more traditional American route next year, unless our friends and family members place specific requests for Colombian goodies.

2012: a year in review

While 2011 was certainly the most carefree year of my adult life—what with a semester in Paris; trips to London, the Czech Republic, and Barcelona; and seven months of (f)unemployment—it was also the most uncertain. In May I finally completed my six-year Bachelors of Architecture program, but I did not know what my next step would be. I knew I wanted to work abroad, but I did not know when, where, or how. Ecuador, Colombia, and Chile each had something to offer, but which would I choose? Would any firm choose me, a recent graduate with little experience and subpar Spanish-language skills?

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At the beginning of 2012, I finalized my plans to move to Bogotá—a Colombian city I chose for its size, history, and ongoing development. Unlike the suburban Texan sprawl I found myself temporarily floating in, Bogotá seemed to promise progress in the forms of public infrastructure, mass transit, and income equality. When I arrived in February, I learned that progress was not that simple, easy, or quick; decades of corruption could not be so effortlessly reversed. Bogotanos still have only one post office from which they can retrieve their international mail; they still have overcrowded, polluted buses with no firm plans to construct a subway system (Meanwhile, their neighboring city Medellín has three functioning underground lines.); and most importantly, there remains serious hostility between the richer and poorer classes. While Colombia tries to cleanse itself of its tainted image and reunite its people, the country mistakenly looks to America for guidance. In November I read this hauntingly insightful article in the New York Times which compares the increasingly private, wealthiest class of the United States to the ruling classes of developing nations:

So time and again, we see the decline of public services accompanied by the rise of private workarounds for the wealthy.

Is crime a problem? Well, rather than pay for better policing, move to a gated community with private security guards!

Are public schools failing? Well, superb private schools have spaces for a mere $40,000 per child per year.

Public libraries closing branches and cutting hours? Well, buy your own books and magazines!

Are public parks — even our awesome national parks, dubbed “America’s best idea” and the quintessential “public good” — suffering from budget cuts? Don’t whine. Just buy a weekend home in the country!

Public playgrounds and tennis courts decrepit? Never mind — just join a private tennis club!

I’m used to seeing this mind-set in developing countries like Chad or Pakistan, where the feudal rich make do behind high walls topped with shards of glass; increasingly, I see it in our country.

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The “shards of glass” observation in the last sentence instantly strikes a chord. I look out the window of my estrato cuatro apartment only to see broken bottles affixed to the top layer of a brick wall. Meanwhile, my building is already equipped with two private security guards patrolling the front desk and collecting the identification cards of any unrecognized guest. There is no trust; there is no faith. And I am inclined to believe that said lack of trust and faith only encourages people to be untrustworthy. It is a cyclical mindset, and it is a dangerous one. Excessive security reminds both the protected and the unprotected of why it is in place. No one should feel unsafe in his or her own country or when surrounded by his or her own people. No one should be seen as a safeguard or as a threat based on what he or she can or cannot afford.

Due to these deep-seated trust issues, daily errands that should take seconds actually take hours. For instance, because I do not have a Colombian bank account (because, nine months into my yearlong visa, I am still not properly accounted for by Migración Colombia – Ministerio de Relaciones Exteriores), I cannot pay my bills online; I cannot write a check; I must go to the bank. Each utility company has its own preferred bank, so I must multiply one hour of waiting in line by four or five bills (or banks).

Because I am not home on weekdays, I cannot receive packages at my apartment; I must travel to the only international post office in the city to retrieve it. The office is a two-hour round-trip commute via Transmilenio, plus waiting time. Of course, the Bogotá office—the office which serves the most people—is also the only office which is not open on Saturdays.

Because I am not Colombian, I cannot request internet service; I must have a friend’s name on my account. Of course, because his name is on the bill, the front desk does not always deliver it which leads to Movistar shutting off our service anyway.

Upon returning from vacation, Seth and I received a hostile letter from our water provider demanding to inspect our apartment. Because we did not use enough of their services during the month of December, they assume we must be acquiring water illegally.

Living in Colombia is not only exhausting at times, but it is also lonely. Even though I have Seth here with me, I miss spending time with my female friends (and I know he misses spending time with his male friends). While our former classmates rave about their fancy holiday galas at the Guggenheim, complete with enough bottles of Moët to make one hundred people positively bubbly, we frown at our makeshift meals of fried eggs and empanadas. We miss the little luxuries, but at the same time we realize that we are surrounded by hundreds of thousands of people who will never get to experience any of them.

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To be honest, it is sometimes difficult for me to remember why I am here. The everyday details of this life can really bog me down, but at the same time, the big picture can really lift me up. I chose this experience; I chose this discomfort—in language, in living conditions, in relative solitude. All of it has forced me to challenge myself in ways I never thought possible, and I know I will be a stronger and more sensitive and socially aware person because of it. As Seth and I flew into Bogotá just after the start of 2013, we were astounded by the beauty of the city from above. Its textural palette of worn concrete, warm brick, lush greens, and an intensely blue sky suddenly put our woes into perspective. We won’t be here forever, and we should try to absorb everything about this place we possibly can. Cheers to another year.

our first thanksgiving

I remember spending only two Thanksgivings away from home. The first was in the fourth grade, I think, when my parents and I road-tripped to Florida to meet dad’s side of the family—my uncle, my aunt, and my only girl cousin. We arrived at our Pensacola condo only to learn that the others were trapped in a snowstorm with little to no probability of escaping their Tulsa confines. Needless to say, it was a quiet Thanksgiving. (And no, I will never tell you where or what we ate for dinner.) The second was in the eighth grade when my parents and I spent the break in Spain while my dad played in a golf tournament. I don’t recall exactly what we ate for the Big Day. That Thursday I might have been bedridden with a high fever, or I perhaps ate a meal of paella. With the exception of my fourth-grade memory, I have always looked forward to and enjoyed Thanksgiving. It has always been one of the few holidays where I can just relax with family, friends, good food, and good conversation—no gifts, no pressure.

This Thanksgiving will certainly go down in “the books”—or, more accurately, my blog—as one of my most memorable. While I cannot say that this was my first Thanksgiving away from home nor that it was my first in a foreign country, I can say that it was MY first dinner. Seth and I made the turkey, the (out-of-bird) stuffing, the mashed potatoes, the giblet gravy, the green bean casserole, the mashed sweet potatoes, and the pumpkin pies all by ourselves. Of course, we could not have done it without my mom, who so kindly mailed us four cans of Libby’s 100% pumpkin, two large cans of sweet potatoes, and a bag of pecans, or without Seth’s mom, who so kindly e-mailed us her recipes for stuffing and green bean casserole. Despite our lack of a proper carving knife or a meat thermometer, the turkey was near-perfect (if a little salty due to its pre-brined condition). The stuffing was flavorful; the mashed potatoes were smooth; the gravy was thick and creamy; the green bean casserole was a welcome, hearty shade of green (if a bit picante for our guests’ tastes); the sweet potatoes were rich and decadent; and the pumpkin pies were the ideal ending. Among all of the dishes, the stuffing and the sweet potatoes seemed to be the stars of the show; our Colombian guests raved!

We had seven guests in total, not including Seth or yours truly. A couple stayed the whole time, but most came and went. We ate dinner, drank beer (Colombian, American, and Mexican!), chatted, took photos, and watched a few games of college football. The day was everything I hoped it would be and more. In other words, we have leftovers!

holiday shopping: part one

Seth and I spent most of this weekend shopping for holiday gifts for our friends and family members. We scoured the covered markets across from the Gold Museum in La Candelaria and the open air markets on top of the hill in Usaquén in search of authentic artisan souvenirs. I realize I am taking a slight risk by publishing this entry, but I am almost positive that the recipients of the following gifts do not subscribe to my blog. (Just to be safe, though, I will make this entry private shortly after hitting the “Publish” button.)

Seth had his heart set on buying two Colombian mochilas—one for himself and another for his brother Eliot. Arhuaco mochilas (pictured above) are natural, bucket-shaped bags hand made ​​by the Arhuaco people of Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta. Conversely, Wayuu mochilas are hand made by the Wayuu people of La Guajira Peninsula. Whereas the neutral-colored, sheeps’ wool mochilas of Arhuaco seem to be most often worn by men in Bogotá, the brightly-colored, cotton-based bags of Wayuu seem to be most frequently fashioned by women. Each of the latter type retails for about COP$80,000-100,000 (US$40-50) and is made by one woman over the span of about twenty days.

Besides the two mochilas, Seth and I also purchased a variety of jams, including five jars of maracuya (passionfruit), nueces (nuts), and brandy; four jars of arazá, cupuaçu, and cocona; and one jar of frutos y pétalos rojos (red forest fruits and flowers). The other gifts I cannot mention.

To end our busy and fruitful weekend of touching beautiful things and making difficult decisions, we sat down for a couple of macchiatos at LaTerra Café in Usaquén. Delicious! Our shopping hiatus continues over the next week as we plan and prepare our Thanksgiving feast.