deep in the ♥ of texas

“Cruisin’ down the freeway in the hot, hot sun” is not nearly as sweet when you are anxiously waiting the approval of your work visa. Oh yeah, that’s right; after seven months of filling out, apostillizing, translating, and (again) apostillizing paperwork, and waiting, waiting, and waiting some more, I am officially—finally!—a licensed architect in Colombia. Unfortunately, being in possession of a real, live matrícula profesional de arquitecto does not in fact make me a legal entity in the Colombian workforce. So here I am, back in the good ol’ U. S. of A., passportless and jobless (well, for the time being).

When Seth and I first arrived Stateside before dawn on Tuesday, March 27, I thought the visa process would be a cinch. I had visited the Consulate three times in December, so I knew what to expect: all documents processed, signed, and notarized, in order, with meticulously crafted dates. I compiled all six of my documents (Though, I will reiterate, that sixth document was responsible for those aforementioned seven months of paperwork, etc.), and I drove to the Consulate with confidence. I had everything on their requirements list; I would have my visa at last! WRONG! The elusive Wizard-of-Oz-type spectre behind the counter refused my documents outright simply because I did not have a cover letter from my boss begging his Majesty’s mercy. (WHAT?!) Basically, he wanted some kind of antiquated, faux-diplomatic gentleman’s agreement, and I only had six days to 1) have the letter in my possession 2) return said letter to the Consulate, and 3) have my visa processed before I was scheduled to fly back to Bogotá on Thursday, April 5. Yeah, right. After shamefully asking my boss for the superfluous document, I had it in my hot little hands at two o’clock on Monday April 2. Of course, those impossibly hard workers at the Consulate close their offices at said hour, so I had to wait. The next morning, I awoke bright and early, sat in rush-hour traffic, and, more or less, awaited my sentence. The Consulate surprisingly—shockingly!—agreed that I had everything in order. “I realize that this is a lot to ask, but if you get this cover letter to us, we can process your visa in like, a day,” the clueless clerk told me, in broken English, the week prior. “Your visa will be ready on Thursday, April 12,”—an entire week after I was scheduled to leave!—the second, painfully more experienced clerk told me this week. How convenient! Gee, THANKS!

After coming to terms with the fact that I will owe hundreds of dollars in airline fees and that I will miss yet another week of work—when we are in the middle of two crucial deadlines, no less!—I have arrived at the conclusion that there is nothing more that I can do. I simply have to wait. In the meantime, I have tried to enjoy the springtime treats that Texas has to offer—margaritas, bluebonnets, barbecue, hot afternoons spent poolside—but I cannot help but feel guilty. I have been working for a mere two months; I certainly do not deserve this “vacation”! (Speaking of vacation, couldn’t this whole debacle have occurred in, say, July?) One thing is for sure: from the time I return to Bogotá until Christmas, I will be in the office.

meetup at the pub

After a long, stressful week at work, I was excited to meet Seth’s boss and coworkers at an Irish pub in Usaquén. Unfortunately, I was assigned a task just as I was supposed to leave the office, so I arrived at the pub over an hour and a half late. Of course, there were other snags, too. Seth did not answer his phone when I called to see if they were in fact still drinking… I got off the bus at the wrong stop and had to power walk half a mile in the dark… Eventually, though, I made it to the right place. Seth promptly introduced me to his two bosses, Mauricio (the owner) and Andres #1, and three of his coworkers, Andres #2, Silvia, and Fernando. A nearly empty pitcher of beer sat on the table, probably the second or third of the night. Meanwhile, Mauricio nursed his second or third glass of whiskey. Tipsily, he told me: “This pub is my place. Bogotanos, when we are high class, we are like Brits; we drink whiskey. When we are middle class, we are like people from Miami; we drink rum. When we are low class, we are like,” his voice dropped to a whisper, “Mexicans.” He paused, realizing the weight of his words, and quickly began to backpedal. “But, you know, of course, I don’t believe that! It is just a saying!” To be honest, I expected a little more solidarity among the Latin American community.

Aside from the one drunken blunder, Mauricio and everyone else were very nice. (Honestly, they are much friendlier than my coworkers, who have yet to invite me out for a night.) However, it was definitely a lesson in contrast. Seth and I practiced our Spanish, while his coworkers practiced their English… We only drank one beer apiece, while Mauricio enjoyed five to six glasses of whiskey… Oh, did I mention that Mauricio threatened to drunk dial my boss? Apparently, they met awhile ago at a competition and have spoken on the phone once or twice about the intricacies of hiring foreigners. Several times throughout the evening, Mauricio whipped out his iPhone and shouted, “Oh hi, Juan Carlos! This is Mauricio! We will talk about architecture as usual!” Luckily, he did not actually go through with it (I don’t think).

By the end of the night, I was exhausted but very excited to have met some potential new friends. Fernando even invited Seth and me to go hiking with him tomorrow morning. He wants us to see an old church that is nestled in the mountains. I hope the weather cooperates!

[The Pub: Carrera 6A # 117-45, Bogotá-Colombia]

first friends

Starting a new job is scary. Starting a new job in a new city is scarier. Starting a new job in a new city with a (semi-)new language is TERRIFYING. Despite my constant blushing and stuttering, I am beginning to make a few friends in Bogotá. Three of my coworkers—five, if you count the interns—are under thirty and single (read: unmarried), so we inherently have quite a bit in common. Stephanie and Diego speak English quite well—Stephanie, because she lived in Florida as a child and Diego, for yet-to-be-determined reasons. Alexander, one of the interns, is French but speaks near-fluent Spanish and some English. (I am deathly afraid of letting it slip to him that I lived in Paris for five months because then I would have to admit that my French is even worse than my Spanish.) Other than with my boss and those three, I communicate in fragments, minimal sentences, and hand motions. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t.

Adjusting from an unemployed lifestyle to a fifty-hour work week is… satisfying. As I previously mentioned, I spent the first half of the week working on a virtual model and some renderings for a library project in Bogotá. As for the latter half, I spent my time completing a door schedule for a high-rise residential project in Panama. A door schedule is, as my boss oh-so-sarcastically puts it, “the fun part of architecture.” I am happy to do it, though.

By the end of Friday, I was ready to go out on the town. Our roommate Juan Pablo and his girlfriend Camila invited us to a friend’s apartment for a dinner party with cocktails. The apartment just so happened to be off Calle 85 and Carrera 13 (85th Street and 13th Avenue), right in the middle of a bustling bar district. We enjoyed some homemade pizza and Cerveza Aguila in house before strolling through a park to One Shot, a British-inspired (?) gourmet shot bar. The drinks were expensive by our respective salaries (COP$6000-8000), so we only had one a piece. Lucky for us, they were both strong and delicious. As a bonus, the DJ played a dazzling mix of retro and contemporary tunes, and the bar was set aflame about every five minutes. Our roommate and his friends were extremely patient with us as we stumbled through our Spanish, occasionally giggling at our literal translations. Personally, I think they were too drunk to care. That night, I learned the following (obviously, very generalized) things:

  • Colombians LOVE pizza. Also, Colombians will find an excuse to add corn products to anything, including pizza crust.
  • Unlike the French, Colombians do not dilute their liquor. Their cocktails are serious business.
  • “He has a terrible memory” translates to “Tiene memoria de pollo” (which retranslates to “He has the memory of a chicken.”)
  • Colombians adore the Puerto Rican band Calle 13 or, at the very least, their song “Latinoamérica.” (The song is kind of awesome. If you have a second, you should definitely click on the link and watch the music video.)

This morning, Seth and I awoke feeling well-rested and hungry. Just like we did last Saturday, we went out for a traditional Colombian breakfast before gathering our groceries for the week. We bought some beef, pork, yuca, and plantains in preparation for a pot of Sancocho, as well as a huge bag of oranges (for COP$6000 or US$3!), a few tomates de arbol, a papaya, and a mango. We (read: Seth) spent the entire afternoon stewing the meat and starches while bonding with our roommate Luz. Tonight we were supposed to meet our friend Juancho and his friends from Medellín, but we think he forgot about us. Our feelings aren’t too bruised, though. We have been more than blessed with the kindness of strangers in this city.

first days of work

My first couple of days at work have been pretty tiring, but I can’t complain. I live thirteen blocks from work, so I get a little bit of exercise in the mornings and in the evenings. One of the office administrative assistants already knows how I take my coffee. (She delivers a customized cup to everyone’s desks in the mornings! How sweet is that?) My coworkers are nothing but nice, patient, and accommodating. Lastly and most importantly, I am working on an amazing, albeit very complex and challenging, project.

Other than the language barrier, it seems my only other major work adjustment will be the hours. My boss told me that everyone arrives at the office around nine and leaves around seven. In actuality, most people show up around ten and leave past eight. I prefer to get an earlier start to my day, especially because in Bogotá the sun rises at six in the morning every day of the year. Why not rise and shine?

As for my workload, I have spent the past two and a half days working on (and nearly completing!) a SketchUp model which illustrates the firm’s proposed renovation for part of an existing downtown library. In 1986, the integrity of the original library (built in 1958 and extended in 1966) was severely compromised by a talentless, inhumane “architect.” Our plan is to undo most of his work, which includes removing the central staircase in order to make the surrounding study space more accommodating to more people. As it exists now, the stairs occupy almost the entire room, so only a select few people can enjoy the space at once (not that it is an especially pleasant space as is…). A couple of my teammates will present the renderings to the client today, but to be honest, I am not entirely sure which client—the bank, the historical commission, etc.—they are presenting to. Again, I suppose that is the downside of understanding only half of every conversation.

After a very productive morning yesterday, it seemed my coworkers were really putting in the extra effort to make me feel comfortable. They asked me to lunch—at Subway! Ha, I suppose to Colombians, it is THE American place to go—and when we returned to the office, they played hours of eighties’ pop music. Personally, I think they liked my desk dancing.

Today is Seth’s first day of work. (He took a job with the architect he met with last Thursday.) I just got a text from him, and it sounds like everything is going well. Keep your fingers crossed that he gets to listen to Cyndi Lauper at his office, too.

first meetings

This afternoon, I met with my new boss for the first time since our initial Skype interview. It was a little overwhelming, to say the least.

I walked the thirteen blocks from my apartment to the office and arrived promptly at three o’clock. I was able to successfully communicate with building security whom I was trying to visit, but they quickly became confused by the pronunciation of my name. “Carrrr…?!” Ay, qué gringa! The women ushered me upstairs, where I then had to pronounce my name three times to the administrative assistant. Finally, she realized who I was. “Vas a trabajar aquí?” (“Are you going to work here?”) Si, Si! She led me to the conference space. Shortly after, my new boss greeted me in English and proceeded to tell me about the project I would be working on: a library renovation in the city’s historic center! I was feeling confident and excited, as I was able to speak a bit of Spanish in response to his questions and commentary.

But then, everything changed! He took me to the design architects’ space, where he completely switched to Spanish. I met all of the other design architects, most of whom are in their twenties. My boss joked that the girl who will be helping me was a gringa just like me! Her name is American (‘Stephanie’ is actually spelled with a ‘ph’ instead of an ‘f’!), her hair is blonde, and she is freakishly tall for a Colombian woman. Unfortunately, my boss was only joking, and I am afraid that when I asked Stephanie where she was from I might have offended her. Oops. Anyway, the meeting was mostly successful, excluding my broken Spanish and semi-frequent, semi-panicked, “Por favor, se puede repetir más despacio?”s. Sigh…

Seth also met with his (potential) boss today. He was only offered a very temporary position, so he is looking forward to tomorrow’s interview with his other potential boss. In the afternoon, we will journey to the city’s historic center, La Candelaria, for Seth’s interview, my site visit, and some farmers’ market shopping! I am so excited to learn about the library. I even requested copies of all of the digital presentations my boss showed me today so that I can get a jump start on research over the weekend.

Oh, and just a quick side note: For dinner tonight, Seth and I trekked a whopping two blocks to an amazing arepas-only cafe. We tried one stuffed with chorizo and queso; one with shredded beef and Creole sauce; and one with eggs, potatoes, and peppers (basically, migas in a corn-flour wrapper). In short, Colombian arepas kick French crêpes‘ butts. Wash ’em down with a shot of aguardiente (sin azúcar), and you’ve got yourself a balanced meal! …Right?

[photo courtesy of My Colombian Recipes]

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]