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]

work, work, work

Since I returned to Bogotá in January, I feel like all I’ve done is work. With the exception of a couple of enjoyable outings, I have spent the majority of my nights and weekends cooped up inside, editing photos and writing essays. My office work has been less than inspiring as of late; our two best projects—an historic library and a university auditorium—are in limbo, which leaves me working on the construction details for a series of coffee shops. I decided a long time ago that I would not become complacent about my career, so I have been using my free time to flex my creative muscles. For the past three weeks, I have been working on a project that I hope to submit to the American Institute of Architects’ Spring 2013 Forward Journal. My entry may or may not be selected, but it at least gives me a structured opportunity to write about the built environment. After Friday’s deadline I will consider publishing my essay to the blog, just in case anyone wants to read it.

auditorium rendering 1

The last competition my office participated in was for a small university auditorium. Sited less than ten blocks from Seth’s and my apartment, the auditorium was meant to be a flexible gathering space for both visitors and students of the university. While my bosses and some of the more experienced young architects took charge of the design, I compiled case studies and researched code requirements. It might sound like I got the short end of the stick, but I really enjoyed helping with the investigative aspects of the project. Plus, I got to do architecture—not interiors, real architecture! Unfortunately, it seems that the university has yet to decide which office’s submission they want to pursue. (Never  mind that they only gave us two weeks to design the thing, yet they have taken over seven weeks to pour over the options.) In the meantime, I thought I would post some of our renderings. There’s no telling when we will get the chance to compete for another project like this, but I hope it will be sooner rather than later.

rendering2

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!

lechona

To celebrate their warehouse/office renovation, Kadell invited all of the architects, engineers, contractors, and builders involved in the project to a Sunday feast of lechona. Most of Seth’s coworkers, in addition to their significant others (like me!), were present, and they were able to give me a comprehensive tour of their design. After exploring and chatting for about an hour, we all sat down for some beer, a sweet shrimp cocktail, and the main event: a whole pig stuffed with yellow peas, green onion, yellow rice, and spices and cooked in an outdoor brick oven for ten full hours.

Seth and I first spotted lechona shortly after moving to Bogotá. A restaurant across the street from Iglesia de Nuestra Señora de Lourdes serves the popular Colombian dish most days of the week, while a couple of vendors at 7 de Agosto offer it on the weekends. We meant to try it, but we had not made the time.

It was worth the wait. In process, lechona is somewhat of a cross between a whole hog of Texas barbecue and a traditional Colombian tamal. In taste, though, it is more like a deconstructed Mexican tamale. What sets it apart is the crunchy, greasy block of pig skin which sits atop the bed of meaty mush—a textural delight, to be sure.

bandeja paisa

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Known for its excessive amount of food and wide variety of ingredients, the Bandeja Paisa is Colombia’s ultimate plat de résistance. Too large to be served on a regular plate, the Paisa Platter—native to the region of Paisa—consists of eleven essential foods:

  1. red beans cooked with pork
  2. white rice
  3. ground meat or grilled steak
  4. pork rind (chicharrón)
  5. fried eggs
  6. plantain (patacones)
  7. sausage
  8. arepa
  9. hogao sauce
  10. black pudding, or blood sausage
  11. avocado

A variation of the platter also exists in parts of Valle del Cauca. In place of the typical plantains are aborrajados de platano maduro (ripe plantains stuffed with melted cheese), and instead of the grilled steak and the pork rind is a hefty serving of carne mechada (shredded beef). I was fortunate enough to sample the Vallecaucana version last week, when our office lunched at Fulanitos to celebrate Diego’s birthday. We ordered lulados and aborrajados de platano maduro to start, so by the time our entrées arrived we were hardly hungry. Nevertheless, I was somehow able to power through three-quarters of my platter. Two hours later we stumbled back to the office, where we proceeded to shuffle through a little bit of work, give up, and lazily pass around a bottle of whiskey. Let me tell you, Colombian food comas are serious business.

[Fulanitos: Calle 73 # 9-24, Bogotá-Colombia]

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 heladería: update

Last month, the office submitted a proposal for an ice cream shop concept:

Unfortunately, our prospective client decided not to move forward with the project. Although the company claimed to be interested in an architecturally striking, vibrant, and adventurous space, they found our proposal to be too architectural. (?!) Furthermore, they were disturbed by our use of floor and wall tiles. (Apparently, tiles of any kind—large or small, neutral or colorful—call to mind bathroom interiors. I see where they were coming from, but I think we could have negotiated on that part of the concept.) Oh well—on to the next!

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.

la heladería

Boy, the office has been bu-sy! The six design architects (plus the two interns) have been juggling five projects: a library renovation, a high-rise apartment complex, a medium-rise office building, and two competitions. For the past week or so, I have been working on the latter: a competition entry for an ice cream shop. Although I cannot explicitly mention the name of our prospective client, I can say that it is undoubtedly the most famous frozen novelty brand in the city, maybe even in the country. The company currently sells their products in grocery stores, bakeries, and tienditas (small convenience stores), but it is looking to open a flagship store in Bogotá. The client is interested in an architecturally striking, vibrant, and adventurous space that appeals to kids and adults alike. Besides the basic program requirements, the design is generally up to us. The only catch is that it must be flexible enough to be replicated in the event that the company opens additional stores—on different sized lots and in different contexts—in the future.

My original concept centered on multi-functional curved planes. Attached to the four principal walls, the planes varied in size and height in order to serve as counters, tables, chairs, or shelves. I thought this rational, yet whimsical solution would be especially appealing to children, who could climb on the “furniture” and explore the space as if it were a playplace.

My big boss and the lead design architect were pleased with the outline of the idea, but they thought the planes would be even more adaptable if they were rotated vertically. To be honest, I thought their suggestion directly conflicted with my original concept. (How could a series of vertical planes possibly serve as a usable surface?) I hated their proposed revision in the cited references, in the initial sketches, and in the 3-D model—I thought it looked like the inside of a cave!—but after working out some of the kinks with Stephanie over the weekend, I am finally starting to warm up to it. (Unfortunately, I do not have any screen captures of the rotated design, as the 3-D model is still in development. As soon as I do, though, I will try to post them.)

The competition entry is due on April 13, the Friday after Holy Week. The timing is poor, as I am leaving for Texas tomorrow evening and will be M.I.A. for a week and a half. I wish I could be more involved, as this is my first experience with commercial interiors. Nevertheless, I am excited to see the design’s progress upon my return.

v de verde + paloquemao

On Friday evening after work, Seth and I met Juancho and his friend (girlfriend?) Alexandra for dinner at V de Verde. Located on a quieter street in the posh Zona Rosa neighborhood, the restaurant offers menu items that align perfectly with a Mediterranean diet: fresh fish, crisp vegetables, zingy citrus, and, most importantly, red wine and olive oil. I thoroughly enjoyed their salmón cocción unilateral, which consisted of a generous, lightly seared salmon filet topped with finely sliced leeks and bacon. On the side, I had a red onion and organic tomato salad with a lemon vinaigrette. Meanwhile, Seth ordered their lomo, cognac, y puré de papa al carbon (gently grilled beef tenderloin with a cognac sauce and mashed potatoes), which was served with stuffed portabellas, tomatoes confit, and asparagus. To round out the meal, the four of us shared a bottle of intensely purple Spanish Tempranillo. The food was melt-in-your-mouth delicious, but, although extremely well-priced for its quality and quantity (COL$30000 or US$15 at most), it was still a bit of a wallet buster. I am trying to keep in mind that this was our first complete dining-out experience in Bogotá and that I shouldn’t feel too guilty about it. That said, we certainly will not be dining out again any time soon. I mean this jokingly, but thank goodness Juancho will be busy with his studies! (It is difficult to maintain an extravagant social life while trying to live on an architect’s salary.)

After dinner, Juancho invited us out to Pravda for martinis. Juancho and Alexandra ordered girly mandarin and lulo martinis, respectively, while Seth and I drank like the Americans we are. I sipped their Sapphire Martini, which was a stirred mixture of Bombay Sapphire gin, vermouth, and Blue Curacao. (So you see, it was “sapphire” on two levels!) Seth nursed their Smoky Martini—an oh-so-smooth combination of gin, vermouth, and scotch. One martini had the strength of three, so by the end of the night we were all speaking broken Spanish and English. Seth and I made it home around two-thirty. (Thank goodness he understands the bus system! I, on the other hand, am still having some trouble with it.) Looking back, it probably wasn’t our finest decision because we had already promised my coworker Erika that we would meet her at Paloquemao, one of Bogotá’s largest and most important food markets, four hours later. Then again, after a couple of glasses of wine and a knock-you-on-your-ass martini, almost anything sounds sensible.

On Saturday morning, we awoke from our three-hour nap, flagged down a bus, and arrived at Erika’s apartment. She drove us to the market, where we searched through boxes of vegetables and tropical fruits and counters of meats and cheeses. (To be honest, the counters of cheese are kind of laughable. They offer only two kinds: queso fresco and mozzarella.) We bought a strange amalgamation of things, including green beans, red bell peppers, beets, a yet-to-be-identified green vegetable, Andean blackberries, Latundan bananas, a guanábana, duck eggs, chicken eggs, and chicken breast. When we returned home, we promptly fell back asleep.

This evening, we have to figure out what to make with our finds. (We fried the duck eggs for breakfast, so at least we won’t have to worry about those.) I already found a promising recipe for a beet and berry smoothie, but I am a bit hesitant to prepare it since we already have so much guanábana juice in the fridge. Lately, I have been subsisting almost exclusively on carbohydrates—potatoes, fruit juices, and breads. Oh, and chocolate. Lots of chocolate. I lead a tough life, I know.

[V de Verde: Calle 93 # 11A-11 Local 104, Bogotá-Colombia]

[Pravda: Calle 83 # 20-26, Bogotá-Colombia]

[photos courtesy of V de Verde]