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]

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eje cafetero: day 5: salento

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On Wednesday Seth and I awoke with sore calves and achy feet. We decided to take the day easy, starting with two cups of hot coffee and a big, leisurely breakfast. Alongside my usual fried eggs and pan de queso paipa I ordered a glass of mora (Andean blackberry) juice blended with farm-fresh milk. It was one of the most delicious drinks I had ever tasted. We relaxed, sipped our coffee, and ate, occasionally pausing to chat with other travelers who passed by our table. Once most of our fellow lodgers had fled the hostel to participate in various Salento-area activities, Seth and I each slipped into a hammock for some quality reading time.

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That afternoon I got a little antsy for some activity myself, so I convinced Seth to walk to Salento and climb the 100 or so steps to the town’s viewing point, Alto de la Cruz. Compared to those at the Valle de Cocora, the views at Alto de la Cruz were not anything special. We descended only minutes after we arrived, ready to explore the artisan markets and (maybe) spend a little money. In one of the Calle Real shops I spotted the most covetable and finely crafted mochila Arhuaca, but at COP$300,000 it was significantly beyond my price range. Moments later I was thisclose to impulse-buying a black, white, brown, and beige mochila Wayúu, but I resisted because I reasoned I could score a better deal back in Bogotá.

After looking at all of the bright and beautiful things, Seth and I had worked up a bit of an appetite. We tucked into a misnamed “beer garden” in hopes of scoring an imported lager, but as soon as we took a glance at the menu our spirits deflated. Despite the twenty-something plaques on the wall—one dedicated to Murphy’s Stout, another to Heineken, and so on—the establishment offered only Colombian beers, and not the good kind. We ordered two Club Colombias and were quickly on our way.

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For dinner we stopped at a cute little Colombian/Mediterranean/Indian restaurant I had noted on Trip Advisor. We ordered a Chilean Cabernet at market price and two pizzas—one with tandoori chicken and another with pepperoni (!), jalapeños (!), and red onion. From Restaurante La Eliana‘s balcony we were able to enjoy gorgeous views of the sunset and the company of two adorable cocker spaniels. (At one point during dinner, I not-so-secretly shimmied away from the table to pet the pups and accidentally let one out of the gate. So there I went, chasing a pudgy puppy down a slow Salento street. Oops.)

We returned to the hostel immediately following our meal. The wine and pizza sent me into a blissful slumber.

[Restaurante La Eliana: Carrera 2 # 6-45, 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.

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]

planning a trip

Cocora Valley

This weekend Seth and I began the process of planning our Semana Santa vacation. For our first trip outside Cundinamarca, we have decided to visit the Eje cafetero (Coffee-Growers Axis) in the Paisa region of Colombia. We will stay in a proper finca (country residence), hike among the wax palms, ride a pair of horses, tour a coffee plantation, taste fresh tinto, and most importantly, relax. I am also looking forward to sampling some of the local fare, specifically trucha en salsa bechamel y champiñones (trout in a bechamel and mushroom sauce). It may sound strange, but I have heard that it is Salento’s town specialty—not to be missed.

To get to Salento, Seth and I will take a bus from Bogotá to Armenia (approximately 8 hours) and then another bus from Armenia to Salento (approximately 1 hour). We will be in transit the entirety of March 23 and March 29, but we will still have five solid days of luscious greenery, clean air, and hot coffee. I can’t wait!

[photo courtesy of Wikipedia]