Sunday, April 08, 2007

Trips and Finances.

Andrea and I got back Yesterday from a little vacation on the coast. I found a last second air deal for about a third it's normal price, and during absolute peak season. It's the golden rule of travelling, less planning often means more fun.

Cartagena was once again a beautiful city with really aweful people overall. It was funny when the exact same guys approached me as they approached me two weeks earlier. I was able to stay in Andrea's hotel that was covered by her job, and sleeping in Cartagena is always lovely with ac.

The next day we headed off to the Islands for her work. In the boat, we missed a big sea turle by less than five feet. It would have killed all of us but especially the driver, who works on protecting them.

We stayed at a hotel runs by some natives of the Islands. These people usually die of old age. The owner, 'Cuco', was a 65 year old man, who could probably beat me in every single athletic competition.

The Islands are like the Caribbean you dream of, clean water, friendly people, good food and hammochs. The hotel was like a ranch on the water, with simple huts with beds and hammoch houses. The place is run by a few families, so you can talk to their cute kids or catch the parents gently swinging their babies in the hammochs.

We got a tour of the area on foot and boat from Diego, a guy from Periera(inland Colombia) who works with natural parks there. He set up a pretty cool program that trained the young natives there how to be tour guides for the islands. He described how he had to teach them the most basic things at times, things that tourists would expect but wouldn't come naturally to the natives. Things like not being making people over an hour late, and other things.

At some point during the training, he had some grant money to take them to Bogota. It sounded like an exciting first trip, seeing there capital city for the first time. During our walk around the island, night fell, so we ended up walking back in the dark. It hadn't rained recently so there were no mosquitos, and the tempurature is perfect at night. Everyone we encountered on the path knew Diego even though he wasn't originally from there. It was admirable to see one person make such a difference.

The next day, Andrea and I caught a boat to an oceanarium on another island. That was pretty incredible seeing trained sharks and Dolphins doing double front flips. I don't know anyone who wouldn't enjoy watching a dolphin jump 15 feet out of the water. The Oceanarium owner also had a big bird zoo on another Island. He collects birds from all over the world and tries to support their rare species'

If the trip wasn't good enough already, then we went diving. I hadn't dived since I got my certification two years ago, and Andrea hadn't ever. Andrea did a mini course and I did a review and one dive to start out. After lunch, we met up and did the second dive together with the group. It was great seeing her underwater, she was the only one in her mini-course who had the courage to go down.

It was the most amazing diving I've had(only 5 dives in my life probably). We started near an underwater cliff, and our descent was along this cliff covered in coral. It's an amazing, surreal, and powerful feeling. I was pointing my head down and just flying slowly down this cliff. I eventually got about 80ft deep which was a little more than I am technically supposed to with my certification.

Basically, I can only describe it as flying. At times, I felt so confortable that I had to consciously remind myself that I was underwater, so that I wouldn't "take a break" from that annoying thing in my mouth. A majority of the time I spent examining Coral closely, chasing schools of fish, or just floating around in wierd positions. My diving partner, Cara from Minnesota, told me jokingly "your air might last longer if you didn't do handstands the whole time." Andrea had a great time, and the dive shop owner personally took care of her the whole time.

Like always, I got sun burnt, no matter how hard I tried not to. We limped around Cartagena on Friday night and Saturday morning, taking turns complaining. We got on the same flight and got back to Bogota. I laid down on Andrea's bed and within moments I fell asleep for two hours.

Tomorrow I start formal Spanish classes, and I am excited for it. These last four months have been productive, I am speaking Spanish at an Advanced level so the time has not been wasted. Nevertheless, there have been a few too much time spent alone and too many days where my students cancel on me and I am left with nothing to do.

I am ready to start the next chapter of living here and I hope it is full with numerous things on my to-do list. I never thought I'd appreciate routine, but four months without a solid one is enough. Tonight, the streets were nearly empty, and I took a bus to the grocery store. I bought some tasty breakfast items for tomorrow and it's actually exciting to think that tomorrow I actually have to be somewhere tomorrow, whether I want to or not.

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Travel Log
The travels started well after quite a fun week in Bogota, Alex and I rode the bus station in the morning, and I started my bartering. People sometimes smirk when I start my bidding. They get a kick from hearing a me use these Colombians phrases that Andrea taught me. It could probably be the same to us as watching a foreigner in the states, like watching japanese trying to dance hip-hop, or hearing an Australian say Fo shizzle.

My bartering wasn't really worth it, given that our bus broke down a couple hours later. It stopped working with impeccable timing, and we ended up next to a nice restaurant. Alex discovered that prided Colombian stews make him ill. On the bus, the Colombians looked after us, the driver personally welcomed me aboard, and people came to get us in the restaurant when the replacement bus came.

It's quite fun descending to the lower areas of Colombia. Bogota is very cosmopolitan, cold, and clean. As one descends by bus, the banana leaves fill the sides of the road, the air becomes a perfect 75 degrees, and the people are much rowdier and loose.

Our first stop was San Gil, a beautiful hilly Colonial town. Like many tiny warm towns, people are out and the small-town women stare openly at you like you are a piece of meat.

We relaxed in our traveller hostel and played cards with an Australian girl working there(the australian owner was in vegas at the time). I chatted to an old Australian retired sea merchant. He had owned dive businesses on the Red Sea in Egypt and had some interesting impressions and stories from his time there. He had seen the worlds best diving and some of the world's worst people according to him. He was even there during a triple suicide bombing, so it must be a spectacular place underwater.

The first day, we went rafting with a British couple. The scenery around the river was stunning, and quite relaxing to bob down when we had a break from the rapids. The two brits were cambridge educated and were travelling South America before they started jobs in the states. Quite great people. It was funny hearing the guy say "alot of Americans I've met have this huge guilt complex about being from America, and I don't know why, I think it's actually quite a fucking amazing place." Even though I don't totally love my country when I'm in it, I'll gladly take compliments when I'm abroad. Alex and I randomly ran into them rappeling down a waterfall we were visiting.(see pics)

From San Gil, we caught a bus to Bucaramanga to Andrea's parents house aptly named "Villa Andrea". When we were getting close, I sat next to the driver as I was searching for a landmark to recognize Andrea's driveway by. I saw it and the driver let us off literally on the side of a freeway. I was keeping Alex out of the loop to give him a scare, he said something like "where the fuck are we?" Who wouldn't ask that walking at night on a strange freeway in Colombia? He realized where we were when we walked up the next driveway to Andrea's mom waiting for us outside the house. It was great to relax in a non-hostel for night a fun that Alex got to see where Andrea was from.

On the bus the next day, I sat close to a kind of strange looking character. Not really THAT strange, but I was kind of paranoid because we were crossing through a part of Colombia that doesn't have the greatest history. He was dressed up looking and a little bit like a hustler or somebody like that. He gave me the typical "Where are ju from?" with a heavy accent, and then relaxed and watched the movies. He had kind of a confidence that I didn't trust, when he dealt with other passengers, or the co-pilot.

The seats leaned back almost 180 degrees but they were spring loaded and my head bounced up over the smallest bump. We had a lunch break in the sketchy department of Cesar: it was just another jungly, hot, dirty pull off spot. Alex and I got off and started looking at the restaurants. I was flat broke, my atm card wasn't working and Alex was running low on cash. We were going to try to make it on some lime chips and maybe a juice. I passed the first restaurant when I heard a little kid yelling at me. These kids are normal so I barely feigned a glance. The kid was animately motioning me to come to the restaurant. I started saying "no, gracias, no, gracias," when I was walking and then I saw the guy from the bus waving me over.

As we walked over to his table, I was thinking "Ok, how can I reject this guy without pissing him off?" He told us to sit down and I started explaining our money situation. Without a second thought, he told us he would pay.

Alex and I sat down, and basically gave this guy our attention for a free meal. It wasn't hard to give him attention as he did these great shrades instead of having me translate. The meal was allright. I was trying to be friendly when I told him that Alex really liked Yuka(like chewy potatoe). In reality Alex likes crispy Yuka chips with salt but next thing we knew he ordered Alex another plate of the mushy stuff. Alex slowly ate it until the guy left the restaurant, and he no longer had to be courteous. Overall, it was a brilliant example of Colombian friendliness. Colombians are so proud of their land and so eager to prove stereotypes wrong. The guy even wanted Alex's address in the U.S. so he could send him some Colombian music and DVDs.

We rolled into Santa Marta and caught a cab to Taganga. The hostel we had reserved was sold out but we were able to stay in the beautiful house of a family there. We got our own room with 6 other empty bunks, for about 7 bucks a night.

Taganga is a little sleepy fishing village. Most native Tagangeros just sit around with their bellies out and blast music all day from their front porches. We went to the beach,relaxed and not much else. The town was another instance of proof that many Colombians religiously believe in not throwing their trash away properly. It also supported my argument that the plastic bag was the worst invention for Latin America.

After relaxing and partying in Taganga, we headed to the famed Parque Tayrona. According to a famous English travel writer, the beaches here are the second best in the world. We got to the park entrance but we were too sick and week to bother going in. It would have cost another 40 bucks each, just to be sick on a nice beach.

We turned around and headed for Cartagena, and we rolled in that night. While Medellin and Bogota's crime rates have declined in the last five years, Cartagena's has been the opposite.

A guy in the street helped our cabbee find the hostel. He shook Alex's hand and tried to palm him a bag of coke. That is just a small example of the greater problems around the region. Yet besides its impoverished inhabitants, Cartagena is actually a beautiful city. The "old" city is surrounded by walls and there is a huge Spanish fort a little further inland. Alex and I walked around the beautiful streets and inside the old passageways in the fort(see pics).

The beggar children of Cartagena are a different breed than I am used to. When I said no to one kid, he started jumping up and down having a fit, and then laughing about it. At night, I didn't give money to one kid and he made a gun with his hand and gave me a bonofied death threat. After sweating to death for one more day, we caught a bus to Barranquilla, and then flew back to Bogota. An hour plan ride was too irresistable compared to a 20 hour bus ride over three mountain ranges, no matter how much or little we could have saved.

I got back into Bogota, drank a big glass of clean tap water and we went and got a few tasty microbrews up in the north Bogota, I wouldn't live anywhere else in this country.

Saturday, March 24, 2007

Friday, March 02, 2007

A great video about Colombia with a few shots of Bogota!

Thursday, March 01, 2007

Uniqueness and Pride
One problem with meeting other travellers is realizing how similar you are to other foreigners.   Back home, when I told Americans that I was going to Colombia, they were either shocked, proud, or fascinated.  It was going to be my edge, my conversation nugget, "I had lived and worked in Colombia."  Since there were almost no exchange programs here, I did it myself and I was quietly proud.  

When I meet Americans here, or any other nationalities, I feel some disdain for them.  When someone asks what you I am doing, I have to say "what almost everybody else is doing."  I feel almost demasculated and suddenly part of a flock.

And friend of mine lives in the same neighborhood of town as I do.  It's called Chapinero and its nowhere near as popular, for foreigners, as the Candalaria.  He said "I didn't come here to hang out with Swedish hippies."  I felt the same, and the next day I was delighted to realize there weren't any other tall blonde guys walking around my area.

I talked with a woman from New Zealand a couple days ago.  I was excited for a moment, New Zealand, 'it's like my second home!'  When I told her I had 'lived' there for four months, her expression hardly changed.  It was depressing to realize I could have been the seventh or twentieth person to tell her that.  

In this world travel boom, I think people will try to carve out niches for themselves.  I went to Colombia and I started a business. I went to New Zealand and visited an actual family that lived there.  I went to Israel and worked in a Kibbutz, but my Kibbutz was wind powered.  I taught English to the elderly in the Ivory Coast.  I volunteered at the Cohiba factory in Cuba.

In twenty years when many 40 somethings have likely seen Costa Rica, New Zealand, and/or Europe, we'll all try to share something interesting that was well(and proudly) off the beaten path.

Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Do you want to read a good blog?
When one enters a store in an American shopping mall, it is common for some teenage salesperson to approach you. The line they give is something like “Can I help you find something?” “Can I show you our new collection?” I always try to sneak in quickly and settle into a section unnoticed. While I'm standing there, pretending to be deep in thought, in my periphery, I see a well glittered girl honing it on me. I think, “ah leave me alone! I just want to shop in peace, I can barely breathe in here and you're making it worse!!!” but I default to a simple “thanks, no” and shuffle on with the shame that I couldn't hide well enough.

I worked for 9 months in the take and bake pizza industry. When answering the phones, we had to recite three phrases, in one breath: “Thanks for calling Papa Murphy's on lakeway, this is Kyle, would you like to hear our specials?” After I mastered the line, I experimented with the intonation and word stress. I made music out of the passage, my voice could be affectionate, chummy, generous, or sometimes saccharine and completely joyful that I got to read the specials menu, again! We gave callers the choice between rejecting the person who would make their food or submitting to one more round of advertising in their day.

In Colombia, this idea of active selling is the standard. Colombians get offered numerous choices every day. The choices are usually presented in person, and that person is usually hollering.

Bus stops are the norm in most countries while in Bogota one can catch a bus at any point along the sidewalk. The diesel chimneys/busses rattle down the streets with a sign perched on their dash telling their route through certain neighborhoods and streets. They are over 20,000 of these privately owned “ejectivo” busses screaming around Bogota. They are all competing for customers, which makes for a madhouse of busses stopping and starting.

If I want to go anywhere, I walk out and start squinting at the signs going by. About half the time, the bus has passed me before I even know where it is going. When I see one I think is right, I wave my arm and it pulls over to get me.

This system favors convenience over efficiency because other vehicles must change lanes at the last second or stop behind the stopped busses. It's a terrible arrangement, but the service is unbeatable. I can walk outside and get a bus within 45 seconds. Again, nevermind how inefficient this is for the schedules of the two or forty other passengers.

On one of my first bus rides, I saw something odd. A guy came on, gave a nod to the driver, and started shouting some speech at us. I was puzzled, and I looked at the other passengers. Their expressions told me it was a customary event. The guy rattled on, something about his children and wife. At the end of his speech, he walked around and collected the equilvalent of three dollars, and quickly got off.

A little while later, a man with a basket hopped on the bus. He nodded to the driver and began handing out little toffees to each of the riders. I looked at the toffees in my hand, smirked, and almost snorted out loud. No one, I thought, would think about buying these candies.

Like the man before him, he launched into a pitch. Surely enough, at the end, he walked around to collect his toffees. To my surprise, a few of the riders handed money back. I pondered this event for a sec but shrugged it off. I had been confident that no one would buy the candies. I ethnocentrically thought, “If one wanted candy, one would go buy it at a store. Clearly, that would be more efficient!” I tried to conclude that this was purely a move of sympathy. Toffees or not, some people would give money for any speech.

But the more buses I rode, the more sales I saw. Astrology cards, medicine books, stencils, there were about six categories of things that were circulated amonst the bus salesmen. I got used to it but I shrugged it off.

During the following weeks, I noticed more instances of this type of direct selling. In the streets venders yell their pitches, whether it be “llamas!”(cell phone) or “chicharron” (pork fat). Men stand in front of restaurants and attempt to lead people into their restaurants. In traffic, men walk through and put maps against the windows of the waiting cars. When the light changes, they race through to pick up their maps and the occasional thousand pesos. In a typical Latin American cliche, men ramble on megaphones in a nasalized voices, offered cds, shoes, toys, anything concievably made in China. It's almost tragic to watch a grown man, likely a father, running up and down the sidewalk saying “peliculas, musica, peliculas, musica....” I sometimes walk into the store out of pure sympathy.

When I watched those people eat their toffees, I marvelled at the peculiarity of this setup. I had never seen crappy little objects sold on a bus.

We do have similar setups and a few that are beloved. While one is watching a baseball game, one hears “Ice cold BEER, PEAnuts!!!” In some big cities, people wash windows at traffic lights. However, something was quite different to me about this. While I detest being followed or soliticited to, people here want to be offered something.

The golden rule for great inventions, it goes, is to create a need and then fulfill that need with an invention. We never really needed cell phones before, but I have lost friends for not having one before. There was a time when hair gel, automatic lawnmowers, or gps tracking didn't exist. Now these things are necessities to different degrees.

The toffees on the bus is possibly an example of creating a need. While I was sitting there with a handful of toffees, I became irritated that marketing had crept into one more part of my day. This disdain for salesman and advertising is likely shared by many Americans. I assumed that my fellows bus riders would feel the same. They weren't. The moving market was part of their day. The people who bought the toffees seemed to be thinking “oh! So that's what I had been wanting.”

It could be that people are born suckers. It could be that they watch less TV. It could be that unemployment is 13.6%. It could be that one can't find reasons in the differences.

Perhaps the culture of Latin America values being sold to. Maybe people here are more sympathetic to their impoverished fellow citizens. It's also possible that I can't possibly understand the reasons. I see the toffee salesman in the way I see someone approaching me in the mall.

There are some things that can't be rationalized on the spot. That's the only conclusion I can make. Its just part of the frustration of living abroad: not understanding and not being understood. Things like people don't understand my speech, just as I don't understand how they let dogs sleep wherever. I just try the line again, shrug and keep on enjoying.

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Travel Ego
I think throughout any trip that I have it in my mind that I am doing the best possible trip.  Quite honestly,
I look around at all the others and assume my setup is just the greatest.  In New Zealand, I pitied those who picked apples for months on end as much as those who bopped from one city to the next for a mere twenty days.  I have a big travel ego.  

A travel ego comes from thinking that one is a more pure, a wiser, and a truer traveller.  Travel egos could be caused by travel's recent commodization in certain parts.  It is common for thousands of English, Israelis, and Europeans to do the Fiji, Thailand, Australia, New Zealand, Chile, and Argentina tour.  In my desperation to not feel part of the pack, I built up my ego that
tells me I'm better.  It's quite silly to feel this way considering I probably had alot in common with those people.  

In Colombia I am much more of exchange student and expatriate.  I work, I bus, and I spend time with Colombians.  Now that I am off the beaten path a little bit, I no longer feel cocky.  

Thursday, January 25, 2007

Finally, I've started the Spanish course at Los Andes. There are about ten students from about six countries. So far it has seemed fine, but it can be kind of a drag having to go downtown at 6 everyday, but it could be a lot farther and a lot worse. The campus is stunning: it was built on a hilly area in the old downtown during the 1940s. This was when the country was in one of it's worst civil wars, simply titled, La Violencia. The thing that made the campus unique was the lack of emphasis on political orientation.

The course is taught by a teacher who is ambiguously Colombian, at best. He looks, dresses, and speaks like a Frenchmen or some other European. Other students clearly share my suspicions. As soon as there was an opportunity, an actual Frenchman asked him where he was from. When he answered "Colombia", another student pressed further "What part?"

He speaks great Spanish and I can tell he knows a lot, but I still feel I am being taught French Spanish.

Yesterday, we were reviewing the syllabus, and there was a section that had 3 parts of the grade, worth, 30%, 20%, and 20%. It didn't add up to 100% and we asked him why. There was a section, at the bottom, that said 10% should be added to each of the three sections. In an effort to break the ice I summoned up by best Spanish to say, "For that reason, you teach Languages, and not Math." He looked at me, fairly unamused. Maybe it was the language, or maybe it was a bad joke. "Bromeando(Joking)," I assured. He rolled with it a little bit ",it's good, yes, I teach languages and not math." I could feel my face flush a little bit "Oh well, you gotta take risks," I thought. I could hear a few students snort at it, and another student turned around and flashed a smile. Toto, we're not in community college anymore.

Monday, January 15, 2007

Life in this city of bricks

I haven't figured out yet why so many buildings here are made of brick. From several people, I have been offered a few possibilties: tradition, the cost of wood, no need for paint, etc. Bogota's renewed safety and Colombia's recently strong economy has caused a construction 
boom.  Throughout the city, Cranes and work crews are seen ripping down old houses and
delipidated offices and usually replacing them with fancy brick apartments.

The contractors are certainly winning and hopefully everyone else is too.  One of my students' houses has recieved numerous offers from contractors who want to tear down the outdated houses, and in fill with more brick buildings.  

A couple weeks ago, I walked by some builders near the university in my neighborhood. Four
guys were struggling with a huge window, using suction cups to position it.  Below them, men of all ages had buckets of goopy mortar that they used to slowly build a wall around the bottom floor restaurante.  I felt a tinge of guilt knowing that I likely make more in 10 hours of English lessons than they do with 50 hours of masonry.  

As I watched, one guy made eye contact and smile.  He seemed just as curious of me as I
I was of them.  I explained in my best Spanish that I too, know the trades.  I couldn't go as far as "don't you hate how bad your hands get?" but I tried to build some
kind of cross culture commonality with my comment. I assume they have some impression that every tall white American has a life more like the charades of American pie or the luxurious drama of the Real Orange County.

I am quite curious what people must think about me.  What kinds of conclusions do they make? Is it maybe that I am just interesting to look at.  I have gotten acustomed to being some form of a minority.  When I enter a restaurant, people usually give me at least a glance, if they don't completly turn and stare.  I joke with Andrea I should make an announcement as I enter ",El gringo ha llegado!" "The gringo has arrived!"  

In the beginning I would cower in the face of stares.  After a month of accumulation 
I have begun to stare back aggresively, perhaps not the wisest move in Colombia.  When bums ask for money, I consider them lucky that I don't know enough Spanish to say ",not a chance 
in hell, bud."  

"Culture shock" was something I really thought I knew.  When I got off the plane in New Zealand I thought ", 'wow!' they put meat in pies, culture shock!"  In Costa Rica, culture shock was the fact that I smelled raw sewage at times or that a six hour bus ride only cost six dollars.   I know realize that staying in hostels, moving around with a friend shields you 
from real culture shock.  In my earlier travels I thought I felt it, but I see now
that I always had something to shield me from it.  I never had to get a doctors appointment or find an apartment in a different language.  

The culture shock in Bogota have made me bipolar at times.    The experience here is real and unguided.  Something as basic as catching a bus has become a hassle.  Whenever I am looking for a bus, I stand there and try to figure out the one I need.  See, buses in Bogota have a sign on the front that say approximately where they are going.  I often choose a bus I think will work, only for it to take an unexpected turn into some western or northern neighborhood completely away from where I had predicted.  During one of those detours, I conceited defeat but not without a free tour.  

That bus eventually led me up to a far nothern neighborhood,probably 80 streets away from where I really wanted to be.  I try to turn my mistakes into victories but the joy of being lost loses its charm when I am actually trying to do normal things like work or errands.  

Occasionally, I hit formidable lows.  A week ago, I think I would have started a fight with a bum if he had followed or pestered me for another moment.  I was still having waves of nausea from a Caribbean parasite in my belly.I guess was so disheartened that I felt I had nothing 
to really lose.  It is especially depressing to discover the huge contrast between the dream of making a new life abroad and the actual despair of walking down a strange, loud street, nauseous and lonesome.  

Nevertheless, as quickly as I can get down, is as quickly as I get back up.

A couple days after I nearly assaulted that beggar, I went out by myself to play ping pong during the night.  I arrived at the hall, excited, but still with the attitude of nothing to lose.  Upon entering, I walked up to a group of guys and asked if I could play.  Each of the five looked about 17, and they were sitting there joking and drinking.  They took turns playing me and I was elated to try to so many opponents.   After a couple games, the group welcomed me to sit down and help myself to the half rack on Costena.  I started talking, and like normal, my spanish made leaps and bounds in each sentence.  
My greatest memories have always been the kindness of strangers: the unexpected welcoming feeling of a group of people I just met.  Once in New Zealand, I walked off alone at night to investigate some noise down the road.  I discovered a mix of kids from all countries having a late night drinking session on the deck of their hostel.  They saw me walk by and started shouting.  I was curious, so I approached.  Soon enough, I was drinking with them and we were on first name basis.  It's when I am least expecting it and least looking for it, that those spontaneous connections occur.

That night in the ping pong bar, I had just came to get my sport fix.  After I was welcomed to the conversation, we began to talk about everything from culture, racism, America, Colombia, and everything else the language would permit.  It was fascinating to interact with them, across language, culture, and class lines.  I would mention a pop song, and the five guys would suddenly pipe up and give me their boisterous version of it at that moment.

They were actually 21 and had known eachother for years in Colegio (private school).  Within all their shouting and teasing, I noticed that touch was much less taboo for them.  They were clearly straight, but between friends it seemed ok to have your arm around your friend or your leg up on his lap when the group was sitting around exchanging stories.  I noticed the same in other cultures, in New Zealand I saw a guy sitting on friends lap.  I have also read that guy 
friends in India can hold hands.  Given that I thought Colombia was traditionally more homophobic
, that little example fascinated me.

For months I had been reading how incredibly easy it is to make Colombian friends and for once it happened to me.  They were enthralled that I knew their slang.  Eventually, the ping pong club closed, and we were all a little prendido (lit up).  

Out in the street, it was five Colombians and a tall blonde guy.  I think the fact that I was, by contrast, the ugly duckling, made people stare at me even more.  They wanted to go into a bar, but I was a little uncertain of the appearance.  They could tell quickly that I was apprehensive, and we backed out quickly.  "Hay que confiar (I should be more trusting)," I offered.  One guy, Christian, quickly corrected me, "No,no, no, hay que desconfiar todo el mundo" (You shouldn't trust the anyone).  We continued on towards my place.  They assured me to trust my instincts. 
One guy would repeat in English "no, no es goood, es goood."  

Upon arriving at my place, I gave them a quick lesson on a typical American handshake, with a simple touching of fists.  I said my goodbye, and hiked the stairs up to my apartment.  I crawled into bed with a slight alcohol buzz, but more with a buzz that comes from seeing kindness and having ones hopes renewed of making it abroad.

Sunday, December 31, 2006

Bogota is empty and tranquil during the holidays.  The septima, the main thoroughfare outside 
of my apartment is the quiet and the air is cleaner than usual.  Andrea and her dad walked to 
my apartment and woke me up to go walking this morning.  Probably half of the Bogotanos
 have left and today is Sunday, which mean there is Ciclovia.  

Ciclovia closes down one side of the main city roads for bicyclists and walkers to have the streets.  This happens on Sunday's from 7 am-2 pm. It is another change in Bogota that has occured in the last 10 years. I hadn't really seen it til today, but it was extremely refreshing to walk outside and see bicylists and walkers passing my block.   

Bogota is progressing quickly and it is exciting to be witness to these changes.  Ciclovia, Transmilenio, Pico y Placa, and the drastic decrease a violence are the key ingredients to Bogota's 
renaisance.  Transmilenio is the new bus system which include enormous efficient red buses that stop at modern elevated platforms on main roads in the city.  It's service will soon include the Septima (7th) so that could be good for me.  Pico y Place is a new system which limits each car to five days of driving, similar to what Mexico does.

The modern transmilenio stations can seem almost too modern for this city.  The image I have is a big clean quiet bus purring by streets with stray dogs, beggars, and sometimes a stench of who knows what.  On the other hand, this modern bus system serves as kind of a shining example and a goal where this city hopes to go.  

It wouldn't be Bogota without the contrasts.  I walk into the Centro Comercial Andino, and it blows away any mall I have seen in the states.  Marble escalators, world cuisine, and designers 
off all kinds of pretty modern things.  Though when I walk outside Andino, there is the pollution, the potholes, the litter, and the things that feel a little more expected.  It is exciting if it keeps improving and I am lucky to watch it happen.  I have discovered an hidden gem before the rest of travellers do.  A fellow traveller said something like "Give it 20 years of this kind of safety, and people will come."  In 20 years I'll sit around and talk about how it used to be, and make up all kinds of stories.

Right now, my room has a nice glow and I am resting up for my first Colombian New Years.
I thoroughly enjoyed Bucaramanga's weather but it's nice not to be sweating for once. Tonight, I am expecting lots of fireworks and dancing with Andrea, and her aunts, til I am sore.  
I haven't mastered the art of partying til seven so tonight could end with me slumped over on a sofa with all Andrea's cousins and aunts partying around me.

Friday, December 29, 2006

I was just reading other blogs  from people who are travelling overland across countries and 
continents.  It is interesting reading their impressions of Bogota, this place 
I am starting to call home.  

One of the blogs said something like "South America has a habit for putting it's capitals on big mountains."  Another 
blog commented on the bohemian parts, the poor parts, and the wealthy parts.  

I have alot of things setup here already, let alone having my girlfriend and her family.
Reading the blog removed me from of my mind set and reminded me of life on the move. I wasn't envious, just refreshed by the new perspective.  Bogota is my South American big capital city home.  For a traveller, 
it is just another city.

 Really, it made me want to go explore Bogota alot more and made me feel happy to have settled there.  Now, with my apartment, I can actually think of my own cozy bed waiting for me. 

Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Extreme sports in a non-libelous country 
After high school, I went to New Zealand to backpack, party, and do various extreme sports. Queenstown, on New Zealand's south island, was said to be the adrenalin capital of the world.   Heath, my travel partner, and I quickly found that it was the adrenalin capital for people on a $200 a day budget.  Much of New Zealand was like this.  We quickly concluded we would rather have a warm hostel bed for a week than 15 minutes of skydiving, helibiking, or even Zorbing.  The relative joy to money ratio was much 
higher secretly sipping out of hip flask in a bar(drinks were too expensive also) than to pay any extreme outfitter.

The other day, here in Bucaramanga, Colombia, maybe I found my kind of adrenalin capital.  The Santander Department of Colombia offers river rafting, biking, and tandem paragliding in the hillside for 13 bucks.

My adventurous day began with another relaxed day in Andrea's parents house, Villa Andrea.  Within the walls of the Villa Andrea are banana and mango trees, a horse, a pool, 
and two dogs.  One dog is really fat and one is really skinny, so I am beginning 
to suspect foul play.  Anita, Andrea's nanny, made my breakfast with steak and eggs and fresh Mora juice.  I later found the Mora berry on Wikipedia and found it is in the the same family
as a blackberry.  After I ate, I studied my distance teaching course in a rope hammoch chair for the first hours of the day.  Eventually, I decided to go for a swim.  I was the second one to 
get in the pool, after a 2 inch spider working on his backstroke.
Eventually, I decided that I needed to put some effort out and get out of the resort for at least a 
little bit.
During travel, I have found that I often get out of it what I put into it. There have been different times in different countries when I could have lounged 
around but putting forth effort later proved worth it.  Two of those rewarding times were body boarding in New Zealand and seeing a Volcano in Nicaragua.  Being sluggish makes for fewer memories.

My guide, translator, and companion Felipe (Andrea's brother) and I caught a taxi to the mountain road.

The countryside around Bucaramanga embodies an idyllic South American countryside, especially now that the guerillas and paramilitaries have been pushed back.  The temperature was a perfect 76F with a slight breeze.  Amongst the creeks and banana trees were small family farms and the occasional neighborhood or mansion.  "If it weren't for the war, most Colombians would choose to live like this," Felipe said.  

We arrived a turnoff where three 20-somethings were getting off the bus. They each had big pillowy backpacks which told us we were at the right spot. They seemed just alot like 
the extreme types in the US: relaxed, friendly, and alternative looking clothing, especially for Colombia.  We gave the girl a ride in the taxi and the guys followed behind down the dirt road.  

Their setup was pretty basic and minimalist: two meager bamboo tents and a big sloped field.  If I were in the States then I would have been sitting down to begin signing numerous form saying that I will hold no one liable if I got dropped, skewered, strung up.  On the contrary, I stood there in this open field and cluelessly waited for my paperwork and eventual tutorial.  
One of the young guys walked up to me and introduced himself.  He said something in Spanish which I mentally paraphrased to "follow me".
"Ok," I was thinking ",Time to go see the equipment, maybe a general explanation of the flight path?"  In front of me a guy was casually putting on a backpack which was attached to the big parachute behind him on the ground.  A chair was being clipped in front of the guy.  My ego was telling me to play it cool, don't be a pussy.  But survival instincts told me to get help.  I called over Felipe and said something that probably meant "I need explain me".  He raised his eye brows and gestured towards the seat.  
I am not going to over dramatize it but things became sort of surreal at that point.  I didn't think I was so easily led.  Oh... it's a chair, I get it...ok, I'll just move my leg so you can strap me in.  Suddenly...Whooosh! The parachute rose off the ground and bulged with the breeze coming up the mountain face.  I gazed at the instructors and the subtropical landscape patiently 
and knowingly waiting for my tutorial.  

I don't know if it was the language or my ego that stopped me from protesting.  As we ascended, I was still denying what had just happened.  We must have ascended 75 feet in about 10 seconds.  The family picnicking below soon became smaller.  It felt as though we reached 200 feet about 4 seconds later.  I gripped a support rope as if there were no legs straps or achair.  I was elated but also still in shock of what I was doing. I knew I had just let myself get a couple hundred feet in the air without any paper work or instruction.   The instructor urged "tranquila" and eventually I scooted back into the chair.  
We passed brand new houses on the along a ridgeline, farm workers, and a 15 foot waterfall which looked tiny from above.  I then thought of a quote I heard a hang gliding instructor say ",one can see the earth breath."  It was true, I could see the wild forests and the farmland, overgrown foundations, freshly painted mansions, Bucaramanga, Florida(a city), and the mountains of Santander.  I could see the flows of people, flows of water, flow of electricity, 
and the bends and twists caused by plates below the earth.

The height offered a private view into things I wouldn't otherwise see: backyards, mountain trails, cascades, people working, and a guy yelling at his dog to name a few.  My normal thoughts and
ego disappeared and I momentarily transformed in a person simply looking at his planet below.  It was hardly like looking out a plane window.  There was no noise or anything in the way.
I was merely sitting in a chair, discovering everything around me.  

Eventually the instructor did a few tricks like a corkscrew manuever, in which we barrelled sideways going down.  I did parapenting twice that day, for about a quarter of the cost in a first world country.  I walked away satisfied and enlightened.  I kept rambleing on that I couldn't believe I had just done it.  It reminded me of all that is around, new and old, the character of Colombia and the world that is difficult to see otherwise.  

The taxi had dropped us there earlier, so we were luckily stranded.  I say luckily because it was an oppurtunity to walk through this lush mountain farmland back down to the city.

Thursday, December 14, 2006

As I was walking around the city yesterday, it is interesting to notice all the security techniques in this country, or at least this city. Most apartments, at least in the North part of Bogota that I am familiar with have doormen. These guys just sit at a desk and let people in and out of the door and occasionally open up the garages and parkades. They are usually nice enough guys, likely from the lower-middle class. There are many jobs like this in Colombia, very monotonous in comparison to what I, as an American, deem "good" work.
One thing I admire about Andrea is her kindness to the lower and middle class workers. One night we had extra spaghetti from a meal and she came up with the idea of giving some to Wilber, the doorman, who was surprised and flattered at the offer. One time in the past, Karma caught up with Andrea when she was living in a Bogota apartment. Some things were stolen from different apartments in her complex and her apartment was untouched. When she got some stuff stolen from her passenger seat when she was driving, the front desk ladies (also lower-middle class) were all to happy to help her and take care of her right after the incident. Andrea's treatment of the worker class is quite different from people who ignore them and sometimes humiliate them. I have heard stories of people who shop at different grocery stores for their maids and make them wear silly outfits. Classism is often more apparent here than in the states.
A common security measure here are the numerous different types of barbed wire around gates and buildings. Concertina coiled razor wire is probably the most popular type on fences. Some fences even go as far as electric. They all look particularly foreboding and painful to me. It is my first experience with real security measures. The closest my home town can come are the "rent-a-cops" who drive Rav4s around the parking lots of malls and grocery stores.
The barbed wire that I remember most had to be that around the Spanish embassy. A stylishly foreboding fence circled the compound on the busy thoroughfare. On the bottom of the fence were elegant little spikes. The middle had ornate little metal swirls, also with spikes. The top was embellished with a row of metal leaves pointing inside and outside the gate. The metalsmith had put specific minute detail into each of those razor leaves.
Even though I really enjoy Bogota, it's hard sometimes to get used to the security here. The Spanish embassy left an odd impression with me. Some kind of odd allegory like do what you can with what you have and where you are: making art and beauty out of the cold hard reality that you need protection.

Monday, December 11, 2006

There is something refreshing about walking in a sea of faces of people who you can't understand . It's refreshing if I think about it the right way, I am physically there, but none of the weight of people's idiotic conversations is on me. I just float through the crowds without having to listen to anybody talk. I breathe in the pollution of the city but the bantering and yammering doesn't pollute my mind, I can't process it yet.
One morning when I was in New Zealand, a German friend told me about the same experience. "You're lucky sometimes you can't understand German, those people over there kept talking about some bird that woke them up." I remember New Zealand's german travellers well, particularly those who spoke little English. I would ask them something about the where they had been or what type of food they liked. Whenever you got an answer like "yes" with a smile, you knew they had missed it. I am starting to master that here in Bogota: the art of pretending to understand. I thank my predecessers for my technique. I am putting finishing touches on the subtle nod, the pressed lips, the long "Si" or "que bien"!(Great!)
In reality, the language barrier is rarely liberating. Why would one ask a question if they aren't going to understand the answer? That's the comedy of foreign language phrase books.
¿Adónde puedo comprar un cellular de movistar? Where can I buy a movistar cellphone ? The answer would be mixture of "sigas, dereches, alla, al lado" likely mixed with various articles, prepositions, and places that make up sentences. Ok...subtle, appreciative smile, pressed lips, "que bien" and try to walk towards where the person first pointed.
Today, when I was walking in the sea of people downtown I passed a fellow gringo. The anglo features and the skateboard suddenly set off my radar. He's not from here either. We caught eachothers glances, and exchanged an understanding nod. I thought his nod said to me "Ah, you're not supposed to be here either," or at least that's what I wanted my nod to say.