Day 4

Apr 24, 2010

Today turned out to be a “fun with Spanish” day.

RestaurantWe took breakfast this morning at the hostel: huevos revueltos con jamon, cebolla, y tomate (scrambled eggs with ham, onion, and tomato), with the ever-present arepa — this one made of very white corn and, like ultra-white Wonder Bread, not very tasty — with fresh mandarin juice and a fruit plate. And, of course, coffee.



I messed up with the fruit plate, but lucked out. They indicated that there were three fruits, piña, niña, and santa maria — hold it, that’s not right — piña, mango, and papaya, and that it was available mezcla, meaning “mixed.” That sounded good to me, so I asked for mezcla. I must have mispronounced or somehow confused the issue, because both Marta and the waitress jumped on me, demanding (so I thought) that I pick one of the three. So I shrugged and picked piña. When it arrived, Marta had her fruit mezcla, just as I’d wanted it, and I had a plate of only pineapple, just as I’d ordered it. However, the mango turned out to be slightly underripe, and the papaya was actually boring old cantaloupe. The pineapple was excellent, and I had a whole plate of it. So ñah, ñah.

Convention CenterThe taxi trip to Javier’s apartment near noon was filled with a rapid, animated, almost-arm-waving conversation between Marta, who was catching up on recent Manizales history, and the cab driver, who was full of recent Manizales history. Our hostel is located out in the boondocks of the zona industrial, surrounded by manufacturing plants. Right next door to us is a plant that makes magnesium wheel hubs for most of the auto industry, worldwide. After the driver had explained that, the next thing I thought I heard was zona devina, which had me scratching my head: is that the area where they build churches, or does God perhaps have a vending booth? If so, what does He sell? I had to ask, and after they got done laughing, neither Marta nor the cab driver could remember saying anything that could possibly be mistaken for zona devina. Certainly not the equally enchanting zona de vino, which unfortunately doesn’t exist here either.

By the time we reached Javier’s apartment, it was time for lunch, so we set out on a walk for food. Marta kept walking ahead with Javier, leaving me with Papito, who carried on a non-stop barrage of very fast Spanish full of words I’d never dreamed of: I caught perhaps one word in a hundred, tried to build a context for even parsing the rest, and then watched my brain melt down in slow-motion. I was lucky that the day was cool or all that brain-melting would have made me unpleasantly warm.

What’s surprising is how much I did catch. I actually understood that the huge tower we were approaching had once held cable-cars that led to the deep valleys that surround Manizales, and that the building we were passing had been the terminus station for the cable-cars.

We finally found lunch in the food court at the local mall. Food is done differently here: it has not gone the “efficiency” route of all the burger and fast-food outlets in the US. It is inefficient, and you have to wait for your food to be prepared. It is consequently much tastier. I had something called plataños, which is a single plantain, flattened and deep-fried, and then buried in stuff. A flattened plantain is almost exactly the size of a small wooden cutting board. I know this because it was served on a small wooden cutting board. The mezcla on top in my case was a combination of chicken and pork, in a divine sauce (perhaps this was the zona devina?) Interestingly enough, they served it with really cheap plastic knives and forks, and I went through two forks before Javier got up, went to the serving stall, and complained. They brought out a real knife and fork, and I had no trouble after that. Papito only destroyed one fork, and got the real utensils, too. Marta ate with her fingers, and Javier had ordered something that he ate with a spoon.

We walked again after lunch. We passed a sign advertising ice-cream cones, conos, and I pointed out to Javier that conos and años are two words where pronunciation is critical. Javier was amused. We turned back as rain threatened, and it caught us about a block from home: fortunately only a light sprinkle. We sat in Javier’s tiny student apartment with its two plastic chairs, one bed, and one bean-bag. Marta used Javier’s temperamental iron to dry my shirt (I had gallantly taken the brunt of the rain when it came to sharing the umbrella), while I used Javier’s internet connection to post yesterday’s entry. I tried to keep up with as much of the conversation as I could without being a nuisance.

After the rain stopped, we took a taxi out to the edge of town, where a long park overlooks the valleys in that direction. Papito had finally begun to grasp just how little Spanish I understand, and began to speak more slowly and with simpler words. He also started pulling out his long-abandoned English — he had once been fluent. We actually began to converse, on a variety of subjects. He is a very funny man, very intelligent with a pointed sense of humor, and I think a lot of wisdom. I do wish I spoke a better Spanish.

It is always interesting to watch people. We bought snacks along the park walkway and sat down on a stone wall to eat. Just up from us was a young woman and her man, and they clearly were not speaking. She fumed silently, and he was clearly at fault and didn’t know exactly what to do next. After a long period of silence, she got up and walked away, and he followed her to their motorcycle, clearly intending to take her home or to the next brooding-spot. Or there was the happy couple walking down the street, smiling, laughing, talking, touching. Or the fellow dancing at the side of the path and sort-of lip-synching to a very loud (and very cheap) boom box. I say sort-of because he was actually singing loudly enough to hear, and had a lot more enthusiasm than talent: he was, in fact, so bad and so enthusiastic that everyone smiled as they passed him.

A continued short walk took us to the Space Needle. It’s part of a permanent municipal amusement park featuring a giant swing that lets you fly out over one of the steep slopes, a zip-line for kids, trampolines with tethers, and similar self-powered rides. We went up in the space needle to look at the surrounding countryside as dusk fell. Tomorrow or the next day Marta and I will try to get up there again at dusk, with camera and tripod, and I will describe the spectacular view then.

From there we walked to a little open-air restaurant, and the discussion with the waitress reminded me of the Monty Python Cheese Shop skit. The restaurant seemed to be out of everything. Then the waitress had to stand there tapping her pen impatiently while Javier delivered a lecture on the nature of food preparation in Colombia from first inhabitants on Earth, while Marta argued with him and Papito added his personal recollections. They eventually came to some kind of agreement, and we ordered arepas choclo to take home. These are the kind of arepa Marta had our first night in Medellin. Most arepas are made from hulled corn germ prepared in various ways, dried, and then ground to flour of different textures. The arepa choclo is made from the unprocessed corn germ, and as a result, it tastes almost exactly like sweet corn-on-the-cob.

We had some of the best conversation yet (for me) while we sat waiting. There was a very attractive young couple in a preliminary discussion of human anatomy at the next table (the place was nearly deserted at that hour), and Papito asked why I wasn’t paying more attention to the couple. I explained to everyone that I had to be very careful, because every time I looked, the guy would look at me, and I had to look away. The conversation rapidly ran downhill toward the gutter, and when it comes to innuendo, I can hold my own in any language. I related my earlier conversation with Javier, and Papito fixed me with a stern eye and asked if I liked coños, deliberately mispronouncing it. I raised an eyebrow, bared my teeth in a grin, and said, “Si, con mucho gusto! Mui delicioso!” Javier howled, Marta howled, and we all laughed until we nearly choked. When Marta remarked that we were corrupting poor Javier, I shrugged and replied “Mi trabajo, a mucho honór.” (“My job, with much honor.”) Somehow, I was managing all of this in Spanish, and thanks to Marta, my diction is clear. Though diction doesn’t help when you say something like casa-a-casa, when you actually mean cara-a-cara, which happened as soon as I met Nena a short time later.

We took a taxi back to Javier’s apartment and waited for Nena, Marta’s sister, to join us. After she arrived, and after I made my comment about finally meeting house-to-house, recovered from her utterly blank look and then corrected myself (face-to-face), we ate. Later, Javier introduced us to Angela the landlady, who — it turns out — is also a Restrepo, and relatively closely related. We sat for a fifteen-minute conversation in which Angela and Papito argued about one of their common ancestors.

So today, we walked, we ate, we talked. Then walked, ate, and talked some more. Then listened to the elders remember the ancestors. It would be hard to imagine a more delightful day.

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