Day 11

Sun May 2, 2010 (Domingo)

Three packed days and I haven’t written. Let’s see…

Friday started as another laid-back day on the finca. It picked up a bit as Alonzo, Marta, Papito, and I went into Viterbo for final groceries for the party. While we were there, Alonzo gave me a gift of a carriel, which is what you might call a cowboy’s wallet: very traditional in Colombia, and you see them a lot. It’s a leather pouch, typically with three major dividers inside. By tradition, there must be the following twelve items in the carriel:

A picture of your girlfriend
Tobacco and papers
A knife
A comb
A deck of cards
Dice for gambling
A mirror
A razor for shaving
Spare shoelaces

I also experienced my first (and so far, only) open-faced request for money. A skinny, healthy looking fellow with a shoe-cleaning kit slung over his shoulder saw me, and his face lit up. I try to suspend immediate judgement on such things, especially in a foreign country, but his smile said “Hey, my long-lost Gringo buddy I haven’t seen since the … where did we meet, anyway?” It’s been my experience that people don’t approach strangers who are minding their own business unless they want something: typically directions or money. They’ll also approach you if you look reasonably safe and very confused, usually to help. I didn’t think I looked confused.

He fired a stream of extremely rapid Spanish at me, of which I caught only the word “comida” meaning “food.” I sized him up and decided he didn’t really look like he was starving. So I politely shook my head and said my Spanish was terrible, and I didn’t understand. I did not ask him to go slower: I really didn’t want to know what he said. He repeated himself a couple of times, pantomiming eating. I just shook my head and repeated that I didn’t understand, and he eventually got the message and went away.

I’m sure the reason was the camera, which was hanging around my neck. I had gone into Viterbo specifically to take some pictures. I think the only way to get away with that is to carry a whole backpack full of camera equipment and handle it professionally. Then you might get curious people saying, “What are you doing?” but not the “Hey, my long-lost Gringo buddy…” dreck.

After we returned, some of the party guests began to arrive. Marta and I were tired and both turned in early. We had another night of rain.

On Saturday, a whole bunch of us woke up sick. I’m not sure what hit us, but Papito, Marta, Alberto (Luz Elena’s husband), one of their daughters, and I all felt like absolute crap. We think it might have been a turn in the water, from all the rain: although no one was drinking the stuff, we were showering and washing dishes with it.

As a result, I was pretty out-of-it throughout the entire party, which was a smashing success. I mostly took pictures and chatted with some of the guests who spoke English. I’m afraid under the stress of feeling ill, all my Spanish abandoned me. I’m also becoming more sensitive to the glaring but somewhat subtle errors, like saying “Mui gracias” instead of “Muchas gracias.” I leave out “hay” all the time, emulating English, such as “No problema,” as opposed to the correct “No hay problema.” In addition, several of the people there spoke excellent English, and they were happy for the chance to practice.

It was a lovely gathering for Nena. Her closest friends gathered from wherever they are scattered throughout Colombia (some of them date back to her college years), as well as her cousin Paula and her family, her kids (Javier, Natalie, and one of their cousins named Angelita), and her cousin Fernando, and her uncle Carlos. I think that got everyone: I’ll have to look at the picture with Marta and make sure we’ve annotated it with names.

We had noisemakers to accompany cutting the cake, and the poor parrots went wild, shrieking along with all the noise.

The conversation went on for hours after the party was over, but I crashed hard at sunset: I went to bed and slept straight through until dawn, at least twelve hours. All of us felt much better this morning.

This morning, Marta, Fernando, Natalie, and Luz Elena all went out and harvested mangoes, mostly for fun. Fernando fell out of the tree several times and got himself all muddy. One of the trees was at the top of a steep hill: when they knocked the mangoes loose, they rolled down the hill. They gave up chasing them, and decided to just pick up whatever they could find on the trip back down.

After lunch, we said our sad good-byes, and started the long drive to Cali.

We crossed the Cauca River once between Viterbo and Periera, and we were actually driving upstream along the Cauca. However, the road climbs significantly from that crossing as we move toward Periera, and from there it is a long, slow drop into Cali. There are three mountain ranges in Colombia, running more or less north to south, and the two ranges that bracket the Cauca eventually merge just south of Cali and become the Andes range that runs along the western edge of South America. So, as in Medellin, we are once again in a valley between two ranges, though the eastern range is quite some distance from us here.

Cloud-views were spectacular on the drive to Cali. The valley broadens going south before it narrows again past Cali, and rainstorms played all about us.

We arrived in Cali shortly after nightfall. The rains we’d driven through had not yet reached Cali, so it was still hot, and the air was thick with dust and pollution. Traffic was initially light, as it was Sunday: however, we passed some kind of stadium game letting out just as we drove by, and the traffic stopped completely. The stadium is quite some distance from town, perhaps four or five miles, but a huge number of people simply walk there and back. The roads were lined with pedestrians and the usual game of chicken, though on the multi-lane divided highways it is a game of “I’m cutting in front of you,” and was a lot more like Denver traffic. There is a significant amount of air pollution in the part of Cali we drove through (the industrial district) — it’s one of the few times I’ve seen bright streetlights casting shadows in the air.

The hotel at which we had reservations a) could not find our reservation (they seem to have a lot of trouble with that here, though I’ve had almost as much trouble at times in the US), and b) was not an acceptable room. It was a cute little hotel, but the rooms were tiny, there was no air conditioning at all, and the toilet would not shut off. It was late, we were all tired, no one was feeling especially well, and we gave up and got a room in the Radisson, where we’ve decided to stay until we leave on Wednesday. It’s expensive, but we’ve paid for almost nothing on this trip but the air fare: we can splurge for the last three nights.

A word on prices. I finally figured out that the way to think of pesos is as pennies, not dollars. The Colombians use the European custom of using the period to divide thousands, and the comma to separate fractions (2.000,43 €), so when you see a price of twenty-thousand pesos, it looks like this: 20.000. It looks a lot like twenty dollars, with an extra zero tacked on. The current exchange rate is very close to two thousand pesos to the dollar, or twenty pesos to the penny, so if you simply divide the price you see by two, you’re there. Twenty-thousand pesos is ten bucks.

What we’ve found is that local items, like food, cost a little over half what the equivalent would cost in the US. If you look at a typical restaurant menu and don’t divide by two, it looks a little pricey but still reasonable. Imported items, like computers and games, are little bit more expensive than in the US. Marta got an Acer laptop in the US for about $300, and here an equivalent laptop is about 800,000 pesos ($400).

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