Day 15

Thu May 6, 2010

Coming home.

We spent last night in a hotel near Adriana’s apartment, after meeting her fiance, David. It was actually more of a long-term apartment, complete with refrigerator and small kitchen. You could live there quite comfortably, though you’d need something less than the nightly hotel rate (about $80). Traffic noise was horrendous this morning, however.

Our taxi drive out of Medellin and back to the new airport outside of town was again delightful chaos. Our driver is a “regular” that Adriana and her family request when he’s available. The street we took was nearly as steep as the streets in San Francisco, but it kept going up and going up (and going up). We climbed nearly 3000 feet from the hotel to the crest of the road. So my original statement that Medellin is at 7000 feet was not entirely incorrect.


One of the worst things about visiting new relatives in Colombia is farts.

Colombian food is very different from US food in a number of ways. There are staple items like yuca (manioc) and plantain, neither of which is typically eaten in the US at all. There are fruits served with every meal that the US palate finds exotic, like pineapple, or completely foreign, like the one I call snot-fruit (call it fruta de mocos, and any Colombian will know exactly which one you mean, especially if you also comment that it is delicious). Maize (corn) replaces wheat. But the hardest difference to accommodate, unless you are from the deep south of the US, is that nearly everything is fried or deep-fried.

The unaccustomed gut reacts to this assault of strangeness with gas. Lots of gas. Volumes of gas. So you excuse yourself and ask “Donde está el baño?” and you discover that it is two steps from where everyone is talking, behind a thin interior door. You close the door, and you can still hear the conversation clearly. As you relieve the pressure, the door rattles in its frame. A bottle falls into the sink and rolls around. Outside, you become aware of conversation resuming — you had not noticed it had stopped, concerned as you were with other matters.

This makes it difficult to truly relax.

While I am discussing matters scatological, I have to make a comment about Colombian public restrooms. First, they are invariably very clean, especially compared to US public restrooms. Colombian men can apparently aim. Second, they are weird.

The first public baño I went into turned out to be typical for malls, airports, and the like: a normal flushing toilet bowl, but minus the seat. Since I needed to sit, I dithered for a while, trying to decide how to handle it, but finally decided to perch on the edge. Fortunately, they keep the water levels low, or it could have been … chilly.

Later, Papito and I both commented on a baño in Chinchiná. There is a rectangular style of urinal with an opening about six inches by five inches. It’s made of heavy ceramic, just like an ordinary toilet, or (say) a flowerpot. I will have to ask Marta if there is a Colombian expression of “watering the flowers.” These don’t flush: instead, they have a simple spigot that turns on the water, like a sink, and you need to turn it on and off to rinse the bowl after use. This particular baño had two, and both were set rather high on the wall. It worked fine for me, but it occurred to me that I’m very tall compared to most Colombians. Gigantic, even. When I finished, Papito and I looked at each other, and both of us pantomimed standing on tip-toe. A puzzle.

The third was the strangest. I stepped into the baño, and found myself in a tiny tiled room, scarcely big enough to be called a closet. The only light was what came in from above the saloon-style swinging door, but there were no fixtures of any sort. I stepped out and looked at the sign — it was certainly marked “Baño.” I went back in and noticed a faucet knob on one wall, just like for the little flower pots, but with no flower pot. A thin plastic hose hung from the spigot. I looked down and saw that a raised divider ran across the floor, creating a small trench next to the wall with the spigot. Sure enough, in the shadows of the trench I could see a drain. Rinse the wall when you’re done.

I’ve been told on returning that the secret pocket of the carille is not to contain a picture of your girlfriend — it is to contain a picture of your mistress, as well as any love-letters she has written you. And the matches are actually supposed to be a fire striker (flint and steel). We’re still working on the last two items.

I also have a lot of reflections on fear and security. But I think those will require a full essay.

As a final note, I need to say that this blog is entirely my own work; Marta has provided no editorial services. In fact, she never even had time to read the blog while we were in Colombia. Otherwise, I would not have misspelled Chipechape. Nor would I have given such a confused and apparently incorrect description of how panela is made. I take personal responsibility for errors, and for all humor, good or bad.


Day 14

Wed May 5, 2010 (Miercolas)

Our last full day in Colombia.

We rose reasonably early and had breakfast at the hotel, as usual. Nena and Papito came to the hotel, and Marta went out with Nena to shop for some souvenirs to bring back home, while I gave Papito a short course in using his new laptop in our room. The language-barrier was pretty severe, but he’s sharp and grasped most of what he needed to know.

I think.

When Marta and Nena returned, we took lunch at a place I wish we’d known about before, and am glad we’ll know about next time, since it’s within easy walking distance of the hotel. They have an extensive menu, much wider than what we’ve tended to see here, and their ice-cream list is worth the whole price of lunch. Like many restaurants in Colombia, the dining area was outdoors, with only a roof to keep rain and direct sun off our heads. The rain finally let up, and the day turned hot, drier, and very pleasant. Especially with ice cream.

From there, it was off to the airport, far outside Cali, and our eventual farewells. It would have been much more painful, but for the knowledge that we’ll be back soon.

Our flight to Medellin…. I don’t think I’ve ever been more enchanted by a flight. I decided as we boarded that I would pretend I had never seen or heard of an airplane before, and try to see the whole flight with new eyes. We become so jaded to the everyday miracles of our technology.

The plane was a small commuter with props under a top-mounted wing. Simply watching the propellers spin up and hearing the angry hornet buzz through the curved walls was impressive in its own right. But when we reached the start of the runway and they released the full power of the elemental spirits driving the engines, I found myself awed, even frightened. They released the brakes for a moment, and the entire cabin shuddered with the eagerness of this beast to be off: this was no humble servant — it was an untamed, barely-contained primal force of nature desiring freedom of the skies.

The pilots received clearance, and as they released the brakes, I was pressed back in my seat by the force of the beast’s freed enthusiasm. Our speed doubled, and doubled again, and doubled yet again, and I was still held in my seat by the relentless acceleration. In the bigger planes, you lose the sense of perspective, so high above the ground. Here, we were close to the tarmac; I could viscerally feel our reckless speed. The wings caught wind, and suddenly we were grabbing altitude, the ground and the apartments and houses below rapidly shrinking to dots in the rich green of the Colombian fields.

The clouds were layered and magical, a gargantuan three-dimensional environment of incredible beauty. We passed through layer after layer of light clouds, some almost invisible veils of mist, some great puffy mounds of stark white cotton, some dark layers threatening rain and chaos that streaked the windows with moisture. The vista changed every moment as the dark earth vanished into mist below us. We fled north, and I sat on the eastern side of the plane and watched late afternoon sun illuminated this sky kingdom. We came to a great aerial lagoon — huge puffy clouds formed a ring that glowed like white mountain peaks, and a perfectly flat, still layer of transparent wisps created the still surface of a lake in the center of the circle. My eye kept insisting that the clouds I could see through the wisps were reflections of the white peaks above.

The plane banked, and we curved around a great puffy cloud, almost close enough to reach out and touch its surface; I could see the curls of cold steam at its edges that hung motionless in the still, humid air.

As we began our descent into Medellin only thirty minutes later, we drove straight through one of the great puffy mounds of cotton, and the plane shuddered as though it had struck something. Which it had: a layer of greater density, barely noticeable to our heavy earthen forms, but consequential to this beast of the air. It shuddered, steadied, and then we were through and the ground became visible again, startling deep green wrinkles lit by the setting sun and shadowed by the sky mountains that now hung above us.

We slipped between mountain peaks, made of earth and hard stone this time, and suddenly the ground fell away in a great, steep-sloped gorge that folded around us like a pair of cupped hands. The City of Eternal Spring spread out beneath us, its red tile roofs matching the red soil and contrasting with the deep green of its parks and pastures. We made a tight turn, then dropped swiftly to the short runway and touched ground again. The beast’s roar dimmed — it was content after its run. We taxied to the terminal, and the trip was over.

Day 13

Tue May 4, 2010 (Martes)

Today was our last full day in any one place in Colombia. It was a difficult, draining, but ultimately very good day.

This was the day for family issues.

Papito is old, he isn’t rich, and his living situation with Nena is not good for either of them. It is a difficult situation, and very for Papito and Nena to talk. So this afternoon was all about opening the can of worms, communicating, and solving problems. We used our hotel room as a neutral space to meet.

In the end, we had a good clearing of the air, a straightforward accord among all of us, and some immediate next steps.

Afterwards, we went back to Nena’s. We had originally planned to go to Paula and Alejandro’s for dinner, up on the north edge of Cali, but Marta was not feeling well enough to drive through Cali or eat dinner. I think none of us felt much like being sociable after this afternoon. So we called Paula and Alejandro and cancelled, then ended up having a very quiet evening at Nena’s.

The weather today was positively sucky. The constant rain finally flooded the city. A kilometer or two below Nena’s house, a mudslide covered the road, just a few hours after Natalia took us home and that road and drove back. And apparently large parts of Cali (far from us) are flooded right now, with up to three feet of water in places. Today has had only spots of drizzle, but it has been chilly — yes, chilly here in equatorial Colombia — with 100% humidity. My favorite kind of weather.

We understand that Fort Collins weather has been lovely as well. The forecast I see for Thursday night calls for a low of 28 degrees. Blecch. At least it looks like the weekend might be kind of nice.

We’ll call it a day. Marta and I are both exhausted.

Day 12

Mon May 3, 2010 (Lunes)

We are approaching the end of our stay in Colombia.

One of the things Papito wanted to show us was the clinic where he worked for so many years. I need to consult with Marta for the details of Papito’s career: he went from medical student in Manizales, to some kind of practicum or rotation in New Orleans (Marta’s first exposure to the US), to a surgical practice in Cali. In the last few years, a friend and associate offered him office space in his ophthalmology clinic to meet with the last of his long-time patients before he retired for good, which was only in the last year. We went to this office and met the wife/receptionist of the ophthalmologist.

From there, we went to Chipechappe Mall for some shoppy-shoppy. They’ve converted the old freight train station into a huge shopping mall. It’s way up on the north edge of the city, while our hotel was down in the south. Our drive back took us through the heart of the city, which was all the downtown New York or Hong Kong you’d ever hope for. Like either New York or Hong Kong, driving through doesn’t really do it justice, but walking through it takes good shoes and an ability to draw energy from the city. I can do that, though it isn’t my primary mode; Marta, however, is hopelessly drained by that kind of nervous energy.

After several stops for groceries and the like, we finally came back past the hotel (remember, it’s at the south end) and then further south and west up the mountain toward Nena’s house.

Her house is on the border of a huge natural park that was purchased by some extremely wealthy Gringo who designated it a nature preserve and prevented any further development within it. The preserve has long walking trails that Marta and I will not be able to experience on this trip.

We opened a bottle of wine, and had cheese and maduro (ripe plantain) for dinner. That was good: Colombian food is generally very heavy, and we’ve been eating far too much of it. The five of us — Papito, Nena, Natalia, Marta, and I — sat on her front porch and talked and laughed until what felt like very late, though it was only about nine o’clock. Natalia drove us home.

Marta crashed almost immediately. I got sucked into the TV movie she’d started, and watched until about midnight.

Rain has been intermittent, but heavy all afternoon and evening.


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).

Day 9

Fri Apr 30, 2010 (Viernes)

The last couple of days have passed fairly slowly, easily, and without much to say. In addition, I have no Internet connection here, so I’m working strictly off-line.

It is rainy season, so we’ve had mostly rain, and days have been cool. To my north-conditioned skin, it’s pleasantly cool — locals are wearing sweaters.

I had thought I would go into Viterbo on Wednesday, but Marta wanted to go by herself with Luz Elena, and then Nena went along; I would have been a complete annoyance. So I stayed here. Later in the day, we went to the next farm up, which is still on Alonzo’s property — he has quite a bit of land here — and met Roberto, his wife Gladys, and their daughter Elizabeth.

That’s where I got the coffee that pushed me over the edge. A typical way to serve it here is sweet, using panela. All sugar in Colombia is cane sugar; preparation involves cooking it, and that results in a skin of toasted (almost-burned) sugar at the bottom that they call panela, very dark with a molasses-like flavor. This coffee was prepared the traditional way, pouring the sweetened (hot) water through the grounds and then allowing the grounds to steep in the water. The result was a very complex set of flavors entirely unlike any coffee I’ve tasted before.

I also got an exposure to the endemic dangers of Colombia. Roberto took me on a tour of his farm, and at one point handed me a cutting of mint. On one of the mint leaves was a caterpillar. It bit me: two little vampire bites on my pinky.

I’m glad Papito is a physician with lots of years of local experience, because there are insects in Colombia with deadly bites, though the worst are to the north, around the swamps that surround Cartagena. He’s been giving it a look daily, and it’s healing well: a tiny bit of local inflammation, like a mosquito bite, and nothing more. As Alonzo said, that’s one of the troubles with the tropics — you have to know where you put your foot.

The experience has left me with a creepy-crawly feeling.

Papito had a low-blood pressure incident during that same visit; he got very dizzy and could not walk unassisted. That upset Marta. We need to have one of those very serious where-do-we-go-from-here family discussions, which was part of the idea of coming to visit. Right now, Papito is living with Nena, and it isn’t working very well for either of them. There’s still lots of time for that discussion before we leave, but it is growing shorter.

That night it really rained: hours of steady rainfall, still raining when we got up yesterday morning.

Yesterday we drove into Pereira to get party goods for Nena’s birthday party on Saturday, her birthday being another reason for coming down now.
Pereira is a large city, about an hour’s drive from Viterbo. We had passed through only the outskirts before, and we started out in the outskirts again at a big mall. The supermercados (supermarkets) in South America are a bit like a Sam’s Club, but with a consistent inventory: we could buy everything from computers to tires to potato chips to fresh lobster. We were able to get most of what we needed for the party.

For the remaining items we needed to go into the heart of town. I enjoyed that part more than Marta did. It’s very crowded and busy, and reminded me of 42nd and Broadway in New York City, though it felt safer. There are the stores all along the street, and street vendors everywhere, selling everything from chorizo to earrings. The sidewalks are packed with pedestrians, and since I was generally serving as Papito’s companion, letting him hold my arm for balance, we made a wide package. I started to learn to dance around him as we walked, though we weren’t there long enough for me to get very good at it. Still, I didn’t bump into too many people.

One basic rule here is that cars have the right-of-way, not pedestrians. If you are in the street itself, drivers expect you to dodge. Because of Papito, we were always extremely conservative when crossing the street, but with Nena driving we saw a lot of jaywalkers darting across in front of us. She simply expected them to be out of the way by the time she got to them.

We came straight home from Periera, and encountered the police again — they apparently set up speed traps all along that road, like the camera cops in Fort Collins — at the turn-off to Viterbo. This time everyone was wearing a seat belt, and they waved us through.

Alonzo’s parrots have picked up Marta’s laugh, and when they get started, it makes all of the rest of us laugh, too.

The morning dawned heavily overcast. It’s clearing a bit, and is still cool and pleasant. Ah — the sun just appeared.

Day 7

Wed Apr 28, 2010 (Miercolas, morning)

Yesterday passed slowly and gently. Not much to report: it was a day at the beach, without the beach.

Alonzo lives alone here, but has a woman, Luz Elena, who cooks and cleans for him, and her husband takes care of the property. They, and their four girls, live in the downstairs portion of the house. Alonzo has kidney problems, and needs dialysis four times daily — he just had the machine brought here. I haven’t probed with too many personal questions, and since I can’t follow all of the rapid-fire Spanish, I miss a lot.

So yesterday morning Luz Elena made us breakfast of fresh arepas and farm-fresh eggs, with coffee. At some point in the day, I got into the pool and swam a bit, showering before and after. There is no heated water in the house. If you want hot water, you heat it on the stove. So showers are cold. It’s very refreshing, and it certainly solves the problem of people lingering in the shower and using up all the hot water. Not that this is a workable strategy in temperate climates.

Other than that, I spent the entire day playing with photographs. I’ll be posting some as soon as I get an Internet connection. The automatic adjustments on the camera are fantastic, but they wash out the pictures in this light. In particular, the electronics do not seem to be able to believe the shades of green, so they try to compensate. I’ve been able to adjust the pictures back to something closer to what we see, here.

My Spanish is improving daily. I keep learning more words, and my ability to parse streams of conversation into words is getting better. I still can’t follow a fast conversation, because I trip over words and expressions I simply do not know. But when people speak slowly and simply, I can usually follow them, and last night I even managed to tell a couple of jokes in Spanish. Vulgar humor translates the best: those conditions are universal. Political humor also does pretty well, so long as you know the politics. Word-humor doesn’t translate at all.

Last night was pretty ghastly for me, weather-wise. The humidity kept increasing, despite the intermittent rains, and all of the insects last night came out in vast hordes to hang out around the indoor lights — the night before, there had been bugs, but not that many. Despite the heat, Marta and I needed to cover up and tuck with the sheet, just so the little bastards didn’t tickle us to death. None of them were biters, thank goodness, or there’d be nothing left of us but bones this morning.

In the middle of the night, the heat finally broke, with long rolls of thunder and a fairly heavy rain. This morning dawned pleasantly cool and cloudy.

At the moment, Papito, Marta, and Nena are quietly conversing, the various songbirds are making jungle-sounds, the hens are clucking, the two roosters are announcing daylight, and one of the captive parrots keeps shouting “ele-NA! mar-TA!”