A Travellerspoint blog

October 2008

Tunja and Villa de Leiva

= Villa de Vacations!

rain 18 °C

According to anatomists, there are anywhere from 600 to 850 muscles in your body. In all my years of athleticism I am pretty sure I have only located about 70% of those, pulled or torn a solid 30% of those and of the others remaining intact, managed to bully or coerce about 10% into good shape at one point in life (roughly 5% off my total muscles). However, thanks to 4 solid weeks of sucking wind in ultra thin air, while walking uphill daily to work (and sometimes from—yes, that’s uphill both ways), to and from “bus stops”, Transmilenio stops, YMCA offices, etc, I have managed to locate and persuade a few more of those absent 30% into good form. Unfortunately, athleticism is not a coveted trait here among Colombian women (I would categorize most on more of the fragile side), and it was entirely too evident today at the Fería (fair) we worked at a couple weekends ago.

Partnering with the YMCA of Montreal, Marty and I helped to promote their International Language School at an informational fair for all types of students wanting to go/do/learn/experience something international. While our booth in general did really well (apparently 2 American gringos speaking Spanish in Colombia about French programs in Canada is a novelty), it was not my personal fitness accomplishments that attracted people to our booth. However, if you are looking to attract hoards of students (female ones in particular) just stick a 6’2” white guy with bright green eyes, long eyelashes, in his Sunday best, who speaks Spanish out in the aisle and they’ll flock. The program coordinator from Montreal got quite the kick out of this and I can’t say she was alone.

Nevertheless, the week moved on and this weekend we were finally able to snag a few days to get out of Bogotà and see something other than the lively, but often overcrowded streets of Bogotà. We took Friday off to head north to the state of Boyacà on a much appreciated luxury charter bus (comfy seats that recline, clean, tv with movie showing, doesn´t stop every 500 meters only to through you farther into the tangle of arms, strollers, and backpacks. We headed for Tunja- a small university town, in the gold and emerald mining area about 2 1/2 hours outside Bogota. It was just a stop for us, a quick stroll through the central plaza (named Plaza Bolivar after Simon Bolivar, liberator of Colombia and surrounding countries. If there is but one plaza in any Colombian city, you can bet its called Plaza Bolivar), and a run in with a fellow San Diego-an who is opening up a Coldstone there!

After our quick jaunt in Tunja, we boarded a smaller bus (aka a van about the size of an old VW van but with twice the seats). We were kindly led to our bus at the Tunja bus station by a man spouting the name of our destination, Villa de Leiva, at the top of his lungs and at hyperspeed. We boarded, and headed out with our driver ever-so-craftily closing our sliding van door by coming to a quick stop just before leaving the parking lot where it slammed itself shut. He also had a rockin´ mullet. He’s pretty high up on the memorable "bus" driver scale. Anyway, we were finally off to the quaint little colonial town of Villa de Leiva.

The pictures speak to the beauty and tranquility of the town better than I. You will find them on our NEW PICTURE WEBSITE (there are too many to put up on this one) at http://beyondbogota.shutterfly.com/. Villa de Leiva is a small town marked by “cobblestone” streets (read: large stones places haphazardly in a street-like formation, sometimes filled in between with concrete), gorgeous little villas with whitewashed walls, decorated patios, and flowers, and art to adorn the walls. Our hotel was no exception. The hammocks that welcome you in the front courtyard scream “Relax and read a book in me while drinking wine under a gorgeous Colombian sky, free from smog and noise of the big city” –which we did. Hotel Villa de Cristina is actually a family home turned into a hotel where Señor and Señora Cristina still greet you, serve you breakfast and make sure you enjoy your stay- which we did!

We spent our first day out on rented bikes, pedaling from El Fosíl (a fossil of a Cronosaurus, a ginormous prehistoric alligator-like dinosaur they built a museum around instead of moving it), to what we believe is Villa de Leiva’s only vineyard and winery. There we did a little tasting and rested out tushes after a bumpy road in. We also bought a bottle, so first visitors to Colombia get to drink it with us! From there, we pedaled back toward town, but not before stopping at El Infiernito, an ancient astronomical site of the Muisca people (natives of this area) who were quite obsessed with fertility and have the phallic stone statues scattered all over their ‘observatory’ to prove it. From there we made our way back to town after a long (and getting wetter) day. We decided to coin this part of our trip the ‘Motor(bi)cycle Diaries’ for a few reasons: After biking along some pretty gnarly terrain (rocks, potholes, curves, up and down hills, being poured on, being poked by prickly pear cactus spines, encountering Colombia’s largest spider and largest frog, Colombia’s most primed Turkey, half-naked men bathing in the vineyard’s irrigation pools, large stone phalluses, and then some, we were almost as cool as Che in his early years.

We made it back to town, took a little descanso (rest) and headed out again to work out all that lactic acid in our muscles. After strolling through the rest of the small town, past artisan shops, plazas, restaurants, other tourists (at any one time Villa de Leiva can be 50% tourists and foreigners) we bellied up for the best medicine after a long ride: German beer. Aren’t we so multicultural? As luck would have it, there were some fellow American travelers with the same idea and we spent an enjoyable evening soaking up local liquids, food and good (English speaking) company.

Our last morning, we were up for our homemade breakfast, a pretty standard inclusion, and off to church in the plaza. A short but contemporary mass, to the tune of Bob Dylan’s Blowing in the Wind, followed by a church-y remake of Simon & Garfunkle’s Sounds of Silence made for a nice close to the weekend. Perhaps our favorite thing about church here is just how welcoming they are, even dogs are allowed in for mass!

After rounding up our things, it was time to head back to Bogota. The much needed weekend of rest was a reminder of how hectic life is in Bogota at times but a sign that we are starting to really gain our independence here. This next weekend we will be working at a camp for high schoolers and are working this week to get everything all prepped and ready. Since we have to work all weekend (including the Monday holiday) they have promised us some rest and we are looking forward to another glimpse of Colombia somewhere else.

Thanks for making it this far. Don’t forget to check out the photos on our NEW PHOTO SITE.

Posted by tuffchix 10:25 Archived in Colombia Tagged bicycle Comments (0)

Photo Update

We have a new photo website!

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We have too many photos to put up on this site, so we have a whole other site just for photos. Your can find it at http://beyondbogota.shutterfly.com/ or click here. Enjoy and stay tuned, latest entry coming soon!

Posted by tuffchix 19:03 Archived in Colombia Tagged photography Comments (1)

Salud, Dinero, y Amor.

a.k.a. "Bless you!"

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Before you start, just wanted to let you know how to actually access the pics, I didn´t realize you needed a log in to do anything. When you click a link to the pics and it asks for username and password, use 'mzigler' for both. Let me know if this still doesn't work-Enjoy!

In Colombia, instead of saying “bless you” after someone sneezes one says “salud” or “to your health”. However, the well-wishing upon people doesn’t stop there. For the perpetual sneezer, who can string together impressive chains of sneezes, you are especially lucky. Your second sneeze earns you a “dinero,” literally “money” as in a wish for money in your direction, and the third “amor” or “love” a hope for love in your life (I don’t know what happens to you if you manage to get out a 4th or 5th). As you can see, Colombians have their hearts in a good place, and such are the lessons learned on long weekends and mini road trips.

Our weekend actually started Thursday when the YMCA had arranged for us to be tourists in Bogotá. We spent the better part of the morning at Monserrate, the cathedral and pilgrimage site atop one of the eastern mountains bordering Bogotá. You can check out the views of the entire city (!) in the picture gallery. From the elevation of nearly 9,000’ looking over Bogotá is like staring out at the ocean; its impossible to see the end of it, even at the horizon. The cathedral is small and it has become a tourist site playing host to vendors and restaurants but getting a chance to see some of the gorgeous flora and best views is well worth the trek.

We spend the rest of the afternoon checking out the local museum dedicated to Simon Bolivar, the liberator of Colombia and 5 other South American countries from Spain. The museum is his former residence and boasts well preserved artifacts from his 19th century tenure there as well as gorgeous gardens. Perhaps the most impressive part about “Quinta de Bolivar” (the name given to his house) is that his gorgeous botanical gardens (see jungle tree in picture gallery) is that it is only separated from the hustle and bustle of downtown Bogotá by a high wall but is surprising tranquil. The last visit for the afternoon was to an exhibit of Francisco de Goya’s work on the disasters of war, followed by a serenade of Porro music by local Gaiteros (dudes that play the Gaita- the long wooden wind instrument in the picture) in the museum's courtyard.

Friday and Saturday were fairly low key- wandered around the Zona Rosa- a very tourist friendly area that is mostly nice to look at and not for touching, tried out some Sancocho- a Colombian soup made with3 kinds of potatoes, yucca, thickened chicken broth and accompanied by avocado, rice, chicken, and more potatoes, and of course “jugo” (juice). Lunch is their big meal here. And they like potatoes. We spent the evening with David, Pamela his girlfriend and a couple of their friends at the local bar and then again on Saturday to watch Colombia lose a big soccer game to Paraguay.

On Sunday, in need of some quality Americanism, we headed to the most American place in town to catch some football; TGIFriday’s. I’m not proud of my Friday’s patronage, but pat myself on the back for our ability to prioritize; football over, well, anything else Sunday afternoon. Being able to watch the NFL Network in Colombia is pretty satisfying and we could rest easy the rest of the day having had our fill of America’s 2nd favorite pastime.

Monday (a holiday here) we were in for a whole other adventure. Some execs from the Candian YMCA were in town and David- social planner extraordinaire- had our day all planned out; (1) get out of Bogotá, (2) stop in Chia, (3) Cathedral in the Salt Mines, (4) delicious lunch of smoked meats- Colombian style, and (5) check out the view of the city at night from the La Calera (a road that winds down the mountain side overlooking the city).

To be honest, the pictures are going to tell the story much better than I about the actual sites. I will say that the pictures of the Salt Cathedral which is actually 300’ underground in an active salt mine do not begin to do it justice. The place is incredible in its entirety. Chapels have been carved at each of the 14 stations of the cross leading up to the entry of the cathedral and every single one is carved entirely out of salt and stone. You are advised not to take pictures as the salt will actually drain your camera batteries (Chemists? Engineers? Any thoughts on this?? I have yet to determine if this is truth or Colombian myth to keep tourists from constantly blinding the tour guides with their flashes). Anyway, here is a website that shows what we saw, just click the photos to enlarge or hold and drag to see the 360º view.

Chia was a quick little stop on the way with a cute town square and church. The smoked meat for lunch was amazing and you can smell it from 200 yards away. After having seeing the city from Montserrate, the view from La Calera wasn’t as surprising but was still impressive.

It was great to get out of the city and do a little sightseeing along the way, spend time with some Canadians, and get to hang out with David and Pamela soaking up what we could of the language and the countryside. Marty and I have decided sanity resides outside the city so a trip to reclaim some every couple of weeks will be just the ticket to a great experience here.

Posted by tuffchix 12:38 Archived in Colombia Tagged tourist_sites Comments (0)

Getting used to things

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It’s not unusual to be riding one of the busetas (the crazy buses with no stops and no routes) and to have someone get on, ask the driver if they can make an announcement (aka collect money) for some booklet/poem/cause/candy etc. Tonight was a first for us though. After finishing up a meeting at the Universidad Libre where I will be working M-W-F, we hopped on a buseta right behind a Colombian rap duo. Boom box in hand, they quickly introduced themselves and hit ‘play’. The beat started (courtesy of an Eminem) and the two of them- one at the front of the bus, the other in the back started this impressive rap advocating for peace, social justice and overall love “en el corazón” (in the heart). Money was given, applause was awarded and they deserved both. If our crowded bus rides could just include good entertainment like that, I may enjoy the smog ridden, bumper to bumper autopista that gets me home.

As you can see, life continues to be exciting. We are still going through introductions to some of our work and Marty has yet to get any details on the schools he will be working with other than they are ‘colegios’ (schools for K-12). We are continuing to explore and are hoping to get a chance to get out of the city this weekend for the 3 day weekend. You should note that Colombia has more official holidays than any other country in South America. In fact, so many that when you ask them what exactly we are celebrating this Monday, they don’t know, simply proposing everything from a celebration of race, to Colombus’ discovery of the Americas. Colombian’s are by no means unintelligent, they just (admittedly) prefer the don’t-ask-questions-just-enjoy-the-day-off attitude. This, I could get used to.

Other things we have learned after being in Colombia another few days:

(1) Experiencing all 4 seasons in 1 day is the norm (we are technically in the rainy season, so the ‘winter’ part of the day is reoccurring).

(2) Fortunately for us, the rain clears the air and makes the view of the gorgeous and imposing mountains lining the eastern side of the city even more striking.

(3) Traffic lanes are merely suggestive, not obligatory. As are stop signs.

(4) Baby’s here don’t cry- apparently the violent rocking of the Transmileneo buses is just the ticket to sedate an infant.

(5) Men’s shoe generally go up to a size 42- that’s barely a 10. Women’s pants fit any hip or waist, but if your legs are proportionate to your hips or waist, nothing will fit. A.k.a. Ladies, if you ever played a sport, did yoga, used your legs for any sort of exercise or manual labor, you will not find pants that fit. We found this out the hard way after a full day of shopping in 2 (yes folks, Marty ventured into TWO) malls, we can officially make this claim.

(6) Lastly, and most definitely the worst things I have yet to taste here, a soda called Pony Malta, a favorite among the locals here has made the ‘One more reason I’m a Coca-Cola fan’ list. This raisin flavored soda smells far worse than it tastes and has earned itself an adjective by the same name. For example, beets; they smell like boiled dirt when you cook them and they taste wonderful, especially chilled- you would could say, “those beets are totally Pony Malta-ed.”

If it’s not painfully obvious by now, we have been lacking our creative outlets (when making up adjectives becomes your form of creative expression, you know you need to get out more). To remedy that situation, I made a little trip to this quaint little yarn shop for some wool and a crochet hook (no jokes please, its soothing), and David offered Marty his extra guitar for the nine months we are here in exchange for guitar lessons. Personally I think I get the best end of that deal as I just get to sit and listen to guitar, catching up on my celebrity gossip on David’s in-apartment internet (can you say jealous?), trying out whichever Colombian food David insists we test out that night.

It seems that things are kind of working themselves out here slowly, but at least in the right direction. Chau, till next time and HAPPY BIRTHDAY CARLA!

Posted by tuffchix 07:29 Archived in Colombia Tagged living_abroad Comments (0)

Welcome to Bogota!

And other interesting tidbits.

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Thanks for your patience. Here is installment one:

“Dos Mil Metros más cerca de las estrellas” – 2000 meters closer to the stars- that would be the Bogotan’s romantic description of their city, and a perfect explanation for the dizziness, nausea and headache that welcomes you to Bogotá, Colombia. Actually, before the altitude sickness set in we were warmly welcomed by our co-worker and new friend/tour guide/social planner, David. After a great trip to Florida to visit Steph and Aaron and Busch Gardens (a theme park with free beer- genius!!) we made it safely to Bogotá. Mission Impossible #1: Getting our all 8 pieces of our luggage, both of us, David and his two friends who had come along to the apartment in the roller skate they drove. Solution: Car = luggage carrier, taxi = people carrier. Mission Complete.

We arrived at our apartment where we met our roommate, Jairo, who will be living with us until the end of the month. It’s a small apartment really only big enough for 2. Marty and I have the upstairs which is technically up a flight of stairs affectionately referred to as the Stairs of Doom for obvious reasons (see picture gallery). The apartment is starting to feel like home however, there are a few things that may take a little more time to get used to; (1) No oven or drawers in the kitchen, (2) concrete cut-outs in the wall opening directly to the outside- especially fun in thunderstorms (3) a few mattress pads stacked on top of each other posing as a mattress, and (4) noise- Bogota is 8 million people strong. We still have a lot to explore about our neighborhood, but Suba (in the northern part of the city) has its own centro comercial (shopping center), tiendas varias (mini grocery stores), panaderias (bakerys), empanada and arepa stands, and the opportunity to get chased down the street by a giant telephone advertising for a local phone company.

We ventured outside our neighborhood for the first time at 6:30am the morning after we arrived to meet up with David who was taking us to our first day of work which would last 12 hours- quite the welcome. Staring with a gnarly ride on Transmilenio, the rapid transit bus system here, transferring to a taxi ride that may be up there on the crazy scale with Italy. After speaking in front of a lecture hall full of university students bright and early we flagged down a city bus, that’s right, flagged it down, hailing a cab style because city buses here don’t have stops, set routes, route maps or any sort of schedule. We made it to the YMCA office where we exhausted ourselves. Twelve hours of work, navigating a crazy city, speaking Spanish and trying to settle in was a little too much. The rest of the week wasn’t any less hectic but it got easier. We rushed from office to office of the different organization we will be working with and eventually started to get a feel for the layout of the city and how things work.

Friday could not come soon enough, a feeling I’m sure you are most familiar with. David and his friends invited us to “Rumbiar” at their local hangout (Rumbiar is a made up verb that means to go out). It was this great little bar where we helped ourselves to beer out of the fridge, met the Colombian version of Marty’s cousin Eric, tried the local drink; Aguardientes (a licorice flavored drink) and managed to close down the bar; an evening of accomplishments if you ask me.

We still have a lot to explore but are quickly learning our way around the city. Adjusting to the smog will definitely take some time, as will getting down the language. We have had the opportunity to stroll through some of the major areas. Mom- you would love Calle 93! In our exploration we have seen some rather unusual things. For example, power lines being fixed by a man standing on a large collapsible ladder leaning against the very power lines he is fixing being stabilized by a couple of co-workers on the street. Hearing “Gringos!” being yelled from somewhere on the street and being solicited for Colombian soap operas may also become a regular occurrence here in B-town.

Saturday we finally got to venture out and play tourist in our new city. Bogotá is actually very modern, but most of the newer parts are simply laid on top of older, formerly impoverished areas. El Centro (the city center) is entirely different. Its home to most of the museums, old cathedral, and government buildings and is absolutely gorgeous. The cobblestone streets are very reminiscent of Europe and are a nice break from the craze and chaos in the larger more metropolitan city streets further north.

It’s been a fascinating, overwhelming, exciting, and exhausting week. Welcome to our life in Bogotá, hopefully entries to come will be slightly more insightful. At this point it’s a little different to be objective describing people, behavior, and the way things work here as everything is different than what we are used. We haven’t been here long enough to really have a great understanding of why things are they way they are. So, while I was tempted to write something a little more crass and critical (Dad- aren’t you proud of my self editing?), I’ll reserve those for times when criticism is actually warranted and not an expression of jet-lag, over stimulation and unfamiliarity. But until then, I/we hope you enjoy hearing about our adventures! You can check out some of the sightseeing we have done at the picture gallery, here. Until next time, Chau!

Posted by tuffchix 12:13 Archived in Colombia Tagged living_abroad Comments (1)

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