If there was any further question about why I’m happy here, Colombia is ALL OVER this mental_floss listicle of “11 Fabulous Libraries in South America.” Disregarding their weird geographic decision to pretend that Costa Rica is part of South America, it’s a pretty cool list, and it’s exciting to see Colombia occupying so much space on it. So far, I’ve only made it to #8, Virgilio Barco, which is in Parque Simón Bolívar here in Bogotá, but I’ve got seven months to make it to all the others. In the meantime, how amazing does #1 look? It’s like Brazilian Hogwarts!
If you’ve never been to Colombia, you might be forgiven for thinking that Americans have cornered the market on global mall-worship. After all, we’re responsible for the Mall of America, the very phrase “strip mall” and the international scourge that is Hollister. Yeah, we’re pretty good at malls in the good old U.S. of A, but I promise you, we’ve got nothing on Colombia.
Malls here are not a few stores tacked on to a massive Target or Macy’s. No, malls here are insane piles of 50 stores all selling the exact same style of shirts, more pizza and ice cream places than one could ever hope to conquer and a critical mass of shoes. As if the stores themselves weren’t enough, the larger malls are also packed with stands where vendors hawk everything from obleas (sweet flat crepe-like pastries that can be filled with various condiments) to baseball caps. There are malls specifically devoted to the sale of electronics, housewares or shoes, and others housing superstores like Carrefour (sort of like the foreign version of K-mart) and Home Center (Colombian Home Depot, obviously).
But malls aren’t just for shopping — they’re centers of social life, too. Most of the major malls have movie theaters — always on the top floor for some mysterious reason, possibly related to popcorn and/or gravity — and many include gyms, pools, karaoke bars and even small amusement parks for children. Colombians don’t just go to the mall to shop — they go for the experience, and when they do, they bring the whoooooole family. One of my friends here tried to go to a nearby mall to run some errands, and her host family refused to let her go alone, because apparently, to quote my awesome great-grandmother, some things are just not done.
In all honesty, spending more than two hours in an enclosed space full of stores and people who walk so slowly it seems to defy physics is pretty close to my personal idea of hell, but apparently this is not a sentiment shared by most Colombians. If I ever want to assimilate, I’d better start learning to enjoy eating ice cream surrounded by bright lights and teenage couples making out on benches because they can’t do it at home. On the bright side, though, at least I dont have to deal with Wal-Mart. Yet.
Other Totally Inexplicable Things Colombians Love:
Ice cream is pretty much second only to oxygen on my list of Things That Make Life Worth Living (and oxygen is only winning because I want to stay on its good side). I remember reading once that Boston consumes the most ice cream per capita out of any major metropolitan region in the U.S., and I see no reason to doubt this — given the proximity and availability of both Ben & Jerry’s and J.P. Licks, it’s only logical. When I was younger, it was perfectly normal to go get ice cream at Herrell’s (RIP!) in the dead of February winter. It is, in fact, still totally normal (except we have to go somewhere else. Stupid corporate takeovers of Harvard Square, etc.). What I’m saying here is that I have a cultural basis for my fundamental need for ice cream in my life and my stomach. It’s both nature and nurture.
Fortunately, the multitudinous ice cream carts of Colombia are here to satisfy my cravings. Granted, if I had to pick a winner in a battle of helado supremacy, Argentina would win over Colombia every time (I would fight someone for a Volta avellana y pistachio cone right now), but I’m here, and I can’t really complain. Sure, Colombia may not have Freddo, but Popsy isn’t half bad, there are a few gelato shops to be found here and there, and I’ve even spotted the holy grail of fro-yo in a few malls. But we’re not talking about brick-and-mortar shop here — this is all about indulging my laziness and letting the ice cream come to me.
It’s hard to go more than a few blocks without running into one of Bogotá’s ice-cream-cart pushers, especially on weekends. There are two fairly ubiquitous options when it comes to icy treats on wheel around here. The first, Crem Helado, arrives in a little square white cart, heralded by a ringing bell attached to the handle. This stuff is your basic ice cream truck-style fare, popsicles and creamy fruit-flavored treats. It’s not necessarily my favorite, but it’ll do in a pinch.
The better option, if you can take it, is the Bon Ice man (or woman. But usually it’s a man). These ones are easy to spot, as they’re always decked out in their bright blue uniforms, pushing either a bright blue cylindrical cooler or one shaped like a penguin. They sell frozen treats here, OUT OF A PENGUIN. I have been here for four months and I am still not over this. I will probably never get over it. Frankly, I never want to.
But not only is Bon Ice visually exciting — it’s also incredibly tasty, particularly if you ever had a childhood. Remember those Freeze Pops everyone used to eat all the time in the summer when we were kids (and, if you’re me and my friends, that you still keep in your basement freezer)? You know, the skinny sticks that are essentially just ice with sweet food coloring, and for some mysterious reason the blue ones are vastly superior to all other flavors and you always had to fight everyone else except that weird kid that liked the red ones better to get them? That’s Bon Ice, except it comes in flavors like mango and uva (grape), and costs about the equivalent of US 15 cents. Bon Ice vendors are somewhat less common than the Crem Helado dudes, and it is therefore totally appropriate to do what my friends and I do every time we spot one, which is to shriek “BON ICE MAN!” and dash toward him and/or the sacred penguin as quickly as possible. This will also probably never get old.
And then there’s raspado. Ohhhh, raspado, the Colombian version of Sno-Cones. Raspado is a bit harder to find around here — I haven’t had much luck locating a cart in Bogotá so far, but I’ve run into it on a few occasions in warmer climates. Raspado begins as a cup of shaved ice, which the vendor shaves off of a big frozen block right there in front of you, using a very cool and slightly steampunk-looking hand-cranked device. Once in the cup, your pile of ice is layered with various colorful flavor syrups that are no doubt full of food coloring and carcinogens, then drizzled with sugar or sweet condensed milk. Raspado has absolutely zero nutritional benefit, and it is awesomely delicious, especially on a sweltering hot day. Oh, and the most entertaining thing about it? Depending on which way you eat the stuff, the sweet liquid left at the bottom turns some kind of horrifying color, which is never the same as the color in your friend’s cup. So if you go left, it’ll be green; favor the right side, you’ll end up with a cup full of pink sugar water. Individual eating styles deserve unique colors!
Last but absolutely not least are the vendors: dudes (or sometimes ladies) who wander around with a cooler slung from their shoulder, selling what are basically creamy homemade popsicles for about 1,000 pesos (roughly 50 cents) in every flavor from coco to mandarina. These folks are usually found at high-volume events — I remember a particularly delicious mora ice cream I bought from one of these guys at an outdoor performance during the International Theater Festival here. About half of it ended up all over my hands, since it was actually sunny for once. Probably the best my hands have ever tasted, and worth every penny.
The point here is: In Colombia, they sell frozen treats out of a cooler shaped like a penguin. I dare your country to beat that. Go ahead, you won’t.
This was absolutely my favorite of the pieces I saw in the artists’ pavilion at the book fair. I wish to god I knew who the artist was, because I want a real copy of it, to keep forever.
Just look at it! Zebra toast! It is simply too good for words.
About 12 years ago, my mother began refusing to take me with her to bookstores except on very specific occasions, because I have this unfortunate habit wherein I attempt to read and/or buy almost the entire contents of the store (obviously disregarding any Dan Brown or Twilight books), and taking roughly three hours to do so. I have yet to grow out of this — and honestly have no intention of doing so anytime soon. It’s part of my eccentric charm, dammit! — so you can imagine how I felt about a week ago, when the Feria Internacional del Libro (International Book Fair, or Filbo, if you’re on a first-name basis) came to town.
I’m going to preface this whole post by clarifying that my idea of heaven is a room filled with books. Okay, and a freezer for ice cream. And Joseph Gordon-Levitt to read said books to me. But for the moment, let’s stick with the books. I could (and have) happily spend basically all day in a library or bookstore, trying to absorb as much as possible before I’m forced to leave. However, the Filbo, which was held at Corferias — a lovely outdoor conference complex with various pavilions, fountains and people selling all manner of tasty snacks — was more than a room filled with books. It was about the equivalent of 500 rooms filled with books, and that’s not even getting into the exhibits, artists’ booths, auditoriums for speakers and the fake Iron Throne (why aren’t you watching Game of Thrones right now??), strategically placed for photos ops right outside one of the publishing house display rooms. [Sadly, I do not have a photo of myself there, since it was dark/there was a long line, but once I conquer Westeros for myself, I’ll have no shortage of opportunities to document it.]
Needless to say, I went three times — with rather diminishing returns, if we’re being honest, but it’s not like a complex filled with words could be anything less than glorious. I’ve been to a few book fairs in my life, both at home in Boston and one glorious time in Buenos Aires, when I got to chat with the fantastic, totally charming Junot Díaz (but that’s a different story), and I have to say the Bogotá one does a pretty good job of holding its own, give or take. Obviously, I only saw a small slice of it, as there was just an overwhelming amount of things to absorb there, but I think it did the city pretty proud. Brazil, not so much, but we’ll get to that.
The fair had already been here for over a week by the time I finally made it down, and I was already feeling like a terrible, guilty person for ignoring it for so long. Unfortunately, sometimes life gets in the way of gallivanting around unfamiliar neighborhoods of Bogotá in search of literary inspiration. But Jonathan Safran Foer was speaking on Saturday afternoon, and the prospect of getting to hear a real, live author talk about writing! in English! was simply too much to resist. I made it there, covered in rain (further proof why I should never leave the house without my umbrella) and about 15 minutes late, and stumbled into a gorgeous auditorium about 3/4 full of people, all intently listening, many through headphones playing the Spanish translation.
Being one of the few people who can understand a non-translated presentation, whether it’s a speaker or a movie, is always kind of an amusing experience, what with the delayed reaction times. Whenever Safran Foer said something funny, I would be one of the few people laughing immediately — then, a few seconds later, when the translation caught up, the rest of the room would chuckle. I probably sounded like a crazy weirdo, but that’s nothing new for me.
I don’t have much to say about the talk — it was nice just to hear someone talking about writing, but to be perfectly honest, he came off as kind of a dick, which wasn’t unexpected, but it would’ve been nice for one of the few Americans there to make a slightly less pretentious impression. Then again, American fiction writers named Jonathan haven’t exactly been known for being modest or particularly charming lately, so I suppose it’s nothing new.
I had better luck the next day, when I headed back (in sunlight this time!) to meet up with a few other volunteers. I’ve always treated book time as alone time, or Alone With Characters time, so it was definitely a bit of a challenge not being able to wander the shelves on my own schedule. Honestly, it was a challenge just trying not to lose anyone in the huge Sunday crowds, particularly in the packed, overheated pavilion containing artists, anime booths, comic vendors, caricaturists and other design products. Apparently the people of Bogotá are big fans of cartoons. Really the only part of the pavilion worth mentioning was a certain booth called Ollivander’s — selling all kinds of Harry Potter and even Hunger Games memorabilia, natch. I might have considered buying something, if I’d been able to get within five feet of it.
For my third day (in a row, might I mention), I managed to finagle an invitation to go along with my school’s Spanish/literature teachers and about 90 students on Monday morning. There was no real reason for me to go, honestly, other than that I thought it would be fun and it was a chance to hang out with my awesome kids outside of school. Again, this field trip just reminded me the difference between Colombian and American teenagers — the kids could not have been more polite, well-behaved, orderly and (almost all) on time. The morning was a bit of a whirlwind, racing from an exhibit to the aforementioned art pavilion (rather less crowded this time, although the kids obviously still made a beeline right for the Harry Potter and Hunger Games stuff. Because they’re smart) to a somewhat underwhelming author’s talk, where the kids did their best not to fall asleep or look at all their purchases.
One of the other teachers and I also stopped by the Invited Country of Honor pavilion — each year, another country is specially invited to showcase its literature, art and culture, with its own pavilion and various events. This year, the country was Brazil, and honestly, it was pretty disappointing, especially considering the amazing range of cultures and artists in Brazil. I’m not sure whether it was the fault of the organizers or the vendors, but where the other book pavilions were brightly-lit, jam-packed mosh pits of literature, the Brazil pavilion was open, dark and had a surprisingly small number of books. The design of the space was gorgeous, with all these three-foot-tall letters made of wood and beautiful photographs hanging from the ceiling, but it looked more like a museum exhibit than a celebration of literature. All I’m saying is, when I am promised books, I expect books, dammit.
In the end, though, there were more than enough of those to go around. Now I just have to figure out how I’m going to fit them into my suitcase, come December.
In the meantime, the final tally, for those of you who are math people:
Visits to book fair: 3
Books purchased: 4, plus one notebook. This demonstrates highly impressive willpower on my part, since I usually find all notebooks utterly irresistible. I think I like the idea that someday I will fill up all those pages. Even though I won’t.
Cups of mango with lime, salt and pepper consumed: 2
Discussions held in Spanish about the works of David Foster Wallace: 1
Books accidentally knocked over: 2. Also maybe a new record low for me.
Umbrellas forgotten: 1
Plus a few more photos, each worth 1000 words: