50 Whole People Like Me!

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Just added my 50th WordPress.com follower! Thanks for making a gringa gal feel loved, y’all! I’ll continue to do my best to keep you all entertained, even if it requires some minor public embarrassment (who am I kidding, I do that on my own, regardless of audience size). Thank you all for reading!

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The 25-Step Guide to Successfully Taking a Bus in Bogotá

  1. Walk to the intersection of the two largest streets near you. Hope that the bus you need will conveniently run along one of these streets.
  2. Every 15 seconds or so, turn your head from one direction to the other. You wouldn’t want to miss the bus!
  3. Decide you’re at least 60% sure the bus you need is green. Pay attention to all of the buses, but pay extra-close attention to the green ones.
  4. Squint frantically at the sign in the front window of each approaching bus, trying desperately to read as many of the neighborhoods as possible before it goes hurtling past you at pedestrian-killing speed. Attempt not to fall into the street while reading the aforementioned signs. Succeed at this, more or less.
  5. Get impatient after about ten minutes, decide to settle for a bus that passes even close to where you’re going.
  6. See a bus that has your destination in its sign. The bus looks especially rattletrap and scary. Let it pass.
  7. Take this previous bus as a positive sign that there must be other buses heading in that direction. Feel confident about your decision to wait for one that at least appears to have functioning brakes.
  8. Wait.
  9. Wait some more.
  10. Start to wish you’d just gone with the first damn bus when it came by. It couldn’t be that bad.
  11. Wonder whether the buses have all been rerouted today for some inexplicable reason. This is a perfectly reasonable hypothesis, since it happens all the time.
  12. See the bus, finally! It says the neighborhood you need! It is also red. Try to figure out why you were so certain it was green.
  13. Hail the bus, which screeches to a stop about 20 feet in front of you. Scamper to it and swing yourself onto the stairs. Brace yourself for the bus to lurch back into traffic as soon as your second foot leaves the ground. Try not to fall back out the open door.
  14. Catch the strap of your bag as you push through the turnstile. Piss off the woman standing on the stairs behind you as you try to wriggle it free. Hope she doesn’t fall back out the open door.
  15. Give your fare to the small child sitting in the front seat, on the other side of the glass partition. She is probably the driver’s daughter. She is probably about eight years old. She should definitely be in school right now.
  16. Miraculously find a seat next to the aisle. Proceed to get smacked in the shoulder or face by the bags or arms or bodies of every single person who passes by for the rest of the ride. Wonder why spatial awareness is so difficult for everyone.
  17. Get stuck in a horrible traffic jam about ten blocks from where you boarded the bus. Fidget anxiously in your seat as it takes half an hour to go four more blocks. Hope your iPod doesn’t die.
  18. Check your phone for any scolding text messages. Reflect on the fact that your friends are probably going to stop hanging out with you at some point because of how goddamn long it takes you to get everywhere. Accept that you can only blame your chronic lateness on the transportation for so long before people expect you to start learning from your mistakes.
  19. Conclude that you have yet to learn from your mistakes. Try not to think about that Einstein quote about repetition and insanity.
  20. Breathe a sigh of relief as your bus finally passes through the green light to the sweet, sweet freedom of the open road.
  21. Resist the urge to strangle something when it becomes clear that the open road freedom only lasts for three blocks before it turns back into a tangled, cacophonous catastrophe devoid of any recognizable road rules or human decency all over again.
  22. For the next ten minutes, devote yourself to gnawing on your thumbnail as your bus slowly crawls toward an intersection with a major, TransMilenio-containing road.
  23. Elbow your way past the rappers or guitar players or ladies selling candy or whoever is currently entertaining/asking the passengers for money and leap off the bus as soon as it crosses the road.
  24. Take the TransMilenio instead.
  25. Arrive forty minutes after you said you would. Consider this to be a fairly acceptable time frame and, in fact, a minor victory.

Food Friday: Papas Criollas

Between my three-quarters German heritage and my Bostonian (so, Irish by osmosis) upbringing, it should surprise no one that I would choose potatoes to make a major appearance in my hypothetical last meal. I could happily eat potatoes nearly every day, in whichever form they wished to appear: fried, slathered in mayo and cubed into salad, baked with rosemary and salt, covered in butter and mashed into topography on my plate — you name the potato, and I’ll be there to eat it. I thought I knew everything there was to know about my favorite vegetable, but it turns out that I didn’t really know what true tuber love was until I arrived here in Colombia and met the papa criolla.

Salty criollas and a michelada on the sunny lakeside boardwalk: my ideal recipe for happiness.

Papas criollas are one of several species of potato native to Colombia, and they’re reason enough alone to convince any true potato aficionado to visit here. They’re small, gold-skinned potatoes with soft insides, ranging from the size of a marble to about a ping-pong ball (although they don’t play games, as far as I know). Papas criollas are one of the three types of potatoes used to make ajiaco, Bogotá’s traditional soup, and they show up alongside everything from hot dogs to picadas (essentially a plate of meat with toothpicks). This is one of the sides I’m thrilled to receive with meals — no matter how many other starches the Colombians throw on the plate (and rest assured, they will be many), you’ll never catch me complaining about the criollas.

I’ve consumed them in towns across the country, eaten them with forks and toothpicks, found them rolling across plates, tucked in napkins and piled in plastic cups. I don’t know why they taste so much better than other kinds of potatoes, but the fact remain that they do, and I’ll just have to keep eating them until I figure out what the secret is. In the meantime, does anyone know how the USDA would potentially feel about the import of really, really tasty potatoes?

Villa de Leyva: Maybe My Favorite Place in Colombia

Earlier this week, I realized that in all the excitement about zipping around Boyacá and waxing eloquent (and photographic) about all the delicious pastries I consumed in Villa de Leyva, I never actually spent any time talking about the place itself. My bad.

So! Let’s talk a bit about Villa de Leyva, because it may very well be my favorite place so far in Colombia — at the least, it’s a hell of a strong front-runner. Villa is a small-ish town in Boyacá, which those of you paying attention will recall is the department just to the northeast of Cundinamarca, the department in which one can find Bogotá (and me!). As I’ve mentioned before, Boyacá is generally known as one of the more traditional departments, filled with lots of small towns that specialize in something like ceramics or bricks or cheese, and people in hats and ruanas (wool ponchos) to keep off the mountain chill. Boyacá is what comes to mind when people say the word tranquilo — it’s all small plazas and colonial churches and women selling obleas from a small wooden table by the side of the road.

Well, the whole place sure looks small from up here.

As the best-known (at least to non-religious tourists) village of Boyacá, Villa de Leyva is a little bit of a special case. Nestled up against a range of green mountains and straddling the edge of the mountain-desert divide in a valley that once was a vast prehistoric lake, Villa de Leyva couldn’t be more photogenic if it tried. Everywhere you look are pine trees or cacti or beautiful flowering plants, often all within about 100 yards of each other. It’s impossible to cross two streets without someone approaching to offer horseback rides or a hike. The place is filled with opportunities for other low-key outdoorsy activities like hiking, biking or swimming in the occasional waterfall. The desert sky is clearer and bluer than it is in Bogotá, which makes the town the ideal setting for their annual Festival de las Cometas (Kite Festival), a hugely and internationally popular event taking place this weekend. The only way to improve upon the scenery in Villa de Leyva would be to fill it with hundreds of intricate, beautiful kites.

But it’s not just about the natural beauty of the place, although that’s pretty overwhelming. The town itself, as with most Colombian towns, is fairly small: a central plaza, a few calles going this way, a few carreras going that way. But that plaza, Plaza Mayor, is something to write home about — a sprawling cobblestone expanse lined with hotels, restaurants and one 300-year-old church, it’s the biggest central plaza in Colombia and one of the largest in all of Latin America. Needless to say, most of the activity of the town centers around this plaza, from the excellent restaurants on various corners to the radiating streets where wandering tourists can buy everything from alpaca scarves to candy to leather bags that look like they just came off the cow. There’s often a stage set up for events in the center of the plaza, and there’s almost always something going on: when we were there, we witnessed a visiting Venezuelan symphonic orchestra, a poncho fashion show featuring elementary-school girls, a performance of Pacific Coast dance and a concert. As befits its position as the heart and soul of the town, the plaza fills up at night with a combination of locals and tourists, who sprawl across the steps of the church to eat ice cream, share a few beers or just watch their children race around throwing glowsticks at each other. People-watching doesn’t get any better.

The biggest one in Colombia, and it’s such a nice-looking one, too!

I’m no architect, but even I could appreciate the loveliness of the buildings. Everything in the town looks like it was frozen 200 years ago — all white walls and green trim, with porches filled with hammocks and clustered flowers. Plus, all of the streets are cobblestone, which those of us from Boston know is hell on walking if you’re not careful (or stupid enough to wear heels. Remember, we are in Colombia), but also means that cars traveling through town have to crawl at about 10 mph to avoid causing any serious damage. This might be the Colombian town where you’re least likely to be killed by a car.

Fresh mora juice with an $8 mil set meal at a vegetarian restaurant? Yes please!

And don’t even get me started on the food. My friends and I usually subscribe to the “as many things from a cart as possible” school of dining, but we spoiled ourselves a bit in Villa de Leyva, and I couldn’t be happier that we did. Along our gastronomic path, we discovered (not one, but) two vegetarian restaurants, actual salads (few and far between here in Colombia), a place that served both pizza and sangria, the best almond croissants in South America, a bakery specifically for cookies, and some pretty good eggs. We barely made a dent in all of the town’s tasty offerings, though, so obviously a return trip is in order.

But wait, there’s more! Remember how I mentioned the former prehistoric-ness of the whole space? Well, we all know what prehistoric implies, don’t we? That’s right: Villa de Leyva was once home to my second-graders’ favorite animal: DINOSAURS. Sadly, there are not currently any more of the beasts ranging around (as far as we know….), but there is a pretty excellent tribute to their presence, in the form of the small, bright yellow Museo El Fosil, a short drive out of down. For the low, low price of about $4 mil, one can enter and gawk at the complete (or at least it looks that way) remains of a Kronosaurus — a large, toothed aquatic creature (yes, that’s our very own local Kronosaurus smiling at you from the Wikipedia entry). Obviously I could happily have stayed in the museum for a long time, attempting to commune with the beasts, but how could I stay away from all of the other gorgeous sights in Villa de Leyva?

Clearly, Wikipedia stole this photo from me.

Our three days there weren’t nearly enough time to enjoy everything the place has to offer — so it’s a good thing we’re already planning a return trip in November! In the meantime, I’ll have to content myself with ogling these photographs until I’m back in the reality.


Kite Season

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kites everywhere

With “summer” in Bogotá comes the wind, and with the wind come the kites. On the last Sunday of the Festival del Verano (Summer Festival) in Parque Simón Bolivar, they were out in full force. Maybe someday I’ll be this good at kite-flying.

Top Five Travel Clothes

Unless (maybe even if) you’re a ridiculously intense back-to-basics backpacker, there are special things that go with you when you travel. It could be a simple charm, a lucky water bottle, even a special pair of socks. Whatever it is, you can be sure never to board a plane without it.

Clothes and/or accessories are a special point of interest when traveling, mostly because of the space issue. We have a limited amount of real estate in which to stuff everything we need for a given amount of time, so we have to be as efficient as possible about maximizing the potential use of everything we bring. I’m notoriously not a heels girl to begin with, and they almost never make an appearance in any of my pieces of luggage, because I recognize that the odds I’ll wear them more than once on any given trip is just south of zero. At this point, I’ve done enough gallivanting around the world for various lengths of time that I have a pretty strong sense of which things I’ll need (jeans, sneakers, scarves) and which things I’ll almost immediately regret bringing along (more than one swimsuit, necklaces, sweaters).

Still, I have a few things that have made it through years and countless TSA searches with me — things that I refuse to throw away or leave behind, regardless of how many holes they spring. We’ve been through so much together, it would be like a breakup to get rid of them at this point. I’m sure that even when they’ve deteriorated to the point that wearing them would cause my friends to be embarrassed to be seen in public with me, I’ll find a nice cozy box or corner of my closet in which to stash them, so I can keep them for the memories, even after they’ve long outlived their initial use.

The top five things that almost never leave my side (or my suitcase), barring serious climate-related factors:

1. This disgusting ratty grey jacket. I bought this jacket for $10 at the Urban Outfitters basement in Harvard Square, back when it was cheap and actually worth a visit, sometime around my sophomore or junior year of high school. Yes, high school. I’ve had this jacket for going on eight years now, and it shows: there is about a 1:1 ratio of holes to fabric at this point. I still wear it almost every day. This jacket has lived with me through the dramatic end of high school, survived all of my college escapades, protected me through six months in Buenos Aires, visited many of the cities on the Eastern Seaboard, climbed a volcano in Ecuador and is still going strong here with me in Colombia. I’ve known this jacket longer than I’ve known some of my friends, and I refuse to get rid of it because I love it more than almost any other article of clothing I own. Plus it makes me look really poor, so nobody wants to rob me, which is always an advantage when strolling around major cities with an upsettingly expensive camera stashed in my bag.

sorry, mom and dad. but I was 21!

The jacket, keeping college me warm whilst downing a beer on an unseasonably chilly Wrigley Field rooftop. Chicago, May 2010.

2. This soft, reversible printed scarf. I’ll admit to being a bit of a scarf magpie. Scarves, along with earrings, are one of my great travel weaknesses — they’re so pretty, so light, so cheap, so easy to pack, and always useful when living in temperate climates (aka my entire life). I stumbled across this lovely creation in a market in Tel Aviv/Jaffa — not exactly ideal scarf weather there, but I was headed back to chilly Boston just a few days later, and I couldn’t imagine a comfier way to arrive than snuggled up in this soft piece of fabric. As the best scarves do, it unrolls to practically the size of a blanket, or at least a very functional shawl, and I can’t count the number of times I’ve curled up in it to get through a flight, road trip or class in a particularly cold lecture hall. Since accompanying me back from Israel, my scarf has visited four separate continents, making appearances in France, Argentina, New Zealand, Canada, Ecuador, most of the northeast U.S. (plus Chicago), and is in fairly heavy rotation here in scarf-friendly Bogotá. In a robbery, I’d probably fight harder to protect this scarf than my wallet. Wallets can be replaced — four continents of memories can’t.

man, my forehead looks huge now

My scarf (and the rest of me, pre-bangs) reveling in the view from the deck of the Eiffel Tower. France, January 2009.

3. This pair of grey H&M Sqin skinny jeans. Wayyyyy back at the beginning of college, when skinny jeans were still a trend as opposed to a reality of daily life, I was pretty anti-skinnies. I’m not exactly model-thin, and the idea of wearing something that highlighted that aspect of my figure wasn’t my favorite idea. Still, I was wearing a lot of boots and long sweaters through the Chicago falls and winters, and I figured it couldn’t hurt to buy one pair of pants that I didn’t have to violently stuff into my boots. Hence a pilgrimage to H&M, that great source of cheap, trendy and occasionally baffling articles of clothing, and a spontaneous decision to invest in a pair of comfy light grey skinny jeans — just to have something in another color, I told myself at the time.

this brings back some really uncomfortable memories

Getting the patdown from correctional officers in an old prison in Ushuaia, Tierra del Fuego. I’m not even safe from the long arm of the law at the end of the world. Argentina, May 2009.

By now, these pants have survived two transatlantic trips (France and Israel), made it through several different corners of Argentina, stuck it out through one Boston and three Chicago winters (and a spot of Canada snow in May) and, though they’re a bit faded by now, they still cover all the necessary parts of me. They’re sturdy, comfortable, go with everything and I don’t give a damn about getting them dirty because I paid about $30 for them almost five years ago. I’m pretty sure I’ve gotten more than my money’s worth out of them.

4. This basic black Target peacoat. Oh, Target. Questionable business ethics and political affiliations, dependably cheap wares. What ever are we to do with you?

One thing we can do is wear out your merchandise until it is at the point of disintegration — which is exactly what I’ve done with this coat. I acquired it sometime around the first year of college, undoubtedly while on a quest for something completely different, because that’s how Target runs work. Since then, it’s been my near-constant companion when I just don’t feel like rocking my normal green peacoat, or when going out — the rationale being that it’s far too average and unappealing for anyone to steal. It’s not like this is a North Face, people.

Despite its simple appearance, it’s still a warm coat that matches with everything and is small enough to travel fairly light, to such far-ranging places as Argentina, New Zealand, Israel, Colombia and a fair percentage of the bars in Chicago and Boston. Almost six years later, we’re still together — a bit frayed at the edges, for sure, but it’s nothing a little needle and thread can’t repair.

it survived the helicopter ride up here, too

Atop a mountain in Fiordland National Park on the South Island of New Zealand. Not bad for a cheap Target peacoat! Te Anau, April 2011.

ugh, I promise to never make this face ever again

Probably the most obnoxious photo of me on this site. Just keeping my ego in check. Israel, December 2009, practicing my best Candy Vanna White pose.

5. This totally awesome, magic, beat-up red leather bag. For the mere price of $2, I rescued this bag from its sad fate languishing in the basement floor of a Cambridge, MA thrift store almost seven years ago, and we’ve been near-inseparable ever since. I get more compliments and people inquiring about the provenance of this unlabeled, fraying leather bag than any other bag I own, and with good reason: It’s got character. And you can’t buy that, ladies and gentlemen.

Plus, it sure has a lot of stories/secrets to tell. This bag has accompanied me through nearly all of my travels in the continental U.S., and has made appearances in Canada, Israel, Argentina, Costa Rica, Ecuador, Canada and all across Colombia. It has been known to hold water bottles (filled with both water and other substances), shirts, shoes, umbrellas, cameras, makeup, DVDs, four different phones, gloves and/or other winter accessories, snacks, jewelry, baseball hats, Ziploc bags of cereal, iPods, notebooks, regular books, concert tickets, at least 100 different pens, various forms of currency, chopsticks, nail polish, lollipops, sunglasses and, on at least one occasion, a flashlight. My goal is to fit either an entire outfit or a small animal in it sometime before the end of our functional time together.

It’s funny to look at this list and realize that the things that last the longest, and that become the most significant to us, are rarely the things on which we spend the most money. None of these items cost more than $35 — most were less than $20. And yet here we are — five, six, eight years later — still together. I have a stronger emotional investment in most of these items than any of the (few) fancy shoes or dresses in my closet, and that’s not a coincidence. The things we love, like the people we care about most, are the ones that share experiences with us, and remain with us through the endless security lines, the bad restaurants, and the moments around the globe that change our lives. These are the things we remember.

These are mine. What are yours?

Totally Inexplicable Things Colombians Love #4: Agua de Panela

Every culture (and every individual within that culture) has its own methods for dealing with illness, or even just the common cold. Some people swear by garlic cloves, others resort to endless bowls of chicken soup or other kinds of comforting broth, while still others just pop NyQuil until they’ve convinced themselves they feel better. I’m personally terrible at being sick — my two coping mechanisms, in order, are total denial and then eating whole oranges while drinking incessant cups of herbal tea with honey until I can’t think about citrus anymore. It may not be the most medically advanced strategy, but I haven’t died yet, so I have no evidence that it isn’t working.

I’ve only had a cold once so far in Colombia, and thank god, because while I may have the constitution to deal with Colombian gripa, I’m definitely not strong enough to handle the universally accepted cure: agua de panela.

Let’s start with the basics. Panela is a solid form of sugarcane, produced primarily in the coffee region of Colombia and sold in square blocks in pretty much any market across the country. It functions as a sugar substitute, since it essentially is just a block of unrefined whole cane sugar. It’s delicious in coffee, but less so when it’s the main ingredient of a drink.

Those of you who took Spanish in high school may have figured out by now that agua de panela is exactly what it sounds like: panela water. There’s nothing more to it — just a block of panela dissolved in warm water and served like a piping hot cup of sweet tea. I’m sure both Southerners and butterflies would delight in this beverage, but as someone who prefers my sweet drinks to involve fruit, it’s not really, dare I say, my cup of tea.

But that sure puts me in the minority here. Agua de panela is nationally accepted as the most effective and highly recommended cure — or preventative measure — for the common cold. It’s cold outside? Agua de panela. You’re coughing? Agua de panela. It’s 11 a.m.? Why not have some agua de panela?

Given how much soda Colombians typically consume, I guess I shouldn’t be surprised by the national preference for drinking sugar water at the drop of a hat. Still, the next time I start sneezing, you can find me in a corner with my tea and oranges — hold the butterfly nectar, please.

Other Totally Inexplicable Things Colombians Love:

#5. Inappropriate Uses of English

#6. Colombia’s Got Talent

#7. Horrifying Jeans

#8. Malls

#9. Wearing Heels Everywhere, All the Time

#10. ’80s Rock/Hair Metal Bands