Finca Don Elias: Family-Owned, Organic (Delicious) Coffee in Salento

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it's perfectly safe

Follow us into the magical land of coffee farms…

Continuing last week’s Salento lovefest, I want to get a little more into the details of what makes this little coffee town such a wonderful place (if all the talk of colorful houses, snuggly scarves, nine billion different shades of green and fresh-brewed tinto weren’t already convincing enough). It’s a cliche at this point to say that the main asset of Colombia is its people, but it’s a basic fact, and nowhere have I found this to be more true than in the coffee region, especially in smaller towns like this one. People go out of their way to do favors just because. You never feel like a jerk if you ask for extra sugar, and inquiring when the next round of transportation leaves will, just as often as not, lead to an offer to just take you now, if you don’t mind paying a couple pesos more, of course.

In many places, it would be considered rude (or worse) to go stomping into someone’s house and demand that they show you around, yet here it’s essentially the norm, especially if you want to go on a tour of one of the local coffee farms (fincas). I had managed to visit twice before ever actually making it to one of these fincas — the first time around because of lack of time, and the second because my friends and I didn’t bother looking up what time the place actually ran tours before heading out there (in typical Colombian fashion, we figured the tour would start whenever people showed up. For once, this was not accurate). This led to a fairly entertaining “self-guided” tour in which we explored the processing center and tried to figure out what all the different tools were for, but it was not ultimately very enlightening. So on my third visit, I vowed that this would be the time I finally found out how the sausage coffee gets made.

can we drink it yet?

This is where the magic happens

There are quite a few local fincas that offer tours (in both English and Spanish), but our hostel and some of the other folks in town recommended the small, family-owned Don Elias, so that was where we leaded. Located about a 45-minute all-downhill walk from town (depending on your walking speed and how often you stop to take photos of the stumble-inducing scenery), this little independent finca is the definition of classic Colombia coffee country. Visitors enter along a path lined with banana and plátano trees, then suddenly emerge into basically the front yard of the family’s house. When we were there, the porch was occupied by a few small children playing, a smaller dog and an unidentified man washing his car right in the middle of the space. Starbucks it ain’t, but that wasn’t what we came for.

almost there

Just one kilometer to Don Elias!

these look like bananas. ugh

Follow your nose!

Unfortunately, we didn’t have the opportunity to meet Don Elias himself (although a friend took a tour with him, so we know he really exists), and took the tour instead with his grandson, a charming kid in his late teens who had a lot more patience for visitors asking dumb questions than most other kids his age would. Our tour led through the coffee plants, which ripple down the terraced planting section toward the river below. The plants have a maximum productive lifespan of a bit more than 25 years, our guide explained, after which point they become essentially useless. At this point, he made a joke here about things being more or less expired after 25 years, which allowed us to see some pretty serious blushing when we told him how old we were. Definitely worth it. Aging jokes aside, we learned that this particular finca replaces the plants after 17 years, clearing the way for younger plants with a higher yield, and they rotate the planting so they always have a few different age tiers of plants.

the Colombian ones are yellow, of course

Coffee beans are way more colorful than cafes tell us!

This coffee grows best in shade, so the plants are alternated among banana, plantain, avocado and pineapple trees, which also provide important nutrients that help balance the soil and produce better coffee. Because the farm is strictly organic, they use natural tactics to deter insects and other pests. This is the main reason for planting pineapples, our guide told us, because the sweet taste attracts the insects and draws them away from the coffee plants. Who needs pesticides when you have pineapples?

not so pretty anymore

The beans, after the first round of de-shelling and soaking.

All this talk of snacking was starting to make me hungry, but there was still more to see. After the twice-yearly harvest (done all by hand, by about eight workers over the course of a few weeks), the beans are brought up to the processing plant — an open side of the family house with a few basic tools. The coffee beans are all run through a hand-powered machine, which cracks the outer shell, then fall into a tub where they soak for a full 24 hours. The tub only holds about a kilo of coffee, so the entire process of opening and soaking all of the beans from the harvest takes quite a while. After soaking, the beans are relocated to a makeshift drying house, constructed out of local bamboo-like plants and a clear tarp over the top. They sit here until completely dry, which can take anywhere from a few days to more than a week, depending on how sunny it is during that time.

isn't he just the cutest thing

Still not pretty beans yet. But we’re getting there.

Once the beans are fully dried, it’s time to divide them up. At this point, the beans that are designated for sale (about half the harvest) are sent off to local and international organic and fair trade buyers, which are then responsible for roasting and selling them to their own markets. The family keeps the other half of the beans for personal use and sale at the farm and at a few choice spots in town. Despite all the fancy talk we hear about roasting techniques, the strategy here is as traditional as it gets — the dry beans are placed in a banged-up metal pot, then roast over the fire for about an hour until they get that beautiful deep-brown color we expect from coffee. Then, to the grinder they go! Like every other part of the process at this farm, there’s no machine involved — if you want coffee, you have to grind it by hand. We all tried it, and I can only imagine that a few weeks of running that machine would leave me with better arm muscles than any class at a fancy gym.

they still don't taste good, though

That looks much more like the real thing.

Of course, a visit to a family home in Colombian coffee country wouldn’t be complete without a cup of coffee, so the tour finishes with a fresh-brewed cup of Don Elias’ finest. This is obviously a genius marketing strategy, because it’s nearly impossible to taste this coffee without immediately succumbing to the urge to buy some, especially after hearing all about the lengthy, all-manual process that goes into creating it and getting it into that cup. Plus, as far as I’m concerned, it doesn’t get better than buying coffee straight from the source, especially when that source is a family of coffee farmers, devoted to maintaining the organic, traditional practices that have sustained them for generations.

yum yum yum

The finished product, ready for my caffeine-craving taste buds.

Oh, and did I mention that the coffee is delicious, too?

15 Free Things to Do in Bogotá

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Bogotá and its price points tend to get a bad rap. This is a very valid point when you consider that the average monthly salary in the city as of 2013 was just over 1 million pesos (about $500 at the current exchange rate), and that it has the biggest inequality gap of any city in Colombia, with Estrato 6 (the wealthiest economic level) making 4.8 million pesos per month on average, nearly 14 times the average income of about 350,000 pesos for people in Estrato 1 (the poorest level). Like in most growing cities, rents are skyrocketing in the most popular neighborhoods, and the prices of many goods are slowly creeping up as well. It’s a familiar refrain we hear in major cities impacted by gentrification — the out with the old, in with the new mindset is leaving many people behind, and there seems to be little effort to stop its momentum.

With so much recent development and increased tourism and business coming into the city, many new restaurants, cafes and bars are aiming for the nouveau riche and foreign crowds, with few $4 lunch spots to be found — or so they think. In reality, there are plenty of places in the city that won’t burn a hole straight through your wallet. Sure, if you spend all your time in the Zona Rosa and Usaquén, dropping 8,000 pesos on a beer or 20,000 just to get into a club, then yes, your bank account will start to feel it pretty quickly. But that’s what we in the business [ed. I am not actually in any such business] like to call selection bias. There are plenty of places offering set lunches for 6,000, your standard almuerzo ejecutivo price. Some of them even have veggie options! My favorite mango biche dude sells cups packed with tasty mango for just 1,000 (about 50 cents, for those of you keeping score at home), and the bar where my friend and I befriended the bartenders last year has always kept the price around 2,000 per bottle (or sometimes zero, if the manager wasn’t around).

Like any city, there are plenty of places that will be only too happy to take your money, especially your fancy foreign money, but that doesn’t define the city (there are so many other things to love, after all!). There are just as many places that will offer you a deal, drop the price if your friend buys one too, or give you a discount if you just show up enough times. And then, there are the spots and experiences that won’t cost you a peso. They’re not always what you’ll see when you open up your guidebook, but for residents, they retain their luster much longer than any swanky club. Here are a few of my favorite free (or very cheap) activities and places in Bogotá.

  1. Parque Simón Bolívar – The outdoorsy heart of Bogotá, this park has basically everything you could need to be happy: a lake, a swimming center, a giant sports complex, a space for concerts, a world-class library, a botanic garden, bike paths, plenty of trees and a temperature that somehow always seems to be a few degrees warmer than the rest of the city (I may be imagining this last one, but it’s how it feels). The park hosts events year-round, from the al Parque concert series to street theater shows to August’s Festival del Verano, which alone contains a dizzying number of different events and inspires the appearance of more kites than I’ve ever seen before in my life. Whenever I want to escape for a few hours from the towering spires of concrete and the sounds of jackhammers outside my window, this is the happy place where I come.

    the sky doesn't always look like this

    The Botanic Garden in Parque Bolívar.

  2. Concerts Al Parque – One of my very favorite things that Bogotá offers is this series of free concerts, which take place at different set times throughout the year. Staged in several of the city’s biggest parks and outdoor spaces, the concerts are completely free (though they come with a VERY up-close-and-personal patdown courtesy of security staff, so beware if you have any qualms about being groped by a stranger) and cover a broad range of genres, from opera to hip-hop. The three-day Rock al Parque, which takes place in late June or early July, is the biggest free outdoor rock concert in South America, while September’s Jazz al Parque is set in an immaculate park that used to be a polo ground, with grass that personally begs me to bring a picnic and settle down for a few hours of free tunes.
  3. Ciclovía“Bogotá no tiene mar, pero tiene Ciclovía” (Bogotá doesn’t have the ocean, but it has Ciclovía). This phrase is sort of a joke amongst rolos, but the truth is that nobody actually seems that upset about the tradeoff. The pride and joy of the city, Sunday (and holiday) Ciclovía is, hands down, one of the greatest treats Bogotá has to offer. You can’t really get to know this town until you stroll one of the main streets when it’s packed with bikers, rollerbladers, skate punks, kids on tricycles, dogs lounging in baskets or trotting alongside their owners, juice vendors, roadside bike repairmen and just about everything else. All you need to enjoy Ciclovía is a pair of shoes, some water and a serious appreciation for the best people-watching in central Colombia.

    I gotta get me a pair of rollerblades.

    I gotta get me a pair of rollerblades.

  4. Street performers – Sure, there’s plenty of excellent indoor theater staged throughout the year here, but there are great displays of talent in the middle of major streets, too. I personally have a pretty strong aversion to mimes (how am I expected to trust someone who willingly chooses to make alarming noises instead of speaking?!) so there are some spots I steer well clear of, but I’ve still seen gymnasts, fire jugglers, unicyclists, dancers and more than enough musicians (some significantly more talented than others) offering shows in the middle of intersections or sidewalks. Lots of famous folks started out busking or playing in subway stations, so who’s to say the next Liliana Saumet isn’t out there singing on a Bogotá bus right now?
  5. Free museums – Bogotá outdoes itself when it comes to providing access to art, free of charge. Many of the flagship national museums, including the iconic Museo Botero, the Casa de la Moneda and personal favorite the Museo Nacional (housed in a building that used to be a prison) have totally free admission (donations always welcome, of course). Others, like the Museo del Oro, do charge a small admission fee of about 3,000 pesos ($1.50) — it’s not free, but you won’t find many other museums that charge admission that’s little more than the price of bus fare.

    this room would make the Spaniards happy

    One of the rooms in Bogotá’s lovely Museo del Oro (Gold Museum).

  6. Exercise classes in Parque Nacional – A sprawling swath of green space that rolls down the side of the mountain above the Séptima just north of Candelaria, Parque Nacional is a great place for a mid-week picnic or friendly match on one of the tennis courts perched above the street. During the weekend, though, it explodes into a cacophony of steps, beats and breathing patterns, as different groups stake out space to offer free classes for a range of workout styles, from yoga to Zumba. Whether you want to dance off the beers from the night before or just find your zen space, you can do it free of charge — as long as you don’t mind a little gawking from curious passersby.
  7. Rooftop of Titan Plaza – We all know how I feel about malls, but I have to make an exception for Titan Plaza, familiarly known as “the only mall that doesn’t give Natalie a claustrophobic anxiety attack.” The best thing about Titan, though, isn’t its Forever 21, or the fact that it has a bridge connecting it directly to the TransMilenio station (although that last detail is pretty excellent). No, it’s the green space on the roof of the UFO-shaped building, which has a fountain, benches, flowers, and a great panoramic view of the city. Even though it’s adjacent to two of the biggest streets running out of the city, the height lets you feel a little more removed from all of the madness on the ground below. Plus, on weekends, the cupcake stand is open!
  8. Public art exhibits – These can sometimes be less of a planned outing than the result of an unexpected discovery, but isn’t that the best way to encounter art? During the International Theater Festival, it seems like practically every street corner holds the possibility of bursting into a spontaneous performance, but there are exhibits across the city all throughout the year as well. One of my favorites comes courtesy of the FotoMuseo, the national photography museum, which takes on the admirable task of bringing stellar photographic work to the streets and communities of Bogotá. Featuring local and international artists, these semi-annual exhibits pop up all over the place, including in libraries, galleries and even the middle of the swanky Zona T. Stumbling upon these exhibits is always a pleasant surprise, so I try to keep one eye out whenever I’m walking around (while the other eye is making sure I don’t fall into one of the gaping holes in the sidewalk).
  9. Paloquemao – One of the recommended highlights for first-time visitors to Bogotá, the Paloquemao market is a sensory attack of colors, flavors and smells (some more appealing than others). It’s where nearby farmers and flower-growers come to sell their wares and where a large portion of the city does its weekly veggie shopping. Entrance to the massive covered market is free, but you’ll be forgiven if you end up dropping a few pesos on some fresh chicken or beautiful local tomatoes.

    roots grow up now

    Hanging fruits and veggies at Paloquemao market.

  10. Chapinero mountain hike – Monserrate gets all the attention, but there are other paths to explore in the mountains looming over the east side of Bogotá. One of the best-kept secrets of these alternative routes is a path that winds up from the edge of Chapinero Alto from the low 70 streets above the Circunvular. The hike goes through the vegetation on the mountainside and offers some great views of the urban sprawl below — without any of the crowded madness of Monserrate. The only catch is that the gate at the entrance of the path is locked for the day at 10 a.m., so this walk is only for the earliest of risers.
  11. DIY graffiti tour – There are several companies and individuals that offer tailored graffiti tours to hit some of Bogotá’s best works of street art, and some of them are very knowledgeable about the pieces and their significance in a social context. However, if you’re strapped for cash or prefer to move at your own pace, there’s no reason you can’t stroll around on your own and admire the many talented artists decorating walls, facades and underpasses. There’s interesting street art in almost every corner of the city, but some of the best places to see it are the Centro/Candelaria, inside the Universidad Nacional (don’t miss Plaza Che!) and major streets like the Séptima, Avenida Boyacá, the NQS and Calles 26 and 80.
  12. Public libraries – If you judge a city by how much its population loves books, Bogotá should be at the top of the list. In addition to the International Book Fair and hundreds of used book sellers, Bogotá is home to some seriously beautiful — and seriously popular — libraries. The flagship library, the Luis Angel Arango in La Candelaria, receives millions of visitors each year, but the El Tintal (southwest of the city), El Tunal (south), Santo Domingo (north) and Virgilio Barco (central, in Parque Simón Bolívar) libraries are also all stunning architectural creations and great resources in their own rights. In fact, I’m writing this post from one of the libraries right now!

    these are important words to know, here

    The walls of an exhibit on water inside the Luis Angel Arango library.

  13. Night bike rides – In case Ciclovía hadn’t already made you abundantly aware, this is a bike-crazy city. However, the local two-wheeled fanatics don’t allow their enthusiasm to be contained within one day, which has led to the proliferation of recurring ciclopaseos throughout the city. The most popular of these is the Ciclopaseo de los Miércoles, which takes place, as the name suggests, every other Wednesday at a different, predetermined starting point. Anyone with a bike is welcome to this friendly event, which can draw anywhere between a few dozen to several hundred people, depending on the week, location and, most of all, the weather.
  14. Art shows in the García Marquez Cultural Center – The basement of the center, right next to the Juan Valdez in La Candelaria, has a constant revolving art exhibit on display for any visitors who want to wander through while sipping coffee or hiding from the rain. The theme and style vary (I’ve liked some exhibits far more than others), but the curators always choose interesting Latin American artists, and it’s certainly worth a look when you’re in the neighborhood, if you’re not museum-ed out by then. The Center itself is also free and has a solid calendar of public events as well.
  15. La Calera lookout – Perched right above Bogotá, the town of La Calera and its eponymous lookout spot might have the best view in the whole city. From this corner of the road, it’s possible to see the entire expanse of the metropolis stretching away across the sábana — and, unlike Monserrate, it’s safe to be up here at night. In fact, this is a very popular nightlife spot, for couples and families that come to sip canelazo and enjoy the view, as well as for the partiers on board the chivas rumberas that chug up the hill carrying those aboard to one of La Calera’s late-night discotecas. It’s another perspective entirely on the city, and as close to a bird’s-eye view as one can get without actually leaving the ground. The lookout itself is free, but unless you’ve got a solid set of lungs, you’ll probably want to take the bus up from the Séptima (fares to the lookout are less than 2,000 pesos).

I’m sure there are plenty more of awesome free things that I’ve left off the list, but I’ve either yet to discover them, or I just want to keep them all to myself. If you know of any worthy additions, though, feel free to add your suggestions — I’m always on the lookout for more ways to enjoy this city without incurring any more infuriating Bank of America ATM fees!

Arts & Crafts (& Sheep)

A friend of mine runs a pretty cool local-based travel company here in Colombia, and about a month ago I got to hitch a ride with one of his trips. Our group spent a few days in the Altiplano — learning how to make pottery in Ráquira, shearing sheep on a farm outside of Villa de Leyva, wearing silly hats, and even finding time in between to play a little tejo and eat a bunch of empanadas. And then I wrote about it for their blog. A bit of a different perspective, or at least a different blog background, to change things up a little.

Quien lo Vive…

So as I may or may not have mentioned, I made up for my (lazy, broke, bad-at-planning, unmotivated) omission of last year and made sure I spent the second weekend of this past February in Barranquilla for Carnaval. Obviously a big part of this was the fact that Brighid lives there now, so it was a great excuse to go visit her, but it’s also one of those things that you just have to do when you live in Colombia. Or, judging from the number of gringos in attendance, even when you don’t.

Barranquilla, normally your typical mid-sized industrial port city, goes all-out for its Carnaval, which they never hesitate to tell you is the second-largest in the world (after only Rio, which, if you’re going to be second to something when it comes to Carnaval festivities, is really the only option). The city essentially shuts down for a whole week, during which time everything is covered in decorations, paint, banners, and anything red-green-and-yellow, the Carnaval colors. The people undergo a similar transformation — everyone is dressed in outrageous, neon, sparkly, bedazzled, insane festive clothing or costumes and covered in wigs, face paint, more sparkles, hats and other peculiar hair accessories. As if this weren’t enough, the two major spectator pastimes of Carnaval are drinking and throwing maizena (flour) and espuma (foam) at both friends and strangers until everyone in attendance looks as white as an Indiana frat boy on his first trip out of the country.

The days are filled with parades, dancing, music and celebration, and the nights — are pretty much exactly the same. We spent 2 hours one night just wandering from one block party to the next, weaving between neighbors dancing together and changing songs as we passed from one set of blaring speakers stacked higher than the surrounding houses to the next. People always talk about how joy is contagious, and this is one of the best places to see that in action — sure, we’re all sweaty and dirty and covered in flour and glitter and our feet hurt from standing and dancing, but we are all having one hell of a good time. Barranquilleros were, without fail, warm and welcoming and delightful people, and I couldn’t think of a better group to serve as my festival guides. For four nights straight, Brighid and I rolled into bed past 2 a.m., filthy and exhausted and probably dehydrated — and then the next morning, we got up and did it again. Because that’s what you do when it’s what everyone else is doing. We were just following the motto of Carnaval, after all:

Quien lo vive, es quien lo goza (S/he who lives it, enjoys it)

And enjoy it I did. Who’s up for 2014?

[full disclosure: I did not bring my fancy camera to Barranquilla, because beer + intense sunlight + flying foam + copious opportunities for robbery = disaster, as far as I’m concerned. So I’m sorry these photos don’t look so nice, but it’s the price we pay for caution. And it’s worth it]

Some Thoughts About Bureaucracy

One thought that kept coming up during my valiant (and ultimately successful) quest to get myself a visa was how much worse the whole thing could’ve been. Sure, getting up at 6 a.m. on a Saturday to go stand in line at DIAN and then sit inside the freezing building for 4 hours wasn’t exactly my favorite thing that’s ever happened to me in Colombia, but it also wasn’t the worst thing that’s ever happened to me. I survived. And from then on, everyone was so nice to me that it made the entire ordeal feel significantly less challenging than it could have.

I guess by now I shouldn’t be surprised that people in Colombia are just pleasant, even when they work at undoubtedly mind-numbing desk jobs, but there’s a part of my brain that’s still firmly lodged in the American (or at least Northeast region) mindset of only being civil when absolutely necessary, and definitely nothing ever past civil. We are exactly as polite as we need to be to get things done, and you can be sure you’ll know if you’re inconveniencing us. Not so here.

As I mentioned, the first time I went to register myself as a business at the Cámara de Comercio, I didn’t know I needed a copy of a utilities bill. I had all my other documents ready to go, but this one little thing was missing. It was too late in the day for me to go home, get it and come back before the office closed, so it was going to be one more day of delay in the process. But instead of just waving me away from the desk, the extremely helpful young woman working there (who, as I said, was as pregnant as she was helpful) sat down with me and filled out the entire document I needed, reviewing all the sections to make sure I was doing them correctly and telling me the smallest possible amount I could give as the value of my company, to limit taxes. “This way,” she told me, “you can just bring in the bill tomorrow and you’ll be all set!” And that’s exactly what I did.

She didn’t have to be that helpful. She could’ve just let me wait until the next day — it certainly wouldn’t make any difference for her job. But she did the good thing, and that’s the only reason I left the office that afternoon smiling instead of growling in frustration.

It was more or less the same at the Ministerio de Relaciones Exteriores, where I actually got my visa. I made damn sure to show up there with every single document I could ever potentially need, partly because I was so anxious to get the whole thing over with and mostly because you have to pay $50 every time you go there and I was sure as hell not going to pay $50 just for being a forgetful idiot. Even so, the guy I talked to there was so friendly and asked me questions like he was genuinely curious, rather than trying to trick me into saying the wrong thing. If I were a foreigner applying for a visa in the U.S., the process would be somewhere between a jail interrogation and a private investigator background check, and I would probably feel like a criminal without having done anything wrong. The “innocent until proven guilty” approach is so much easier to deal with in these kinds of processes — I was already nervous enough about applying for the visa. A mean agent probably would’ve made me burst into tears. Instead, I left with the world’s biggest grin and a promise to my interview agent that I would write nice things about Colombia.

Promise kept.

Vacation, By the Numbers

Days: 13

Different airports: 4

Co-travelers: 4 — always 3 other people, but two switched off mid-vacation

Number of times I had to unpack my entire backpack so an unfriendly customs official could rummage through my undergarments and judge the number of earrings I bring on vacation: 1

Meals eaten at Mexican restaurants: 3

Meals eaten at pizza places: 2

Total number of avocados consumed: at least 7

Hikes: 4

Hikes on volcanoes: 1

Times I thought I might pass out for various reasons: 3

Times I actually did pass out: 0. Yay me!

Ziplines conquered: 13

Micheladas consumed: 5. More, if you want to count the 1-liter one as more than one beer (it was $5! I love Quito)

Buses taken: 11

Dollars spent at Otavalo market in Ecuador: UGH.

Steps climbed at La Piedra near Guatapé, Colombia: 670

2×1 happy hour cocktails purchased: 12

Cocktails that were actually good: 4

Unsuccessful attempts to find Pablo Escobar’s grave: 2

Cats at hostels: 4

Motochiva rides: 1

Number of eggs eaten: I can’t count this high

Fourth of July parties attended: 1

Success: total

More coherent, complete sentences and photos to follow!

25 Reasons Why I Love Bogotá

About four months into living in another country is when one allegedly hits that first real “low” of culture shock. It takes different forms and manifests in various ways for different people, of course — I’m overall a pretty upbeat, cheerful person, so anytime I don’t feel like hugging half the city is a warning sign for me. Luckily, this is fairly uncommon, and I usually just blame my bad-mood days on the rain, PMS, a painfully crowded bus or the fact that I cannot get my sixth-graders to shut up for two minutes, for the love of god.

Personally, I have yet to really hit that all-out valley of crap feelings — and, barring some sort of traumatic event, I’m not entirely sure I ever will, at least not completely. It’s barely been five months, and I already feel so at home here, in so many ways. The difference between how I feel at five months in Bogotá (blissfully happy) and how I felt at five months during study abroad in Buenos Aires (oh my god get me on a plane I miss baseball season and walking down the street without people saying creepy shit to me more than anything in the world) is just astronomical. I know this is blasphemy and everyone loves Buenos Aires and yay you can totally function there without even really speaking Spanish and blah blah blah etc., but all I can speak for is my own experience. While I’d love to go back and visit all of the parts of Argentina I didn’t get a chance to see the first time, I don’t think I’ll ever be tempted to live there again. The way I feel here right now, they’ll be dragging me out of Colombia kicking and screaming in December, if I end up leaving at all.

But back to the culture shock for a minute. Last weekend I was talking with a few friends about how a lot of us volunteers — who all arrived here at the beginning of January —  are probably going through similar low points around the same time. Living abroad, it’s even easier to feel isolated than it is at home; or to think you’re the only one feeling the way you are; or feeling a lot of pressure to keep up a happy facade, whether it’s for friends and family or because everyone else seems happy and you don’t want to be the only Debbie Downer of the group. This is normal, but it’s not positive. We all have bad days, but we also all have reasons why we came here, and reasons why we haven’t left yet. And those bad days are the times when it’s most important to remember those reasons.

One of my friends already wrote a very entertaining blog post about some of her favorite things in Colombia, and another excellent gringa blogger in Colombia has a really delightful list of reasons to love Bogotá. Encouraged by these ladies’ efforts, I want to toss my own hat into the ring. You can call it copying — I call it inspiration. Everyone else is talking about what they love about Colombia, and I just don’t want to be left out!

just, you know, about 40% of the time

See? It doesn’t rain ALL the time!

So, ladies and gents, in what I expect may be somewhat of a continuing series:

25 Things That Make Me Never Want To Leave Bogotá

1. No matter where I am in the city, I can see mountains. It is impossible to overstate how beneficial this is to my mental and emotional health.

2. It is totally socially acceptable for adults to walk around eating all kinds of sugary treats.

3. People stop to help other people change their flat tires. In the middle of the street. At 11:30 at night.

4. Crepes & Waffles. Oh my god, Crepes & Waffles.

5. At most tiendas (and grocery stores), a beer costs about US$1.

6. Random people at bars will buy you a beer, invite you to join them at their table and talk to you like they’ve known you for years.

7. Everyone has a finca outside the city. And they all want you to visit. You could spend months just finca-hopping every weekend.

8. Walks of shame do not visibly exist here (or are at least extremely covert), because tons of women are normally walking around in dresses and heels on weekend mornings.

9. People drink hot chocolate at breakfast and dinner.

10. Colombians will invite you to their birthday parties after knowing you for exactly two hours — or to their weddings after two months.

11. You can buy a cup of strong, dark coffee on pretty much any street corner in the city, for about 25 cents.

12. Also lollipops, if you’re into that.

13. When the guy at my favorite local bakery calls me “amor,” it actually does make me feel just a little more loved.

14. There are dogs everywhere. Everywhere. And they are beautiful.

15. Passengers on crowded buses will happily pass bus fare and change back and forth between fellow passengers and the driver.

16. The cops posted at every TransMilenio station are basically unofficial travel agents in flourescent jackets. The only things I’ve ever seen them do are text, give people directions and occasionally ask random people for identification if they’re feeling especially bored.

17. People keep their horses in the strangest, most surprising places. Like the field next to the Éxito on my walk home from school. Or their back yards.

18. Eggs are fresh, delicious, cheap and probably came from the chicken strolling down the sidewalk outside the store.

19. Reading is considered a worthwhile and normal use of personal time.

20. They have beer towers in more than a few bars. I missed you, college.

21. If you’re an hour late arriving somewhere, it is perfectly acceptable to blame it on the traffic, even if it’s not true. Everyone will understand.

22. Sundays are exactly the way Sundays should be: lazy, quiet, with empty offices and full bike paths and cafés. You can even get away with walking around in sweatpants on Sundays.

23. There is some sort of holiday almost every week. Most of them are celebrated on multiple days, and they often involve presents.

24. For some reason, stilts are really popular here. At almost any kind of large public event, there are guaranteed to be people on stilts. I think I’ve seen more stilts in my five months here than the rest of my life prior to this year.

25. Teenagers are not too embarrassed to be seen in public with their parents. Sometimes they even hug them.

#26: Chocolate-covered strawberries. They have stores specifically for these treats. I’m never leaving.

Car Bombs and the Incredible Power of Solidarity

So, today, May 15th (screw all of you with Daylight Savings hours, it’s still Tuesday here), was Día del Profesor here in Colombia — and, if I’m not mistaken, in many other countries as well. Here in Bogotá, though, the celebration was rather overshadowed by the unofficial Día de Car Bombs.

I’m not talking about offensively-named drinks, nor am I trying to make light of what is a really serious situation. There really were car bombs today. Plural. Fortunately, only one of them actually went off, but one is more than bad enough.

But let’s start at the beginning. Today marked the beginning of the official operation of the new free-trade agreement between Colombia and the U.S. I won’t even pretend that I paid enough attention in economics class to explain anything about it, but we’re all adults here, so I think we’re at least familiar with the basic idea of a free-trade agreement, in that it removes a significant number of tariffs and import/export taxes on goods between countries, thereby freeing up the possibility of a lot more movement of goods and basically screwing over most producers who aren’t giant evil corporations. In this case, a majority of U.S.-produced agricultural products (including most fruits and veggies, plus more soy and horrible genetically-engineered beef, yay!) will now come into Colombia tariff-free. This, for the people who failed Econ for Dummies (hey, I barely scraped by), means that these products will now be way cheaper in Colombian markets, making competition almost impossible for Colombia’s nearly 2 million small farmers, most of whom already live in serious rural poverty.

Of course, it’s GREAT for the U.S. economy — especially my least favorite state, Florida, which, as the closest point in the continental U.S., looks to benefit a hell of a lot from all that new movement of goods and will undoubtedly use that money to build more goddamn high-rise beachfront hotels or golf courses or something else equally awful. President Santos has sworn that it will create more than 300,000 new jobs for the Colombian economy, but Oxfam, who tend to know their stuff, predicted last year that the FTA (or TLC, as it’s rather amusingly called here) could cause those 1.8 million farmers to potentially lose more than half of their incomes, as well as negatively affecting their communities and undermining anti-FARC efforts made in poorer regions. So, yay free trade! Imposing U.S. demands and crappy products on countries across the world! Ruining the lives of small farmers so Monsanto can just move right in! Yay, destructive globalization!

Anyways, we won’t go into my feelings about free trade any further. Suffice it to say, there are some people in Colombia who agree with me about the potential issues presented by these kinds of treaties. However, the difference between me and these people is that I don’t go around expressing my feelings by blowing things — and people — up.

This morning, most of us awoke to the news that the police had discovered a car with an explosive device outside the police headquarters in the centro, near La Candelaria, in the early hours of the morning. Luckily, they discovered it in time to safely defuse it, and they apparently already caught some guy who was at least somewhat responsible. So, whew. Danger averted, right?

Not really. A little past 11 a.m., a bomb detonated in the middle of the busy intersection of Calle 74 and Avenida Caracas, one of the main carreras running north-south through the city and a primary hub and route for the public TransMilenio bus system. In fact, Calle 74 is right between Calles 72 and 76, which are both major interchange stations on the TransMilenio routes. There was obviously a ton of confusion at first about what had happened — Twitter, bless its robot heart, was, as usual in these kinds of situations, both incredibly useful and totally misdirecting. I initially found out about it from Twitter, where people were reporting a bus had blown up. There were five wounded, then ten, then 19, then two dead, and so on. All of this turned out to not quite be the truth, but as the day went on, we got closer.

We’re still piecing the whole thing together, but as it looks now, what happened was this: Whoever the attackers were (the government refuses to say anything official, but everyone is pretty sure it was the FARC), they were clearly targeting Fernando Londoño, a former justice minister under the previous Uribe administration. Why he was targeted isn’t really clear to me (or, apparently, anyone so far), but the people responsible pulled up next to his car on a motorcycle, attached the bomb to the door of his car, then zoomed away. And then it exploded.

As it happened, when the bomb detonated, Londoño’s car was right next to one of the thousands of public busetas that criss-cross all over the city, so the bus and all of its passengers were caught in the explosion as well. As of right now, the official tally is three dead (Londoño’s driver, a police bodyguard and an unidentified third person), and almost 40 injured, most of them passengers from the bus.

People here were, understandably, really shaken by the whole thing. The news began to spread around my school at about noon, and most of the teachers instantly grabbed for their phones, calling their loved ones to make sure everyone was safe. It was definitely a strange, unsettling day, but I want to try to make sure to point out the positive message here, because there is one.

Even though the image of Colombia may still be, to most outsiders, something along these lines, with random car bombs and assassination attempts happening on a daily basis, that couldn’t be farther from the truth. Yes, this was an important reminder of the reality of life in this country, that there remains an ongoing civil conflict from which all the tall buildings in Bogotá can’t shield us, and that to ignore this truth is both foolish and dangerous. But the fact that people were so shocked, so horrified, so quick to take to any and all means of communication to denounce today’s violence and express their solidarity for one another and for their country, says so much about how far this city and these people have come. This is not the Bogotá of ten or twenty years ago, where such events might not have come as a surprise. In today’s Bogotá, these things do not happen. And when they horrifyingly, shockingly do, as they did today, the whole city reaches out to one another and finds not fear, but strength.

As soon as news of the attack spread across social media, “74 con Caracas” and “londoño” shot to the top of Bogotá’s trending topics on Twitter. But what I found more interesting is that the next most popular tag across the city was “#NoAlTerrorismo” (“No To Terrorism”). As in, this shall not pass. As in, we won’t allow it. People here are shaken, but they aren’t scared. This is their city — they love this place, they’re proud of it, and they’re not going to let anyone take that away from them. And you can’t make that spirit disappear, no matter how strong your bombs might be. Some things can’t be destroyed.

Coastal Adventures in Cartagena & Santa Marta; or, Why I Want a Hammock for My Birthday

Happy post-vacation Tuesday, y’all! Yeah, I know most of you had to work last week, but that’s just another of the perks of living in these southern regions.

On the other hand, I spent basically all day yesterday sitting in the teachers’ room at school, doing nothing — not because I’m a huge slacker, but because upon my return to Bogotá this weekend, my body immediately decided to express its displeasure with the departure from warmer, sunnier climes by becoming quite indignantly sick (at least it seems indignant to me. And it’s my body, so who is anyone to tell me otherwise?). It’s not anything severely terrible, just a rather emphatic cold, but between the constant sniffles and the fact that my voice is operating at about zero decibels with the occasional squeak to provide contrast, I’m afraid I won’t be much use at all as a teacher this week.

walls and lamps

Cartagena: Exhibit A in "how to create successful mood lighting."

The immune system devastation was absolutely worth it, though, for last week’s festivities. Here in Colombia, as in most Latin American countries, the week before Easter is Holy Week, or Semana Santa. For most working people, only the Thursday and Friday of that week are holidays, but lucky us in the school system — we get a whole week off! It is one of the biggest travel holidays of the year, though, kind of like our Thanksgiving week, so you have to plan ahead if you don’t want to be paying your entire year’s volunteer stipend just to leave the city. Luckily, I’m friends with some savvy people, and we figured way back in January that by April we’d probably need a break from the Bogotá rain, so we got ourselves some flights to Cartagena ASAP before the prices went through the roof. And holy arepas con huevos, am I glad we did.

Our weeklong journey took us to the beaches of Cartagena, around the walled city and up the ramparts of an old castle, through a highway that winds along the Caribbean coast past the port city of Barranquilla, up to the smaller town of Santa Marta and the gorgeous beaches near Tayrona National Park, then back to Cartagena for one more day of socializing and eating ice cream before we crashed back into the rainy reality of Bogotá. But let’s go back to the warm, happy place for a few minutes, shall we?

oh hey, pretty sky

Like this one!

Cartagena, on Colombia’s Caribbean coast (think I can squeeze any more alliteration into this sentence?), is built around the preserved remnants of an old walled port, dating back almost 500 years and now an UNESCO World Heritage site — in the company of such illustrious locations as the Sydney Opera House, the Great Wall of China and the Acropolis. I’ve visited a few World Heritage sites over the course of my travels (Argentina’s Iguazú National Park, the historic center of Bruges, Masada and the Baha’i gardens in Israel, Fiordland National Park on New Zealand’s South Island, and Colonia in Uruguay), and I’d definitely say that Cartagena deserves its place on that list. It is outrageously beautiful, the kind of pretty that makes you take pictures of random porches and windows because you’re just trying so hard to capture whatever the essence is hiding in the walls that makes the city so bewitching. I don’t know if I succeeded, but I sure do have a lot of photos to show for it.

So we had two days in Cartagena, with our friends Mayis and Dany serving as official hosts and unofficial tour guides (this is why it’s always smart to go on vacation with someone who’s actually from the place you’re visiting). Though we didn’t realize it before, we ended up visiting the city the week before the sixth Summit of the Americas, which is drawing presidents from all across the region, including Obama and the ever-unpredictable Chávez. Needless to say, the city was positive crawling with cops — we legitimately could not walk two blocks without running into at least half a dozen cops. When people mention shows of force, I think Cartagena the week before the Summit is exactly what they’re talking about.

i'm on a boat!

BOAT CEVICHE. With bbq sauce. Winning.

Still, we didn’t let the omnipresent fluorescent green jackets and large signs proclaiming “Somos seguridad” (“We are security”) put a damper on our vacation. We did all the regular touristy things: walked along the wall, took pictures of doors and horse-drawn carriages, drank piña coladas on the beach, watched sex workers plying their trade on said beach, spotted a few local celebrities, drank micheladas, applied a lot of sunscreen and ate our weight in ice cream. Being the crew of Bourdain groupies that we are, we also made a point to eat at La Cevichería, a cozy ceviche restaurant that was featured during his Colombia “No Reservations” episode. Chalk up another point for the supremacy of Bourdain — the ceviche there was mind-blowingly good, and incredibly creative. Mine came in a dish shaped like a boat! Covered in barbecue sauce! AMERICA!

that kid totally stole my thing

The Santa Marta waterfront. For once, I'm not the one doing the victory pose.

you know, hawaii isn't the only place with pineapples

Tasty fresh mango/papaya/pineapple juice at Lulo in Santa Marta. Breakfast drink of champions!

I could (and probably eventually will) write an entire essay about how much I loved Cartagena, but I’d be remiss and a terrible travel cataloger if I didn’t talk about Santa Marta — and the beach. When I told people here that I was headed to Cartagena, almost everyone informed me that I “had” to go to Santa Marta. I’ve never been one to turn down travel recs, and it turned out that what seemed like half of WorldTeach was also headed to Santa Marta around that same time, so we decided to take two days and head up the coast to see what was so special about it. Santa Marta is about a four-hour easy drive up from Cartagena, along a pretty, mostly waterfront highway. The town itself is pretty small and not necessarily anything to write home about — it kind of looks like a mini-Cartagena that nobody has bothered to wash yet. Its definitely a bit grungier than Cartagena (which may be the key to some of its backpacker appeal), with more than a few iffy-looking neighborhoods, but it has a cute waterfront filled with vendors and some damn good restaurants. I think we might’ve eaten better in Santa Marta than I have anywhere else so far in Colombia — everything from Mediterranean to Italian to breakfast sandwiches and fresh juice.

seeing how your bag gets made

The aforementioned bags, happily-colored and direct from the source!

But you don’t go to Santa Marta just for the food, or to buy cheap bags (though both of those turned out to be excellent perks). You go for Tayrona. Tayrona is one of Colombia’s most famous national parks — and in a country with as many beautiful outdoor spaces as this one, that’s saying something. We actually didn’t visit the park itself, since we only had one day and the entrance fee is a bit pricey for a day visit (most people stay for a few days, hiking and sleeping on the beach). Instead, on the recommendation of several random people we’d met the day before (in my experience, always a good strategy for useful advice), seven of us headed to a beach called Los Angeles, right next to the park. Instead of paying $35,000 pesos and walking for two hours to reach the beach, we were at the waterfront 10 minutes and $3,000 pesos after climbing off the bus.

they do sunsets right, here

This is at least as good as someone reading me a bedtime story.

And you guys, this BEACH. The whole place looks like Jurassic Park — all primeval forests and looming mist-shrouded mountains and crashing waves and mirror-clear water. There were other people at the beach, mostly couples in hammocks or families in tents, but they mostly kept to themselves and there were no vendors in our faces like on the beaches in Cartagena. It felt like we’d discovered this place all by ourselves, like the sky and boulders and soft sand were there just for us, that day. The day at Los Angeles with six of my fellow WorldTeach ladies was probably one of my favorite days I’ve spent in Colombia so far, and my new goal for the year is to make it back there, this time for long enough to spend a few nights in one of those comfy-looking hammocks, waking up to sunlight and sand and waves stretching out in front of me all the way to that prehistoric horizon.

[Stay the digital equivalent of tuned! Many, many more photos to come this week!]

How Not to Ruin a Goodbye for Everyone You Know

bring it, times square

For the record, there are not mountains like this in New York.

My friend is leaving Colombia tonight, heading back to the States to start grad school in a month. It’s a great opportunity for her, of course, very exciting etc., but obviously on a selfish level I’m sad to lose someone with whom I’ve already spent lots of time eating pizza, drinking wine and watching the occasional Ryan Gosling movie. Also, it means I have to say goodbye to someone I really like, about seven months earlier than I’d anticipated. This unequivocally sucks.

It’s these kinds of moments where most people will inevitably trot out that old reliable: “I’m so bad at goodbyes.” This is, by far, the most socially acceptable way to react to having to deal with someone’s departure, even in the kinds of mobile, transient communities you find among international workers and travelers.

But here’s the thing, friends: nobody is good at goodbyes. They’re not something that the average human enjoys, unless you’re saying goodbye to a particularly difficult boss or horrible ex-boyfriend. In general, we’re not big on abandonment or drastic change, and goodbyes tend to involve both of those things.

I’m not going to go so far as to say that I’m good at dealing with goodbyes (please see first sentence of above paragraph, thank you). But truthfully, I would feel dishonest if I claimed to be particularly bad at them. It is possible, you know, to deal with departures without reacting to them as The Worst Thing In The History Of The World Ever. This, however, does require a few factors in your favor, some of which are definitely more controllable than others. This, I think, is more or less what works for me:

1. The first is not being a crier. If you’re prone to crying (and I know a few lovely people who fall right into this category), I got nothing for you. Sorry. Personally, I violently loathe the idea of crying in front of any entity other than my teddy bear, and do everything in my power to keep it that way. So, crying. Don’t do it. Doesn’t help.

2. The second, I’d argue, is a strong belief in personal agency and responsibility. If I want to stay in touch with someone, I will. Sure, when you leave the country, your relationships do change — I can’t text my friends at any hour about the cute teacher at work, and I have to schedule Skype calls to keep updated on the lives of people at home. The frequency changes — where I used to be in contact with some friends every week, now it’s more like once or twice a month. This is a necessary side effect of geography and new systems of telecommunication, but it’s not like these people suddenly stop existing in my life, or become less important. They’re still entirely there. If you want to stay in touch with someone, you will, one way or another. It’s as simple as that. So saying goodbye doesn’t mean that person is gone forever — unless you want it that way.

3. The third, and maybe most important, one has to do with time management, or some emotional version of picking the site for your battles. I usually do this thing where I anticipate leaving a place or people about three months ahead of time, and preemptively go through my depressed grieving process at that point. My friends think this is slightly masochistic and entirely comical, but dammit, it works for me. Granted, it does lead to a lot of mournful looks directed at things like Lake Michigan and the entirety of Davis Square, and drunken conversations (or, occasionally, somewhat more than conversations) with my friends about how much I’m going to miss them — but it also gives me a manageable amount of time to work through whatever negative emotions I’m feeling ahead of time in order to be calm when the actual moment arrives. And calmness goes a long way towards making these kinds of transitions easier.

This was most relevant at two points recently: when I graduated from college, and when I moved here in January. Both situations involved leaving people and places that I love dearly, and I spent a good amount of time during the months beforehand moping about how much I was going to miss Ian’s Pizza (oh, mac & cheese pizza, ambrosia of the Wrigleyville gods!) or sitting in my living room with my roommates at midnight talking about femme invisibility. I was probably incredibly unpleasant to be around for some of those days — but when the time came to actually leave, there was no crying. I’d already moved through that, and everything was wiped clean to make space for my excitement about whatever was to come next.

Of course, this time I’m not the one leaving, which makes it a bit harder, although the fact that I’m living in Bogotá for at least seven more months is a pretty good consolation prize. And I didn’t get that much advance warning this time either, which has pretty much negated that vital third strategy. Still, these kinds of changes are inevitable, and it’s certainly made me realize how much I’ve already established a life and routine here, in just two short months. I have friends I rely on, a favorite bakery and a standing Ultimate Frisbee date with some of my students on Monday afternoons, and I’m already comfortable enough with all of these aspects of my life that change feels peculiar, instead of still just part of the adjustment process.

So Rachel, I’m going to miss you, but good luck in New York, and thank you for helping me realize how much Bogotá, for me, has already begun to feel like home.