Month: March 2015

Explosives and Beer

The tejo court and beer tables

The tejo court and beer tables

Each week my language school offers a few cultural activities to enhance the learning experience. Friday afternoon was tejo, which I learned is Colombia’s national sport. Who knew? (Apparently people who watch Anthony Bourdain. This short video is worth watching for a real understanding of what I’m trying to describe.)

In class we were given a long explanation of tejo in Spanish that mostly went over my head. I understood it to be a little like cornhole: you throw something to try to explode something while drinking beer. I was sort of right.

We drove about an hour outside of the city, up into the mountains. Upon arriving, the game was explained again (much easier to understand when accompanied by the actual items) and then divided into four teams of four people each. While doing this, the beer arrived.



Alternating between teams, each person takes a turn throwing a tejo—a small metal disc—at the “cancha”, which is about 19 yards away. You are trying to hit one of four mechas, a paper triangle pouch filled with gunpowder that is dug slightly into a clay-covered board leaning against the backboard at about a 45-degree angle. (In reading about tejo to write this post, I learned that there’s a metal ring under the mechas. This might have been explained in class.)

The best thing is to hit an explosive that actually explodes, creating a gunshot sound, a small fire of explosion, and the lingering smell of gunpowder. Second best is for your tejo to land within the circle made by the four explosives. Third best is if you are somewhere in the mud, and closer to the circle than anyone else stuck in the mud. All of these earn some points for your team.

Almost the worst is if your tejo bounces off the backboard or the frame around the mud. Absolute worst is if your tejo doesn’t even hit the goal.

Mechas in the clay and tejo-made holes

Guess what happened to my tejo on many of my throws? (Hint: there’s a reason my softball career was short-lived.)

It wasn’t so fun to spend over an hour doing something I sucked at. The fact that it was really loud area didn’t help either. The enclosed small playing area amplified the gunshot sounds made when someone hit a mecha.

My team had two skilled players, but we were behind the whole afternoon. Then, unexpectedly, the other person at my skill level hit a mecha and we won. Completely unexpected and a little exciting for me. Very exciting for the two players who earned all the other points.

I washed my hands and mentally got ready to head back to Bogotá. Except the leaders decided we needed to kill time to avoid traffic, so we started a second round pitting the two winning and the two losing teams against each other.

I was really uninterested in playing again but my team needed four players.

Then I hit the mecha. Total thrill! I jumped. I high-fived everyone. I gloated (“Ah, the sweet smell of success.”) It felt like finally bowling a strike after throwing gutter balls most of the game.

In fact, I compare this whole experience to bowling: it’s fun to do—one or twice a year.

An unexpected bonus came while driving back down into Bogotá. The road is set into the side of a mountain, affording beautiful views of the city. We stopped at an overlook where people set up camp to watch the sunset, eat and drink beers. We enjoyed the beautiful night for a few minutes before heading home.

Bogotá at night from above #nofilter

Bogotá at night from above #nofilter

TOL: Culture Mixing

Last night, I was in Bogotá eating dinner at an Italian/Mediterranean restaurant, drinking Argentine wine, when the chicken dance song comes on – in French. Cultural dissonance? Harmony? Mixture?

Whatever you call it, it’s a small world.

Mediterranea Andrei logoNote: The restaurant is Mediterranea de Andrei in the Usaquén neighborhood. The dinner was delicious and I would go back.

TOL: I Paid 20,000 For…

… a manicure/pedicure. Turns out that’s less than $8 (and included the tip I chose to give—some American habits are hard to break). I could get used to this.

Next up: finding out how much massages are.

Postscript: I discovered that this might have been a slightly expensive mani/pedi by Bogotá standards. I am living in a nice part of town and I think the salon is priced accordingly. While wandering through a neighborhood close to school, I saw mani/pedis advertised for anywhere from 2,000-4,000 less.

I Thought I Was So Clever

I thought I was so clever. After my experience riding TransMilenio to school last Wednesday left me both proud at my success at pushing my way onto the bus and weary at the thought of doing the same thing every day for the next few months, I decided to try the blue buses. These city buses are relatively new here so many Bogotanos don’t know how figure them out. Which means that they are relatively empty.

Another student clued me into the whole blue bus thing and it turns out Google Maps has all the needed info (once I learned how to input Bogotá addresses, that is—a story for another post). Turns out there are three different routes at the bus stop closest to my house, all of which stop two blocks from school. Score.

Blue Bus

Blue Bus

I successfully took a blue bus to school last Thursday and Friday mornings. I even took one Friday night to meet a friend for dinner. The door-to-door morning commute was about 45-50 minutes, as compared to 30 on TransMilenio. But the improved quality of life made the extra time so worth it.

Each time, I got a seat on the bus right when I boarded. The buses never got very crowded, so there was space around me. Finally, I could read on my phone or listen to my iPod without fear of being robbed. Oh podcasts, how I’ve missed you.

How quickly things can change. Today I got on the blue bus and took a seat. And then we went nowhere. No. Where. For a very, very, very long time.*

Turns out all of those warnings about the traffic were true. I just hadn’t had the pleasure of the experience yet. I have been living a charmed life that I didn’t even appreciate. Now I have lived through real Bogotá morning.

Today was the first day of a new traffic pattern. Even though one of the major north/south routes, Carrera 11, is a divided boulevard, traffic on both sides of the median drove south. Only south. Until today. Now, the road is like any other two-way boulevard. One side goes north and the other south. But this means a lot of Bogotá traffic now has to cram into an even smaller space. Most Bogotanos who needed to know, knew this was happening. I didn’t.

There have been a few other traffic changes like this in the past year so I have to believe it is part of some grand plan. But my Spanish isn’t good enough yet to read up on what this plan is.

My clever solution didn’t last long. When all was said and done, my trip took 1:45 and I missed my first class (and I still don’t know how to say, “I missed class” in Spanish).

So, come tomorrow, I am returning to the TransMilenio madness. I’m going to work on finding my inner Zen to stay calm and balance out my inner Bogotana who pushes her way into the bus.

* But of course we had gone just far enough that I thought it did not make sense to go back to the house, change my shoes, and walk 3.3 miles to school. The fact that there are no bus transfers, I didn’t have any more money on my card, and you can’t load more money onto the card on the bus might have played into my thinking. As did the belief that somehow, just ahead, the traffic would break and we’d start moving at more than a snail’s pace.

All The Ways I Haven’t Died Yet in Bogotá

Laguna del Cacique Guatavita

After only four full days in Bogotá, you’d think this would be a short list. However, it is surprisingly long. This list does not include anything having to do with the drug cartels, paramilitaries, or national police. Generally speaking, Colombia is a safe place to be, and I will abide the warnings about places in the country I should avoid.

1. Exhaustion. My first four nights here, I fell into bed by 9.30. Part of this exhuastion was left over from barely sleeping my final night in DC because I had too much to do: packing up my things to make room for the renter’s clothes, seeing people, and actually packing for the trip.

Another part of this is because I went from living at 410 ft (125 m) above sea level to 8,660 ft (2,640 m). The high altitude takes some adjusting to. Then—because why not—I decided to climb another 1,500 meters up a steep path in order to look down on the Laguna del Cacique Guatavita. The views were beautiful, with Texas-big sky above and a patchwork valley below; here are more photos. It was worth it, even if my lungs and knees questioned this at the time.

The final part is because it’s mentally taxing to operate in a foreign language that I barely know. I took intensive Spanish classes for a month each in Guatemala and Ecuador—in 1998 and 1999. That was a little bit ago. Things I learned then are bubbling up to the surface and I use words that a week ago I probably didn’t remember that I know; I’m thankful every time that happens. But mostly I feel like a beginner and all this thinking turns out to add to the physical exhaustion.

2. Cars and motorcycles. I was warned about the traffic here, and it’s one of the chief comments and complaints from Bogotanos. But it isn’t the traffic per se that could have killed me, just the cars that make up the traffic. The representative from the school who met me the first morning explained: “Here, it is cars first, people a distant second.”

Stop signs are optional here (apparently many Colombians are surprised when they get tickets in the US for failing to stop). In some places, it’s actually better to dart across the street in the middle of the block than to cross at a corner. Better that is, unless a motorcycle is driving between the cars, and unless said street is a wide boulevard with…



3. Bicycles. Bogotanos love their bicycles. Every day, I cross a main boulevard where the median is a two-way bike lane with a small grassy area on each side. So just as I make it safely across two lanes of traffic, I have to look both ways to avoid being run down by a bicycle.

4. Random holes. My very first day, I took a nice walk along Calle 116, a wide boulevard. On Sundays, one side is completely closed to traffic as part of Ciclovia. Many people were relaxing on the grassy median, which also has some trees. I was eager for some shade so I ambled down the grass. (I know, it’s hard for people in many parts of the US right now to imagine it being too hot to walk in the sunshine—some day you’ll experience it again.) I hadn’t walked more than a block before I found myself sprawled on the ground. I’d tripped by walking into a hole I could barely see because it was so well hidden in the grass. Turns out there are a number of these, both well hidden and in plain sight, in all of these grassy boulevards, including the one I cross twice daily.

5. TransMilineo. Bogotá’s rapid bus transit system is impressive (but figuring out how to read the maps is confusing); it turns out it is the largest in the world. And I thought I might die the first morning I rode it. Ok, that’s a slight exaggeration. Slight. In the US, we just have a different conception of how much mass can fit into one space. I could not reach anything to hold onto, but I felt perfectly safe because we were so packed in that even when the bus stopped short, I hardly moved.

Trying to get the doors closed

Trying to close the TransMilenio doors (not my photo—I’ve been warned against showing electronics on TM)

The other morning, I let two buses pass because they were so crowded. But I did need to get to school, so when the third arrived, I dug deep, found my inner Bogotana, and pushed my way on. I was pretty proud of myself. The first sign that I’m adjusting to life here.




Launching Phase II

Map of South America

Map of South America

I’m off! Phase II of Fauxbatical, Pseudotirement, Funemployment,  my Eat, Pray, Love life, whatever you want to call it, is beginning.

After hanging around DC for the past six months (with some fun trips to a yoga ranch, Shenandoah, and Berlin thrown in), I’m really shaking things up.

Phase II of this new life of mine will be in South America: three months in Bogotá, Colombia, followed by three months in Buenos Aires, Argentina. (Interestingly, both the same color on this map I found—a sign from the universe?)

At least, that’s the plan of the moment.

Goals for the six months:

  1. Be uncomfortable. I expect to achieve this within the first day because my Spanish is pretty rudimentary, and while I don’t have much of an image of Bogotá in my mind, I’m sure that what I actually see in my first few days will be different than what I didn’t realize I had imagined.
  2. Experience a new culture. By living with a host family, and then maybe in a roommate situation, I should be able to do a deeper dive into the rhythm of living in Bogotá than I would as a tourist passing through.
  3. Shake things up. As much as I’ve loved most of my life the past six months, I don’t feel that different from when I was working. Yes, I’m less stressed and less tired, but overall I am still involved in the same activities and seeing the same people. Time for the new.
  4. Go to a play in Spanish and understand (most of) it. I am a theater fan. I think a real test of my language skills will be whether I can go to a show and comprehend the majority of it.

Things I expect will happen (and hopefully, since I already know they are going to happen, it won’t be so bad when they do):

Not obvious at all

Not obvious at all

  1. I will have all of the wrong clothes. A friend kindly helped me figure out what to bring. But I expect that I’ll just exude “extranjero” (foreigner) by walking down the street in my red jacket while carrying my turquoise backpack.
  2. I will spend $30 on something I could have gotten for $3. It will be clear I am an extranjero (see #1), which means the price has already increased even more than the markup for a local. And since I do not enjoy haggling over prices, you can see where this is going. $30.
  3. I will say the wrong thing. Since I haven’t done it yet, I’ll borrow an example from a friend of mine. While studying Spanish in Costa Rica, she tried to say, “I like the dogs in the neighborhood.” Apparently the words for dog and prostitute are similar. That was a conversation stopper.
  4. I’ll make a poor decision about where to go/how to get there because my language limits kept me from understanding the options. Hopefully the impact of this error will be minimal.

The details of my plans:

Actually, I don’t have a lot of specific plans. For people who know me, this is incredibly surprising. But I’ve come to see it as the other side of me. I’ve never been interested in planning out all of the details of a vacation before I take it. Granted, this is more than a vacation, but the same principle applies.



I chose Bogotá and Buenos Aires because they were the top recommendations offered during the many, many conversations I had with people when I broke the news I was leaving my job. Friends from DC who now live in BA suggested that my Spanish would probably develop better if I went somewhere else first to build a strong language base because they Spanish spoken there is very different than everywhere else.

I have signed up for two weeks of intensive small-group classes, staring bright and early Monday morning. I also signed up for the school to arrange a home stay that includes breakfast and dinner. Here’s what I know about my new digs for at least the next two weeks:

Senora M is a 72 years old lovely lady. She lives with 62 years old Senora Y. They both spend their time sewing at home and going to church. They also like to share their time with students, and take care of them as their own children. Their house consists of two bedrooms with a shared bathroom and one bedroom with a private bathroom. Near it, you can find Unicentro, two well-known and visited places as a mall and Los Molinos park, and you can use transmilenio and bus.

I’ve paid the school to arrange transportation from the airport, so once I land, I have somewhere to sleep and when I wake up on Sunday, someone will make me breakfast.

During these two weeks I’ll get a lay of the land and decide if I want to sign up for additional classes at this school or search for another and whether to continue this homestay or find an apartment.

Buenos Aires

Buenos Aires

I’ve also considered trying to sign up to do some volunteer work while here so that I can learn more about Bogotá and practice my Spanish.

Sometime during the course of the six months, I plan to take side trips to the Galapagos, Machu Picchu, and Rio de Janeiro. In addition, I’ve started a list of places within Colombia and Argentina I need to visit as well.

It would be great if friends want to come join me for any of these side trips, or visit me while in either Bogotá or Buenos Aires. If so, just be in touch—as of now, my schedule is pretty open!

Why I’ve Stuck Around DC

Timing is everything. I’ve been asked a gazillion times why I’ve spent most of my time since leaving my job around the DC area.

One primary reason is the Jeremiah Fellowship, a community organizing training program run by Jews United for Justice.

Jeremiah Logo

In the summer of 2009, the executive director of JUFJ emailed to ask me to consider applying for the inaugural Jeremiah cohort. The timing was just right. I was looking for something new to do with my time and was interested in finding a Jewish connection in DC that wasn’t centered around happy hours or raising money.

Jeremiah hit all the right notes—training on community organizing and leadership with a focus on local issues. If you can remember back to 2009, we had just elected a president who had spent time as a community organizer. Although I had read Dreams from My Father, I didn’t really understand what community organizing was. Suddenly a program that would explain it all, provide training, introduce me to new people, and provide something Jewish to do landed in my lap. I knew not to ignore the signs.

I was hooked from the first session. The community organizing skills started to make sense when I heard stories of JUFJ’s successes. Here’s my favorite from those days, because it is the one that made everything click for me:

JUFJ and a number of other organizations were concerned about the plans for the proposed Purple Line station in Langley Park, the heart of a Central American immigrant community. We supported the Purple Line, but thought that the station could be built without knocking down a significant number of affordable apartments and small businesses in the process.

The groups decided to take an action that would demonstrate the community’s concern at a planning commission meeting. A very important note—“the community” showing concern wasn’t just composed of people whose apartments or businesses would be impacted. Rather, it was a community of Purple Line supporters from a larger geographic area.

Planning commission meetings are not usually high on people’s lists of where to spend their precious free time. Usually, attendance can be counted in single digits. On this night, the organizations turned out about 30 people, who showed up at the meeting wearing t-shirts or buttons signaling they were together. A few designated people spoke; the rest just showed their support by being there.

The commission went back to the drawing board. (And the Purple Line is still being planned…)

As a Jeremiah, I learned the value of showing up. I realized I didn’t need to be an expert in an issue before being part of a group showing its support. As long as I trust the organization behind the request, I can show up as asked. (I’ve also learned how many other people aren’t concerned about not being experts before they speak up about an issue.)

Back to the theme of how timing is everything. I’ve been helping facilitate parts of Jeremiah ever since I graduated, and a few years later became an official co-facilitator.

This fall, I was a co-facilitator without a co. Around the time I decided to leave my job, I learned that my co-facilitator was pregnant. Her due date in the early fall would be just when cohort 6 began. As a board member, I know how important Jeremiah is to JUFJ’s work. In the past few years, Jeremiah alumni have composed the majority of the core leadership teams for our issue campaigns. This really is the whole goal of the program: to take people interested in social justice and transform them into committed activists who take on JUFJ leadership roles.

Jeremiah cohort 6

Jeremiah cohort 6

I could not imagine leaving Jeremiah without either of its experienced facilitators so I committed to being in DC as needed to lead the Jeremiah bi-weekly evening sessions and fall weekend retreat.

Even though I have led Jeremiah before and was using the same curriculum, it was more work than I anticipated to lineup guest speakers, prepare agendas and meeting materials, and correspond with Fellows outside of the official sessions. When you’re used to sharing responsibility with someone else, their absence is very notable.

Delicious wishes

Delicious wishes

But I love facilitating. I love seeing Fellows learn more about the city in which they live. I love seeing Fellows discover their own power to make change. In years past, we’ve had Fellows change their careers as a result of things they learned in Jeremiah, and one even now sits on the DC City Council. Pretty great outcomes.

It was worth it to me to stay in DC and facilitate Jeremiah. Now that my co-facilitator has returned from parental leave, I’m preparing for my adventures in South America. To the cohort 6 Fellows I say, “Go forth and do good.”

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