Month: April 2015

The Most Stairs & The Prettiest Village

The Most Stairs I’ve Ever Climbed At One Time

The first day of my vacation in Medellín was not spent in Medellín. Another student from my Spanish school, who happened to be visiting the city as well, and I went to La Piedra Del Peñol (The Stone of Peñol—Peñol is a town; or the rock officially might be called El Peñon De Guatapé—a peñon is an offshore island fort and Guatapé is another town). During the two-hour bus ride, we picked up two fellow travelers for the day, one from Switzerland and the other from Germany, and the four of us made our way through the day in a mix of Spanish, German, and English.

La Piedra Del Peñol

La Piedra Del Peñol

When people learned that I was heading to Medellín for a few days, most told me that I had to check out the big rock. And a big rock it is. Some liken it to Uluru/Ayers Rock in Australia because both are sacred to indigenous people and loom large over relatively flatter landscapes around them.

A big difference is that you can climb La Piedra Del Peñol. And climb we did. All 740 steps. At its highest part, La Piedra has an elevation of 2,135 metres (7,005 ft) above sea level. Since we climbed to the top of the man-made lookout tower, we get extra credit.

Bet that hotel is a nice place

Bet that hotel is a nice place

This part of Colombia is very mountainous, so while La Piedra stands out within its immediate surroundings, it’s not in a completely flat area. It is surrounded by what look like small and large lagoons and islands. This amazing view is man made: in the 1970s, the government flooded 5,600 hilly acres to create a hydroelectric dam, which now generates about 36% of Colombia’s electricity. The spectacular landscape and waterfront properties are a nice byproduct. Here’s the photo album.

The Prettiest Village I’ve Ever Seen

Loved this village

Loved this village

We found transport from La Piedra in an old Renault convertible and arrived in Guatapé, the prettiest village I’ve ever seen. It also is known as the Pueblo de Zócalos, because the zócalos (baseboards) of the buildings are adorned with beautifully sculpted and painted 3-dimensional decorations. We saw a few zócalos by the same artist who decorated the wall around the lookout tower on top of La Piedra.

Some clearly relate to the purpose of the building (we actually heard music coming from inside one of the buildings with instruments on the outside) while others depict wildlife, nature, and village life.

We spent a lot of time wandering through the residential part of the village and then let ourselves into a field so we could rest while overlooking the mountains and water. Here’s the photo album.

We’re Not In Kansas Anymore


Imported = expensive

It took a month for me to have my first big, “Right, I’m not in the US anymore” moment.

My bathroom in my new apartment (more on that in a later post) is pitch black at night and if I get up in the middle of the night, I don’t like to turn on the overhead light because that makes me fully away. So, I went looking for a nightlight and finally found one at an upscale store in the nearby mall. At $14, it was on the expensive side and I wasn’t in love with it because it is on whenever it detects the room is dark—i.e., all night in my bathroom. But since this was the third store in which I’d looked for a nightlight, and people didn’t seem to know what I was looking for, I bought it.

(BTW, after a lot of long descriptions of what I was looking for and showing images on my phone, I discovered that the Spanish word in Colombia for it is “luz de noche”—nightlight.)

What I wanted

What I wanted

Then I found a simple one with an on/off switch for $2 at a small electronics/hardware store about 10 minutes away (and, it turns out, there are three of these stores on the nearby main road that I never noticed).

On Saturday, I went to return the expensive nightlight but in a different mall. I was told I had to go to the original store in order to get a refund. Annoying, but doable. However, when I did so on Monday, I was told that I can do only a merchandise exchange and only within eight days. No refunds. No store credit to spend later.

Apparently the return policy is printed on the back of the receipt, but when’s the last time anyone read one of those?

I was so frustrated at that moment that I said, out loud, “I really hate Colombia today.” Kind of wish I’d kept that to myself.

With a little bit of time, I recognized how absurd it was to assume that things like return policies would be the same here. The (inevitable) next time(s) I’m frustrated by things that are different, I will think of this and remind myself that really I need to adjust or drop my expectations.

End of the story: the store sells an odd combination of baby and kitchen items. I’m going to do an exchange for some items I can donate to my new kitchen. I will make sure to get great enjoyment out of using them.

Lost In Translation, The Passover Edition

Here’s a photo I took in the grocery store last Friday. At the last minute, I decided dash out and buy some raisins to add to the charoset I was taking to seder in a few hours. To be clear, Pesach started just a few hours after this photo was taken.

Carulla's kosher section Erev Pesach

Carulla’s kosher section Erev Pesach

While there are many debates about what is and is not kasher l’Pescah (kosher for Passover), some things are pretty well decided. Chief among them is that one cannot eat Ritz crackers, Barilla pasta, or Aunt Jemima pancakes. (Or crackers, pasta, or pancakes of any kind that aren’t specially formulated for Passover and if they are, chances are good they won’t taste very good, so it’s just better to go without for eight days. After all, our ancestors wandered in the desert for 40 years. The least we can do is live without pancakes for a few days.)

The basic tenet is that leavened and fermented grain products are prohibited. This restriction commemorates our escape from Egyptian slavery, when the Jews did not have time to let their breads rise before going into the desert.

I appreciate Carulla’s efforts to carry kosher products for Bogotá’s small Jewish population. In fact, my hostess for seder Friday night bought a bottle of Manischewitz wine at a Carulla. This was great because (1) the charoset tasted as if I had made it at home and (2)  drinking Manichewitz for my first cup of wine made me less homesick. Unfortunately, there was no matzah to be found—she brought some back from the US.

While Carulla gets a A for effort, I think a little more education is in order.

PS. If you skipped it above, click on the Manischewitz wine link and read the short article, especially if you are Jewish. Such interesting history that I did not know until researching info for this blog post.

Once Upon A Time, There Was A Tree

Yesterday morning, I got a Facebook message with a photo attached, “I think that’s your tree.”

First photo I got

First photo I got

It was hard to decipher what I was seeing. Then, it all came into focus.

“Why, yes, that is my very large, very grand old tree blocking the whole street and crushing a pickup truck,” I thought.

It seems like the 35 mph wind gusts in Washington, DC, were too much for my tired old tree. It decided it had had enough of standing in my yard, fighting off hurricanes, blizzards, derechos, polar vortexes, and all of the other weather phenomenon I’ve learned about in the past few years.

It was good practice for conjugating Spanish verbs into the past tense. When I met up with a classmate later in the day, I said, “I had a tree.” Instead of “I have a tree.”

I am so grateful to modern technology. My tenant and I were able to FaceTime so I could receive updates. The best was when we created a conference call—I was on FaceTime with him while he called the insurance company on the house phone (yes, I still have a landline and am glad of it). He and a neighbor sent photos.

View from porch

Tree’s blocking the street and alley

Since the tree was blocking the entire street and alley entrance, the city deemed it a hazard and called out a crew to remove it. They arrived a few hours later and finished the job in less than four hours.

Of course, they only needed to clear the street and sidewalk, so I still have the root ball and part of the trunk in my front yard. The same company has been caring for the tree for years and someone will be out this week to assess how to finish the job.

Then the landscapers will get to have fun figuring out what to do with all of the new space. As my neighbor with the green thumb said, “Now we can have full sun gardens.” (Yes, that also was exactly my first thought when I received the news.)

We knew the tree was not healthy and would need to come down eventually. We just didn’t expect it to happen in this manner and at this time. Lucky timing for my tenant.

Although, to be fair, it seems major house disasters happen only when I’m out of the country. Last year, I was in Albania when a pipe burst. The plumber told my friend, who was housesitting, “This is such an unusual place for a pipe to break—I rarely see this.” Lucky timing for my friend.

Only cosmetic damage

Only cosmetic damage

Amazingly, the damage was minimal. As you can see in the photos, the tree appeared to have crushed a pickup truck parked in front of my house. The initial assessment after the tree was removed is that the damage is cosmetic—the truck is running. The tree also took off the side-view mirror of a car parked across the street and damaged the front porch of a house across the street. My concrete stairs and landings are torn up, but luckily nothing happened to my neighbor’s adjoining stairs so my tenant can still get in and out of the house. We believe none of the water, sewer or gas pipes were impacted.

In addition to the new sun garden, I heard that this event had another silver lining: it brought many of the neighbors out of their houses and they took the time to socialize.

This post is mostly to publicly thank my tenant and neighbors for being so on top of everything. I am grateful for them. I am grateful for the minimal destruction. I am grateful for the city for quickly responding.

I also wrote this post to have an excuse to post a photo album from the day. There are cool time-lapse videos of the removal process there too.

Panorama view of the street

Panorama view of the street

Update: The tree was in the newspaper. Two trees felled on blustery Saturday in Washington area – The Washington Post

TOL: Those Cost How Much?!?

So far, everything in Bogotá has been very inexpensive:

  • Lunch: $5
  • Movie with small popcorn and soda: $12
  • Average 15-20 minute cab ride: $6

I finally found something that is outrageously expensive compared to home. I paid $20 for these pecans for the charoset I was assigned to bring to Passover seder.

When I took the package off the shelf, it was full and would have cost almost $50. I had misread the price (move the decimal one place to the left and the cost is reasonable). It had not occurred to me to ask whether I could buy less than the full pack. I am grateful the checkout clerk (1) called my attention to the actual price and (2) offered to sell me a smaller quantity.

BTW, walnuts weren’t even an option.

Outrageously expensive pecans

Outrageously expensive pecans

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