Month: May 2015

TOL: Biking Is Fun/Dangerous

One of the top tourist recommendations I received even before leaving for Colombia was to take the Bogota Bike Tour. I had not gotten around to it until this week, when my language school offered it as a free afternoon activity. Yay! I get to do something I wanted, with fun people from school, for free!

During the coffee/juice break

During the coffee/juice break

Here are my two takeaways from the experience:

1. I survived intact. This was not a given.

When I was 13 years old, I spent four days in the hospital recovering from a bicycle accident in which I flew over the handlebars and landed on my face. (Word of advice—don’t carry clothes in a plastic bag on your handlebars or it might go into the front tire when you turn the corner and stop your bike cold while you continue moving in a forward direction.) It was amazing that I didn’t break anything and didn’t even need plastic surgery. (Another word of advice—always wear your helmet and fit it properly.)

I had a minor accident in high school as well. (A final word of advice—be careful when riding on wet, dried pine needles. They are slippery.) I haven’t biked a lot since then.

2. I reconfirmed my decision not bike in Bogotá. The bike tour was a lot of fun and I enjoyed covering a lot of the city in a short amount of time. However, it felt like riding through an ever-changing obstacle course in which my task was to dodge moving pedesitrans, other bikes, and four-wheeled vehicles (taxis, cars, trucks, buses, TransMilenio buses).

Bogota Bike Tours

We survived

I feel lucky that I only hit two things: my pedal on a curb and another bicyclist, which was completely my fault. I was making a left turn to enter the road that he was already on. Fortunately, neither of us was going very fast, so there was nothing to the encounter except my total embarrassment and his total confirmation that extranjeros (foreigners) should not be allowed on bicycles, especially in tour groups.

I might consider biking on Ciclovia if I am in Bogotá on another Sunday. But aside from that, I am completely comfortable with my decision to forgo the opportunity to become a bicycling commuter.

Things Colombia Should Import

As I noted in my last post, after almost two months here, I’ve identified a few things I think the US should adopt from Colombia and vice versa. (I later added a second list.) Here’s the second part of the list—things that Colombia should import to improve life here.

Disclaimer: These posts are about the small things. I’m not getting into the large picture needs of Colombia, such as increased rule of law, decreased corruption, building and vehicle inspections, etc.

From the US to Colombia

Yellow LemonsDespite the many different types of citrus fruit available, Colombia does not have lemons. They have a fruit called “limon,” which I originally learned means “lemon.” However, at least in this country, it means lime. I’ve heard that occasionally there are yellow lemons at a few grocery stores, but they are outrageously expensive. Even if true, I certainly can’t plan to bake lemon squares or serve chicken piccata for dinner because I can’t be sure I’ll be able to buy the most important ingredient. Also, Colombians love acidic fruits, so I think they would like these too.

Access To Books: Colombia has a literacy rate of about 94% and vendors sell pirated books on the street, usually spread out on a blanket. However, all of the books are shrink-wrapped in plastic. The same is true in book stores, of which there are many. It makes me wonder how people can peruse a book and decide whether to buy it.

See how far back the light is

See how far the light is from the corner

Better Designed Traffic & Pedestrian Signals: I have a whole new appreciation for the placement of traffic lights. Next time you’re driving, note whether the traffic lights hang in the middle or are on the far side. In Bogotá, the traffic lights hang from poles that are way before the actual intersection that pedestrians at the corners can’t see the lights. To compound matters, most intersections do not have Walk/Don’t Walk signs. Combined, these two factors leave pedestrians making wild guesses about whether it is safe to cross. I’ve taken to jaywalking* in the middle of a few streets on my way to school because that’s the only way I can see whether any cars coming. The corners are just too dangerous.

Seat Belts (In The Back Seat): As I mentioned in my post about my surprisingly pleasant airline experience, the law here only requires that seat belts be used in the front seat, so no one wears them in the back seat. Those of us who are afraid of being injured in a car accident and want to use them in the back seat are SOL—usually, the buckles are inaccessible having fallen back into the innards of the car.

*Technically, jaywalking means violating pedestrian traffic laws. I’m actually not sure what the law is here about crossing in the middle of the street. I take comfort in the fact that I’m one of many people doing the same thing.

Things The US Should Import

After almost two months here, I’ve identified a few things I think the US should adopt from Colombia and vice versa. Here’s the first part of the list—things that the US should import to improve life there. The reverse post follows and I wrote a second list a few weeks later.

From Colombia to the US

Ciclovia: I stumbled onto Ciclovia my first day in Bogotá and continue to be amazed by it. Through a chance encounter with a woman from the States, I learned about CicLAvia, Los Angeles’ version (note how they changed the name to put LA in the middle). But it is only a few times a year. In Bogotá, Ciclovia is every Sunday and bank holiday (of which there are a gazillion). The culture around Ciclovia is amazing, and the streets are packed with cyclists, roller bladers, and walkers, who usually are with family members, significant others, or friends.

Guanabana tree

I really wanted to pick this guanabana

Fresh JuiceColombians drink fresh juice all of the time. Restaurants regularly offer 5-10 types, many of which are fruits we don’t even have in the US. And the drinks are made from the juice of the fruit directly or fruit pulp. My favorite is guanabana, a fruit I first encountered during a vacation in Costa Rica a few years ago. Other greats are lulo (a citrus), maracuya (a passion fruit), and mora (a berry). One downside is that sugar, sometimes a lot of it, is added to the tarter and more acidic juices. Here are two other blog posts about the many fruits found in Colombia that are absent from, or rare in, the UK or US.

Pedestrian bridge

Pedestrian bridge

Pedestrian OverpassesSome TransMilenio stops are in the middle of multi-lane, high traffic volume streets. Pedestrian overpasses that include both ramps and steps provide access to the stations. These bridges also span busy intersections without TransMilenio stations. Because they are so common, people here use them—they don’t run across multi-lane highways. Many of them are architecturally interesting or beautiful, but because I would need to be in a helicopter to get a good photo.

 

Why I Almost Booked A Flight Out of Colombia

Yesterday I almost booked a flight out of here. Even my frustration with trying to return something to a store didn’t make me think that I couldn’t live here. Instead, I was brought to the edge by my near inability to buy cocoa powder.

Ok, I admit I’m being slightly melodramatic. But only slightly.

Chocolateras and molinillos

Chocolateras and molinillos

As my friends, family and former co-workers know, I love to bake. I’d heard that recipes for desserts that rise, such as cookies and cakes, need adjusting because of Bogotá’s altitude (8,660 feet/2,640 meters) so I’ve been reluctant to start down the baking path here. However, when I learned that Saturday is the birthday of a guy who has been in my class since I arrived, I knew I finally had a good excuse to turn on the oven. An online search led me to this recipe for high-altitude brownies that I could bring to school for a surprise celebration.

Colombians love their hot chocolate, which they primarily drink at breakfast, often with cheese in it. (Yes, that’s weird.) They even have a special metal pitcher (called a chocolatera) for heating it, and a special wooden utensil (a molinillo) for mixing and frothing it. My house has two of each.

So imagine my shock when I went to the grocery store to buy cocoa powder and couldn’t find any. The baked goods section had only various liquid forms of chocolate topping and everything in the hot chocolate section seemed to have sugar in it. I asked two people for help. At first they couldn’t understand why I wanted unsweetened cocoa powder. Then they proceeded to tell me they don’t have it.

Carulla's hot chocolate section

Carulla’s hot chocolate section

I remembered an off-hand comment about how meal planning here can be difficult because you can’t rely on the grocery stores to have the same items in stock consistently. I decided to try the Carulla six blocks away in hopes that I could find cocoa powder there.

Again, I struck out in the baked good aisle. When I got to the hot beverage aisle, I decided to spend some time reading the packages. And, lo and behold, there in the middle of the millions of different types of hot chocolate, was my natural cocoa powder. (Specifically, on the fourth row down, just to the left of all of the green packages, there are two bags of it, one hidden behind the 20% off sign.)

In hindsight, I suspect they do sell it at my neighborhood Carulla, I just didn’t take the time to read the packages carefully because I trusted the employees to know their inventory. I now remember another off-hand comment about how people here are so eager to be helpful that they’ll answer any question, even if they have no idea whether their information is correct.

Arequipe

Arequipe

The brownies came out well, especially because I decided to add a Colombian touch. Another sweet they love here is arequipe, which is like caramel, but not as thick and sticky. I decided the brownies would be enhanced by a layer of arequipe in the middle. I was right, sort of. Most of the arequipe melted into the brownies instead of baking as a separate layer. I was disappointed to see this, but once I tasted one, I realized it gave them an extra fudgy texture. Delicious. I’ve decided to stay.

TOL: A Delightful Airline Experience

This did not start out as a delightful experience.

On Thursday, I received an email changing my Sunday flights from Medellín back to Bogotá from 3.20 pm to 1.45 pm. I chose the late afternoon flight so I could do something on my last day in Medellín besides just going out for breakfast. The new flight was just early enough in the day to eliminate that possibility.

I called Avianca and learned that flights were being rescheduled because a runway in Bogotá was going to be closed that day. Knowing there was a good reason for the change made it more palatable. I declined the offer of a 6.30 pm flight because I wanted to be in Bogotá for dinner and because I worried that if something happened, I’d be stuck in Medellín for the night and miss Spanish school on Monday.avianca logo

On Sunday, I met a friend for breakfast and then headed to the airport via a shared taxi. Luckily, I didn’t have to wait very long for our departure. Also luckily (perhaps) our driver probobly was a NASCAR driver in his spare time. I was nervous for most of the ride since we were going really fast and, like most cars here, the seatbelts weren’t accessible (the law doesn’t require that back-seat passengers wear them, so most people have let the buckles fall into the seats).

These lucky parts culminated in arriving at the airport just past 11.30 am. When I went to check-in, I asked if I could travel on an earlier flight. Based on my prior experiences flying within the US, I expected the answer to be, “Yes, if you pay this huge fee.”

Instead, here’s where the entire experience turned, and stayed, delightful:

The agent smiled and said, “Yes, it leaves at 12.30 pm.” She looked surprised when I asked how much I would have to pay because there was no charge.

I checked my bag without paying a fee.

The plane was not full, so I had a whole row to myself.

I landed in Bogotá before my original departure time. While I didn’t get to do anything touristy in Medellín,  I got a full day in Bogotá.

US airlines take note: this is how you provide good customer service.

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