Tag: Bogota (page 2 of 2)

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.



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.

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.

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

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.




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