Thursday, July 29, 2010

Bye Bye Bogota

We're off to the Zona Cafetera (Colombia coffee zone) tomorrow. Bogota has been great and, even though it didn't produce any formal modelling offers, leaving will be bittersweet. I think the posts and pictures reflect much of what we enjoyed about the city, but as we leave I thought I would get down a couple of the things that I'll miss about the city that wouldn't have been reflected elsewhere.

  1. Every Sunday from 7:00 a.m. until 2:00 p.m., many of the city's main streets close down to vehicles and are turned over to pedestrians and cyclists in the weekly ritual known as Ciclovia. It's a great way to get some fresh(er) air, see the city without having to worry about getting run over and it sort of sounds like one of Rihanna's songs - everybody wins.

  2. One of the advantages of being in a tropical country is the fruit, both for variety and quality. The fruit itself is amazing, but I'm partial to the freshly squeezed juices that can be had for ridiculously cheap in most parts of town. Last weekend, Kristin had a freshly-pressed cup of red grape juice that may have been the most amazing thing that either of us has ever tasted. If they could somehow concoct an alcoholic beverage made primarily out of red grapes, I have a feeling that Kristin and I would be all over it...

  3. I think we're happy to take a break from the Spanish classes themselves, but they've produced some pretty memorable moments. These were typically at the end of the week when we were tired of not understanding and ready to go home. The result tended to be general giddyness and an unwillingness to follow the "no English" rule. Today was easily the best when Kristin starting laughing at a Spanish word that sounded like a dirty word in English and was called out as "immature" by the 13-year student in the class. It was particularly funny because he wasn't joking.

  4. This one's probaby just for me, but for whatever reason it seems like everybody around where we are staying has a Golden Retriever. I might be a little biased, but I view them in much the same way that the ancient Egyptians saw cats. Does it make Bogota a more interesting place to visit? Probably not. Does it make me happy each time I see one? You bet.

We've posted the rest of our photos of Bogota - you can find them here. Bye bye Bogota.

Monday, July 26, 2010

Safe and Sound

"Warning. Pickpockets and thieves are notorious in Bogota. Watch your money and valuables closely; don't wear personal jewelry, take your glasses off if you can see without them, and never walk into a crowd." [emphasis added]
Before leaving for the trip, we came across the above quote in the travel guide that Kristin's parents took to South America when they were about our age. I'm not sure whether I was more shocked by the quote itself or by the fact that Kristin's parents still chose to visit Bogota at the time after reading it. Judging by the fact that nobody has relieved of us of our designer prescription sunglasses and seeing as that we interact with crowds daily, it's probably safe to say the situation has improved over the years.

That said, it's still difficult to know how safe Bogota really is. For all that you hear about the city and Colombia in general, I am happy to say that I have not been concerned for our personal safety since we arrived, and it's probably not because the Sidney Crosby playoff beard I've been growing cloaks me with an aura of invincibility. To date, the only violence we've witnessed is the daily beatdowns our egos are taking in Spanish class. I note, however, that we are staying near a wealthy area of Bogota, we avoid certain areas of the city (as one likely should do in any large city) and we try to limit how much we walk around at night.

Despite our positive experience (and I'm eager not to jinx that), there are certainly signs that security remains a major concern for everyday bogotanos. First off, the police and military are seemingly everywhere and can often be found packing serious heat. Obviously there's a reason for their presence and perhaps it should be more alarming, but seeing them actually makes me feel more safe in the city (plus, as these pictures show, it's fun to play with their weapons).

Secondly, for many homes and businesses, it seems like there is a strong desire to double up on security features. High walls are topped with razor wire, barbed-wire fences give way to heavily-barred windows and locked gates are backed by private security guards. It's sort of like guard dogs with bees in their mouth and when they bark they shoot bees at you (... anybody?). Speaking of dogs, there are plenty of the drug and/or bomb sniffing variety around offices and government buildings and many more throughout the city that would appear to specialize in maiming and/or killing.

The most difficult elements to reconcile are between what we often see and do and what we are advised to do when speaking with bogotanos themselves. A couple of "for instances":
  1. Every day we take a public bus to and from Spanish lessons. On the days where we can fit into the bus (and there have been days when we cannot stand upright), it is an enjoyable and very interesting way to live like the locals. Another student in our class is from Boston and is spending the summer with her extended family here in Bogota. Her family is not comfortable letting her ride the same bus route that we do and insists that she take a taxi in each direction.
  2. We like walking around the neighbourhood where our Spanish lessons are held, but our school has a gate around the building that is locked at all times. When we arrive, we ring the buzzer and somebody comes and opens the gate for us and locks it behind us. When we want to leave, we have to ask somebody to let us out. The lady running school said she would not walk in that area at night even though it is known to have a large student population, which I typically equate with a higher level of safety.
  3. Although I would estimate there are about a trillion taxis in Bogota and we see locals flagging them down frequently, most of the locals we speak with advise us never to get into a cab from the street. Instead, the recommended practice is to call the cab companies directly so they can give you the number of the cab (written on the side of the vehicle) that will pick you up, thus ensuring you actually head home and not to an ATM to make a withdrawal for the "cab" driver.

Obviously, these are some very cursory observations in respect of a very complex topic, but they constitute my two cents after almost three weeks here. Contrary to any concerns I might have had, I have found the people to be welcoming and inquisitive. To anybody who visited Bogota in the 1970s and did so without their glasses, you should come back and check it out with your unhindered vision. It really is quite beautiful here and the crowds are often the best part.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Culture Alley - Colombia

Today, Colombia celebrated the 200 year anniversary of its declaration of independence from Spain. Along with at least 100,000 bogotanos, we took in a free daytime concert in the heart of Bogota's largest public park, complete with speeches from the current (and incoming) President and preceded by an impressive Air Force demonstration. Being amongst the people for the bicentennial was an experience that we will always remember. The people here have an energy unlike any I've ever known and it was amazing to feel their excitement and pride for their country and its progress on this national holiday (and to watch persons young and old dance and sing along to every song). In total, we counted four other gringos all afternoon, ironically enough all hanging out by the hot dog stands outside the amphitheatre. The only negative? There were rumblings that Shakira was going to make a surprise appearance, but she didn't show at our concert and I was unable to confirm the truthiness of her hips.

On Monday afternoon, we hit up the FREE Botero Museum in La Candelaria (Fernando Botero is likely Colombia's most famous artist). The museum itself is modern and unpretentious, includes works by Picasso, Renoir and Monet, and was FREE. Despite the lofty company, we particularly enjoyed Botero's work. As the pictures indicate, Botero sees the world in kind of a reverse Shallow Hal way (editor's note: I didn't actually see that movie, so I can't be certain that the analogy holds. If it does, great. If it doesn't, I can still sleep easy knowing I didn't waste my money watching it). In fact, I was sufficiently impressed that I felt it warranted altering the list of my all-time favourite foreign museum experiences to something like this:
  1. Van Gogh Museum - Amsterdam
  2. Botero Museum - Bogota
  3. The Louvre - Paris
  4. Picasso Museum - Barcelona
  5. through 20'ish - expensive European museums that feature religious paintings based on bible stories I don't know

Finally, some quick hits:

Caught the beginning of the regional ESPN Sportscenter broadcast this weekend. I was shocked to see the show lead off with highlights of Women's International Field Hockey over the British Open, Tour de France and about 200 local soccer games that people really seem to care about around here. I love field hockey as much as the next guy, but ......

We are still liking the food here, but it doesn't seem to be liking us as much - Kristin and I each had our first South American gastrointestinal anomalies this weekend. I trust they will be the last.

We added some more pictures from and around Bogota. Check them out here. I think the blog should start picking up steam towards the end of the month as we leave Bogota and start moving around. Check back for updates.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Hiding Our Papaya

Colombians have a saying - "don't give papaya". Basically, it means don't let yourself be vulnerable, which is important because the other part of the saying is that if someone gives you papaya, you take it. Anyways, hiding our papaya is made slightly more difficult by the fact that we are probably the tallest people here and I am the only person walking around with a third degree sunburn. Also, we don't speak or understand Spanish (we're working on it) and, by and large, bogotanos don't speak or understand English. Luckily, Kristin has been keeping the would be papaya-stealers off balance with an unpredictable mix of English, Spanish, French and Italian.

Although we still have much left to explore, we love the city - it's vibrant, the topography is stunning and it's full of interesting neighbourhoods. The city is high (around 8500 feet) and the sun, even when it's not close to breaking through the clouds, is actively hunting my skin. Back home in Calgary, we sometimes talk about how we can experience all four seasons in a single day. The same is true of Bogota except that the time frame shrinks to about 20 minutes. Best job in Bogota? Weatherman. Every day the forecast is a high of 19-20, a low of 12-13, and calls for light rain.

Most of the bogotanos seem very friendly and amused by our attempts to communicate. The city itself has a couple of attributes that strike me as particularly noteworthy. The first is the safety/security concerns, but I think I'll save that for a future post once we've had a little more time in the city. Another would be the staggering disparity in wealth within the population. We are staying close to the wealthy part of Bogota and it could easily be a wealthy suburb back home. Three malls within walking distance of our place are each probably nicer than anything we have back home, and the prices are nearly on par. As we move south daily for our Spanish classes, and then on to the historical center of the city where many of the most interesting sites are located, the demographics change, the activity becomes more frenetic and the people are more aggressive. The contrast is particularly striking in the center, where fashionable and obviously wealthy bogotanos mix with an unfortunately high number of people begging for food or money. To the south of the center, we understand the level of poverty increases further, but we have repeatedly been advised not to visit.

We are excited to make Bogota our home for a couple more weeks to continue our language studies and try to soak up the culture. My only real complaint about Bogota - and I suspect this may be true of the rest of South America as well - is that in a little less than a week's time, the exhaust from the vehicles has probably undone the benefits of my more than 29 years of cigarette-free living. When a bus accelerates, it looks like the Smoke Monster from Lost is out cruising for victims. I'm afraid to blow my nose for fear of my kleenex looking like an Rorschach Inkblot. I realize that things could be much worse.

Click here to check out some of our Bogota pictures.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

The Long Goodbye

After several weeks spent planning and saying goodbye to friends and family, we are finally off tomorrow morning. Obligatory packing contents photo below:

Some planning highlights: I opted for no jeans over jeans, Tevas over running shoes and a buzzcut over that Justin Bieber 'do I had been considering. Kristin opted for an equal number of technical pieces and "cute tops". Our riskiest item? My pair of white boxer shorts. Our most trustworthy? All things Icebreaker (and since we've already spent a not insignificant portion of our life savings on their apparel, we would gladly accept some sponsorship dollars or a modelling contract with Icebreaker in return for this bit of free advertising - spread the word).

We're as fit as we've been in a while. Kristin can currently race up about 1000 stairs without getting tired and I have been back spasm free since Saturday. In two months, I predict that Kristin will be able to race up about 1500 stairs without getting tired and that my body will begin to resemble a pear as I lose muscle and sample new types of beer.

To the many people that have wished us well on our journey, we are truly thankful for your support. The excitement we are feeling to finally hit the road is tempered only by the degree to which we will miss those close to us (and the weight of our packs). Thankfully, we are well-equipped for staying in touch and Kristin is a world-class emailer and Facebooker.

AdiĆ³s, and catch you on the flip side (and feel free to give yourself a pat on the back if you caught the double meaning in the post's title).