27 February, 2012

Happiness / Felicidad

"What makes you happy?" can be a difficult question to answer, and even more so to answer truthfully. It's hard to resist the temptation to tell someone that you like their favourite band too even when it's not really your cup of tea. It's hard to admit that material things makes you happy when we feel like we should talk about giving to charity etc instead. It's hard to admit that sometimes being lazy makes us happy when everyone around us seems so busy all the time...

I enjoy eating well.
This is definitely not fashionable. Being thin, being on a diet, saving money in the recession, that is 'fashionable.' Thankfully here the food is generally healthier than in london (at least for me, with a gluten allergy, the prevalence of corn instead of wheat is wonderful). It is also definitely cheaper than in London! For the price of a salad at Pret, you can eat so much you have to lie down in the Simon Bolivar afterwards (not that I've ever done that, ahem...).

I like dancing.
Dressing up to look good, practicing my Spanish, burning off a few calories, making friends, being better than people expect a gringa to be... Good times :)

I like winning.
I would love to blame this on my family in some way, but I'm afraid I have to take full responsibility for this one myself. Winning is good. It makes me better than you, which makes me happy. We don't even have to be in an official competition, 'winning' can happen at any time or place and in any category. It's definitely one of my less popular attributes, but hey, it gets me seats on buses ;)

I like being useful.
However, it's probably more honest to say that I like being included. As the local 'gringa' (I do try to correct them, but they don't quite care... It's rather like Brits referring to 'the continent' as if the UK weren't on the same one) everyone is including me in everything! I know in part this is for the novelty (although there are a lot more foreigners here than I'd expected they tend to stick to the 'safe' zones by the universities) and in part to try and get some free English lessons out of me, but I just don't care. It's nice to have people invite me out for a coffee, and I get to correct them while I'm at it (see above) :D

I like being creative.
So I have found a painting class! On my imaginatively titled 'List of Things to Do When I Finally Get to Bogotá' I had put 'painting classes' for a joke as a last resort if I couldn't find work/spanish classes. Only 50mil (about £17) for a month of lessons (ie 4 x 3 hours). Less than £1.50 per hour?!?! Huzzah! Sadly it's not a real painting course, it's more of a 'turn up with the supplies and the inspiration, and we'll make sure you get it right and help with techniques,' but still, amazing value for money (especially as it includes free Spanish practice). And some of the art being worked on/drying was very well done - I just hope it wasn't the teacher's stuff on display!

I like being pretty.
Realistically, what woman doesn't? I do miss the 'anything goes' attitude to appearance in London, but here I'm learning to actually bother about my nails (haven't got round to the hair yet...). Best of all, apparently in this city being pale (and/or tall) really does equal being interesting, if only I could understand what the guys say to me when I walk past (although according to my flatmates, in this case ignorance really does equal bliss - they say it's complimentary but refuse to translate details :D ).

I like travelling.
This is not just connected to the 'eating well' part, I love seeing all of the things I've read/heard about in real life. I've been to the birthplace of democracy, walked around the steps where Julius Caesar was killed, been to a concert where The Beatles first played,  shopped in the centre they used to film my favourite novella, seen the sign for Platform 9 3/4, eaten ein Berliner, refused to eat haggis, desperately wished for springtime, not minded the rain, been really happy there was no snow... Wow, lots of things! I've been a teacher for over six years, and not one week has passed without a Colombian telling about something I 'must see' in Colombia! Finally I can be nosy and see it all for myself!

So, what makes me happy? for now at least, being in Colombia :D

ETA: also hot showers. Hot showers are not something we should take for granted, and they are wonderful :)

22 February, 2012

What doesn't kill you.../ Lo que no te mata...

Before I had been to Santiago, Putumayo (in the south of Colombia just before you get to the Amazon), I had never...
  • flown over mountains while looking up at the peaks of the mountains next to me (the Andes are really big)
  • realised people could eat cuy
  • eaten cuy
  • seen anyone eat an animal's head
  • eaten liver with popcorn
  • seen a hummingbird
  • eaten a chicken killed that same day
  • seen an animal killed for food (the chicken above, killed 'in my honour,' ie, trying to freak out the gringa :D )
  • seen an animal butchered (more freaky than the actual killing)
  • realised that chickens have 'pre-eggs' in them waiting to be laid
  • realised that the 'pre-eggs' are edible
  • seen fireflies
  • seen an animal killed for sport
  • (knowingly) eaten stomach (cow's)
  • been without the internet AND my mobile at the same time
  • not cared in the slightest about a lack of internet or mobile
  • realised that the Inca (Inga to them) are still around
  • met a real shaman
  • met Pablo Escobar (the nice one)
  • ridden a motorbike
  • had flowers put in my hair as a greeting/blessing
  • eaten rib soup for breakfast 
  • eaten tomate de arbol
  • eaten an entire pineapple in one sitting
  • been offered beer at 10am
  • not been afraid of spiders
  • been to a real Shrove Tuesday carnival (full details in a more coherent post to come)
  • danced and played instruments in a carnival
  • been the caporal (flag bearer) in a parade
  • felt so proud of myself (see above)
  • drunk so much chicha I thought I was going to explode (will explain why later)
  • blown a real horn (not my own)
  • been so cold then so hot in the same day (the weather is like that of Bogotá, but more extreme)
  • seen an entire dismembered cow (you might be noticing a theme here, I'm very much a city girl)
  • spent all morning in my pyjamas in public
  • seen so many stars at night (well, I had, but only twice ever)
  • spoken "inga-lish" (quechua, the Inga's language)
  • eaten chontaduro (peeled and quartered with lots of salt)
  • worked out how to make the woven beaded bracelets/necklaces/etc
  • taken just under 2.5 G of photos in so few days
  • eaten most of a papaya (with lime)
  • been a guest of honour just for being foreign
  • had to explain where the UK is
  • expected to see a Manchester United shirt in an Inga village
  • had such an in-depth conversation with someone about all kinds of knitting/sewing/etc in Spanish  (gracias, Maria, Conchita y Nestor)
  • flown on a plane with propellers
  • heard mass being broadcast by loudspeaker to the whole village
  • been in a village where I can walk from one end to the other in less than ten minutes (at a very leisurely tourist pace)
  • eaten a coconut helado (the homemade ones in plastic drinking cups)
  • eaten homemade arequipe
  • had people want to have their photos taken with me just for being foreign
  • still had my hand itching from stinging nettles (bloody ortiga) over a day later
  • been given shamanic medicine (well, his mum's medicine, but that's got to be even more effective, right?)
  • had so many exciting things to tell
  • felt so in love with Colombia
I am a lot stronger than I was five days ago :D

17 February, 2012

The Flag / La Bandera

One of the things that I love about the UK is the dear old Union Flag. It is, we like to think, instantly recognisable all over the world (although we don't like to admit why - colonialism and the Beckhams). In its natural state it's perfect for waving at royal weddings and decorating all kinds of tea-related merchandising:

However, on other occasions the flag can change its colours, but, as it has a unique geometry, it still remains inherently British and instantly recognisable (photos borrowed from google images):

Gay Pride:

Green Britain:

Quilt (want!):
(Photo borrowed from The After Craft)

I love the Colombian flag because it is the exact opposite. A simple three bands of colours, the most complicated part of the design is remembering that the yellow one is wider than the other two:

This opens up a world of different possibilities. No longer is your patriotism confined to mundane, flag-shaped objects. Instead you can decorate anything of any shape or form in these three colours, and everyone will know where your heart lies:

The ubiquitous manilla (bracelet):

The traditional ruana (poncho):


Military insignia (airforce):

Local products:

The obligatory tourist tat:

Traditional mochila:

Shops, cafes, banks, and all other kinds of public places:

Even the wildlife wear their national colours!

 So, I hope by now you have all come to the same conclusion I have, there really is only one thing left to paint in the colours of the Colombian flag...

The British one:
 (First photo I took in Colombia, before I'd even got to the immigration queue)

13 February, 2012

Argentina is crazy / Argentina es loca

A story that would be funny if it weren't true: "No Hay Monedas" (Oh, all right, I'm British and it's about crazy Argentinians, it's hilarious!)

Although the situation is not as bad as this in Colombia, I can kind of see it happening here, or at least with me! I'm used to the luxury of an Oyster travel card, never needing to worry about keeping change with me (even my local corner shop took cards so I didn't have to worry about notes either). Here though one MUST have a pocket full of change/small notes or one won't be able to pay for the bus home... This has resulted in a similar obsession with me as in Argentina. I will happily pay for a more expensive lunch to persuade the waiter to break a 50,000, I will stubbornly ignore all of the 1000s and 2000s in my purse in favour of a 5000 or 10,000, etc... I'm sure the local shopkeepers hate me, but the bus drivers have never complained!

08 February, 2012

How to catch a bus / Como coger el bus

There are several steps necessary in order to reach the desired destination in Bogotá.

Firstly, one must work out which bus to catch.
This must be achieved without maps of any kind (street or bus). Helpfully, the buses have more than just a route number and destination on the front, in fact they have all the main zones/streets that the bus passes through on its way. Unhelpfully, the number (and most of the street numbers) are written very small, and in the wrong order (having had the basic layout of the city explained to me, I then spent a week believing I had misunderstood as I thought that the signs were in route order). To further the problem, most buses career along faster than the cars, meaning the signs are rather hard to make out. The easiest way to work out which bus you need is to go where you want to end up, then compare the buses that pass by to the buses that were passing your start point. Not kidding, that's what's been recommended to me. 

Once the problem of which bus to catch has been solved, next comes actually catching it. Thankfully this is far less complicated. Choose a currently unoccupied piece of kerb (although at rush hour in popular places this is harder than it sounds) or even (if the road is particularly wide) a spot in the road itself. Try to choose a place that is not on any corners, junctions, or traffic lights, but buses have been known to stop at all of the above, so fresca. When you see what you think is your bus hurtling towards you, stick your arm up as if saying 'hi' to a friend on the other side of the road. If the driver sees you (it amazes me that so far I haven't noticed any drivers pass by a potential passenger) he'll (I haven't seen any female drivers yet) screech to halt anywhere between right in front of you to 10-15 m down the road (jog to catch up, they don't wait long). If you realise it wasn't your bus after all, that's ok. The natives get it wrong too.

Boarding: check there are no oncoming motorcycles/cars/etc heading for the space between the bus and your spot on the kerb (on wide streets buses stop anywhere, although they usually try for a maximum of one lane away from you) and jump on (literally, the stairs are rather steep).

At this point you might afford yourself a moment of relaxation as you bask in the glory of your achievements so far/root around in your pocket for change. This is a serious error. Bus drivers do not wait for anything or anyone before they start moving again. If you have one hand inside the bus and one foot on the bus, then you are judged to be sufficiently 'on' the bus for it to be moving (at top speed). For this reason it is extremely important that you hold on to any available bar/handle/chair back/turnstile as tightly and as quickly as you can upon entering the bus. Do not, however, worry about being trapped in the closing doors as the bus moves off. Bus drivers can go for very long periods of time without feeling the need to close them.

Once you are in a secure enough position to worry about paying the driver (sitting down is recommended, or at the very least on the other side of the turnstile if there is one), you will need to pay in cash (no Oyster/travel cards here). The correct change is appreciated, but not necessary. If, however, the driver does not currently have enough/the right change, he'll tell you to wait. Be careful that you don't forget he owes you money. It's highly unlikely he will forget, but he will probably wait until you ask for it.

The payment process may take up to three full minutes and your patience is appreciated. While you are finding (approximately) the correct fare/waiting for your change and holding on for dear life, he will be:
  • making sure that everyone who got on is paying (including keeping track of who is paying for whom - group payments do not throw drivers off)
  • accelerating suddenly
  • braking suddenly
  • listening to and/or changing the radio
  • changing lanes
  • turning corners (make sure you're still holding on!)
  • calculating and finding the correct change
  • and probably waving and/or honking at a friend. 

And Colombians still say men can't multitask!

At this point you are free to find a seat, if you are not sitting already. It is worth noting, if only for amusement's sake, that Bogotanos do not take seats immediately after they are vacated. If, when you spot a seat it is empty, go for it. On the other hand, if you are replacing someone who has just vacated their seat, it is 'normal' to hover (either next to, standing up straight in front of, or halfway sitting down over the seat in question) for anywhere between 5 and 20 seconds (I have heard of, but not witnessed first hand, a full half minute). Excuses for this behaviour tend to be based around hygiene or vague avoiding-the-question statements along the lines of 'my mum told me not to.' If, for example, you want to claim a seat but can't risk someone with a shorter hovering time than you taking it (ie: me) feel free to put (throw) your bag on it (from halfway down the bus - I have to admit, he had very good aim).

Speaking of bags, on crowded buses it is normal for a seated passenger (usually male) to offer to take a standing passenger's (probably female, although I have seen it the other way round.. ok, it was me who offered.. I have no idea if that's a terrible faux pas or not...) bag/umbrella/etc. This is both polite and practical. The aisle is just wide enough for one person trying to get off the bus to squeeeeze past someone standing in the way. On a similar note, if you do find yourself standing in the aisle make sure you stand to/face one side of the bus, don't stand in the middle with one hand on each rail. Apparently that is a faux pas.

Once you are (un)comfortably in position (depending on the bus you may or may not be able to stand fully upright, if in doubt stay near the driver where there is a sun-roof, you also might not actually fit into the seats) you are probably there for the long haul. A short journey is about half an hour. During this time you may:

  • talk loudly on your mobile
  • talk loudly on your mobile but covering your mouth and the microphone with your hand (It doesn't work people! Why do you do it?)
  • text /BBM people
  • listen to an mp3 player (thankfully not at the same volume as in London)
  • listen to the driver's choice of radio station
  • talk loudly to your companion
  • fall asleep (very common)
  • stare out the window (try to change sides everyday to prevent neck cramps)

Alighting the bus: as there are no announcements you must remain alert as to where you are. Thankfully there is no danger of passing your stop, as, if you recall from hailing the bus, there are no stops. Make your way to the exit (on some buses this is located at the rear, on the smaller ones it is the same as the entrance). This may take some time if the bus is crowded and you are sitting at the wrong end. When you are coming up to your 'stop' press the button (either on the roof or a handrail near the door) and the bus driver will immediately open the doors (if they were closed) and slam on the brakes. Exiting the bus is henceforth as simple as one, two, three.

  1. Duck (don't be fooled by the stairs leading you down, the doorframe is also lower)
  2. Look right (for oncoming vehicles heading for the gap between the bus and the pavement, especially common if the bus is stopped at a green light)
  3. Mind the gap (between the bottom step and the road, usually about a foot)
With practice your timing will allow you to alight exactly outside your front door.

At this point I would like to mention an alternative method:
Give up and hail a taxi. It's not that expensive if you're here as a tourist, but I have to admit, it's a lot less fun :D

Chill / Fresca

An example of how relaxed people can be here:

Lovely Colombian Friend (taking me to lunch with her family): I have early classes tomorrow so I want to leave early. Maybe 3 or 4pm? Is that ok?

LCF (at 6pm): I reckon we should go soon. Half past 6 ok with you?

LCF's Aunt (at 6:30pm, who is going home the same way as us): Just five minutes, then I'll be ready to leave, ok?
(LCF's A then proceeds to wax the eyebrows of the other two Aunts present, this takes half an hour)

LCF (on the way home) Ooh - the empanadas are really good here, do you want one? It'll only be five minutes...

LCF (on nearing home at approximately 10pm) You know what, tomorrow's Monday. They hardly ever teach us anything important on Mondays so I won't go. Let's have a beer!

As they say in Spanish: "se me pegó el colombiano," "the Colombian-ness has stuck to me."
I'll get around to more blog posts soon, maybe in five minutes. Ok with you? :D