Sunday, July 1, 2007

Bogota, Colombia

Family and Friends of Friends

What made Bogota so special for me was that some good friends opened up their lives there for me and shared their family and friends with me. I want to especially thank Ana, Marcela, and Nelcy for welcoming me so warmly--often from thousands of miles away.

My Fabulous Host Family

I was hosted for my entire time in Bogota by Ana`s father Luis and stepmother Cathy, along with her sister Sophie and brother Emillion. They are a fantastic multicultural family. Cathy is French, and everyone speaks both French and Spanish so naturally that I actually asked them how they decide which language to use.

As I was leaving for Medellin, Cathy and Emillion were heading to the airport to go to France for 1.5 months to visit grandpa and other brother Julian (who hosted me the most by lending me his room), and Sophie will leave very soon for Boston to study English under Ana`s guidance.

More importantly, though, they made me feel completely at home. They fed me meals (with the gracious help of Graciela who cares for the house), took me around the city, invited me to play cards, and generally hang with the family. Cathy became like a second mom, always worried that I was safe and ate well. My own Jewish mom would be proud.

As the least I could do to return a small portion of their generocity, I cooked dinner for the family on my second-to-last night--chicken parmesan, my favorite. Everyone seemed to enjoy the meal (complete with a cheap bottle of wine I bought and a nice French bottle they opened), and we played cards until after midnight. Here´s a picture of us all after dinner:

Luis is an engineer by training but is currently starting a second career as a student of art and owner of a gallary. Here are Luis and Cathy at the gallary in front of a photo I thought was especially cool. It depicts four skyscrapers heading into the sky, but can be seen as nature X-ing out the buildings:

And here`s my (I mean Julian´s) room where I spent about 10 days:

Marcela´s Charming Parents

When I was heading to Bogota, both Ana and Marcela offered me the opportunity to stay with their parents. Since I bought my ticket from Quito the same day I wasn´t about to tell either of them when I´d arrive until the last minute--and hence wasn´t about to get in touch with Cathy until I arrived in Bogota at about 9pm.

Through an unfortunate mix-up, it turned out that Marcela´s parents were waiting for me at the airport with a sign with my name. Damn, I always wanted to be greeted at an airport like that and when it happened I never saw them and took a cab to Ana`s parents, who I´d been able to speak with.

But, all ended well. Luis and Cathy live inside Bogota, whereas Melinda and Alfonso live about 40 minutes outside the city in a suburb called Cota. And, they were incredibly nice about the mixup and picked me up and took me out to lunch on Sunday and showed me their charming home.
Melinda is a teacher and Alfonso is retired from the Siemans corporation. They´ve got chickens, a doll house, an outdoor BBQ area and a view of open farmland. Truly beautiful. They also took me to nearby Chia, a bigger suburb that´s home to the famous Andres´Carne de Res (more on that below).

Much is made of the hospitality of other regions of the world (other than the U.S. or NY, I guess), but this day really made it hit home. As much as I love my parents, I´m not sure I can imagine them driving into New York City to pick up a foreign friend of mine they´ve never met (or probably heard of before, and who speaks limited English), bringing her back out to Roslyn, taking her out to lunch and dessert, showing her our house, and then driving her back into the city--effectively spending most of their day entertaining a friend of their son´s.

This is exactly what Marcela´s parents did for me and it was really cool. I think we think of ourselves as way too busy for something like that in the States--or at least in bustling NY, not sure about a place like Montana where my friend Ian just sent an email about a significantly different style of life.

Downtown Bogota

I spent two days wandering downtown Bogota and the Candelaria area. The first day, Cathy took me to the central plaza.

Here´s the main court (site of a raid the killed a bunch of justices):

The congressional building:

And, of course, the cathedral:

A few days later, I hit the museums.

Donacion Botero

My favorite was the Donacion Botero. Although Botero is from Medellin (born 193 2), he donated a huge collection of his works, along with others from Picasso, Dali, and other masters to the city of Bogota (much to the consternation of the citizens of Medellin, although there is also a Botero museum in that city).

As many of you know, Botero has a distinctive style--portraying figures as fat. Here´s the giant hand at the entrance to the museum:

Statues of Adam and Eve:

This is a 1988 painting called Guerilia de Elisea Velasques that depicts the violance in B0tero´s native Colombia:

Casa de Moneda and Museo de Oro

Next I checked out the much-hyped Casa de Moneda and Museo de Oro (gold). Frankly, I was disappointed by both. It was kind of cool to see the different forms of money and learn a bit about the emergance of currency in Latin America, but I wasn´t blown away. Here´s the entrance:

As for the Museo de Oro, some of the displays were interesting, but I was hoping for more of an explanation as to WHY gold became some important in the pre-Columbian era and to the Spaniards. We know now that gold has useful properties such as conductivity, etc. But, back then, it was pure decoration. So, why gold? Others have told me since that it is because of its resemblance to the sun--but I couldn´t find any explanations in the museum

Also, I´ve always been particulary fascinated by the Catholic Church`s obsession with gold--especially in poor countries. While the lay population can barely put food on the table, the churches are literally coated with gold. What kind of god would sanction that scenario, would want that money to be spent guilding his castles instead of feeding his people?

Here are a couple of shots from the museum:


My friend Ana is a member of an eco-village outside of Bogota called Aldeafeliz ( She hooked me up with Carlos, who currently lives there. He and his girlfriend Tatiana took me out there for a few days.

It was a very relaxing few days of reading, going to bed early, and sharing in the communal work. I picked coffee, turned over the compost heap, and translated about half their website into English (with much help from Carlos and my Spanish dictionary).
Here are Carlos and Tatiana:

And here´s the rest of the crew in the kitchen and computer room:

Here are some shots of the beautiful grounds, including the lake where I took a dip:

Some freshly picked coffee drying in the sun:

On my last day there, a group of ninos came with a camp and had a fun day exploring the place. I hitched a ride back to Bogota on their bus.

It was a nice, relaxing experience. The folks who live there (10 of them ranging from 23 years old into their mid-fifties) were super nice and really welcomed me into their lives. They live outside in tents, do everything together (cooking, cleaning, sharing the work, etc.) and run all sorts of cool programs for kids and adults and sell sustainable products like soap, shampoo, and food.


I don´t have any pictures from my nights in Bogota because I´d been scared ¨responsible¨and have left my camera at home when venturing out after dark. But, I did have a couple of fun nights out dancing Afro-Colombian, salsa, and meeting lots of cool people.

I wish I had more time to explore the scene a bit more, but alas...

My Charmed Last Day in Bogota

Bogota has been very good to me, and my last day there brought it all together. Ever have one of those days where you just sort of know everything will work out--and it actually does? Well, this was that day.

Monday was a national holiday (some Catholic thing, I think but nobody seemed to know exactly what it was for) and the day before I got an email from Mafe (Maria Fernandez), who I´d been out dancing with on Saturday night. She wanted to see if I was free for a day trip to go to the famous Catedral de Sal, an underground church built by salt miners entirely of--you guessed it, salt.

Conveniently, Andres Carne de Res, a famous steakhouse/party spot was sort of on the way home, so I proposed adding that to our adventure. Mafe agreed and the next morning we were off...

The Tourist Train

The most fun way to get to the Catedral de Sal is a tourist train that runs on weekends and holiday. We showed up just a few minutes before the train was scheduled to depart and they were no longer selling tickets. Since the multiple stations are not linked by computer, they had to use an elaborate system featuring walkie-talkies to determine if we would be allowed on.

They were letting people on in groups--and four seemed to be a popular number. Our first piece of good luck came when we teamed up with a nice couple with a small baby to make a foursome, and snagged some of the last seats on the train.

Here´s the train from the outside. Mafe told me they had to sell ads all over it to keep in running because of funding problems. Nestle to the rescue...

Our luck continued when we were seated at first in the dining car--perfect for ordering a hot tamale breakfast. Here´s a picture of breakfast.

Various bands came around to play traditional music on the train. It was really cool. When I´m able to upload them, I´ll post some video on this.

Catedral de Sal

At the train station we took a short busride to the Catedral. Here´s the entrance:

We entered the tunnel into a different world. It reminded me of Superman´s home, or the moon.

Here´s Mafe in front of one of the many salt crosses...

...and in front of a salt nativity scene:

And here I am in front of the main cross in the main room. This cross is actually cut out of the salt (rather than made of it) and lit from behind.

Andres´Carne de Res

After the Catedral, I wanted to go to Andres, which I had heard a ton about. This required a bit of tricky maneuvering without a car. We had to get off the train and catch a bus to Chia, the suburb where Andres is located. But, our good fortune continued and within three minutes of hopping off the train, we were on a bus for the 20 min ride to Chia, where the bus left us off a five minute walk from Andres.

The main principle behind Andres is ¨sensory overload.¨ It is a huge restaurant/bar/party space (can accomodate 3,000 people at one time) with all kinds of shit going on at once--eating, drinking, dancing, actors playing chefs walking by, all kinds of junk hanging from the ceiling. Here´s what it looked like walking in:

And here are Mafe and I at our table complete with bibs and our feast:

The food was good, if a bit pricey. It turned out, though, that money was no object.

We had originally been seated near one of the several dance floors, but it was a bit noisy, so we asked to be moved to the cozy table above. Seated next to us were two businessmen. The younger one was fairly reserved, from Spain. The older guy was drunk and talkative. Oscar is from Medellin and currently living in Miami. He proceeded to tell us about the businesses he owned, his gigs as professor at Harvard (Kennedy School and Law School), his son the graduate of UPenn Med, etc. He then told us he was a part of the Sindicato Antiogueno and the Groupo Santo Domingo, which Mafe told me are extremely powerful business associations in Colombia.

He was a bit overbearing and his friend was clearly a bit embarassed. And, I assumed he was making much of this stuff up. But, he liked us because when he mentioned Harvard I mentioned Yale (mostly to try to see if he was bullshitting and how he would react) and Mafe´s family is from Medellin, making them fellow ¨paisas.¨ So, he kept talking to us.

Sure enough, just when this was getting a bit too much, Oscar says to us, ¨I would like to invite you tonight...¨which in translation from Spanish means he was paying for our dinner (we were speaking English, but to ¨invite¨someone is a Spanish expression meaning you´re paying for him/her). So, what started as an entertaining, if slightly annoying, Colombian encounter ended up as another pleasant surprise in our charmed day--free dinner.

Here we are with Oscar. Oh, and he gave me his number in Miami and said he´s looking for lawyers--so I´m about to be rich, too.

After dinner, we danced for a bit at Andres, but they were shutting the place down. We headed back to Bogota, but we didn´t want our charmed day to end, so we kept hanging out until we had to get some sleep for work (Mafe) and travel (me--I was headed to Medellin the next day).

A great way to wrap up my time in Bogota. The next day I enjoyed a last lunch with the whole family before I headed to the bus station and Cathy and Emillion headed to the airport. I was touched that they invited me to join them for lunch even as the family was headed to different parts of the world for more than a month.

I hope to return to Bogota someday soon...


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