Finca Don Elias: Family-Owned, Organic (Delicious) Coffee in Salento

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it's perfectly safe

Follow us into the magical land of coffee farms…

Continuing last week’s Salento lovefest, I want to get a little more into the details of what makes this little coffee town such a wonderful place (if all the talk of colorful houses, snuggly scarves, nine billion different shades of green and fresh-brewed tinto weren’t already convincing enough). It’s a cliche at this point to say that the main asset of Colombia is its people, but it’s a basic fact, and nowhere have I found this to be more true than in the coffee region, especially in smaller towns like this one. People go out of their way to do favors just because. You never feel like a jerk if you ask for extra sugar, and inquiring when the next round of transportation leaves will, just as often as not, lead to an offer to just take you now, if you don’t mind paying a couple pesos more, of course.

In many places, it would be considered rude (or worse) to go stomping into someone’s house and demand that they show you around, yet here it’s essentially the norm, especially if you want to go on a tour of one of the local coffee farms (fincas). I had managed to visit twice before ever actually making it to one of these fincas — the first time around because of lack of time, and the second because my friends and I didn’t bother looking up what time the place actually ran tours before heading out there (in typical Colombian fashion, we figured the tour would start whenever people showed up. For once, this was not accurate). This led to a fairly entertaining “self-guided” tour in which we explored the processing center and tried to figure out what all the different tools were for, but it was not ultimately very enlightening. So on my third visit, I vowed that this would be the time I finally found out how the sausage coffee gets made.

can we drink it yet?

This is where the magic happens

There are quite a few local fincas that offer tours (in both English and Spanish), but our hostel and some of the other folks in town recommended the small, family-owned Don Elias, so that was where we leaded. Located about a 45-minute all-downhill walk from town (depending on your walking speed and how often you stop to take photos of the stumble-inducing scenery), this little independent finca is the definition of classic Colombia coffee country. Visitors enter along a path lined with banana and plátano trees, then suddenly emerge into basically the front yard of the family’s house. When we were there, the porch was occupied by a few small children playing, a smaller dog and an unidentified man washing his car right in the middle of the space. Starbucks it ain’t, but that wasn’t what we came for.

almost there

Just one kilometer to Don Elias!

these look like bananas. ugh

Follow your nose!

Unfortunately, we didn’t have the opportunity to meet Don Elias himself (although a friend took a tour with him, so we know he really exists), and took the tour instead with his grandson, a charming kid in his late teens who had a lot more patience for visitors asking dumb questions than most other kids his age would. Our tour led through the coffee plants, which ripple down the terraced planting section toward the river below. The plants have a maximum productive lifespan of a bit more than 25 years, our guide explained, after which point they become essentially useless. At this point, he made a joke here about things being more or less expired after 25 years, which allowed us to see some pretty serious blushing when we told him how old we were. Definitely worth it. Aging jokes aside, we learned that this particular finca replaces the plants after 17 years, clearing the way for younger plants with a higher yield, and they rotate the planting so they always have a few different age tiers of plants.

the Colombian ones are yellow, of course

Coffee beans are way more colorful than cafes tell us!

This coffee grows best in shade, so the plants are alternated among banana, plantain, avocado and pineapple trees, which also provide important nutrients that help balance the soil and produce better coffee. Because the farm is strictly organic, they use natural tactics to deter insects and other pests. This is the main reason for planting pineapples, our guide told us, because the sweet taste attracts the insects and draws them away from the coffee plants. Who needs pesticides when you have pineapples?

not so pretty anymore

The beans, after the first round of de-shelling and soaking.

All this talk of snacking was starting to make me hungry, but there was still more to see. After the twice-yearly harvest (done all by hand, by about eight workers over the course of a few weeks), the beans are brought up to the processing plant — an open side of the family house with a few basic tools. The coffee beans are all run through a hand-powered machine, which cracks the outer shell, then fall into a tub where they soak for a full 24 hours. The tub only holds about a kilo of coffee, so the entire process of opening and soaking all of the beans from the harvest takes quite a while. After soaking, the beans are relocated to a makeshift drying house, constructed out of local bamboo-like plants and a clear tarp over the top. They sit here until completely dry, which can take anywhere from a few days to more than a week, depending on how sunny it is during that time.

isn't he just the cutest thing

Still not pretty beans yet. But we’re getting there.

Once the beans are fully dried, it’s time to divide them up. At this point, the beans that are designated for sale (about half the harvest) are sent off to local and international organic and fair trade buyers, which are then responsible for roasting and selling them to their own markets. The family keeps the other half of the beans for personal use and sale at the farm and at a few choice spots in town. Despite all the fancy talk we hear about roasting techniques, the strategy here is as traditional as it gets — the dry beans are placed in a banged-up metal pot, then roast over the fire for about an hour until they get that beautiful deep-brown color we expect from coffee. Then, to the grinder they go! Like every other part of the process at this farm, there’s no machine involved — if you want coffee, you have to grind it by hand. We all tried it, and I can only imagine that a few weeks of running that machine would leave me with better arm muscles than any class at a fancy gym.

they still don't taste good, though

That looks much more like the real thing.

Of course, a visit to a family home in Colombian coffee country wouldn’t be complete without a cup of coffee, so the tour finishes with a fresh-brewed cup of Don Elias’ finest. This is obviously a genius marketing strategy, because it’s nearly impossible to taste this coffee without immediately succumbing to the urge to buy some, especially after hearing all about the lengthy, all-manual process that goes into creating it and getting it into that cup. Plus, as far as I’m concerned, it doesn’t get better than buying coffee straight from the source, especially when that source is a family of coffee farmers, devoted to maintaining the organic, traditional practices that have sustained them for generations.

yum yum yum

The finished product, ready for my caffeine-craving taste buds.

Oh, and did I mention that the coffee is delicious, too?

Salento: My Happy Place in Colombia

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Anyone that has had the misfortune to interact with me since October 2012 has probably heard about Salento — if I haven’t just come back from there, I’m planning my next journey or trying to convince someone to come with me. Including the trip I took two weeks ago, when my college roommate came to visit, I’ve been there a grand total of four times. I have a photo of the nearby valley as my phone background. You could say I’m a little crazy about the place — or at least you might say that if you’ve never been there. Because once you have visited, it’s hard to resist the urge to go back immediately. From the beautiful traditional painted houses to the perfect cups of coffee, Salento is a Colombian slice of heaven. I realize I’m a few decades away, but I’ve never found a place that whispers “retire here!” as much as Salento. I’m a city girl at heart, and I love Bogotá intensely, but something about those rolling green coffee hills almost convinces me to leave bricks and buses behind and trade in my smartphone for some vegetable seeds.

i want to go to there

The view from the lookout at one end of town, looking toward Los Nevados National Park.

Now, I’m certainly not the first person to feel the magical pull of Salento. In the last few years, the tiny town has become a popular spot for backpackers, providing a relaxing layover between Popayán, San Agustín and Cali to the south and Medellín to the north. Still, the place isn’t overrun in the way some other spots are (looking at you, Santa Marta) — despite the strong emphasis on tourism, it’s easy enough to walk out of town and find a quiet place to sit, without encountering a single person trying to sell you feather earrings or a bunch of bros discussing where they partied last night. Yes, there are definitely enough visitors to keep the hostels busy, but it seems to draw less of the party-and-drugs crowd and more of the hikers and introspective types.

salento tiene talento

Ha! Rhymes are the best! [In case you can't see it, this sign, outside an artisans' collective, says "Salento Talento." heehee]

In addition to the quiet, Salento’s main appeal is sensory, mostly for the eyes and the taste buds. The town has historically subsisted on coffee production and trout farming, and those are still the primary economic activities for the rural families living nearby (though running a restaurant or a hostel appears to be an increasingly lucrative option as well). Especially on weekends, when the main plaza fills up with food stands and visitors from the nearby cities of Armenia and Pereira, you can find great local trout slathered in sauce and served with a ton of sides, or massive patacones (plantains) the size of a serving platter. I also bought one of the top five most delicious arepas I’ve ever eaten in Colombia — yes, I obviously keep track of this — in Salento, from a women selling homemade arepas the size of my head off a grill along the road on the way back to my hostel.

paisas love porches

The colorful porch of a traditional paisa house.

Though the comida típica (typical food) is great, there are also a number of non-traditional restaurants in town, including a pizza-and-curry spot run by a wonderful couple and the backpacker favorite Brunch, an American-owned place featuring (you guessed it) brunch food and homemade peanut butter! My personal favorite spot in town offers 5,000 peso breakfast and 6,000 lunch every day — there are only 2-3 options, but they’re all delicious and the people there couldn’t be nicer. Plus the walls of the six-table restaurant are plastered with posters for  events and businesses, everything from horse markets to hostels on the Pacific Coast, which provide a great conversation piece when you haven’t had coffee yet and can barely string two words together.

GIVE ME ALL THE CAFFEINE

This is what coffee looks like when it grows. Not half bad!

And speaking of coffee, did I mention this place grows a lot of coffee? Salento is in the heart of the eje cafetero (coffee region), and it’s one of the best places in the country to get a quality cup of joe. There are a number of fincas (coffee farms) within walking distance, and many offer tours that explain the entire coffee production process, from planting to exporting, and everything in between. Even better, for the other purists out there, is the fact that many of these family-owned farms are all-organic — some even maintain the practice of doing everything by hand! As far as I’m concerned, it’s hard to beat buying a bag of fresh-ground organic coffee straight from the family that grows, harvests and sells it — we’re taking farm-to-table to a whole new level here.

pretty colors!

Outside a gallery in Salento

In addition to its tasty products, Salento is also a haven for artisans. The main street leading out of the plaza is lined with all kinds of shops selling everything from hand-knitted sweaters to chocolate-covered coffee beans. The leather, wool and wood here are especially good quality, and you’ll see many people walking around in ruanas (Colombian wool ponchos). One of the most iconic local products is the sombrero aguadeño (or sombrero antioqueño), a slightly larger version of a fedora favored by most of the local farmers. The hat has grown from its humble beginnings as a rancher’s traditional sun protection and can now be spotted as a fashion statement on the heads of Colombians across the country. If you’re on the hunt, though, this is the place to get it — there are a few stores on the first block close to the plaza that sell a staggering quantity of hats in all sizes. Every time I visit, I debate buying one, but the truth is I’d be afraid to wear it much in Bogotá because of the inevitability of it getting soaked. Still, I’m tempted whenever I’m there — I have visions of wearing it as I gaze out over the small coffee and lulo plants sprouting in the yard behind my finca. Maybe once I finally do buy that finca (is it time to retire yet?), I’ll have a reason to get a hat.

In the meantime, I’ll just keep going back.

trees for days

Can you blame me? LOOK at this place!

15 Free Things to Do in Bogotá

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Bogotá and its price points tend to get a bad rap. This is a very valid point when you consider that the average monthly salary in the city as of 2013 was just over 1 million pesos (about $500 at the current exchange rate), and that it has the biggest inequality gap of any city in Colombia, with Estrato 6 (the wealthiest economic level) making 4.8 million pesos per month on average, nearly 14 times the average income of about 350,000 pesos for people in Estrato 1 (the poorest level). Like in most growing cities, rents are skyrocketing in the most popular neighborhoods, and the prices of many goods are slowly creeping up as well. It’s a familiar refrain we hear in major cities impacted by gentrification — the out with the old, in with the new mindset is leaving many people behind, and there seems to be little effort to stop its momentum.

With so much recent development and increased tourism and business coming into the city, many new restaurants, cafes and bars are aiming for the nouveau riche and foreign crowds, with few $4 lunch spots to be found — or so they think. In reality, there are plenty of places in the city that won’t burn a hole straight through your wallet. Sure, if you spend all your time in the Zona Rosa and Usaquén, dropping 8,000 pesos on a beer or 20,000 just to get into a club, then yes, your bank account will start to feel it pretty quickly. But that’s what we in the business [ed. I am not actually in any such business] like to call selection bias. There are plenty of places offering set lunches for 6,000, your standard almuerzo ejecutivo price. Some of them even have veggie options! My favorite mango biche dude sells cups packed with tasty mango for just 1,000 (about 50 cents, for those of you keeping score at home), and the bar where my friend and I befriended the bartenders last year has always kept the price around 2,000 per bottle (or sometimes zero, if the manager wasn’t around).

Like any city, there are plenty of places that will be only too happy to take your money, especially your fancy foreign money, but that doesn’t define the city (there are so many other things to love, after all!). There are just as many places that will offer you a deal, drop the price if your friend buys one too, or give you a discount if you just show up enough times. And then, there are the spots and experiences that won’t cost you a peso. They’re not always what you’ll see when you open up your guidebook, but for residents, they retain their luster much longer than any swanky club. Here are a few of my favorite free (or very cheap) activities and places in Bogotá.

  1. Parque Simón Bolívar – The outdoorsy heart of Bogotá, this park has basically everything you could need to be happy: a lake, a swimming center, a giant sports complex, a space for concerts, a world-class library, a botanic garden, bike paths, plenty of trees and a temperature that somehow always seems to be a few degrees warmer than the rest of the city (I may be imagining this last one, but it’s how it feels). The park hosts events year-round, from the al Parque concert series to street theater shows to August’s Festival del Verano, which alone contains a dizzying number of different events and inspires the appearance of more kites than I’ve ever seen before in my life. Whenever I want to escape for a few hours from the towering spires of concrete and the sounds of jackhammers outside my window, this is the happy place where I come.

    the sky doesn't always look like this

    The Botanic Garden in Parque Bolívar.

  2. Concerts Al Parque – One of my very favorite things that Bogotá offers is this series of free concerts, which take place at different set times throughout the year. Staged in several of the city’s biggest parks and outdoor spaces, the concerts are completely free (though they come with a VERY up-close-and-personal patdown courtesy of security staff, so beware if you have any qualms about being groped by a stranger) and cover a broad range of genres, from opera to hip-hop. The three-day Rock al Parque, which takes place in late June or early July, is the biggest free outdoor rock concert in South America, while September’s Jazz al Parque is set in an immaculate park that used to be a polo ground, with grass that personally begs me to bring a picnic and settle down for a few hours of free tunes.
  3. Ciclovía“Bogotá no tiene mar, pero tiene Ciclovía” (Bogotá doesn’t have the ocean, but it has Ciclovía). This phrase is sort of a joke amongst rolos, but the truth is that nobody actually seems that upset about the tradeoff. The pride and joy of the city, Sunday (and holiday) Ciclovía is, hands down, one of the greatest treats Bogotá has to offer. You can’t really get to know this town until you stroll one of the main streets when it’s packed with bikers, rollerbladers, skate punks, kids on tricycles, dogs lounging in baskets or trotting alongside their owners, juice vendors, roadside bike repairmen and just about everything else. All you need to enjoy Ciclovía is a pair of shoes, some water and a serious appreciation for the best people-watching in central Colombia.

    I gotta get me a pair of rollerblades.

    I gotta get me a pair of rollerblades.

  4. Street performers – Sure, there’s plenty of excellent indoor theater staged throughout the year here, but there are great displays of talent in the middle of major streets, too. I personally have a pretty strong aversion to mimes (how am I expected to trust someone who willingly chooses to make alarming noises instead of speaking?!) so there are some spots I steer well clear of, but I’ve still seen gymnasts, fire jugglers, unicyclists, dancers and more than enough musicians (some significantly more talented than others) offering shows in the middle of intersections or sidewalks. Lots of famous folks started out busking or playing in subway stations, so who’s to say the next Liliana Saumet isn’t out there singing on a Bogotá bus right now?
  5. Free museums – Bogotá outdoes itself when it comes to providing access to art, free of charge. Many of the flagship national museums, including the iconic Museo Botero, the Casa de la Moneda and personal favorite the Museo Nacional (housed in a building that used to be a prison) have totally free admission (donations always welcome, of course). Others, like the Museo del Oro, do charge a small admission fee of about 3,000 pesos ($1.50) — it’s not free, but you won’t find many other museums that charge admission that’s little more than the price of bus fare.

    this room would make the Spaniards happy

    One of the rooms in Bogotá’s lovely Museo del Oro (Gold Museum).

  6. Exercise classes in Parque Nacional – A sprawling swath of green space that rolls down the side of the mountain above the Séptima just north of Candelaria, Parque Nacional is a great place for a mid-week picnic or friendly match on one of the tennis courts perched above the street. During the weekend, though, it explodes into a cacophony of steps, beats and breathing patterns, as different groups stake out space to offer free classes for a range of workout styles, from yoga to Zumba. Whether you want to dance off the beers from the night before or just find your zen space, you can do it free of charge — as long as you don’t mind a little gawking from curious passersby.
  7. Rooftop of Titan Plaza – We all know how I feel about malls, but I have to make an exception for Titan Plaza, familiarly known as “the only mall that doesn’t give Natalie a claustrophobic anxiety attack.” The best thing about Titan, though, isn’t its Forever 21, or the fact that it has a bridge connecting it directly to the TransMilenio station (although that last detail is pretty excellent). No, it’s the green space on the roof of the UFO-shaped building, which has a fountain, benches, flowers, and a great panoramic view of the city. Even though it’s adjacent to two of the biggest streets running out of the city, the height lets you feel a little more removed from all of the madness on the ground below. Plus, on weekends, the cupcake stand is open!
  8. Public art exhibits – These can sometimes be less of a planned outing than the result of an unexpected discovery, but isn’t that the best way to encounter art? During the International Theater Festival, it seems like practically every street corner holds the possibility of bursting into a spontaneous performance, but there are exhibits across the city all throughout the year as well. One of my favorites comes courtesy of the FotoMuseo, the national photography museum, which takes on the admirable task of bringing stellar photographic work to the streets and communities of Bogotá. Featuring local and international artists, these semi-annual exhibits pop up all over the place, including in libraries, galleries and even the middle of the swanky Zona T. Stumbling upon these exhibits is always a pleasant surprise, so I try to keep one eye out whenever I’m walking around (while the other eye is making sure I don’t fall into one of the gaping holes in the sidewalk).
  9. Paloquemao – One of the recommended highlights for first-time visitors to Bogotá, the Paloquemao market is a sensory attack of colors, flavors and smells (some more appealing than others). It’s where nearby farmers and flower-growers come to sell their wares and where a large portion of the city does its weekly veggie shopping. Entrance to the massive covered market is free, but you’ll be forgiven if you end up dropping a few pesos on some fresh chicken or beautiful local tomatoes.

    roots grow up now

    Hanging fruits and veggies at Paloquemao market.

  10. Chapinero mountain hike – Monserrate gets all the attention, but there are other paths to explore in the mountains looming over the east side of Bogotá. One of the best-kept secrets of these alternative routes is a path that winds up from the edge of Chapinero Alto from the low 70 streets above the Circunvular. The hike goes through the vegetation on the mountainside and offers some great views of the urban sprawl below — without any of the crowded madness of Monserrate. The only catch is that the gate at the entrance of the path is locked for the day at 10 a.m., so this walk is only for the earliest of risers.
  11. DIY graffiti tour – There are several companies and individuals that offer tailored graffiti tours to hit some of Bogotá’s best works of street art, and some of them are very knowledgeable about the pieces and their significance in a social context. However, if you’re strapped for cash or prefer to move at your own pace, there’s no reason you can’t stroll around on your own and admire the many talented artists decorating walls, facades and underpasses. There’s interesting street art in almost every corner of the city, but some of the best places to see it are the Centro/Candelaria, inside the Universidad Nacional (don’t miss Plaza Che!) and major streets like the Séptima, Avenida Boyacá, the NQS and Calles 26 and 80.
  12. Public libraries – If you judge a city by how much its population loves books, Bogotá should be at the top of the list. In addition to the International Book Fair and hundreds of used book sellers, Bogotá is home to some seriously beautiful — and seriously popular — libraries. The flagship library, the Luis Angel Arango in La Candelaria, receives millions of visitors each year, but the El Tintal (southwest of the city), El Tunal (south), Santo Domingo (north) and Virgilio Barco (central, in Parque Simón Bolívar) libraries are also all stunning architectural creations and great resources in their own rights. In fact, I’m writing this post from one of the libraries right now!

    these are important words to know, here

    The walls of an exhibit on water inside the Luis Angel Arango library.

  13. Night bike rides – In case Ciclovía hadn’t already made you abundantly aware, this is a bike-crazy city. However, the local two-wheeled fanatics don’t allow their enthusiasm to be contained within one day, which has led to the proliferation of recurring ciclopaseos throughout the city. The most popular of these is the Ciclopaseo de los Miércoles, which takes place, as the name suggests, every other Wednesday at a different, predetermined starting point. Anyone with a bike is welcome to this friendly event, which can draw anywhere between a few dozen to several hundred people, depending on the week, location and, most of all, the weather.
  14. Art shows in the García Marquez Cultural Center – The basement of the center, right next to the Juan Valdez in La Candelaria, has a constant revolving art exhibit on display for any visitors who want to wander through while sipping coffee or hiding from the rain. The theme and style vary (I’ve liked some exhibits far more than others), but the curators always choose interesting Latin American artists, and it’s certainly worth a look when you’re in the neighborhood, if you’re not museum-ed out by then. The Center itself is also free and has a solid calendar of public events as well.
  15. La Calera lookout – Perched right above Bogotá, the town of La Calera and its eponymous lookout spot might have the best view in the whole city. From this corner of the road, it’s possible to see the entire expanse of the metropolis stretching away across the sábana — and, unlike Monserrate, it’s safe to be up here at night. In fact, this is a very popular nightlife spot, for couples and families that come to sip canelazo and enjoy the view, as well as for the partiers on board the chivas rumberas that chug up the hill carrying those aboard to one of La Calera’s late-night discotecas. It’s another perspective entirely on the city, and as close to a bird’s-eye view as one can get without actually leaving the ground. The lookout itself is free, but unless you’ve got a solid set of lungs, you’ll probably want to take the bus up from the Séptima (fares to the lookout are less than 2,000 pesos).

I’m sure there are plenty more of awesome free things that I’ve left off the list, but I’ve either yet to discover them, or I just want to keep them all to myself. If you know of any worthy additions, though, feel free to add your suggestions — I’m always on the lookout for more ways to enjoy this city without incurring any more infuriating Bank of America ATM fees!

Quien lo Vive…

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So as I may or may not have mentioned, I made up for my (lazy, broke, bad-at-planning, unmotivated) omission of last year and made sure I spent the second weekend of this past February in Barranquilla for Carnaval. Obviously a big part of this was the fact that Brighid lives there now, so it was a great excuse to go visit her, but it’s also one of those things that you just have to do when you live in Colombia. Or, judging from the number of gringos in attendance, even when you don’t.

Barranquilla, normally your typical mid-sized industrial port city, goes all-out for its Carnaval, which they never hesitate to tell you is the second-largest in the world (after only Rio, which, if you’re going to be second to something when it comes to Carnaval festivities, is really the only option). The city essentially shuts down for a whole week, during which time everything is covered in decorations, paint, banners, and anything red-green-and-yellow, the Carnaval colors. The people undergo a similar transformation — everyone is dressed in outrageous, neon, sparkly, bedazzled, insane festive clothing or costumes and covered in wigs, face paint, more sparkles, hats and other peculiar hair accessories. As if this weren’t enough, the two major spectator pastimes of Carnaval are drinking and throwing maizena (flour) and espuma (foam) at both friends and strangers until everyone in attendance looks as white as an Indiana frat boy on his first trip out of the country.

The days are filled with parades, dancing, music and celebration, and the nights — are pretty much exactly the same. We spent 2 hours one night just wandering from one block party to the next, weaving between neighbors dancing together and changing songs as we passed from one set of blaring speakers stacked higher than the surrounding houses to the next. People always talk about how joy is contagious, and this is one of the best places to see that in action — sure, we’re all sweaty and dirty and covered in flour and glitter and our feet hurt from standing and dancing, but we are all having one hell of a good time. Barranquilleros were, without fail, warm and welcoming and delightful people, and I couldn’t think of a better group to serve as my festival guides. For four nights straight, Brighid and I rolled into bed past 2 a.m., filthy and exhausted and probably dehydrated — and then the next morning, we got up and did it again. Because that’s what you do when it’s what everyone else is doing. We were just following the motto of Carnaval, after all:

Quien lo vive, es quien lo goza (S/he who lives it, enjoys it)

And enjoy it I did. Who’s up for 2014?

[full disclosure: I did not bring my fancy camera to Barranquilla, because beer + intense sunlight + flying foam + copious opportunities for robbery = disaster, as far as I'm concerned. So I'm sorry these photos don't look so nice, but it's the price we pay for caution. And it's worth it]

Artesanía: Werregue Bowl

I bought this bowl on a trip to southwestern Colombia in February, during a visit to an indigenous community that lives up the Río Calima, right near the border between the Valle del Cauca and Chocó departments. It’s made of werregue, a palm fiber native to Colombia’s Pacific coast. Werregue crafts are one of the country’s most distinctive artesanías, and also one of the most intricate: it can take 1-2 months to weave a basket or a vase, and the best ones are woven so tightly they can actually carry water. I’ve been using this bowl to hold my necklaces, since it’s too beautiful to risk putting anything in it that could tear or stain it.

One of my favorite things about this bowl is the fact that I had the opportunity to buy it directly from the woman who made it. We were visiting the indigenous community as part of a work trip, but at the end of a productive meeting, some of the women wanted to show us the artesanías they had created, in case we wanted to buy something (which of course we did). They make everything from complex beaded necklaces to these stunning werregue jars and bowls, which they often transport along the three-hour boat-moto-bus trip into Buenaventura to sell. Due to some of the serious violence and security issues around Buenaventura right now, as well as direct threats against some members of their community, they haven’t been able to travel for a while, so they were happy to show off the work to us while we were there. I feel so much more comfortable buying beautiful crafts like this directly from the amazing people who make them — it’s a relief knowing that my money is actually going to the community that deserves it, rather than any other buyers or middlemen.

I would have loved to bring back about 9000 more things, but could only take what I could fit in my bag, which ended up being this bowl as well as a pair of beaded earrings and a bracelet. The women gave all of us necklaces as a gift before we left, and mine is sitting in this bowl right now, which feels like exactly where it belongs.

Rain, Rain, Go Away

It’s rainy season in Bogotá – insofar as a few weeks can be a season, that is. It can be, though, which is something you learn when you move here: seasons can be hours, or days, and a month can seem like a year when the clouds move fast enough. Coming from a place where seasons are essentially a clockwork three months each, with maybe a stray April snowstorm or extended summer day in October to keep us all on our toes, it’s a tough adjustment. It still seems wrong, for example, that people can squint up at the sky, check to see whether it’s partly cloudy or partly sunny (the meteorological version of water levels in glasses) and say confidently that it’s either summer or winter. It seems to run counter to everything we learn in school, when we study the Earth’s rotation and day length and sunset times. And yet, after two years here, I’ve started to buy into it, too – into the idea that winter can descend over the mountains like nightfall and lift again just as easily, when it’s 2 p.m. or a Sunday, or that summer has nothing to do with temperatures and everything to do with the appearance of shadows.

ughhhhhhhhhhh

Just your average day, dodging raindrops

Sometimes I suspect that Bogotá’s rainy season is the city’s way of testing people. Can you hack it? Can you find ways to stay positive, stay busy, stay upbeat when the mountaintops disappear behind apocalyptically dark clouds that almost make you believe in black magic? Can you find shoes that will bear you across the three-inch rivers rushing through the streets, find ways to jump to the side before the buses whizzing past throw cascading waves of water the height of a small child over anyone unfortunate enough to be standing within the blast radius? Can you keep from fighting back against your alarm clock when the first glimpse out the window reveals only gray, rather than the normal early-a.m. jewel-toned sky?

It’s all a test. The city is testing us, waiting for us to prove that we deserve to make it to the clear light and holidays in June, the kite-filled skies and festival days of August, the shimmering lights and warm drinks of December. We don’t have snow, but we have days so dark that the idea of sunlight seems foreign. We have hailstorms that appear out of nowhere, and roads with insufficient storm drains. We have whiplash-inducing variations in temperature and precipitation strange enough to make you suspect it might really all be tied to the movements of a butterfly in Indonesia, or the mood swings of a three-year old in Portugal.

And if all that doom and gloom isn’t enough for you, well, it’s election season as well. The jury is still out on that one, as far as silver linings are concerned, but we’ve got to hope there’s sunlight at the other end, too.

On Comfort Zones, and How (Not) to Take a Cab in Bogotá

So you may or may not have heard about what happened to the DEA agent here last week. They’ll figure out the full story in time, but what seems to be the truth as far as we know is that the guy hailed a cab near midnight in a busy (wealthy) part of town, was driven a few blocks before some other guys got in and tried to rob him (what’s called a paseo millonario here — normally they’ll drive you around to a few ATMs and make you withdraw as much money as possible before dropping you off on a random street somewhere. This is why I never carry bank cards when I go out at night, as an extra precaution). The guy must have tried to fight back, which ended badly for him — a few stab wounds, taken to the hospital, died shortly thereafter. I’m sure there’s a shitstorm happening over at the US Embassy right now — according to someone I know who works there, the memos have been flying all week, which I think is about as serious as bureaucracy gets — because this guy pretty much did everything they tell you not to do. Never hail cabs off the street, especially not at night; always lock the doors when you get in the cab; make sure your friends see the placa (plate) of the car you’re taking; don’t carry your credit cards with you if you’re out drinking at night; be extra cautious when leaving high-traffic zones frequented by people with lots of money. These are all things people will tell you not to do a million times; whether you listen is your own choice. And many of us really don’t. I know that up until about two months ago, I didn’t. At least not as much as I should have.

So let’s back up a second here, because I’m skipping ahead. One thing that you notice after living in Bogotá for three days, three weeks, three years: everyone has been robbed. Everyone. Colombians, foreigners, tourists, residents — it doesn’t matter. Everyone has a story: a bag slashed on a bus, a wallet taken on the TransMilenio, a man with a gun in Candelaria, robbers pretending to be house painters in an apartment building, phone calls describing fake kidnappings and asking for money. The question isn’t if, it’s when.

But the thing is, sometimes the when takes a long time to arrive. Sometimes you’re here for a year, and yeah, you get bad vibes from sketchy dudes on the bus sometimes or worry that someone is standing too close to you and move away, but that’s it. And you start to forget to keep two hands on your phone, to watch your bag, to be careful where you go to the ATM. You start to get comfortable.

Comfort is a good thing, of course. We all want to be comfortable where we live, and this is as good a place to be comfortable as any. But comfort can’t come at the cost of safety and awareness, and that’s where we start to slip. That’s where my friend slipped when she didn’t keep an eye on her bag while out dancing; where I slipped sitting by the ocean in Cartagena; where this guy probably slipped when he opened the door to the first cab that came by. We forget that our happiness doesn’t put us in a bubble, and that it can happen at any time. That if it happens to Colombians, it will happen to us. That all we can do is take every reasonable precaution, and listen to the people who know better when they tell us to, for the love of god, just wait the extra three minutes it takes to call a cab.

But let’s be clear about this, Colombia is not a hotbed of daily kidnappings and stabbings. This is not Mexico. It’s not Pakistan. Bogotá is not Aleppo. The vast majority of people here are wonderful and well-intentioned, taxi drivers included. I’ve been lectured on several occasions by fatherly taxi drivers who are concerned that I’m not taking enough precautions to be safe. I once had a half-hour conversation about life, travel and the national university at 2 a.m. with a cab driver who is probably younger than my brother. Yes, the security could be better, overall, but it’s important to remember that the overwhelming majority of people in any given place and job are just trying to do that job and keep moving on. We all just need to pay attention to where we’re going.

OISA: Chivas

This week, in my other writing gig over at Only In South America, I explain chivas — Colombia’s answer to the party bus, and the cause of this one time I thought I witnessed my friend die. Don’t drink and try to step out of a moving vehicle, kids.

Totally Inexplicable Things Colombians Love #2: Giving Unsolicited (Beauty) Advice

“Your hair looked better yesterday.”

“You should wear red more often.”

“That dress makes you look skinny.”

“Why don’t you send your resume to that [university/publication/school/business even though it's totally unrelated to your skill set or current job]?”

“You don’t have a Colombian boyfriend? You should have a Colombian boyfriend.”

“Have you gained weight? It looks like you’ve gained weight.”

One thing I’ve noticed over the last year and a half is a particularly large cultural difference between here and home in terms of the focus on appearance, and the corollary social acceptability of making comments based on that appearance. And not just from your mother or grandmother, which might be expected. No, this is co-workers, students, friends of friends, the apartment doorman, people sitting next to you on the bus. Friends of mine here are often surprised when I explain to them that, in the U.S., telling someone — especially someone you don’t know — that their hair looks messy or their clothing is unflattering is generally considered, well, rude. Here, it’s a public service. But wouldn’t you want to know?

And yes, okay, I understand that logic when it comes to spinach between your teeth or leggings that become upsettingly see-through in sunlight, but we Americans do seem to draw the line pretty quickly as far as commenting on physical appearance is concerned. Compliments are allowed, but anything that remotely resembles a critique is best kept quiet. Most of us have, at some point, been the target of a well-timed maternal “If you don’t have something nice to say, don’t say anything at all.”

This isn’t to say that Colombians are rude — in fact, it’s quite the opposite. They tend to be much more complimentary about pretty much everything, pretty much all the time. Last year will undoubtedly be the high point in my life of being told that I’m beautiful, as it happened at least once every day. The thing is, though, most Colombians say “You look/are beautiful” like the rest of us say “How are you?” which does somewhat take away from the significance of the sentiment.

Disregarding overuse of complimentary adjectives, though, the fact is that things that are interpreted as rude, insulting or invasive by Americans are just normal here. It’s not an insult if it’s true, right? And why wouldn’t you want to know your hair looked better yesterday, so you can do it like that again? In a weird way, I do understand this logic — it comes from a place of wanting to be helpful, not cruel, even if that help does come out sounding like something that would be best left unsaid. Still, as someone who doesn’t pay much attention to my appearance beyond what earrings I’m wearing (always the most important decision of the day), it’s been strange adjusting to people feeling like they have the right to comment on how I look.

I think it’s partially tied to the whole American complex of independence: I can dress however the hell I want, goddammit, and you don’t get to say anything about it. I definitely grew up with a bit of this attitude, and it hasn’t gone away yet, nor do I want it to. But on top of that, I also have more than a bit of a strong feminist reaction to it — while telling people how they look and how they should look is liberally applied to all genders here, it’s far more often directed at women. This is linked to all sorts of other underlying factors about beauty standards and how women are judged here, but there does seem to be a general sentiment that this advice is more “useful” for women. Because we care more, or because our bodies are public property for commenting, or for a whole range of other reasons which I’m sure would make for a great master’s thesis. On a personal level, though, it’s mostly just annoying. Anyone who’s met me knows I’m not exactly the type who enjoys being told what to do, unless it’s coming from a really good editor, and I’m certainly not in the habit of taking advice from any grown adult who thinks that sparkly pink t-shirts designed for teenagers or leopard-print pants are an appropriate fashion choice.

Then again, this objection is probably why I don’t have a Colombian boyfriend. Which, as far as everyone is concerned, is almost certainly for the best.

 

Other Totally Inexplicable Things Colombians Love:

#3. Aguardiente

#4. Agua de Panela

#5. Inappropriate Uses of English

#6. Colombia’s Got Talent

#7. Horrifying Jeans

#8. Malls

#9. Wearing Heels Everywhere, All the Time

#10. ’80s Rock/Hair Metal Bands

Arts & Crafts (& Sheep)

A friend of mine runs a pretty cool local-based travel company here in Colombia, and about a month ago I got to hitch a ride with one of his trips. Our group spent a few days in the Altiplano — learning how to make pottery in Ráquira, shearing sheep on a farm outside of Villa de Leyva, wearing silly hats, and even finding time in between to play a little tejo and eat a bunch of empanadas. And then I wrote about it for their blog. A bit of a different perspective, or at least a different blog background, to change things up a little.