Last week I got a chance to make a quick visit to my favorite place in Colombia (by now we all know that’s Villa de Leyva, right?). I stopped by my favorite hostel in my favorite town — the one run by the woman who acts like she’s everyone’s Colombian grandma, who calls every guest “mi amor” or “mi cielo” so she doesn’t have to try to remember all of our names, the one with outdoor showers and four cats roaming the premises and a huge lawn with plenty of space for tents and furniture made out of wine bottles and other recycled items. One of the best things about this hostel (after the hostess and the friendly cats) is that it’s always changing. They’re always moving rooms around, constructing new additions, changing the layout. It’s constantly in flux, so it’s a different experience every time you come back. Even though I’ve been there three times now, there were still plenty of new developments — my favorite being the new outdoor lounge space: a platform in the middle of the yard, covered by a tent made from a parachute and populated with pieces of lumpy furniture in various states of transition, including two “chairs” made of sofa pillow stuffed into dresser drawers. The best part of this room, though, is the light: a hanging garden of colored wine bottles, lit up by LED lights at night and casting splotchy colorful shadows across the interior of the parachute. I liked it so much I practically tried to sleep out there — the mosquitoes won this round, but I’m sure I’ll be back soon enough. I just hope I make it back there before the bottles move to a new location.
So I was a wee bit MIA last week, but with good reason: I was busy hanging out with about 40 of my 9th-graders in Melgar, a very warm resort-y town about three hours outside of Bogotá, because my life is super-exciting like that. Actually, though, it was both exciting and a great opportunity to spend time with my delightful kids outside of the dark confines of school.
I didn’t just sneak onto a field trip full of 15-year-olds, I swear (okay, I kind of did. But there was a reason!). Colsubsidio, the organization that owns my school, also owns about half of the other buildings in Colombia — including a rather nice hotel in Girardot, right next to Melgar, and a water park, Piscilago, which features the longest water slide in Latin America. For some unknown but delightful reason, particular grades at the Colsubsidio schools get the opportunity for an overnight at the hotel and then a day at the water park. I was originally supposed to go with the 7th-graders about two months ago, but due to scheduling it didn’t work out, so I got shuffled to the 9th-graders instead. This actually ended up being a pretty lovely surprise, since I adore my 9th-graders and they are, on average, slightly easier to wrangle than a bus full of insane 12-year-olds. I’m not sure why anyone at my school thinks I’m a responsible enough human being to take care of a large group of other human beings, but I chose not to question it.
So instead of dragging myself through the polluted streets of chilly, rainy Bogotá, I spent two days frolicking in pools and water slides with my generally well-behaved children, shocking them with the fact that yes, I actually do speak Spanish (surprise!) and yelling at them to stay in their damn rooms and for the love of god please just go to bed (I never said that I slept at any point during this trip. I didn’t).
Being with these awesome kids for two days straight made me remember some of the things that I love so much about this work, and what a huge role my students have played in making this year such a positive experience. On Thursday night we had a bonfire outside, and we did an activity where everyone had an opportunity to speak to their peers about things that have been difficult or positive about this year. I went last, and after hearing the sweet, insightful and often very emotional things my students had to say, all I had to tell them was how much I love them and how important they are to me. They are the reason that I’m excited to come to school every day, and they’re the reason that all of the inconveniences and frustrations that come with working at this school and in this system are worth it. I’m already upset that I’m going to have to say goodbye to them in three months, but I’m trying not to think about it for now.
The two-day vacation was a fantastic opportunity for both fun (Riding the longest water slide in Latin America! Going headfirst through a dark tunnel on a water toboggan! Watching my students throw each other in the pool! Frolicking on playground equipment like a little kid! Not having to wear sleeves!) and reflection (oh my god I love these kids so much how can I ever leave them?). Even though it’s over now and I’m back in my cloudy, scheduled reality, at least I still have the memories (and 75 itchy, torturous bug bites on my legs) to remind me.
Earlier this week, I realized that in all the excitement about zipping around Boyacá and waxing eloquent (and photographic) about all the delicious pastries I consumed in Villa de Leyva, I never actually spent any time talking about the place itself. My bad.
So! Let’s talk a bit about Villa de Leyva, because it may very well be my favorite place so far in Colombia — at the least, it’s a hell of a strong front-runner. Villa is a small-ish town in Boyacá, which those of you paying attention will recall is the department just to the northeast of Cundinamarca, the department in which one can find Bogotá (and me!). As I’ve mentioned before, Boyacá is generally known as one of the more traditional departments, filled with lots of small towns that specialize in something like ceramics or bricks or cheese, and people in hats and ruanas (wool ponchos) to keep off the mountain chill. Boyacá is what comes to mind when people say the word tranquilo — it’s all small plazas and colonial churches and women selling obleas from a small wooden table by the side of the road.
As the best-known (at least to non-religious tourists) village of Boyacá, Villa de Leyva is a little bit of a special case. Nestled up against a range of green mountains and straddling the edge of the mountain-desert divide in a valley that once was a vast prehistoric lake, Villa de Leyva couldn’t be more photogenic if it tried. Everywhere you look are pine trees or cacti or beautiful flowering plants, often all within about 100 yards of each other. It’s impossible to cross two streets without someone approaching to offer horseback rides or a hike. The place is filled with opportunities for other low-key outdoorsy activities like hiking, biking or swimming in the occasional waterfall. The desert sky is clearer and bluer than it is in Bogotá, which makes the town the ideal setting for their annual Festival de las Cometas (Kite Festival), a hugely and internationally popular event taking place this weekend. The only way to improve upon the scenery in Villa de Leyva would be to fill it with hundreds of intricate, beautiful kites.
But it’s not just about the natural beauty of the place, although that’s pretty overwhelming. The town itself, as with most Colombian towns, is fairly small: a central plaza, a few calles going this way, a few carreras going that way. But that plaza, Plaza Mayor, is something to write home about — a sprawling cobblestone expanse lined with hotels, restaurants and one 300-year-old church, it’s the biggest central plaza in Colombia and one of the largest in all of Latin America. Needless to say, most of the activity of the town centers around this plaza, from the excellent restaurants on various corners to the radiating streets where wandering tourists can buy everything from alpaca scarves to candy to leather bags that look like they just came off the cow. There’s often a stage set up for events in the center of the plaza, and there’s almost always something going on: when we were there, we witnessed a visiting Venezuelan symphonic orchestra, a poncho fashion show featuring elementary-school girls, a performance of Pacific Coast dance and a concert. As befits its position as the heart and soul of the town, the plaza fills up at night with a combination of locals and tourists, who sprawl across the steps of the church to eat ice cream, share a few beers or just watch their children race around throwing glowsticks at each other. People-watching doesn’t get any better.
I’m no architect, but even I could appreciate the loveliness of the buildings. Everything in the town looks like it was frozen 200 years ago — all white walls and green trim, with porches filled with hammocks and clustered flowers. Plus, all of the streets are cobblestone, which those of us from Boston know is hell on walking if you’re not careful (or stupid enough to wear heels. Remember, we are in Colombia), but also means that cars traveling through town have to crawl at about 10 mph to avoid causing any serious damage. This might be the Colombian town where you’re least likely to be killed by a car.
And don’t even get me started on the food. My friends and I usually subscribe to the “as many things from a cart as possible” school of dining, but we spoiled ourselves a bit in Villa de Leyva, and I couldn’t be happier that we did. Along our gastronomic path, we discovered (not one, but) two vegetarian restaurants, actual salads (few and far between here in Colombia), a place that served both pizza and sangria, the best almond croissants in South America, a bakery specifically for cookies, and some pretty good eggs. We barely made a dent in all of the town’s tasty offerings, though, so obviously a return trip is in order.
But wait, there’s more! Remember how I mentioned the former prehistoric-ness of the whole space? Well, we all know what prehistoric implies, don’t we? That’s right: Villa de Leyva was once home to my second-graders’ favorite animal: DINOSAURS. Sadly, there are not currently any more of the beasts ranging around (as far as we know….), but there is a pretty excellent tribute to their presence, in the form of the small, bright yellow Museo El Fosil, a short drive out of down. For the low, low price of about $4 mil, one can enter and gawk at the complete (or at least it looks that way) remains of a Kronosaurus — a large, toothed aquatic creature (yes, that’s our very own local Kronosaurus smiling at you from the Wikipedia entry). Obviously I could happily have stayed in the museum for a long time, attempting to commune with the beasts, but how could I stay away from all of the other gorgeous sights in Villa de Leyva?
Our three days there weren’t nearly enough time to enjoy everything the place has to offer — so it’s a good thing we’re already planning a return trip in November! In the meantime, I’ll have to content myself with ogling these photographs until I’m back in the reality.
Marginally competent dancer. Victory!!
We have a four-day weekend starting tomorrow, and I’m heading off to the hot southwestern city of Cali tonight to attend my first ever Colombian wedding on Sunday! I’m intensely excited about it, and I’m sure I’ll be reporting back next week with all sorts of fun details about the marital festivities here. Cali is also renowned as the salsa capital of Colombia, which is more than a little intimidating, since everyone knows weddings = dancing. I guess I’ll come back either as a marginally competent dancer, or having embarrassed myself terribly in front of a lot of Colombians in fancy clothes. Either way, there should be some good stories! See y’all on Monday night!
About 12 years ago, my mother began refusing to take me with her to bookstores except on very specific occasions, because I have this unfortunate habit wherein I attempt to read and/or buy almost the entire contents of the store (obviously disregarding any Dan Brown or Twilight books), and taking roughly three hours to do so. I have yet to grow out of this — and honestly have no intention of doing so anytime soon. It’s part of my eccentric charm, dammit! — so you can imagine how I felt about a week ago, when the Feria Internacional del Libro (International Book Fair, or Filbo, if you’re on a first-name basis) came to town.
I’m going to preface this whole post by clarifying that my idea of heaven is a room filled with books. Okay, and a freezer for ice cream. And Joseph Gordon-Levitt to read said books to me. But for the moment, let’s stick with the books. I could (and have) happily spend basically all day in a library or bookstore, trying to absorb as much as possible before I’m forced to leave. However, the Filbo, which was held at Corferias — a lovely outdoor conference complex with various pavilions, fountains and people selling all manner of tasty snacks — was more than a room filled with books. It was about the equivalent of 500 rooms filled with books, and that’s not even getting into the exhibits, artists’ booths, auditoriums for speakers and the fake Iron Throne (why aren’t you watching Game of Thrones right now??), strategically placed for photos ops right outside one of the publishing house display rooms. [Sadly, I do not have a photo of myself there, since it was dark/there was a long line, but once I conquer Westeros for myself, I'll have no shortage of opportunities to document it.]
Needless to say, I went three times — with rather diminishing returns, if we’re being honest, but it’s not like a complex filled with words could be anything less than glorious. I’ve been to a few book fairs in my life, both at home in Boston and one glorious time in Buenos Aires, when I got to chat with the fantastic, totally charming Junot Díaz (but that’s a different story), and I have to say the Bogotá one does a pretty good job of holding its own, give or take. Obviously, I only saw a small slice of it, as there was just an overwhelming amount of things to absorb there, but I think it did the city pretty proud. Brazil, not so much, but we’ll get to that.
The fair had already been here for over a week by the time I finally made it down, and I was already feeling like a terrible, guilty person for ignoring it for so long. Unfortunately, sometimes life gets in the way of gallivanting around unfamiliar neighborhoods of Bogotá in search of literary inspiration. But Jonathan Safran Foer was speaking on Saturday afternoon, and the prospect of getting to hear a real, live author talk about writing! in English! was simply too much to resist. I made it there, covered in rain (further proof why I should never leave the house without my umbrella) and about 15 minutes late, and stumbled into a gorgeous auditorium about 3/4 full of people, all intently listening, many through headphones playing the Spanish translation.
Being one of the few people who can understand a non-translated presentation, whether it’s a speaker or a movie, is always kind of an amusing experience, what with the delayed reaction times. Whenever Safran Foer said something funny, I would be one of the few people laughing immediately — then, a few seconds later, when the translation caught up, the rest of the room would chuckle. I probably sounded like a crazy weirdo, but that’s nothing new for me.
I don’t have much to say about the talk — it was nice just to hear someone talking about writing, but to be perfectly honest, he came off as kind of a dick, which wasn’t unexpected, but it would’ve been nice for one of the few Americans there to make a slightly less pretentious impression. Then again, American fiction writers named Jonathan haven’t exactly been known for being modest or particularly charming lately, so I suppose it’s nothing new.
I had better luck the next day, when I headed back (in sunlight this time!) to meet up with a few other volunteers. I’ve always treated book time as alone time, or Alone With Characters time, so it was definitely a bit of a challenge not being able to wander the shelves on my own schedule. Honestly, it was a challenge just trying not to lose anyone in the huge Sunday crowds, particularly in the packed, overheated pavilion containing artists, anime booths, comic vendors, caricaturists and other design products. Apparently the people of Bogotá are big fans of cartoons. Really the only part of the pavilion worth mentioning was a certain booth called Ollivander’s — selling all kinds of Harry Potter and even Hunger Games memorabilia, natch. I might have considered buying something, if I’d been able to get within five feet of it.
For my third day (in a row, might I mention), I managed to finagle an invitation to go along with my school’s Spanish/literature teachers and about 90 students on Monday morning. There was no real reason for me to go, honestly, other than that I thought it would be fun and it was a chance to hang out with my awesome kids outside of school. Again, this field trip just reminded me the difference between Colombian and American teenagers — the kids could not have been more polite, well-behaved, orderly and (almost all) on time. The morning was a bit of a whirlwind, racing from an exhibit to the aforementioned art pavilion (rather less crowded this time, although the kids obviously still made a beeline right for the Harry Potter and Hunger Games stuff. Because they’re smart) to a somewhat underwhelming author’s talk, where the kids did their best not to fall asleep or look at all their purchases.
One of the other teachers and I also stopped by the Invited Country of Honor pavilion — each year, another country is specially invited to showcase its literature, art and culture, with its own pavilion and various events. This year, the country was Brazil, and honestly, it was pretty disappointing, especially considering the amazing range of cultures and artists in Brazil. I’m not sure whether it was the fault of the organizers or the vendors, but where the other book pavilions were brightly-lit, jam-packed mosh pits of literature, the Brazil pavilion was open, dark and had a surprisingly small number of books. The design of the space was gorgeous, with all these three-foot-tall letters made of wood and beautiful photographs hanging from the ceiling, but it looked more like a museum exhibit than a celebration of literature. All I’m saying is, when I am promised books, I expect books, dammit.
In the end, though, there were more than enough of those to go around. Now I just have to figure out how I’m going to fit them into my suitcase, come December.
In the meantime, the final tally, for those of you who are math people:
Visits to book fair: 3
Books purchased: 4, plus one notebook. This demonstrates highly impressive willpower on my part, since I usually find all notebooks utterly irresistible. I think I like the idea that someday I will fill up all those pages. Even though I won’t.
Cups of mango with lime, salt and pepper consumed: 2
Discussions held in Spanish about the works of David Foster Wallace: 1
Books accidentally knocked over: 2. Also maybe a new record low for me.
Umbrellas forgotten: 1
Plus a few more photos, each worth 1000 words: