Gallinazo: Week 228

A man on horseback in Gallinazo: Caldas, Colombia

Gallinazo is a vereda, a very small rural town, on the outskirts of Manizales. If it weren’t for the nearby hot springs, it probably wouldn’t be on anyone’s map.

However, given its fortuitous location, Gallinazo is a popular weekend destination for traditional Colombian food. Of the three or so streets in the entire vereda, one is almost entirely dedicated to restaurants.

At the foot of town was a dessert stand. I knew we’d come to the right place because the vendor had the teeth of someone who has enjoyed a lifetime of sugary treats.

The arequipe was soft and delicious. It’s similar to caramel, but not as sticky or as thick. Arequipe can be enjoyed on its own or on top of something traditional like cooked figs. There were also several different versions of postre de natal, which is made by boiling milk and then continually skimming off the foam. The foam is collected in another cup and when it cools it almost has the texture of a rice pudding.

After starting the day with a healthy dose of dessert, we picked a popular restaurant for an early lunch. The food was delicious, but I made the mistake of ordering Bandeja Paisa. It is a regional dish that has steak, sausages, chicharrón, red beans, rice, plantains, a fried egg, an avocado, and an arepa. It is also often preceded by a bowl of soup. The food is great- but the sheer quantity of it is staggering. Barret and I once shared a smaller version of this dish and the two of us together couldn’t finish it. I don’t know what I was thinking; I need to start asking for a different dish.

Around about the time we finished lunch, Gallinazo was beginning to fill up with day trippers. Sunday morning brunch is not a popular concept, perhaps because of church, but lunch is king. And what better way to enjoy a meal than out in the country with a train of horses clip-clopping down the street?

How to get to Gallinazo from Manizales: At the intersection of Avenida Kevin Angel & Calle 69, catch a buseta in the direction of the Termales (hot springs).

Salento & Valle de Cocora: Week 227

View of Carrera 6 in Salento: Colombia

Colombia has a lot of three-day weekends. They are called puentes, which means bridges, and when my first one came up I leapt at the opportunity to get out of town.

So early Saturday morning Barret was squished in the back of a small buseta while I sat next to a woman in a blue cardigan and torn jeans. Ten minutes into the trip she pulled out a multi-colored rosary and began crossing herself every time we passed a church, went over a bridge, or stopped at a tollbooth.

She got off at a bus station in Pereira and on the way out of the parking lot I noticed a glass display case with the Virgin Mary holding a baby Jesus. It made me wonder who decided that was the right pose for a bus station statue.

It was mid-afternoon when Barret and I arrived in Salento. We ate at a restaurant overlooking the most popular and photographic street in the city- Carrera 6.

Architectural detail in Salento: Colombia

Only after our stomachs were full did we start the search for accommodation. The first guesthouse we visited was on the outskirts of town. The garden was filled with toys and sunflowers and the foyer was actually a living room with an overstuffed couch. It was an odd juxtaposition of private versus public.

The place was completely booked though, and the only thing they could offer was a tent on the porch with a thick sleeping pad and some blankets. Barret and I declined, but after a disparaging walk around the city, we quickly realized that the tent was our only option. If there is anything I have learned from traveling on a puente weekend, it’s that reservations are imperative.

We spent the first half of the evening watching a very untalented caricature artist and the second half in a small cafe listening to excellent live music. We weren’t in a rush to make it back to the tent, but when we eventually did, we slept well. The only exception being the return of a group of drunk Colombian tourists. Upon seeing a row of tents on the patio, one of the guys yelled out. Look at those gringos! What are they thinking?! 

Horses outside the trail head of Valle de Cocora: Salento, Colombia

The following morning Barret and I woke up very early to begin our hike to Valle de Cocora. From the main square in Salento, we caught a jeep to the trailhead. There was an option to hire horses, but Barret and I decided to walk the whole circuitous route.

Valle de Cocora: Salento, Colombia

Valle de Cocora is famous for its sweeping views of the wax palms- Colombia’s national tree. This is in no small part thanks to the herds of grazing cattle that nibble all the vegetation around the wax palms. The trees are already slender and insanely tall, but when viewed unobstructed, they are even more impressive.

Rutted trail through the Valle de Cocora: Salento, Colombia

Bridge crossing in the Valle de Cocora: Salento, Colombia

Several hours into the hike we stopped at the Aicame Natural Reserve. It was a small hummingbird sanctuary located at the end of a seemingly never-ending ascent. There was a fee to enter the reserve, but it included a beverage. We also discovered that the reserve had a very basic but insanely cheap lodge. Beds were available for something like 10,000 pesos (USD$5) and the cost included food!

Hummingbirds at the Acaime Natural Reserve: Valle de Cocora, Colombia

We weren’t prepared to rough it another night, so after viewing all the hummingbirds we double-backed and continued walking the full circuit. An hour or so later the trail came to a head at a lookout point named Finca La Montaña.

The lookout point had a flower garden and a small building with a covered porch. An open door led from the porch into a small dark kitchen where a woman was making traditional Colombian hot chocolate over a wood-burning stove.

Woman making hot chocolate at the Finca la Montana: Valle de Cocora, Colombia

In its raw form, the chocolate comes in hard blocks that are dissolved inside a metal jug. Once prepared, the hot chocolate is served with a thick slice of queso campesino (a soft, spongy, and slightly salty cheese).

Hot chocolate and cheese at Finca la Montana: Valle de Cocora, Colombia

I was initially reluctant to drop cheese into my hot chocolate, but it actually tasted delicious. The cheese softened and the saltiness balanced well against the sweetness of the chocolate. I felt like that was a good metaphor for the weekend- the salty frustration of lugging our backpacks around town in search of a room was tempered by the charm of the city and the beauty of the valley. Having the one makes you appreciate the other so much more.

How to get to Salento: Direct buses are available from the bus stations in Armenia and Pereira.

First Week at SENA: Week 226

Happy 58th birthday SENA: Manizales, Colombia

Now that I have been at teaching at my center for a few weeks, I can look back on the first week with wisdom. A few observations on teaching at SENA, a technical college in Colombia:

The cafeteria is awesome. I might almost be 30, but picking a seat in a cafeteria still dredges up old anxieties. When I was younger it was all about having the cool friends to sit with. Now that I am older, it is finding the perfect empty table.

There is only one cafeteria at school and for this reason it can be quite busy during the middle of the day. During my first week I happened to see a long queue snaking outside the cafeteria and decided I was better off finding an alternative location. Outside the school gate was a food cart that I had never tried, so I decided it was as good a time as any to give it a go.

They were selling arepas (kind of like a corn pancake), which I love, so I ordered one and rounded off my meal with a cup of salpicón (fruit cocktail). The salpicón was refreshing, but the arepa was a bit of a shock. It ended up being served with a paper-thin meat patty, covered with an inch of sauce, and sprinkled with potato chips. It was the worst thing I had ever tasted. I was not disappointed when a bug happened to land on my food and then promptly drowned in the sauce.

Since then I have gone to the cafeteria for all my meals and it never disappoints. For roughly USD $1.80 a meal comes with juice, a bowl of soup, meat, rice, salad, potato/plantain, arepa, and a small desert. And you know what? If all the tables are taken, it just means it’s a good time to practice some Spanish.

The students clean the room. The school does have janitors, but students are expected to clean the room just before class ends. They sweep the floor, tidy up, wipe down the desks, and empty the trashcans. On Wednesdays and Fridays they are also supposed to mop. All this responsibility makes me feel like I had it easy when I was a student.

Happy 58th Birthday function at SENA: Manizales, Colombia

Classroom supplies. I had been warned that there could be very few supplies available, so I was quite happy to realize that 5/6 of my classes had computers and internet in the classroom. Another thing I was warned about was the lack of classroom space. While this has been a problem for other SENA teachers, I have been lucky enough to have no classroom-availability drama. The biggest downfall- there are absolutely no books for any of my English classes.

My specific department within SENA, Automatización, also has an equipment office. This is where I go to checkout laptops and cables, pick up print jobs, and find someone to unlock my classrooms. Most importantly, this is where I learn all my palabras groseras. Those are the words you don’t say in front of your colleagues. I learned this the hard way.

Adults are just as demanding as children. A full day of teaching kindergarten was exhausting and I kind of had this idea that technical college would be easier. I quickly realized though that while the type of work is different, the quantity is identical. Kindergarteners are so easily distracted by a song, dance, a crayon, or a funny voice that if the lesson is a bit half-baked, it’s not the end of the world.

Young adults, on the other hand, don’t think twice before telling you they would like to, “go to the home.” They have so many more opinions, “emergencies”, and cell phone distractions.

I spend a lot of time thinking about my lesson plans at home and coming up with creative ways to keep their attention. The upside to the extra effort though is that my students are a ton of fun. I hope to be the kind of teacher that they enjoy working with and if, at the end of the day, they think learning English is enjoyable, then I’ve done my job.

Apartment Hunting in Colombia: Week 225

View of the apartment in Manizales, Colombia

After six weeks of living out of my backpack, I wanted to find an apartment in Manizales as soon as possible. Initially I began the search online, however I quickly realized that what worked in Sydney doesn’t work the whole world over. Should you find yourself looking for an apartment in Colombia, these are my observations:

Online options suck: The most success I had was from walking through an area I liked and taking photos of all the ‘For rent’ signs in the windows. There were many more options on the streets than there were online, and unlike Sydney, there was no shortage of affordable and available places.

Contact: Whatsapp is the most popular method of contact in Colombia. This is especially good news if your Spanish is a bit rough and the thought of talking to someone on the phone makes you anxious. If I could have arranged my internet service through Whatsapp, I wouldn’t have needed speaker phone and the assistance of two Une employees.

View from the apartment in Manizales, Colombia

Empty properties: All of the properties I saw from the street were empty. While I thought it was strange that landlords would prefer to have gaps between rentals, I figured this worked to my advantage. First of all, people with empty properties want them filled ASAP. And second of all, I wouldn’t have to worry about people viewing my apartment while I was still in it- awesome! The last time I had a property viewing, a group of people walked in just as I got out of the shower.

Also, when I say empty, I mean empty. You have to bring your own light bulbs when you move in. This was especially ironic to me because my previous landlord had wanted to charge me $110 dollars to replace three burnt out light bulbs.

Paperwork: Oddly enough, I was not asked for a deposit. Come to think of it, none of the online listings had ever mentioned a deposit either.

Once I had found an apartment, the landlord and I went to a papelería (office supply shop), bought a rental agreement, filled it out, and then went to the notary around the corner for the official purple stamps and fingerprints.

Inside the apartment in Manizales, Colombia

Furniture: Because the apartment was completely empty, Barret and I had a hard time deciding how well to furnish it. Eventually we settled on a minimalistic approach, which is just a nicer way of saying empty and cheap. I ordered a mattress over the phone and when I asked the salesman if he thought it would be suitable for two, he advised that I upgrade to the wooden leg posts. They were more ‘secure’.

We also decided that we could live without a fridge. That might sound a little crazy, but when we eat out, the meals come with so much meat that it’s nice to be vegetarian at home. There is a grocery store across the street, so it’s easy to buy fresh vegetables and fruit every few days.

The hardest decision we made was to do the washing by hand. The closest laundromat would have been pricey and we definitely didn’t want to buy a machine. I had heard about a rental service, but it wouldn’t have been convenient- the machine is delivered and installed one day and then picked up the next! Even if we did wash everything at once, there is nowhere to dry it all.

Six weeks in and so far so good. With views like this, it’s totally worth doing small daily batches of laundry.

View from the apartment in Manizales, Colombia

Mi Tierra & The Botero Museum: Week 224

Entrance to Mi Tierra: Bogotá, Colombia

Mi Tierra is reached via a long hall lined with vintage posters and punctuated with a neon sign. Unlike the bars on the other side of the church square, there was no one waiting outside to hustle you in. And unless you knew about the bar, the inability to see into the venue from the sidewalk might be a bit dissuasive.

Luckily Tiffany, one of my colleagues, was in the know. She rounded up a large group of people from our training program and we set out on foot for the Chapinero venue. It was about ten o’clock when we arrived only to discover a metal gate blocking the entrance. Our hearts sank.

Someone rattled the gate and called down the hall. A minute or two passed without a sign of movement and then we heard footsteps approaching. It was Arturo, the owner.

Mi amor,” he affectionately called out to Tiffany. “¿Cómo estás?

Stuffed dog decoration inside Mi Tierra: Bogotá, Colombia

Of course the bar was open. Come in, come in. I wasn’t quite sure if they had opened up just for us, or if they just kept the gate closed when the venue wasn’t busy. It kind of seemed like in Bogotá, if there were enough people, anything could be reopened.

Interior of Mi Tierra: Bogotá, Colombia

During the day, Mi Tierra was an antique shop. There were no windows, so the musty smell of second hand goods filled the room. Some of the items were displayed while the rest were pushed aside to make space for the small dance floor and six tables. The most accessible items around the dance floor were wigs, hats, instruments, a wheelchair, and a small crocodile statue.

A crocodile statue and the dance floor at Mi Tierra: Bogotá, Colombia

Props and the dance floor at Mi Tierra: Bogotá, Colombia

Props and the dance floor at Mi Tierra: Bogotá, Colombia

Props and the dance floor at Mi Tierra: Bogotá, Colombia

We sat down at the largest table, the one with a vintage hairdryer, and began ordering drinks. Many bars rush you to order, but it almost felt like it was an afterthought for Arturo. “Tranquila,” he advised me when I wasn’t sure what I wanted or even how to say it. Take it easy.

Ordering drinks at Mi Tierra: Bogotá, Colombia

Out of nowhere a birthday cake appeared for Arturo’s partner. We all sang happy birthday in English and then in Spanish. After the candles were blown out, Arturo grabbed the microphone for a heartfelt serenade.

A birthday celebration at Mi Tierra: Bogotá, Colombia

The fact that such a large group of foreigners were invited in for a small birthday celebration just goes to show how friendly everyone was. While I had met a lot of nice people so far, it was the first time I felt such a generous ‘welcome’ in Colombia. If I’m ever back in Bogotá, you know where I will be.

The bar at Mi Tierra: Bogotá, Colombia

On my last day in Bogotá, three colleagues and I went to the touristy neighborhood of La Candelaria. It is one of the most historic neighborhoods in the city and many of the buildings are beautifully preserved.

Our first stop was at the Plaza de Bolívar. It dates back to 1539 when it was first called the Plaza Mayor. Nowadays, it is a massive paved area that fronts the Catedral Primada and the Capitolio Nacional (Nation’s Capital). The plaza usually attracts more people on the weekend, but this Saturday it had two strikes against it: it was raining and Colombia was set to play that afternoon in the Copa América.

El Presidente, 1997: Botero Museum, Bogotá

El Presidente, 1997

Just down the street was the Botero Museum. It was founded in 2000 with the donation of 203 artworks from Fernando Botero himself. More than half of the art was his own work, while the rest was that of international artists like Calder and Bacon. Not only was it a priceless collection, but it was also free to the public.

Mujer delante de una ventana, 1990: Botero Museum, Bogotá

Mujer delante de una ventana, 1990

While the international art collection was great, I was really there for Botero. His inflated figures are both fascinating in form and grotesque for the greed they represent.  Their fleshy figures devour their clothing and their small eyes sink into their faces, like raisins in pudding.

I could have spent all day La Candelaria looking at national treasures. However, some of the most important Colombian things can’t be found in a museum; they can only be found on a big screen TV. It was time to head back to the hotel to watch the Copa América.

Guerrilla de Eliseo Velásquez, 1988: Botero Museum, Bogotá

Guerrilla de Eliseo Velásquez, 1988

How to get to Mi Tierra: Calle 63 #11-47 (In front of Parque Lourdes), Chapinero, Bogotá

How to get to the Botero Museum: Calle 11 #4-41, Bogotá

Hombre con Perro: Botero Museum, Bogotá

Hombre con Perro, 1989

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