Emilse y Yo
After three days, including one cancelled flight, I finally made it to the last continent on my world tour, starting in Bogota, Colombia. Luckily it´s been a week since my journey so I no longer care to complain about some of the hassles I dealt with in LAX, but being on U.S. soil was strange and a bit depressing really. I think I glimpsed what I will feel like when my trip comes to an end.
But here I am, still on the road and glad for it! A good friend´s brother´s fiance named Emilse lives in Bogota, although she is working on getting a green card and moving to Minnesota soon. She greeted me at the airport (where I was barked at for not speaking Español), along with her English teacher, and off we went.
She lives with her family, including her father, mother, sister and son, brother and wife and their son. It is not unusual for families to live together in the same house, with everyone working and helping out the entire family. Anyway, they live in the northern suburbs of Bogota in a house above a bread shop. Emilse gave me her room while I stayed with her family. The Colombians are very hospitable people and I hurt for nothing during my stay. I wasn´t even allowed to pay for anything. They fed me huge meals and Emilse took me all around the city. We had such fun together. She is a doll, and I´m happy she will be moving to the States.
Thomas, Emilse´s nephew and a real cutie
The old part of town in Bogota, called La Candelaria, reminded me of a European city, including having a central square.
The architecture is amazing. Inside some of the buidings you can see the large wood beams and the colors on the outside are so rich. We took a funicular up to Cerro de Monserrate, a 3160 meter peak that is home to a church and provides a great lookout for the city. Incidentally, Bogota itself is about 2600 meters above sea level (the third highest capital in S. America) and the temperture was very cool. I so enjoyed needing to wear my fleece again at night. Emilse and I also toured some museums, including one that featured works by Botero, a famous painter/sculptor from here. You can easily recognize his work by his unique style of painting all his figures as very fat (gordo). I also tried many foods, including a soup called ajiaco that has chicken, corn and potatoes.
Emilse and family, from left, her father, sister-in-law, brother, mother, and little Thomas
Chicken is a main feature in many of the dishes here. I also tried chicha, a thick, alcoholic brew made out of something I can´t remember, and another alcoholic tea-like drink with spices. Both were tasty. Emilse´s family fed me so much I needed to leave Bogota just to contain how much weight I´d gain from my visit!
Emilse overlooking Bogota
Aside from all the usual attractions, the main highlight was staying with Emilse´s family. They were so friendly and welcoming. I must admit at first I was very nervous. I took Spanish in undergrad some ten years ago now, so I am not completely unfamiliar with the language, but talk about crash course. Emilse speaks some English, but her family does not, and a few times she had to go to work, leaving me to piece together conversations.
So I spent a lot of time at the kitchen table with my books and they with theirs, each of us trying to put sentences together to create a dialogue. I actually remember more than I expected but I have a long way to go. For the first time on my trip, speaking the local language is a must. In other countries, I was usually spoken to in English, and I never felt guilty about only speaking English. Learning to say hello, thank you, good bye was usually sufficient. However, here I have a guilt complex about not being fluent in Spanish, maybe because everyone comes up to me and starts carrying on in Spanish, and most of the other travelers even speak Spanish. I´ve been yelled at in Spanish a few times, usually by Latinas. Not sure what that is about. It´s definitely the most challenging travel for me thus far. It is forcing me to learn quickly, though, and I can actually understand a lot more than I expected.
Thomas and Diego. Diego is another nephew and he is learning some English in school.
Emilsé´s family in their home
The other challenge here is safety. I think most people picture drugs and violence when they think of Colombia, but the current president has done a lot in the way of changing that image. I actually feel quite safe, owing to the fact there are police on every corner. The men are required to serve for one year after high school in the police force. They stand in pairs on the corners and are on motorbikes and just strolling everywhere. There are also civilians on motorbikes with colored vests on that are also apparently security. They follow the public buses and just patrol the streets. Despite all this extra security, Emilse was constantly reminding me of the dangers of Bogota. She´s had jewelry stolen off of her before.
Some of the ATMs are rigged to take your cards, so she showed me how to test that the ATM was safe. One morning we spent an hour over breakfast trying to figure out how I was going to get home from the center of town (a 30 minute taxi ride). Emilse needed to head to work from the center, so I would have to take a taxi alone back. I´d already witnessed one taxi driver try to give her back the incorrect change, and the other concern was that I would get taken on a city tour rather than to my destination. You´d think after traveling this long I would´ve thought of this one myself, but Emilse came up with the plan for me to go to a hotel and use their fleet of taxis. In the end I had no problems getting back.
Emilse enjoying some Chicha
There are reasons to be on guard, so I travel with very little money and watch my bag very carefully.
Having said that, Colombia is not unique to this problem. Getting your stuff stolen is a concern in every city, even my home town. There are parts of Colombia you just don´t go, though. A big chunk of the southeast is off limits. It´s mostly jungle and inhabited by FARC, the armed revolutionary forces of Colombia, the largest leftist guerrilla group in the country. I plan to stay well clear of the off-limits parts, so I should be fine. I already traveled overland here and there are many check points and police along the roads as well. I guess traveling in a place with so much potential danger is a little off-putting, but judging by what I´ve seen so far, it is worth the risk (a small risk at that).
School children posing for a picture while they enjoy an after school snack
Aside from the language barrier, safety concerns, and wishing I were a guy, Colombia has been great! The latter issue has been a problem many places, notably Turkey, Egypt and India, but here I can understand the comments men make to me as I walk by because for once they speak to me in English! Anyway, I had a nice break from it in SE Asia, so the frustration of traveling as a solo female, with blonde hair and blues eyes, has been renewed.
I´ve only been on my own here a few days so the shell will harden again.
On the roof of Emilsé´s home - her street is always so quiet although she says it is not safe at night
So now I am actually in Cartagena, a town on the Caribbean coast and apparently where they filmed Romancing the Stone. It is hot and humid here, but the town has great character. The bus journey took almost 24 hours, so I plan to sit tight a few days and relax in the Carribean atmosphere. The bus was very nice actually, and the companies list how many deaths, injuries and accidents they´ve had recently to help you choose which one to go with. How nice of them!
Now off to go butcher the Spanish language some more as I order lunch somewhere…