Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Colombian Time

When I lived in Italy, I often joked with my classmates and friends about Italian Time.  Italians are never in a rush to get anywhere (unless they are driving; it's a whole different story on the roads), which is a wonderful thing if you are lost and stop to ask someone for directions.  This happened to me many times in my travels, and no matter what they were doing, nor how far out of their own way it would take them, I found that Italians would almost always escort me to my destination rather than just giving me directions. Sometimes it is not so wonderful: if you make a plan to meet with someone, you are a fool if you don't anticipate that they will be at least 30-45 minutes late.  They won't apologise or make excuses, either.  They will just stroll up and greet you as if they were perfectly punctual.  Being an Italian, myself, I am almost never on time, so I grew to appreciate the casual, "va bene" attitude with which the people viewed tardiness.  Late for class? Va bene; the professor is late, too, and probably still finishing his espresso down at the café.  Trying to catch a train?  Va bene; sometimes you can arrive 10 minutes after the official Departure Time and still get a seat.  Sometimes the trains don't run at all, and sometimes the train you got onto that said it was going to one place was actually going somewhere else, and they just hadn't thought to inform you of the change. Va bene.

Colombians are similar to Italians in this temporally challenged respect.  Unlike Italians, they are generally apologetic for their lateness, but what is even more amusing is that, more often than not, they lie about it.  For example, let's say you are supposed to meet a friend for dinner at 6, but at 6:30 there is no sign of them.  By 6:45 you are worried, so you call.  They will inevitably tell you that they are "just five minutes away," and that the "traffic was worse than they thought."  Now, in Bogotá, the traffic is always worse than you think.  It's just plain awful, and there is no way around it, so people are happy to give some leeway in that respect.  However, Maurizio says that when a Colombian tells you they are "five minutes away," it really means they have not yet left home, and they are counting on your lack of accurate time perception to cover their delay.  Of course, when they finally do arrive twenty minutes later, they will complain loudly once more about the traffic, and then you will have your dinner and all will be forgotten.

Friends aren't the only ones who are late.  The day our furniture was due to be delivered, we were told it would arrive between 12 and 1 p.m. We stayed in all day, and finally greeted the movers around 5 p.m.  One morning I was supposed to have a Skype meeting with one of my employers at 8:30 a.m., but at 8:15 I received an email saying she had to go out and would return around 10--she did apologise, but I was miffed because I had gotten up at 6 to shower, dress, and prepare for the meeting.  I was told by the human resources manager that I was going to be picked up at 10 a.m. the next day to go to Migración and apply for my cédula, which is an ID card that everyone must have in Colombia. Some time around 11:15 the driver arrived.  It is clear to me that, like in Italy, you have to be very flexible in Colombia and not make any plans that depend on precise timeliness.

We won't even talk about the lengthy process of applying for the cédula, which, if you are not prepared, will involve various comings and goings in order to procure properly-sized photos, photocopies of passports and visas, correct methods of payment, and even a blood test, after which you have to fill out the form (bring your own pen!!), stand in a queue, go upstairs to get digitally fingerprinted and photographed, sit in a waiting room for what seems an absurdly long time, and then get your passport back with instructions to check back in four business days to see if the ID card is ready.

It won't be. Va bene.

Saturday, July 19, 2014

Lady, Lady, Leidy

Yesterday was the first time I have been here when the cleaning lady came.  It seems as though everyone in Bogotá who can reasonably afford it (that is, everyone in the four upper strata of economic class) has an empleada servicio or muchacha who comes on a regular schedule to thoroughly clean their home, do their laundry, wash their dishes, and sometimes prepare their meals as well.  It was once emphasised to me that this is not because people here are lazy or unwilling to do the housework themselves, but because having such a person is good for the economy: for many of the people in the two lower strata, it is their only means of employment.  I am not sure whether this is the truth, or just a way to make oneself feel better for paying a girl less than $15 for a day's work.

I have never been really comfortable having someone else clean up my messes.  (Well, my mother would probably beg to differ, but I  don't mean the messes I made as a child!)  In Oxford I had to get used to a scout coming in a couple of times per week to clean the kitchen and bathroom and to empty the bins, but I always felt super uncomfortable just sitting there while he or she cleaned.  Sometimes, when I was home all day working on a paper, I would attempt to make chit-chat with one of them, but I never knew what to say beyond "good morning" or "how are you" or "quite the storm we had last night; it was tipping down when I got home! Sorry about the muddy tracks in the hallway…"

Man-eating spider, with toilet for size comparison
There was that one memorable morning when a scout saved me from a giant, vicious spider that appeared in the bathroom, chased me into the hallway, and was clearly attempting to eat me when I trapped it under a large plastic bowl, where it remained (with a note on top warning my housemate not to move the bowl under penalty of spider-induced, shrieking death) until I shanghaied Dmitri, the aforementioned scout, into removing it.  He intrepidly lifted the bowl, swept the monster into a dustpan, and carried it outside to be deposited in a bush some safe distance from my door.

Our cleaning lady here has not yet had a chance to rescue me from blood-thirsty fauna, but she did do an excellent job of cleaning and waxing the floors, scouring the bathrooms, washing all the dirty dishes in the kitchen, and vacuuming all of the upstairs carpets with our brand new vacuum.  She even helped me to practice my Spanish a bit, because I couldn't bear to sit at my computer and ignore her, but felt equally awkward standing in the kitchen just staring at her.  She is very sweet, and pleasant to talk to, and patient with me, like most people here are when I try to speak their language.  Her name is Leidy, which is pronounced just like "lady," and which caused some confusion and amusement when Maurizio called me by his usual English epithet ("my lady") and both she and I responded.  She is a little tiny thing, quite young, not much more than a girl, and she told me that she lives a good two hours from the city centre, which suggests that she inhabits one of the poorer barrios in the south.

I am told it is common for the cleaning lady to take meals with the family she is serving, especially if she has done the cooking.  We offered Leidy some arepas (corn pancakes) when we breakfasted, but she would not take any.  Later she accepted a cup of coffee, and after she had been here nearly four hours she let us share with her some (rather greasy) empanadas and (rather pulpy) orange juice and (rather dry) pain au chocolat. It was the best repast we could do for the moment, having very little fresh food around the house, though our refrigerator was finally delivered later in the afternoon, so I hope to do better in the future.

There is a good reason for the overalls
We probably won't have Leidy back for a couple of weeks, because we aren't quite that messy, and because we are trying to stick to a budget.  Then again, it is possible we can't afford her any more at all, after the exorbitant rate we were charged by the plumber who came to fix the sink after she had left.  He turned up (late, of course) in a leather jacket and swishy tracksuit bottoms, and had no tools with him.  The only thing that signified him as a plumber was the traditional exposed buttock cleavage when he leaned over the sink to examine it.  He did a bit of fiddling, and then he shoved the faucet in hard and twisted it down with his hands, which was exactly what Maurizio had done as a temporary fix when it first started to leak.  The whole process took about 5 minutes.  He then asked for 15,000 pesos.  Maurizio made a disbelieving sound, and the plumber lowered it to 10,000, which we paid, but after he left my boy was fuming. He seemed to think the job was only worth two or three thousand at most, and said that in a country like this the service industry is very cheap (for example, Leidy made only 30,000 for her day's labour in our house, and here this man had tinkered for a few minutes and demanded half of that).

Never mind that in the States you would have been charged a base rate of at least $50 just to get him to your house, plus a surcharge for any work or parts.  Never mind that that very evening we bought 20,000 worth of groceries for a homeless woman and her son on whom we took pity, or that we later paid over 100,000 pesos for a sushi dinner that was definitely not in the budget.  It is the principle of the thing.

Monday, July 14, 2014


When my boyfriend has been speaking a lot of Spanish (which is pretty natural when he is living in a Spanish-speaking country), he sometimes slips into a habit of pronouncing his English according to Spanish rules, and I find it hilarious.  He is perfectly capable of making the "J" sound, but this morning when he woke up and eagerly suggested we go "yogging" again, I could not help repeating the word as he had said it.  "You want to go yogging?"  And he didn't notice.  "Si, my lady!"  So we went.

This morning comprised the second attempt at yogging that Maurizio and I have made since I got here. The other was two days ago, and neither was a great success.  I am not much of a runner in general--as a rower, I like to say that I prefer to do my sport sitting down.  However, I am relatively athletic, and I had not noticed any strong symptoms from the change in altitude in the week that I had been here, so I thought I would be fine.  (Bogotá has an altitude of 2625 meters above sea level, which is about 8612 feet.  My home in New Jersey is, at its highest point, only 11 meters above sea level, or about 36 feet.)

Photo stolen from TripAdvisor; we don't run with cameras
We did not want to run by the roads, where the exhaust-belching buses and cabs would deprive us of oxygen, so we headed for the Parque Nacional, a quite large and pretty park full of playgrounds and tennis courts and walkways, but also a very hilly one, and a great favourite among skateboarders.  I was fine on the flat bits, but the moment we started mounting those hills, I felt the first pangs of altitude sickness.  First it was just shortness of breath, which I could have accounted for with lack of fitness, except that I had raced three times in a regatta a week and a half earlier, and had not felt this kind of lung-bursting oxygen depletion.  By the second incline I was breathing like a 90-year-old lifetime smoker with terminal emphysema.  My head and muscles ached, and I had a wretched feeling in my stomach, as if I had ingested poison.  I stopped, but Maurizio urged me on, so I attempted to tackle one more hill.  I couldn't make it even halfway up.  I slowed to a crawl, and trudged with my head down and my lungs heaving, my body very upset with me and occasionally trying to drown me by coating my throat with mucus.  It didn't subside quickly, either.  I had to stand there, panting, for a good five minutes before my breathing calmed enough for us to continue.  I didn't want to; I was almost crying from the awful feeling, but my partner was pushing me and my personal pride wouldn't let me give up.

We really didn't run for very long, and when we finally collapsed onto the grass for stretching and I was able to slow my pounding heart, I had the disconcerting sensation of being extremely exhausted while simultaneously feeling like I had hardly worked out at all.  The lengthy, uphill walk back to our flat was a good cool-down, though the final, steep road plus the stairs to the building were a bit painful.

Both that day and today I needed to eat and rehydrate immediately, and the best way to do the latter was to drink coca tea.  This all-natural beverage is made by steeping dried coca leaves in hot water, and it is a traditional method for defeating altitude sickness.  (Actually, the real tradition is to chew the leaves, but I prefer the tea!)  And before you ask, no, there is no cocaine in the tea, and it has no connection to cocaine other than that both substances come from the coca plant; however, one is produced by man via a chemical process and the other is the natural leaf, no more stimulating than a green tea leaf or a coffee bean.

Today's run was worse than Saturday's, because we went before breakfast, and I barely survived the first real incline.  Fortunately, Maurizio led us around the flatter areas for most of the run, and only included two hills in the middle. I let him go ahead and sprint those, while I made progress where I could.  I was embarrassed to see some guards watching me hyperventilate and hack my way around, but there was nothing I could do.  That awful sick feeling returned, and this time it didn't subside until long after we had returned home.  I am hoping that, with continued coca tea consumption and a few more of these runs, I will finally acclimate to the altitude.  Then we can tackle our next challenge: climbing Monserrate on foot, to a height of 3152 meters, or 10,341 feet.

Me after today's yog, but before coca tea

Friday, July 11, 2014

A Piggy for Pesos

Yesterday, Maurizio and I walked down the very steep hill atop which our building sits and did some grocery shopping at a local Éxito. We have to do this with relative frequency right now, because we are living without a refrigerator.  My school is meant to supply us with one, as well as a number of other appliances and pieces of furniture (part of their employment package, and an attempt to draw foreign teachers to the school by making it easy to relocate), but these will not arrive till 17 July at the earliest.  So, at the moment, our spacious apartment contains nothing but a table and two chairs, a mattress, and a small styrofoam cooler which we must half-fill with ice every two or three days to keep our cheese, milk, and the occasional chicken breast cold.  The boy has already done this for a month now, poor thing, and he is getting a bit tired of it.  For me, it is not all that terrible, though we have found ourselves eating a lot of eggs, bread, pasta, lentils, and other things that don't have to be refrigerated--but, as you can see from the photo, we also consume a lot of fruit!

The apartment remains cold, because there are no rugs or curtains to warm it up yet, and because the enormous windows that give us such a lovely view of the mountain and the adjacent university campus and let in so much daylight also let in the draughts and let out anything resembling heat (not that we have a heater).  There is a little fireplace, but we haven't got anything to burn at the moment, so we regularly spend our days at home wearing at least three layers apiece.  Aside from the picture of Oxford that I mentioned in my last post, which is still leaning against the wall in the bedroom, there is one decorative item in the house: a giant blue vase of long-stemmed red roses, which Maurizio had waiting for me upon arrival.  They have not wilted even slightly in the six days I have been here, a circumstance I attribute to the fact that it feels like a florist's display case in here, and they add some much-needed colour against the white walls.

In addition, since yesterday, we also have a new pet hanging around the house: a little piggy bank named Wilbur, which we purchased for 6,000 pesos (about $3) from a dapper old man with a snappy fedora, the proprietor of a blanket spread out on a street corner and topped with various bits of pottery.  Mostly piggy banks.

He's Some Pig.
Wilbur is a classic piggy bank--or alcancía en español--that is, not one of those modern pretty porcelain ones with a rubber-corked hole in the belly through which you can access your money, but a smiling sphere of continuous clay with only a tiny slit in the top through which to pop your pesos.  If you want to get the cash out of this cow (pig), you need to smash him with a hammer. (HAM-er!) I am told it is a very satisfying feeling, but I think it would take some dire financial straits to get me to do it, which is, of course, the point.  You aren't supposed to be willing to crack his cute little skull any time you need to top up your Transmilenio card; he is keeping that money safe for when you really need it.  I haven't been able to get a direct answer as to why there are so many piggy banks in Colombia (I saw them all over Cali as well as here in Bogotá), but as far as I can tell, the piggy bank is both a symbol of patience and perseverance, and an educational tool to teach Colombian children to save their money for a brighter future, rather than spending it on their immediate desires.  Sounds like a good idea to me!

Monday, July 7, 2014

A New Country

A new continent, too, if you grew up in the US and learned that North and South America are two separate continents.  And of course, a new language!  Hola todos, from Colombia!

View of Monserrate from my chair
I am here in Bogotá, where I spent this past February learning Spanish and getting accustomed to the area, because I knew that I would soon be moving here.  And now I have!  Three days ago I was with my family, complaining about the overbearing heat and humidity of the New Jersey summer, and now I am drinking hot tea and eating a mango as I watch the chilly morning mists rise up to encircle the 17th century church atop Monserrate.  Why on earth am I in Colombia, when what I have wanted since the day I left my beloved Oxford was to return there?  Well, there are two main reasons.

First, my boyfriend has taken a job as a titular professor at the Universidad Jorge Tadeo Lozano, and it looks like he will be here for a couple of years.  I had not found a permanent position in the US, and we were both tired of carrying on a long-distance relationship over Skype (internet-dating, as we jokingly called it), so I decided to join him for a while, with the added bonus of experiencing some of his culture (he's an Italian-Colombian mix) in the mean time.

Second, I have been hired to teach at a London-based international school here, and I have been led to believe that, when my two-year contract expires, they will assist with my transition to any of their other campuses, if I am so inclined.  London is close enough to Oxford that I should be very happy teaching there, and if I must take the long, roundabout route back to Europe, then so be it!  Fortunately, my boyfriend wants to be back in Europe as much as I do, so we will both be working toward that goal over the next two years.

He had a photo of the Radcliffe Camera framed for me,
so I could have a bit of Oxford here in Bogotá!
I am not quite ready to change the name of my blog to "A Rainy Day in Bogotá," though it does rain an awful lot here, and because of its altitude it remains quite cool year round.  So really, it won't feel all that different, weather-wise, though it is a far cry from Oxford in other respects. But I hope to use my time here as an opportunity to reflect on my past travels and experiences, to learn from them, to grow in new directions in this unfamiliar soil, and to carve out a life that feels a bit more intentional than that of my haphazard twenties.

I hope those of you who have followed me this far (and have stuck with me through eternities of silence and random bursts of productivity!) will continue on the journey.  I will try to keep the posts brief and interesting, but you know I can promise nothing.  Skim if you get bored.  Otherwise, enjoy, and feel free to comment.