Sunday, December 13, 2015

In Which I Recollect My Blog...

Hello again!

You thought I had forgotten about you, didn't you?  Well, I suppose I did, rather.

I need some of this.
Lots and lots of things have been happening in the last few months, and I was so busy with them that I didn't remember to write about them.  So we are in for a few rounds of Retro-Blogging, methinks, over the next few weeks.

I still have one more week of school to get through, and then I will be traveling to New Jersey for a couple of weeks to enjoy the Christmas holiday (in all its cookies-and-egg-nog glory) with my family, but I will do my best to bring us all up to speed in the interim.

First up, the main reason I have been so exceedingly unavailable: we have finally realised our dream of starting a rowing team in Colombia, and we spend every single weekend at the lake, coaching novices and repairing boats.  Our website is, and we have both a Facebook page and a group.

I actually did draft a post about the days right after the boats arrived, which is copied below.

The Boatses Are Here, The Boatses Are Here!

Boats neatly placed on Rob's custom racks

Day 1: On Friday, 5 June 2015, after 11 months of waiting, working, searching, and dealing with endless bureaucracy on our part, and after travelling from various cities to northern Massachusetts, and then to Miami and then to Panama and then to Cartagena and then, on a truck, over mountains and across the north of Colombia, our boats arrived at Lake Tominé.  We had been tracking them since they left their first port, and we knew they would arrive somewhere around midday on Friday.  Maurizio tried to get me to call in sick to work so I could be there, but in this country you need a doctor’s note if you are ill or you won’t get paid, and besides, like many teachers, I hate leaving my students to someone else when I am perfectly capable of handling them, myself.  So I went to work, and Maurizio, who had now received confirmation that the boats would arrive around 3 pm, went to the lake.  Hernando, like a little boy on Christmas morning, could not wait when he heard they were near, and he threatened to leave his wife behind if she could not get ready faster.  He arrived at the nautical club around 2—which turned out to be fortunate, as the truck arrived ahead of schedule at 2:15.  By the time Maurizio arrived, they had managed to unload nearly everything, and were just moving the custom-built racks which Rob Englehardt so expertly provided so that the boats would remain safe inside the shipping container.  Hernando took loads of pictures of everything, and he made plans for Maurizio and me to spend the entire weekend at his house by the lake, so that we could inventory, clean, and prepare the boats for the repairs that were necessary, because we had had to cut nearly all of them in order to fit them into the container.
Sliced bits of boat lying here and there amidst oars and boxes of rigger parts
Day 2:  Maurizio and I got up early with plans to pack up, cook breakfast, and get on the road, but we hit a slight snafu in that our gas had been turned off the day before (because of a ridiculous building code violation that obviously applies to every single apartment in the building, but because they were in our flat to fix a gas leak they noticed it and decided to cut us off).  Maurizio had thought he could turn it back on himself, but this turned out not to be the case, so we could neither shower nor cook, and were greatly delayed in our departure.  On the way to Tominé we stopped at the local market to buy some green eggs (green!), pineapple, and oranges to give as host gifts (we were also bringing a bottle of Havana rum and Cuban cigars which Maurizio’s friend, Phil, had brought us from his trip to Cuba…these were for the celebration that evening).  We also stopped at a lovely roadside place called Alta de las Arepas, where we had a delicious breakfast of thick, cheesy arepas, eggs, juice, and cocoa.  Finally we arrived, and we found Hernando and a few others out working on the boats.

We began with the double, which we had purchased from a rowing club in Florida.  We checked it over to find its weak spots, any cracks or breaks, and then we removed all of the hardware, from nuts and bolts to footplates and tracks, so that it could be sanded and painted.  Because they row in Tampa on brackish water, there was a lot of salt-oxidization, and most of the bolts will have to be replaced, but otherwise it should be rowable very soon.  We moved on to one of the Vespoli fours, which was in surprisingly good condition, considering it was the one that Rob threw in for free after we had bought the rest of the boats from him. It, too, we stripped, and it was quite the adventure getting some of the rusty screws out.  With a lot of pounding and scraping and maybe a little cursing, we finally got everything out and into a labeled box so we could find it again later.  In between boat-strippings, I went around looking at all of the boats, writing down what they did and did not have, and what we needed to buy or manufacture in order to make them rowable.  We also stopped for a long lunch around 1:30, but other than that we were out there working till it was nearly dark.  I am pretty sure every single one of us ended up bleeding in some way, but we were happy in our work!

Hardworking friends stripping the four

After lunch and before we finished with the four, we took a look at the set of brand-new oars we had purchased for the quads.  They are Croker S3 Slicks, with blue foam handles, and they are very pretty.  I will always love wooden handles best, and all of the sweep oars we acquired have those (in various stages of rasped and sanded and rotted), but sculling seems to favour the skinny shaft, so I am at least grateful that these aren’t those hard, plastic handles that become impossible to grip once your hands sweat even slightly.  We took them out and marveled at them, and then re-packed them and put them up in the rafters of the work shed so no one can accidentally damage them before we are ready to use them.

That night we went back to Hernando’s house and took some photos of the hardworking team who had begun the work on the boats (said photos have been promised to me, but probably will never find their way out of Hernando's fancy camera).  Then we cracked open the rum, and toasted repeatedly to the excitement of the project we are starting.  Maria Louisa made a delicious dinner of rice and quinoa and vegetables and crab meat, and we feasted by an enormous fire that takes center stage in their living room--at least, it does when it is nighttime and you can’t see the stunning view of the lake through their huge windows.  Hernando and Maurizio went outside to smoke some cigars, and I chatted with Patricia and her husband, who had helped us all day.  Then the boys came back in and managed to finish off the Havana rum between them, which eventually led Hernando to fall asleep in his chair.  I was warm and well-fed and exhausted from being outside all day in the extremely variable weather, which vacillated between mild showers and hot sunshine and heavy cloud, so it was not long before I was asking for bedtime.  Once the non-resident guests left, we all turned in, tuckered out and happy.

Day 3: The next morning, Hernando and Maria Luisa managed to wake up early and get out to the lake for a row, but Maurizio and I clung to our beds a bit longer.  When we did wake, we each took a shower and got dressed in a few layers, as we expected it to be another day of working on the boats.  Hernando’s son Julian came down to join us when he heard us pottering around in the kitchen, so we cooked him breakfast and were just getting ready to leave when Hernando and Maria Luisa returned.  Hernando wanted us to join him in a visit to one of the neighbouring clubs, where they were keeping an eight which had been smuggled into the country inside of a shipment of bridge pieces by a former commodore of the club.  They stored it out in an open circle of grass near the water, guts up in three slings, with an ingenious sort of custom-made canvas tent pitched over and zipped and velcroed under it to protect it from the weather.  There were even neat little triangular canvases for the riggers, which were left on the boat even though it was technically in storage.  We uncovered it to take a look.  The boat was an old Schoenbrod, its beautiful wooden ribs still intact, though the gunwales had been replaced by the club with local wood.  It had not been treated well, poor thing.  There were many repaired cracks along the hull, and one of the workers told us the wind had once picked it up and dropped it hard on the gravel.  If you stood at the end of it, you could see that it curved through the middle like a misshapen banana.  The riggers were bent in all sorts of places, and the seats were all different heights and thicknesses.  The screws holding the tracks on had been replaced, but they apparently couldn’t find flat screws here, so the seats scraped over the rounded screw heads as they rolled.  But it was an eight, and it was more or less seaworthy, so we determined to take it out for a row the next morning.

Day 4: The row was interesting, to say the least.  We had a mixture of people from both clubs, many of whom were completely new to sweep rowing.  The boat was as heavy as it had looked, and we had to carry it all the way into the water, because there was no dock long enough.  I was not prepared for this, and rather resented squishing my white socks into the rocky sludge on the edge of the lake, but I suppose it couldn’t be helped.  Once we had all climbed in and pulled away, though, it was thrilling.  Even with inexperienced rowers behind me, even with old spoon oars whose shafts had been patched so many times they were as thick and solid as flag poles, it was lovely to stroke an eight again, and the whole lake was entirely ours to play in.  We stayed out for about an hour, and I did my best to coach from the front, but really it was just a test run. 

That is the end of my drafted post about the first weekend, and there were many, many more weekends like it to come.  I got to know a lot about paint removal, sanding, hardware, metal pin fabrication, and carbon-fiber repairs over the next few months as we got our new babies ready to row.  And that's when the real fun began...but it will have to wait for the next time I write.

Hint: it involved a lot of time spent dressed as an Oompa-Loompa in the WonkaVision studio...

Saturday, August 29, 2015

Two Friendly Visits

Friends and Food! (and wine)

Let's see if we can find the most important events from the past five months and talk about them briefly.  It will be like a game!  A game of catch-up, or Retro-Blogging, as I like to call it.

The boys in the centre
In early April, Maurizio’s friend Phil visited us on his way back from Cuba, staying for a weekend.  He is a very successful young businessman whose company was recently (and handsomely) purchased by the creators of a certain well-known online game featuring brightly-coloured bon-bons, and so he decided to travel the world for a bit before starting his next company.  On Friday, he and Maurizio walked around the city centre while I was at work, and that night I got to join them for a delicious steak dinner, followed by cocktails near Centro Andino.  We were doing our best to find a lady companion for Phil, and entertained ourselves by scoping out and analysing each girl we saw, but he kept insisting that he just wanted to hang out with good friends and enjoy himself.  The mojitos were free flowing, and really strong, so we all got a bit tipsy before wandering out to find an Über.

On the way, a homeless guy overheard us speaking in English, and he came up and introduced himself as a New Yorker who had come to Colombia for love and later fallen on hard times.  He was apparently well known by some of the doormen around, one of whom he addressed by name. After chatting us up for a while, he eventually asked for money, but we honestly did not have any on us, which is why we were looking for an Über instead of a regular taxi (because you use your phone account and credit card rather than cash). We told him as much, and I think one of us found a 2,000-peso note for him, and he went on his way, enjoining us to stop and say hi any time.

Oxford alumni watching the Tabs get thrashed on the Tideway
On Saturday afternoon we went to the Monkey House Pub, which is the closest thing to a British pub in Bogotá, to watch the Boat Races (including the first women’s Boat Race on the Tideway!) with other local Oxford alumni.  I had found the event on the internet when I was googling where we could watch the race, and I got excited that there was actually a small alumni community here.  They only ever meet up a couple of times per year, and most of them are Colombians who went for a one-year business degree or some other sponsored programme, but it was still lovely to reminisce, and to enjoy the races with a crowd of others (though it seems none of them were actually rowers).  There was even a Tab or two there, though the majority of us were Oxonians, and of course the Dark Blues swept the competition away that day.  On our way out we stopped to talk to the owner of the pub, a lovely Englishman who is looking into developing his own cider orchard in Colombia (cider is extremely hard to find here, because they don’t have the right varieties of apples, so all ciders are imported).  We fully support this idea, and we hope to keep in touch with him!

That evening we took Phil out to Usaquen to see the shops and restaurants there, and then went to La Cesta to meet up with Juan Pablo and his mom, who was in town to support JuanPa while he was having some tests done.  We enjoyed their delicious cappuccinos and pains au chocolat, and then it was time to take Phil home so he could pack for the airport. He promised to visit us again, perhaps after he has purchased his own plane and learned how to fly it overseas—and he was serious.

Friends visiting Villa de Leyva
In mid-May we had another visitor: Geralyn, a friend of Maurizio’s from his time in Canterbury, though she now lives in Eugene, Oregon.  She had been extremely helpful to us when we were purchasing a speed coach for our boats, which happened to be offered secondhand for a great price from someone in Eugene.  Geralyn went to pick it up for us, and she not only brought us that, but also some delicious cheddar cheeses, which are hard to find here.

Geralyn stayed for a week, and I had to work for much of that time, but Maurizio showed her many of the sights in Bogotá.  One one of the weekdays, I had a scary run-in with one of the locals on my walk home from the bus, and I arrived a bit shaken up.  Geralyn gave me a fantastic massage which helped me to relax, and she was really comforting and supportive.  I will always remember her kindness, because she hardly knew me at that point, but she knew exactly what to say and do.

At the weekend we went to the Catedral de Sal, which is a cathedral carved into a former salt mine, with large, cavernous rooms, stone angels, and eerie blue lighting complemented by looped recordings of “Ave Maria”.  Even though it is clearly a tourist destination, it still has a sort of reverent stillness and awe to it, if only by virtue of its immensity.  We also took Geralyn out to the lake so she could see the rowing boats—of course, the poor thing decided to stay inside reading while we went out in the singles, but it is a lovely venue in which to do that!

The church and the the rain
After the row, we made our way to Villa de Leyva, a popular destination and a national monument because it still looks very colonial with its cobblestone roads and pretty, whitewashed buildings.  It is supposed to have really good museums, but unfortunately our journey there on the twisty mountain roads had taken us nearly 3 hours, and we got there too late in the day to get into museums.  We did wander around a pretty little park, look at all the art in the church in the main square, visit some of the shops, purchase a hand-woven rug for our flat and a new mug for Maurizio, and eat a nice Italian meal at an outdoor restaurant that had live music. We had also bought peaches by the side of the road on our way there, and the next day Geralyn baked us a peach cobbler which was absolutely mouthwatering!

We spent the rest of her visit talking, sharing thoughts and ideas, and eating way too much at various restaurants, and we sent Geralyn back to Eugene with promises of coming to visit some day, because her descriptions of her own peaceful little town on the edge of a wood made us eager to see it, ourselves.

Soon to come...June and July!

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Semana Santa in Cali, Part II

PART II: The Visit and The Return

Welcome! We whipped up a little snack for you.
To be fair, the visit to Cali was a lot of fun.  As usual, we were fed constantly, and it was all delicious. Maurizio's mom and aunt made us things like carrot cake, fish stew, ajiaco, a pepper and meat dish, Japanese eggplant, and some lovely jugos, like lulo juice and limonada de coco (coconut lemonade)!  We usually ate at home, but once we tried out a new pizza place, the name of which I have forgotten.  It was small and relatively quiet (after Maurizio asked them to turn down the terrible music), and the pizza was okay, if overpriced.  But the home cooked meals were the real treat of the trip--in fact, the only photos I took the whole week seem to be of food... 

Presentation is key...

Why yes, I would like some homemade cheesecake!

We didn’t climb the Three Crosses this time, but we did a lot of moving around and visiting.  On the second day, we visited Juan Pablo’s mother and father, and had some cake and brownies with them, and then we went to see some beautiful furniture that is being offered to us by his family.  We met another cousin named Jose David--the brother of Andrés, who is the owner of our apartment in Bogotá--and we had sushi with him and his wife and sons.  Later we met up with Andrés and his girlfriend at a pub.  On the third day I got a mani-pedi, because it is apparently the rule of the house that I have pretty hands and feet whenever I visit, and that night we saw a spectacular tropical storm with fantastic lightning zigzags cracking the sky and making lots of noise.  We spent some of those humid days in the living room, taking care of business and talking to Norella and Nohemy, and we took cold showers because the hot water stopped working one day about 6 years ago, and in true Colombian fashion, they never bothered to have it fixed.  Their logical reasoning was that it is always hot there, anyway, so why waste the money?

I think they need names. Any suggestions?
On the last day, we got two new orchid plants from a world-champion orchid grower whose store was just a few blocks from the house, and which Maurizio had always wanted to visit.  There were awards literally covering every wall, ranging from plaques to ribbons and even a few trophies.  Though the lady running the store (not the grower; just an employee) seemed less than enthusiastic about us being there, and was therefore of very little assistance in making our decision, we finally settled on a lovely white orchid with many blossoms, and a happy orangey-red one, both of which survived the trip home and are now thriving, along with the purple orchid Mariella gave us, by the sliding door to our balcony.  Finally it was time to go, and we prepared ourselves for another long journey. The “ladies,” as Maurizio sometimes calls them, had packed our car with groceries, so our already low-riding car was going to be very friendly with the ground on this trip.  We also had Juan Pablo’s mom along with us, as he was having some medical tests done the following week, and she wanted to be there for him. We had been provided with a sort of tuna fish cake as emergency food in case of another odyssey in the mountains, but thankfully we avoided this. (We still ate the cake, though. Very tasty.)  There were a number of really tall speed bumps and some unfortunate underside scrapings because we were so loaded down with people and food, and our poor German car suffered badly for it.  As my brother in law says, “don’t go off-roading in a Passat!”  (For him, Colombian roads are the equivalent of off-roading. I guess I have to agree.)

Before we reached the traffic, it was a pretty road!
Despite all of that, however, the trip home went pretty smoothly, because we had decided to come back on Good Friday instead of dealing with the inevitable holiday traffic on Sunday.  I don't mean to say that we escaped entirely unscathed, of course.  For some reason it was suggested that we stop at Parque El Cafe, a mere 40-minute detour from our route...but we had not anticipated that the one-lane road leading to it (a winding, leafy affair surrounded by lovely foliage and, obviously, coffee plants) would be blocked by lengthy processions of locals carrying religious statues.  We never got to see them, but as usually happens when there is a standstill traffic jam, some peasants came out and began selling snacks and water, and we got them to tell us what was happening ahead.  After sitting still for over an hour, we were finally moving forward when it began to rain. The Parque is really an outdoor attraction, and at this point the boys decided it wasn't worth trying to visit today.  So we turned around and joined yet another long, snaking line of cars trying to get out of the jungle, and in all we lost over two hours in this aborted adventure.  Not to mention, I really had to tinkle the whole time!

Coffee beans!
Once we got back on the main roads, progress was pretty steady.  We made it through La Línea with no problems, and the boys got out to snap a photo at the very top, where we were once more surrounded by wet clouds.

Happy men, and just look at that view!
We passed through lots of little towns, and in one we observed four young boys jump onto the back of a tractor trailer ahead of us.  They hung on for a long time, and I snapped a few photos.  The tallest one even climbed up onto the roof at one point!  Eventually, some other truckers notified the driver, and he got out and kicked them off.  We were in another town by then, and the boys just went scampering off down the road, probably intending to jump on the very next truck.

One of the coolest things I saw on the way were these sort of road-trains, made of linked cargo trailers all pulled by the same tractor.  I kept trying to get a photo of one, and finally we saw one turning a corner, which gave me a good angle.  I don't know how safe or legal these are, but they are really clever!

Danger: Extra-Long Vehicle

Choo choo!

We finally arrived around 9 pm at our flat, exhausted but happy, and with two days to recover before I had to go back to work.  We reflected that Maurizio had managed not to lose patience the entire week, and I had managed not to cry this time, so the trip can be considered a great success!

Sunday, May 10, 2015

Semana Santa in Cali, Part I

PART I: The Journey
Now I must tell you about the adventure that I most unwillingly undertook during Semana Santa, or Holy Week.  We had the week off from school, and I was looking forward to re-acquainting myself with our apartment, especially the kitchen and laundry room.  I anticipated lazy mornings of reading in bed and pleasant visits to the local museums we always say we are going to check out but never do, and at least one lengthy afternoon at the house of a colleague with whom I would PLAN ALL THE LESSONS so that I wouldn’t have to do any more last-minute-night-before planning this year.

You'll enjoy it! Really!
My partner in crime, however, had a different plan.  He only teaches for three or four hours per day, and that is only Monday-Wednesday, so he spends a lot of time at home.  He was determined to get away from the city, and where better to go than Cali, his hometown, where his mother and aunt would spoil him to death by doing his laundry and cooking whatever he wanted and treating him like the little prince he has always been to them.  Of course, we had just paid for two expensive flights to and from the US, so his brilliant idea was that we should drive to Cali, adding a “super fun” road trip into the mix.  Never mind that I absolutely hate being in the car, and that my least favourite part of my job is that I have to be in a van for one to three hours each morning and evening (depending on traffic).  Never mind that the route to Cali is a good eight hours long without Holy Week traffic over one and a half of the three strands of the Andes that run vertically through Colombia (Bogotá sits in the eastern cordillera, Cali sits in the valley between the central and the western cordilleras).  Never mind that the last time I went on a Colombian road trip up into the mountains (to go on a hike with Nueva Lengua last year), was also the last time I threw up in a car, thanks to all the twists and turns.

"You’ll be fine, my lady,” he tells me encouragingly.  “There will be so much pretty scenery, and we will stop and taste local foods at little roadside stands, and I have made us a playlist of over 600 songs that incorporates Iron Maiden, Cuban folk bands, and random jazz selections to keep you entertained. You will love it.”

To be completely fair to him, he did offer me the chance to stay behind.  But I knew that I would end up wasting my time and staying hermit-like indoors all the time if I were alone, so I decided to go along.  In the chilly darkness of the wee hours on Palm Sunday, we roused ourselves, loaded the car with a suitcase, a few snacks, and Maurizio’s cousin Juan Pablo, who was coming with us to visit his own parents, and we set out on our adventure.  It was about 4:30 a.m., and the roads, while never deserted in a city of 8 million people, were relatively clear.  We were using Juan Pablo’s Waze app to direct us, and I enjoyed the occasional little ghost avatars that showed up on the screen, indicating another Waze user on the road.  We headed south, through parts of the city that I had only seen once before on a volunteer trip to a rec center in the poor southern barrios.  We watched as the houses and lights on the mountain to our left became more and more sparse: first the street lights vanished, as large portions of those barrios have no electricity or running water; then the neighbourhoods thinned out into occasional houses, and then into wilderness.

The Devil's Nose
As we left the city our altitude began to decline, and our ears sensed the pressure changes and needed to be popped with yawns every ten minutes or so.  Day was beginning to dawn, and the scenery was pretty enough in the morning sunlight; I was actually beginning to enjoy myself a bit.  As we came around a bend, Maurizio pointed out an outcropping of rock that hung over the road in a sort of hooked beak.  He said it was called “Nariz del Diablo,” or the Devil’s Nose.  As we drove under it, some rainwater fell from its tip onto our sunroof, and I exclaimed that the Devil’s Nose had sneezed on us.  Whether that was good or bad luck remained to be seen, but we would find out soon enough.

Around 7:45 we were all feeling quite hungry, so we stopped at a roadside place for breakfast. There are many such places along the roads in Colombia; usually consisting of a very small kitchen-building fronted by a large awning under which are set plastic tables and chairs.  Generally there are one or two people in the kitchen, one or two waiting tables, and one inevitably standing by the side of the road waving a brightly coloured rag, trying to attract people into the parking lot, and directing you when you enter and exit.  There is a restroom, but no toilet paper, so you have to bring your own (I always keep a roll in my backpack).  The fare in these places is always simple, and the choices few, but it is usually hearty and tasty.  This particular location, the first we saw after coming down the mountain into the valley between the two ranges, had only three options.  You could have a traditional Caldo de Costilla, which is a soup of beef, potatoes, and herbs that is typical of the Andean region; you could have a whole fish on a plate with rice and beans; or you could have eggs.

Maurizio had been hoping for some eggs with arepas (a kind of thick corn pancake) and cheese and some good bread and hot chocolate, but this place only had plain store-bought bread (which he hates and will not eat) and over-sweet coffee.  I ordered the Caldo de Costilla, because I wanted something out of the ordinary, and we eat eggs and arepas all the time at home.  Unfortunately, the moment it arrived I realised I could not possibly eat it.  I had forgotten, in my early-morning stupor, to ask the question I must ask of all Colombian soups: “tiene cilantro?”  Because 90% of them do.  And cilantro, as those of you who know me can attest, is the only food in the world that I absolutely cannot abide anywhere near my food.  This costilla was so covered in the horrid stuff that I could not even smell it without turning sick.  I gave my cilantro soup to the boys and ordered two eggs, as we had already decided that we would stop to eat again after crossing the next mountain, so we would just get a snack here and move on.  That turned out to be a poor decision, but we had no way of knowing it yet.

Coffee trees and a patriotic hillside farm

We got back on the road around 8:30 and headed through the valley.  There was plenty of plant life to see, and some rather brown, but still pretty, rivers to cross, and everything looked fresh and pleasant in the morning light.  There were tiny, bright particoloured birds flitting here and there, and as we came to the end of the valley we saw hillsides covered in coffee plants, which reminded us that we were heading into the Cafetero region of the country. At one point, off in the distance we could see a snow-covered mountain peak, which greatly excited Maurizio.  We soon began to wind slowly upwards into the central cordillera, and now there were banana trees to be seen everywhere, many with blue mesh bags hanging from the ripest bunches, so they can be cut and bagged simultaneously.  The little stands on the side of the road displayed big bunches of these bananas, and we kept saying maybe we should buy a bunch, but we never did.  Another poor decision, for very soon we would wish we had some in the car.  At this point, the boys began talking about La Línea, which is the line that marks the middle point of the central cordillera, when you stop going up and come back down the mountain.  It is very high up, obviously, so the road curves and twists back on itself many, many times before you get there.  Still, we anticipated that our journey over the mountain would take maybe two hours at most.

We were wrong.  At about 10 a.m., having made excellent time thus far on our journey, we found ourselves in the first stage of the traffic jam that was to last for the next seven hours.  Yes, you read that correctly.  SEVEN. HOURS.

The road that passes over the mountain chain has only two lanes for the majority of its length: one lane going in either direction.  When we first came to the traffic jam, we just assumed that something—a broken-down tractor-trailer, or a minor fender bender in a place where there was no shoulder—was blocking our lane somewhere around the next turn, and that cars would go around it in the other lane, which seemed to be moving along normally, whenever there was a gap.  Twenty minutes later, however, we had not moved, and were beginning to get restless.  Some enterprising mountain peasants had come out into the road to sell water bottles and peanuts from packs on their backs, and we asked one of them what was going on.  He said that far ahead there had been an accident between two of the large semis, and that it was completely blocking the road.  This made no sense, because the traffic still continued to move smoothly in the opposing lane, but it was the only information we were able to get.

Enjoying the nice day before we knew what we were in for...
We decided to get out of the car and join the many other travellers who were stretching their legs and taking in the fresh air and enjoying the mountain view on this beautiful day, because they had no other choice.  And, to be completely honest, it was kind of nice, at first.  It really was a beautiful day, and there was a nice breeze coming up the side of the mountain.  We could look down and see lots of trees and fields, and a few houses here and there in the distance.  I could hear water running, though I could not see it.  There were a couple of slugs who had dragged themselves over the concrete curb and into the road, whom we watched with interest.  Juan Pablo took out his phone, got down on the ground, and took a really professional looking, National-Geographic-style video of the largest one slugging along, as slugs do.  We snapped a few photos of the line of cars and the people lounging about on the side of the road, and we even struck up a brief conversation with the family in the car ahead of ours.  Suddenly, we noticed that everyone up ahead was diving back into their cars and starting up.  “They must have cleared it!” we thought, and we, too, got into the car.  The line of traffic moved forward around the next bend, and made some small progress upward before it stopped again.  We assumed this was temporary, so we did not get out again.  And indeed, we were soon moving again, albeit at a crawl.  The crawl continued for about three minutes more, and then we stopped.  Then another two minutes of movement, and then a stop.  We made it around another bend.  And then we stopped and stayed where we were.

This stop was to be the longest of our journey.  After 20 minutes we got out again.  We took a walk.  We spoke to some more entrepreneurial peasants.  No one knew what was going on.  We walked up the road to a little tienda to use the bathroom and see if we could get some food, but the store was entirely sold out of just about everything.  We bought their last piece of chicken and a bag of nuts, and got them to brew us a little cup of coffee, because by now it was clear that we were going to be here for a while.  The traffic coming in the other direction had slowed and was now at intervals stopping next to us, and an inquiry to one of the truck drivers was met with the awful prognosis that we had at least five more hours of this to go, as he had been in it from the other side for that long. Even he, however, had no idea what was the cause of the jam.  It seemed to be merely a result of too many people on the roads, but that didn’t explain the utter standstill.

Hopefully this won't happen anymore when they finish those tunnels!
This time it lasted for nearly two hours before we moved on, and from then on we had little 10-30 minute stops for every 5 minutes of slow-crawl forward.  The other side of the road was in the same situation, and no one could do anything about it, because there were no turnoffs or side roads or even motels for those who wanted to give up and wait till tomorrow.  There were signs of construction here and there, as they are planning to build a large highway-tunnel system through the upper part of the mountain, to reduce traffic on this winding roadway (for good reason, obviously), but none of it blocked the road or seemed to be in progress.  I think we would have been most selfishly and sinfully gratified if we had at long last come upon a gruesome, fatal accident...or a half-cleared landslide...or a nuclear explosion...or something which could have been a catalyst to this ridiculousness.

Poor visibility in the clouds
The road began to twist back and forth more regularly, and the air turned wet.  We were coming up into the clouds which had loomed over the peak of the mountain, and approaching La Línea.  It still took us another hour or so to reach it, and the cloud and fog were so thick there that we could hardly see the car in front of us, much less the sign for the landmark. It was nearly 4 pm now, and we celebrated having crested the mountain with a halfhearted “yay,” before beginning the long descent—which actually gave us some slight insight into part of the delay, though still did not entirely resolve the mystery.

A glimpse of the many tractor-trailers as we round a bend
The road on the ascending side of the mountain had wound in a leisurely fashion, like a river, with wide, sweeping bends.  On this side, the turns were much tighter, the drop-offs much steeper, and whenever a large tractor-trailer came around the bend coming up, we had to wait, because it swung wide to make the turn in order to avoid jackknifing on the hairpins, and thus came far into our lane.  There was a ratio of about 5 trucks to every car on this road, so there was a lot of waiting—but we did it without complaint, because the alternative might have resulted in a flipped-over truck blocking both lanes for another seven hours.  It seems to me that they had better finish this tunnel thing as soon as possible, because that trip is killer, and those trucks are almost always there, because it is the only road between the capital city and this part of the country.

Around 6:00 we reached the bottom of the mountain (it was much faster on this side, despite the truck-delays) and made our way into Armenia, where everyone else who had just left the mountain was now stopping to dine.  The boys were ravenous, even though we had eaten pretty much all of our car snacks, so we found another roadside location in which to have some dinner. This place had a sign which advertised hamburgers and sandwiches (of which it had neither) and an Asado, or barbecue, which smelled quite good.  Our aging waiter actually came out to the car to meet us, and to ask laughingly if we had just come off the mountain, too.  He showed us a table inside, and gave us a simple menu that featured grilled meats and not much else.  But there was a nice frijoles dish (black beans in their own rich sauce, a side of meat, rice, avocados, and a plantain), which both Maurizio and I ordered.  He brought us some disgustingly sweet panela lemonade (sweetened with sugar cane juice) and a bottle of water, despite my request for tap water, because he said the water was not safe to drink there.  They always say that.  We ate quickly and thankfully, and then made our way back to the car for the final three hours of the journey to Cali.

Juan Pa naps in the back seat
Juan Pablo, despite being the tallest of the three of us, had heretofore suffered valiantly in the back seat of the car.  He now offered me his place, and took mine in the front.  He had left me a pillow, and I stretched out across the back seats and promptly fell asleep for the majority of the ride, except when we passed through a toll booth and the light in my eyes woke me.  We dropped Juan Pablo at his parents’ house and arrived at Maurizio’s mom’s house at about 10 pm, twelve hours after the start of the traffic jam and over seventeen hours after the start of our “super fun road trip.”

Next time we fly...or I will stay home.

Saturday, May 2, 2015

Miami and Cartagena

Now to continue my description of our whirlwind weekend in the US!

Our impression of Tampa is one of highways and waterways
Having left a Thank-You card on Tom's kitchen counter, we packed up the car and hit the road.  Tom had graciously agreed to receive some packages for us, all rowing-related, so we had a few more items to fit than before, but it was not too difficult.  We stopped for brunch at a Cracker Barrel, which made me smile with reminiscences of 18-hour bus rides from Ithaca down to Gainesville, Georgia, for Spring training camp when I was in college.  I was excited to read the gravy-stained menu and to browse the old-timey toys and candies in the shop.  Maurizio, a.k.a. Frasier Crane, was unimpressed, but perhaps it was my fault for failing to recommend something involving biscuits and gravy.  The drive back to Miami was easy enough, especially because it was daylight this time.  I decided to call my parents, as I was in the same country for the weekend, and I spoke pleasantly to them for a good part of the drive.  Once more, we saw no alligators on Alligator Alley, which I suppose is good, though disappointing.

Juliana was such a sweetheart!
We finally arrived in the late-afternoon to Weston, where Maurizio’s cousin, Juliana, lived with her boyfriend, Carlos.  They, too, had received packages for us, and we were greeted by some big boxes in their living room. They served us some sushi as an appetiser before we went out to dinner at an Italian place, and we all ate way more than we should have.  By the time we got home, I was exhausted, and I went upstairs and passed out immediately.   Maurizio stayed up talking to them for a while, because he very rarely gets to see his pretty cousin, and because they had been so kind to us that he felt rude not spending more time with them.  We had a lovely little room with a very comfortable bed, but I am sure neither of us took much notice because of how tired we were!

We got up early the next morning in order to re-pack our bags, which was going to be a challenge!  See, those giant boxes that Juliana and Carlos had so kindly received on our behalf came from our friend Rob Englehardt in West Hatfield, MA, and contained about 34 pairs of boat shoes from the boats we are shipping to Colombia.  

Because of a ridiculous regulation, it is illegal to import used shoes to Colombia (it might damage the local shoe industry), and even though we explained many, many times to the importation office that these shoes were a part of the boat and were useless for any other purpose, they told us we could not send the boats with shoes attached.  So, both Maurizio and I had packed an extra suitcase inside of a larger one, and we now went about the process of filling them with shoes. It was more difficult than you might think, as they all had footplates and screws attached to them, and it was a fun game of Tetris trying to make them all fit.  We had also planned to stop at a nearby mall to buy me some trainers (still can’t find shoes in my size here in Colombia) and him some sunglasses (I got some too), which would also have to be squeezed in.  All of this accomplished, and a fond farewell said to our gracious hosts, we made our way back to the rental car place and returned our car with only a little hassle.  Finally, we made it to the airport pretty much just in time for our flight, which went first to Cartagena de Indias, and then to Bogotá.

Hey, buddy! Wanna buy some used shoes? Cheap!

We had, ostensibly, a 6-hour layover in Cartagena, so we had planned to visit the home of Maurizio’s mom’s cousin, Soledad, and to take a little walk around the Old City.  We arrived in good time, but we were stopped at the airport because of our bags full of shoes, which probably looked very suspicious on the x-ray machine.  We had to open the bags and explain that we were coaches of a rowing team which had just come from a competition, and that we were transporting equipment.  When he saw the old, battered, smelly shoes with footplates attached, the security guard was happily convinced that we were not damaging the Colombian shoe industry in any way, so he cleared our bags to go on the next flight.

Lots of these in Cartagena!
We  left the airport and took a taxi along the coastline, where people were cooling themselves in the water and fishing for their dinner, and arrived at our destination, a large door in a quiet street full of balconies and vines.  My first impression of Cartagena was one of decaying quaintness, with lots of pretty carvings and mouldings that had clearly seen better days.  We chatted for a bit with Soledad's husband, Joaquin, and her grandson, Alejandro, a very energetic child who eagerly showed me his favourite toys, including a rubber snake which he whipped around gleefully.  His mother, Elena, served us juice made of tomate de arbol, a little orange fruit that looks like a large cherry tomato but is a bit sweeter.

Up on the windy wall, looking back at the city streets
Then we took a long walk, first into the Old City, then along the fort wall that faces the ocean.  It was hot, but very windy, and the sun was setting as we came upon the house of Alejandro Obregón, one of Maurizio’s favourite painters.  We also stopped to take a photo next to the famous Botero statue of a reclining woman.  We wandered into a Paleteria and tasted the ice cream popsicles they sell, which were quite refreshing, and we enjoyed them while watching some local dancers put on a little show. We walked around the outer streets for a while and stumbled upon a caravan of MGs from Australia which had traveled all over the world (as was made evident by the stickers covering them), and then finally made our way into a seafood restaurant for dinner.  We ordered some fancy ceviche, or fish stews, but I had to send mine back once because they put cilantro in it even after I requested none.  The replacement was yummy, though!

Hanging out with a Botero
Well-traveled MGs
Pretty cars!
We returned to get our bags and say goodbye to the family, and then went back to the airport, where we discovered that our flight was delayed.  A lot.  We had timed it so that we would arrive home around 11 pm, and I could still get some sleep before teaching the next day, but now we were told the flight would not even leave until nearly midnight.  This was unwelcome news, and we kicked ourselves for not checking earlier, as we might at least have stayed longer in the city.  Instead, we napped on a bench with the other disgruntled passengers for a couple of hours, waking only when we heard our names called over the loudspeaker.  We got back to Bogota around 1 a.m. and then we slept as much as we could because we had to get up at 5 so I could get to work.

Thus ended our US adventure...but we were looking forward to the Colombian one scheduled for the following week!

Thursday, April 23, 2015

The Tampa Mayor's Cup

I have mentioned before that Maurizio and I are attempting to start the first real rowing team in Colombia.  There is a club in Medellin that hosts a number of water sports and owns a few rowing boats, but as far as we can tell, it is just recreational rowing.  Our plan is not only to produce competitive rowers, but to take them to competitions in the United States and elsewhere.  In order to achieve this dream, we have been in at the process of acquiring used equipment from the US and having it shipped here.  This has put us in touch with all sorts of people in rowing communities, from Jamie Stack on the Cooper River to Robert Englehardt of Pioneer Valley to Bob Klinger of Klinger Engineering, and recently we have also become good friends with Tom Feaster of US Rowing.  It was Tom who invited us to Tampa near the end of March, to pitch our idea to 25 members of US Rowing, and to participate in the Tampa Mayor's Cup while we were there.

We debated for a long time, because I could not take off from work, so it would have to be just a weekend visit.  We had also been invited to row in a double, which is a difficult boat to manage if you have never done it before.  I had rowed one once, during my undergraduate days, and Maurizio had never been in one.  However, the timing was good, because that Monday was a holiday, and the opportunity to spread the idea to officials from US Rowing seemed an excellent one, so ultimately we booked the flights and prepared ourselves to go.  Tom was thrilled, and he began immediately to tell everyone that his regatta was now international!

Hello, Old Sport
Because we had waited so long to book, there were no other seats available on the plane except in first class, so we resigned ourselves to thoroughly enjoying our champagne, mixed nuts, and fancy meal.  We even sent a video to Maurizio's friend, Fred, in England, to show off our jet-setting lifestyle.  When we landed in Miami we made our way to the rental car place, where we had booked a car for one price but were, of course, given lots of extra expenses on the day.  For example, we were told that we had to purchase a SunPass (the Floridian equivalent of an E-Z Pass, for my New Jersey readers), because all tolls in Florida were now digital and they would no longer accept cash.  I argued about this for a while, asking what tourists and out-of-towners did when they came into the state.  Finally we were bullied into buying one, and of course at the first toll we saw that they did, indeed, accept cash and the man had lied to us.  Nevertheless, we collected our red Hyundai Sonata and I settled in for the long drive along Alligator Alley to Tampa.  (I had to drive, because we had rented the car on my NJ license.) The drive was an easy one, mostly consisting of highways where there was nary a police officer in sight, so we maintained a speed between 80 and 90 miles per hour, and we never saw a single alligator.  However, because we had been delayed at the rental place, and because Maurizio had misread the arrival times, we were going to arrive a couple of hours later than anticipated at Tom's house.  Indeed, we did not get there till 11 pm, having stopped only for a few minutes to snatch some dinner at a Taco Bell, which Maurizio intensely regretted.  Our host had graciously stayed up late to receive us, but there was only time for him to say hello, apologise for us having missed his Colombian wife, who had herself gone to Miami that same day, and show us into a luxurious guest suite in his house, before we all headed to bed.  We had an early morning next day.

After a quick breakfast of Raisin Bran and coffee in Tom's kitchen, we followed him over to the Hillsborough River, a beautiful expanse of water that runs from the Green Swamp to an outlet on Tampa Bay.  It was a lovely morning, dark but warm, with the promise of a stunning sunrise on the horizon.  There were lots of boat trailers on the gravel next to the grassy park, and a number of blue-clad rowers from Tom's team, the Stewards Foundation, were warming up on ergometers and setting out food on tables inside the boathouse.  Tom introduced us to the high school coach, Mike, and to some of the parents and masters rowers on the team, including a Colombian lady and her daughter, and two of the rowers we would be racing later in the day.  We had hoped we would get a chance to practice in the double before the actual race, but Mike informed us that there were no spare sculling oars to be had.  I spent about 45 minutes asking all of the high school rowers what it was like to row a double, and what advice they would give to newbies--some of them were highly encouraging, while others laughed and said, "just try not to flip over!"

See the Colombian flag??
After watching some of the early races launch in the golden light of the rising sun, we took the shuttle van over to Davis Island, which was next to the finish line, and from which Tom would be announcing the races.  He had a prime perch on a moored boat next to a dock that stretched out into the river about 20 strokes from the finish line.  We stood there with him for a while, watching high school eights and masters sculls and a few other competitions go by.  On that side of the river there were some parent tents full of food for the rowers, and an army recruitment tent, showing at least one of the sponsors of the race. There were a few shirt vendors and people selling programmes.  We didn't buy a programme, but we did take one of the posters listing all of the competitors.  They hadn't properly registered us as the Muña Rowing Club, but they did have the Colombian flag next to our entry!

Around midday we went back to the boathouse to prepare ourselves to row.  We were given a Wintech double and some brand-new Concept II oars, though I have to say we did not much enjoy the latter.  They had those hard-plastic handles that make grip nearly impossible if your hands are even slightly wet, and in that Floridian humidity, we were sweating from every part of our bodies before we even got to the start line!  Once we were off the dock without flipping over, I became extremely nervous about steering us properly through the course.  I kept stopping abruptly to change our point, and we would clash blades.  I think Maurizio was a bit frustrated with me, because of course he was all calm confidence and had no doubt that we could go straight and fast the whole way.  Practice proved otherwise, and after narrowly making it through the fourth bridge we found ourselves accidentally out in the middle of a wide bay where we were probably not supposed to be.  A US Rowing official sped over in his boat and called out with a heavy Australian accent, "there's always one.  I guess that's you guys."  We discovered that the other person in his boat was actually Steve Boyce, from whom we had purchased a double a few weeks earlier (which the wonderful Chris from Penn AC transported up to Massachusetts for us).  We briefly said hello and told him who we were, and then they showed us where to turn (a tricky business in that windy bay!), and we made our way to the start line.

Catching a crab at 250 meters to the finish
Once there, we spent some time trying to get lined up, but there were four boats to arrange and a lot of wind and current to deal with, so every time one or two of us had the right line, someone else was blown off of it.  We had the inner-most lane, closest to the shore on the right-hand side, and I knew both of us had a tendency in singles to veer toward the right, so I wanted to angle slightly toward the left to make up for it.  When they finally started us, we were a bit close to the starting buoy, but we managed to get over it without incident.  The boat next to us, however, was swerving straight into our lane, and as we were keeping up with them, I turned us a bit to the right in order to avoid a collision, which I knew would result in capsizing.  Unfortunately, being new to steering and rowing in a double, I pulled us a bit too far over.  Suddenly there loomed above us the shape of the Fire Brigade boat, which was parking itself at a dock and was therefore perpendicular to the race course.  We had to stop and regain our point so we could avoid it, but we picked up again rather quickly.  Then, about twenty strokes later, a speedboat passed on our left-hand side.

Wait...what?  A speedboat?  In the lane which our competitors had been using moments before?  Apparently it had ignored the marshals’ request not to come up the race course, and they had no legal power to stop it.  The surprise was such a shock that we stopped rowing again, and the wake rocked us about dangerously.  Once more, we had to restart, and this time we managed to stay roughly on-course, but we had fallen behind the two boats immediately next to us.  There was one more in the far lane, and we were still ahead of them, so it became our goal to maintain that lead.  The race was only 1,000 meters long, but we had time to suffer one more incident about twenty strokes to the finish line.  We were passing the dock from which our friend Tom was announcing the race, and I made the mistake of saying cheerfully to Maurizio that we were “at the dock,” which he misinterpreted as us having crossed the finish line.  He stopped and turned to look, and we caught a major crab on the stroke side which almost dumped us into the river (Tom later told us he thought we were done for at that point!).  Fortunately, we were able to recover and cross the line, AHEAD of that final boat.  So, we had successfully rowed in a double, had NOT capsized, and had not come last in our race.  A major achievement!  (The boat we beat contained the two women we had met earlier in the day, and they were not particularly happy, because they knew we were complete novices in a double.)

Maurizio and me with Tom Feaster
Moderately pleased with ourselves, we made our way back to the docks and onto dry land.  We rejoined our friend on the Island, and spent the rest of the day watching other races and meeting some more of the organisers of the race.  We were minor celebrities at the event, because we were the only international crew, so everyone had heard of us.  At the end of the day, though, we met a real celebrity, as Paralympian Eric McDaniel was there to hand over the team cup.  I stopped to talk to him, to ask if he knew Olympic gold medallist Meghan Musnicki (with whom I used to row) or Lauren Schmetterling (whom I used to coach).  He said he knew both of them, but also explained that he had had a stroke and that it was difficult for him to talk quickly.  Still, as we conversed, I could clearly understand everything he was trying to communicate. He even introduced me to his little black seizure dog, Jamaica, who is helping him to regain mobility and speech.  Later, we got an opportunity to go into the room where the 25 US rowing officials were debriefing, and we pitched our idea to them.  We didn’t want anything from them at the moment, but we wanted them to know we existed and to be prepared to support us in the future. We also made the suggestion that the high altitude of Tominé would make it an ideal Olympic training spot.  They seemed impressed by the idea, and eager to keep in contact, which meant our trip had been a great success.

The organisers of the event
That night we went to Hooters for dinner, at Tom's suggestion, and I got to drink a cider while the boys finished off a few pitchers of beer and we all talked over ideas for developing the rowing club.  We got home with just enough energy to shower and collapse into bed, because the next morning we would be rowing again.  We had agreed to come out to join the masters' doubles practice with the team, so that we could learn a bit more about these little boats and have a coach present to give us some tips.  We fared much better than the previous day, though the twisty river and numerous bridges still stymied us a few times.  There was a stand-up paddle boat competition that day, so when we came back from the row we went around to the Island again to watch some of the races.  We were introduced to the mayor of Tampa, as well as a few more of the important people behind the club and the races.  Finally, we decided it was time to head back to Tom's house to shower and pack, as we were driving back to Miami that day.

(I'll tell about the rest of our trip in the next post!)