Tuesday, April 25, 2017

walking to bogota

Some people hate airports.

Not me. I  cannot say I love them, but I do find them interesting. Probably in the same way Bill Buckley meant when he said 99 out of a hundred people are interesting -- and the other is interesting because he is different.

Dan, Patty, and I arrived at the Bogota airport this morning in time for their 8 AM flight. Because I was not flying until the late afternoon, we breakfasted together and I saw them off on their flight to Florida. These days that means watching them disappear into the maw of security.

That left me with six hours to spend wisely. Did I read? A little. The Oregonian. A couple of articles in The Economist on the US-China Pacific power struggle. And articles in National Review on health care legislation and the science of climate change.

But my feet started itching. Even though the Bogota airport is not as large as Mexico City’s, it provides a perfect arced track for some serious walking. And walk I did.

It is also far better organized and less crowded than Mexico City’s. So, getting in my multi-mile steps was a pleasure. I was having enough fun that I almost missed my check-in time.

AeroMexico has so few flights to and from Bogota, its presence is very subtle. The company does not have permanent counter space.  A couple of monitors transform one airline’s check-in into another’s. The staff was about to close up shop when I showed up.

Speaking of AeroMexico, I finally resolved my flight change from Mexico City to Manzanillo tomorrow. I thought my request was simple -- changing only the date by one day.

I was wrong. I spent over two hours on three evenings to complete the transaction. Even though I had a first class ticket that was reduced to a coach ticket to get on the plane, I was charged $137 for the flight.

The experience has left me with a rather bad feeling about AeroMexico’s customer service. None of the representatives I talked with could explain what the extra charges were for -- nor why it took so much telephone time to change the date. All I was told was the fees existed, and I would be sitting in Mexico City with only my dreams of flying if I did not pay up.

The company could resolve this by doing as other airlines do. The ability to change flights should be part of the airline’s web site. And, if there are any associated charges, they should appear with itemized explanations. Alaska does it perfectly. (I suspect the United web site causes electrical shocks whenever a customer tries to change anything.)

I do not mind paying additional fees. I do mind paying fees that neither I nor the person charging them can explain.

But that is now in the past. I trust I will have a seat when I arrive at the AeroMexico desk on Wednesday morning.

If not, my friends Lou and Wynn Moody will have made a trip to the Manzanillo airport for naught.

Monday, April 24, 2017

a tale of two cities

While Dan and I were walking around Bogota today, he stopped and watched a group of men on the corner of one of the city's busy streets.

"Have you noticed something interesting about the streets in Bogiota? Here we are in a city with a population almost the same as New York City, but everyone is so calm. No one is in a hurry. Look at those men standing over there. They are enjoying their day in conversaion."

He was correct. Almost everywhere we traveled during the past two weeks in Colombia could be characterized as calm. That is doubly ironic when you think of the reputation Colombia has throughout much of the world. A reputation it does not deserve.

Bogota is tranquil, but it is also a big city. A big city with a lot of similarities to New York City, but far more differences.

All big cities have their own version of street art. Bogota is no exception. Many of the buildings near our apartment are adorned with graffiti art.

This one is not the best, but it is representative of the genre. I know some of you consider this form of art to be vandalism. I don't. As long as the property owner has acquiesced.

But that is not Bogota's only claim to art. The city is filled with first-class art collections in its museums. We re-visited the Botero Museum again today.

It contains a large collection of the works of Fernando Botero, probably Colombia's most famous artist. Certainly, the most popular.

 A second wing houses a portion of his personal art collection. From the impressionists to modern art. Such as this Chagall.

I will write at least one more essay about the museum. It deserves treatment of its own. Suffice it to say, Bogota holds its own with art.

There are a couple of areas in town with skyscrapers. But this building is special. It is the BD Bacata. And, when completed, it will be the second tallest building in Latin America.

New York may have Tiffany's. Bogota has emeralds. Lots of emeralds. And lots of shops selling unset and set emeralds.

I had a front seat in emerald buying today. Patty is an old hand. She has bought unset gems and then sold them to other buyers. On this trip, she was looking for emerald earrings.

While I was waiting, I looked in some of the stores. We are not talking about shoddy stones. Most of the stores featured major pieces -- usually, necklaces.

This was my favorite. It was created by a Japanese artist -- all of whose works bore the same balance of luxury and simplicity. Before you bother: if you have to ask the price, you do not have enough Colombian pesos in your pocket. I didn't ask.

Bogota is in the process of upgrading its mass transit system. Where New York may have its subways, Bogota has dedicated streets for its articulated buses.

It is possible other cities have these three-car articulated buses. If they do, I have never noticed them.

While Dan and I were standing in front of a grocery store, seven of these mammoths drove by in just a few minutes. All of them almost filled to capacity.

But Bogota has sights you could not possibly see in New York. Well, unless you visited Anthony Weiner's apartment.

This man and his burro had collected left-over food from local restaurants. They toted their treasure to this spot to feed a flock of pigeons feverishly waiting for the feast to begin. Feed the birds, tuppence a bag, indeed.

Trying to compare places is a fool's game. One inevitably ends up with the silly question of which place is best.

They both are -- in their own ways.

But I found the tranquility of Bogota to be one of its most charming qualities. That, and its pigeon-feeding donkeys. And that is good enough for me.

Sunday, April 23, 2017

climbing the greasy pole

Every major city has its swankier part of town.

New York has its Park Avenue. London has Belgravia. Mexico City has Polanco.

Bogota is no exception. It has Usaquen.

Once a separate settlement (founded in 1537), it went through some rough times. Depopulated. Repopulated. A battle site during Colombia's war to attain independence from Spain. The scene of the termination of one of Colombia's many civil wars.

It is now part of Bogota. And if you want to be seen, this is the place to live and work.

Because it has been around since the 1500s, it has some venerable colonial buildings. Like this church.

It also has what every Colombian town seems to have -- a flea market. The kind of place where you can buy plastic souvenirs, some handicrafts, and clothes.

But Usaquen is different. It has an artisan fair that is so tidy and organized, you quickly learn that Colombia is an unusual South American Country -- with uniform booths lined up like soldiers marching off to make the world safe for artisans.

You will find a lot of the same category of goods as are in the flea market. But the quality is not what one usually finds sold in the street.

Rugs. Jewelry. Boutique clothing. Woven goods. Coffee. Dried fruit and nuts. Specialty shoes. Leather goods. Paintings. Sculptures.

Anyone who has ever attended a craft fair in Sausalito would feel right at home. And, of course, there are the inevitable musicians. All of them quite good playing Colombian music.

But this was the booth that caught me in mid-step. Please remember I have lived in a small Mexican village for almost a decade, where books are somewhat rare. So, this booth was a pleasant surprise.

The book stall is indicative of the high percentage of educated Colombians. That is evidenced daily by the number of people -- young and old -- sitting at coffee shops or in the park reading books and newspapers.

When we had had our fill of batik and wool, we took a taxi to the zona rosa -- where small hotels and restaurants cluster. This park was our introduction to the area.

Being a Sunday, it was filled with parents watching their children play on the park's equipment while dog owners allowed their dogs to do what dogs do -- as long as the dogs remained leashed. The children roamed freely.

But we cut our Sunday in the park with dogs to sit down for a platter of blood sausage, chorizo, and criolla potatoes to watch Real Madrid defeat Barcelona in a Spanish league match.

That is, that was our intent. We did get our snack platter at La Hamburgueseria -- a sports bar on the park. Unfortunately, Barcelona proved to be too much for the combined strengths of Real Madrid. Even though the fans were split in their allegiance, we were in the vast majority with our support of Real Madrid.

The high point of the game for the local fans was in the second half. Real Madrid trailed Barcelona 1-2. Then, out of nowhere, Marcelo of Real Madrid put a simple cross into the box and James Rodriguez, unnoticed by the Barcelona players, directed it into the net to tie the game.

The goal was important on its own. But the fact that it had been made by James was even more important. He is a Colombian who has been pressured by the team management to move on to Manchester United.

The Colombians in the sports bar roared in approval -- without regard to their team loyalty. To my surprise, I spontaneously joined in the melee.

And what better way to see another area of Bogota? On top of the greasy pole I have never deigned to climb, but with people who were truly proud of their country and the accomplishment of its citizens.

Saturday, April 22, 2017

bolivar, we are here

We have returned to Bogota.

If I were a pessimist, I would say that means our trip was almost over. I am not, and it isn't. We still have two full days to explore the city.

Patty grew up in Bogota. So, we have a certain advantage in ferreting out the city's more interesting places. Not to mention its people.

When we flew in from Armenia (and how often can someone make a claim like that), a bonus welcomed us to Bogota.  Sunshine. During our two stays here, we have seen the sun only one other day

We set out with a couple of destinations in mind. The first was the Teatro Colon de Bogota -- Colombia’s national theater named in honor of the Great Admiral.

The exterior of the theater belies its provenance. Neoclassical architecture was the rage in the late 1800s when this building was built.

We intended to take a tour through the building -- a place prized by Colombians as much as New Yorkers do Radio City Music Hall. I was looking forward to it. My dramatic side always loves a new stage to admire. And I had heard it was quite a nice theater.

Unfortunately, only two tickets were available. So, we trekked off to our second destination. When we were taking our governmental center tour with Elgar (rhyming time), he pointed out a church with a very distinctive architure. He called it the Florentine church.

It is not Florentine, at all. It is El Carmen church. A neogothic style, honoring one of Colombia’s most popular manifestations of Mary -- as the Virgen of Carmen. (Not the opera. You would have better luck finding that at the Colon Theater.)

The architecture has very little resemblance to the Renaissance Florentine facades that give the adjective meaning. By “very little,” I mean none. At best, the red and white stripes are distinctive. a quite pleasant church. And it is a quite pleasant church.

Having bagged our two quarry, we headed down Carrera 7 -- the pedestrian mall that stretches from Bolivar Plaza through a majority of Bogota’s older commercial center.

We had multiple goals. I wanted to get in as many steps as I could. Patty was on a mission to buy a leather backpack. Dan was enjoying the sights.

And sights there were. This was a Saturday -- a day that draws locals and tourists downtown, as well as an eccentric collection of street performers.

This older couple opened my tipping pocket. I suspect they were dancing a variation of the traditional folk dance called cumbia.

Whatever it was, it was amusing. Of course, the man’s comic glasses, mustache, and very threatening anaconda are what caught my attention. He could have been a reincarnation of Groucho Marx.

Not all of the performers were that funny. This string quartet (minus the viola) must have been students putting their talents to lucrative pursuits playing some rather predictable Mozart and Vivaldi, and learning the lesson that familiarity pays in the music world.

They were not expert musicians. But they were good. And worthy of the coins and bills they collected. They reminded me I need to get my reservations for San Miguel de Allende’s chamber music festival this August.

The Michael Jackson impersonator was about as good as most Michael Jackson impersonators. Which means not very.

What made this performance unusual was the little boy from the audience who volunteered his services, and did a rather good impersonation himself.

Considering some of the allegations that haunted Michael Jackson, there was a rather creepy feel to the boy grabbing his own crotch.

And then there was my favorite. As we walked by this group, Dan said: “I think they are from Peru.”

Said I: “Of course, they are. They're the Inca Spots.”

Patty found a perfect leather backpack, and Dan and I found amusement amongst the street performers. I also managed to get over 26,000 steps. The only thing I missed today was a Bach concert at the cathedral.

Due to a sudden rain storm, I could not have made it to the church on time. Instead, the three of us filled ourselves with a plate of traditional Colombian appetizers-- which I forgot to photograph because I was too busy eating.

I cannot emphasize enough how much I have enjoyed most everything Colombia has offered us. I still have plenty of new places to visit in the world. But I intend to return to Colombia before too long.

Friday, April 21, 2017


Mexican corporate web pages are just like the little girl with a curl in the middle of her forehead.

When they are good, they are very good. But, when they are bad, they are horrid. AeroMexico (Or as I have re-dubbed it, ErrMexico) is in the latter category.

Through a scheduling mistake on my part, I needed to change the date of my flight from Mexico City to Manzanillo when I return from Colombia. Being a naive sort, I thought all I would have to do is open AeroMexico's website to change the date. After all, all I wanted to do was change the date.

Finding my reservation was easy. But the website would only allow me to change my seat on the same flight -- or to purchase an additional luggage allowance. To change a flight, I had to call the customer service desk.

I have talked with the customer service desk in the past. I would rather have three root canals.

But, there was no alternative. I called and went through the mandatory wait-for-the-next-representative routine.

What should have been an easy change of date, turned out to be a byzantine dance. I told the woman on the telephone all I wanted to do was to change my flight from one day to the next. Otherwise, everything else was perfect.

She put me on hold for several minutes.

When she returned, she told me there would be a penalty of $34. I told her I understood.

She then put me on hold for several minutes.

When she returned, she asked me for my email address. The company would send me a voucher for my cancelled flight.

"No," I said. "I don't want to cancel my flight. I just want to change the date. Can't I pay with my credit card right now?"

She put me on hold for several minutes.

When she returned, she said I needed to forward my request to an email address. She would give it to me if I had a pen.

"No," I said. "I want to pay for the change with my credit card right now."

She put me on hold for several minutes.

This time she returned with a chirpy response that she could honor my request. But the total penalty was now $96. We went through all of the usual credit card information -- with multiple repetitions of misunderstood numbers. (That is why it is far easier for someone to enter his own information online.)

With that information -- she put me on hold for several minutes. I assume she was checking with my bank.

When she came back online, she assured me my flight had been changed, and that I would receive a verification at the email address she had repeatedly misunderstood. The conversation took 47 minutes.

I am not the least bit surprised that the receipt has not shown up in my inbox.

Mexico is quite efficient in very many ways. AeroMexico is not one of them.

When I show up at the Mexico City airport on Wednesday morning, I am willing to lay odds my ticket will still be for the wrong date. I hope I am proven wrong.

Thursday, April 20, 2017

who says i can't?

I am infamous in these parts for teasers.

You know how it goes. I start describing something as "the best day of my life," and then anticlimactically tell you: "I will write about that later."

I am not going to do that today. At least, I am not going to do it as a tease.

This morning we left our hotel in Pereia. The hotel was once a family town house in another era. It is now the Hotel Don Alfonso -- and just as elegant. One thing that made it very special was its internet. Six times as fast as mine in Barra de Navidad.

Our new home for the next two days is the Hotel San Jeronimo in Armenia. It is quite adequate for our purposes -- other than the internet. I just ran a speed test. It is one-tenth as fast as my Barra de Navidad connection.

During the past two days, we have been part of some very interesting experiences. Notably, a zoological reserve outside of Pereira and a botanical garden complete with a butterfly park a few miles from Armenia.

I have a lot to say, but I also have even more photographs to share.

And there is the rub. With the internet speed here, I will be back in Mexico for a week before they upload.

So, here is my promise. I have barely skimmed the surface of what we have experienced in Colombia. I will continue to post what I can while we are here. But I will also produce a couple of summary essays when I return home.


Wednesday, April 19, 2017

who wants to be a millionaire?

Consider me your life line -- or your call-a-friend. Either way, I am here to help you stuff your pocketbook and stop those blasted creditors from ruining mealtime.

In just four easy steps, you can join me as a member of the millionaire club. Here is how.

1. Buy an airplane ticket to Colombia. They are amazingly inexpensive.

2. Drive to the closest ATM.

3. Request the standard debit card limit of $500 (US).

$. Stand back. You will have over $1,000,000 in your hand. $1,435,600 to be exact. What a country!

Congratulations! You are now a millionaire.

OK. It is in Colombian pesos. But you still have over one million of them. And they are yours.

Before I arrived in Bogota, I knew the dollar-peso exchange rate would yield a lot of pesos. But not even my experience in Mexico prepared me for the size of bills I would receive.

I checked the current rate on my telephone when I arrived at the airport. Each US dollar would yield me over 2,800 pesos. Because I needed to enter the requested amount of pesos on the ATM screen, I tried to do the arithmetic in my head. All of those zeroes eventually overcame my calculations. I settled for a preset $700,000 (CO).

Over the next few days, I withdrew enough pesos several times to top the million mark. It felt good.

It felt good, that is, until I started spending them. $25,000 for a taxi. $362,000 for two nights in a an incredibly comfortable hotel. $20,000 for breakfast for the three of us.

That appears to be a lot of money. It isn't. In US dollars that is just $8.72, $126.24, and $6.97 respectively. Once again, is all of those zeroes.

And I should not have that zero block. I have traveled in lots of countries where the exchange rate results in as many or more zeros. For one dollar, I can get 22,724 Vietnamese dong. Or over 32,463 Iranian rial. And then there were the pre-Euro days when Italian lira would stuff your pockets. Now, very little stuffs Italian pockets.

But there is something about all those extra zeros that makes calculations difficult. I carry a piece of paper in my wallet with some common dollar-peso comparisons.

Colombia has tried to dump three zeros from its currency several times -- as have quite a few other countries, Mexico being one. But the Colombian congress has never approved the reduction. Colombians are concerned that when the zeros go, so will the value of their savings. There is some historical support for that if the change is not done properly. The Kleptocracy of Zimbabwe is a perfect example.

But, Colombia being Colombia, a clever solution was devised. New bills are now being issued that take off three zeros and substitute them with the Spanish word for "thousand." A $50,000 (CO) note will now offer up an elegant 50 mil, instead. It is still a $50,000 (CO) note, but it looks like a $5 (CO) note.

I talked with a couple of younger Colombians. They said they were accustomed to the old notes, but the new ones are far easier to read. I suspect older Colombians may not be so sanguine.

For me, the new notes are perfect to use -- and to spend. "50 mil" is the equivalent of just less than $20 (US) That makes figuring out equivalent prices quite simple.

As you may have noted above, visiting here is not very costly. That breakfast for three for the equivalent $6.97 was not a typo. I cannot eat that inexpensively in restaurants in my Mexican village.

But, I am on a trip. I have had no problem emptying my wallet of a million pesos here and a million pesos there. With apologies to Everett Dirksen, it isn't pretty soon that I am talking about real money. Because real it is.

Now, you have no excuse for not jumping on a plane and joining me in my not very exclusive millionaire club. 

Better yet, do not come for the money. Come to visit this delightful South American country for its own sake. Think of the million as icing on your trip.