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 multiples 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.

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

coming to jesus

Today was the day that Dan, Patty, and I had hoped to meet Jesus. Jesus Martin, that is.

There is no reason you should know his name. But he is a Colombian with a mission. A coffee mission. A mission he calls "the coffee dream project."

Those of us who live outside of Colombia, the world's third largest coffee producer, and have enjoyed its coffee, may not be aware that like many countries famed for their agricultural products, Colombia historically has not kept its best coffee for national consumption.

Jesus Martin wanted to change that. His coffee farm is just outside of the small town of Salento, where we visited today. We wanted to talk with him about his project of offering high quality coffee to Colombians.

I will spoil the story by telling you we didn't get to see him. But, we will come back to that in a moment. (If you would like to know a little more about him, take a look at this BBC article.)

What we did was to head off to the valley of the Cocora River for a little country hike.

I should have learned from my hike with Ray in Melaque (city slickers duding it up) where my imagined stroll was turned into a rock wall-climbing reality. This time I should have figured it out.

We have been staying in a country where the Andes begin. A Chilean would probably say "where they end." Whichever, this is not a region of rolling hills. We are in the mountains.

The trail head's altitude is about 8000 feet. And the ascent is not a gradual grade. But, we were promised treasure at the end of our climb.

Maybe some animals. Certainly some birds and interesting plants. And, best of all, a wax palm forest.

The wax palm is one of the indigenous palms of the new world and grows in the western Andes of Colombia. What makes them spectacular is that they are the tallest palms in the world. Up to 200 feet.

And slow-growing. It takes ten years for a wax palm to grow a ring.

It is also the national tree of Colombia.

Who could turn down such an offer? Even when our destination loomed high in the fog forest of the Andes.

I will admit that the distant peaks gave me a momentary Bilbo Baggins pause. But, just like Bilbo, I felt a stir. "Then something Tookish woke up inside him, and he wished to go and see the great mountains, and hear the pine-trees and waterfalls, and explore the caves, and wear a sword instead of a walking-stick."

So, we struck out. You have already met the cast. Dan. Patty. Me. Paula, our guide. Alejandra, the UN observer.

Paula kept her promise about animals. But they mainly fell into the domesticated category. Dogs. Beautifully-coiffured horses. And herds of some rather oblivious dairy cows.

But there was plenty of wildlife. Mainly birds. Vultures. A turkey-like paua caucora, which is rarely seen in these parts. Several shy songbirds. And a true prize.

We had seen a couple of adult carkakays perching in the wax palms along our walk. When Dan came up over a rise, one was perched on a fence post at the top of the hill. It immediately flew off.

The reason it was there was apparent. A juvenile was just on the other side of the fence. While we caught our breath, we shot away with our cameras.

The juvenile merely walked up the hill until we got too close for comfort. It then glided to safety down the steep of the hill.

The bird, often known as the caracara elsewhere, is a falcon that lives throughout the Americas. That rather prosaic description takes nothing away from its majesty.

Paula gave us a running commentary of the plants as we continued our ascent. Ferns as ancient as dinosaurs. Medicinal plants. Flowering plants. 

But one of the most interesting group was the bromiliads -- parasitical plants that offer their hosts no benefits, but provide home, food, and shelter for amphibians and insects.

They may not be helpful to the host plants, but the bromilads on this mountain were eccentrically beautiful.

Almost 1000 feet higher, we reached our goal. The wax palms in the fog forest. That should have been the title of a Somerset Maugham novel.

We took great pleasure in conquering the mountain. But that was not our only reward. Looking back at the way we came, we could see other mountains framing the valley with its dairy and horse farms.

But there was still far more adventure for the day. We had two more towns to investigate.

The first was Salerno -- known for its coffee. That is where we had hoped to meet up with Jesus Martin.

He has a coffee shop in town that is part of his "coffee dream project" to bring the best coffee to the mouths of Colombians.

Even though we did not get to meet the man himself, we decided to taste his wares. The coffee was good, but we all agreed the specialty coffee we tasted the day before was probably better.

Having said that, we were pleased with the brew. And it was certainly a long step up from the coffee that is often served at Colombian tables.

Salerno itself is a quaint town that reflects the colors of Colombian coffee country. Unfortunately, the buildings are shielded from view by the tarps of temporary stalls lining the plaza.

It is a town that caters to coffee tourists. This mobile coffee shop may or may not be a good example. I am still not certain.

I have seen several coffee vendors with similar setups in Pereira. What makes them local is not just the coffee makers. It is the jeeps. The jeeps are a staple of the local coffee farms -- transporting both coffee and workers to town.

But I found the people in Salerno far more interesting than the town itself. Whether it was tourists (mainly Colombians) stopping for chats and snacks.

Or locals watching what the tourists have wrought.

We were then off to Filandia. For those of you who are now humming Sibelius's tone poem, please note there is no "n" between the "i" and the "l." It is Filandia. A town much larger than Salento -- and perhaps with more charm. That may be because its mental hospital.

Dan, Patty, and, I agreed this is one of the most interesting provincial towns we have visited. That was partly due to the obvious care and love that was put into maintaining its buildings.

So, what is today's hook? I suppose it has something to do with the recurring discovery that not getting something you want often opens up an opportunity to be enthralled by a different experience.

If that is it, today was a practically perfect day.

Monday, April 17, 2017

is that a chocolate layer i taste?

We spent the day today amongst the grands crus of Bordeaux. The equivalent of Chateau Latour, perhaps. Well, at least, Chateau Pichon Longueville Baron.

The fact that we were in Colombia and the subject was coffee does not matter. And that needs a little explanation.

Last night we arranged a coffee plantation tour with a local guide, Paula, and her husband-driver, Juan Carlos. They picked us up in the morning at our hotel, and we were on our way to Santa Rosa de Cabal. More accurately, to Finca El Placer. "Us" being the traveling trio along with Alejandra, a Chilean who works for the United Nations as an observer of the peace agreement between FARC and the Colombian government.

Pereira is surrounded by coffee plantations. It is not a coincidence that it is also surrounded by steep mountainsides. Coffee and steep are natural partners.

Finca El Placer has two missions: to grow both commercial and specialty coffees. The plantation once contained 200 hectares -- large for the average coffee plantation. Like many of the local farmers, the owner, Juan Carlos Ortega, has been forced to sell off some of his land to keep the plantation operating. He now grows only on 22 hectares.

You can read elsewhere about the byzantine relationships between international coffee buyers, the local growers, and the cooperatives to which the growers belong. Suffice it say, the grower receives only 7 cents for each dollar sold at retail. Of the amount the grower receives, 75% is labor cost.

Colombia has long sent its best coffee out of the country -- with the exception of a small contingent of growers who are attempting to creating an internal premium coffee market (and I may tell you more about that tomorrow). Juan Carlos's coffee -- both the commercial and the specialty varieties -- are destined for export.

Coffee trees are slow growers. It takes 
a minimum of 30 months before a newly-planted tree will produce fruit -- or cherries, as the professionals call them. The trees will then grow for seven years, be cut back to the roots for another 5 five years of growth, and then be cut back a second time -- again for five years of growth.

During that time, coffee fads change. Some buyers want coffee grown in shades. Others only coffee grown in sunshine. It is a bit like steering an oil tanker through a storm with constantly shifting hazards.

That is one reason acreage is sold. Another is the shifting market that any commodity faces. Tied with the expense of water and the lack of pickers, some of the growers simply throw in the towel.

It is easy to see why it is hard to find adequate pickers. Most of the plantations are on steep hillsides and harvesting is often done in very difficult conditions -- spiders, scorpions, rain.

My cousin Dan makes it look easy. But if any of us had been forced to live off of the coffee we picked, we would have starved.

Don Carlos taught us how coffee gets from the cherry to the cup. How the cherries are fermented for 2 to 4 days to make the removal of the skin easier. How the beans are then dried -- and, in most cases, shipped off to the international buyers as green, unroasted beans.

The next step is roasting -- usually, in large commercial roasters. Don Carlos used a specially-designed pan that stirred the beans while they roasted. Time, sound, smell, and color lets the person roasting the beans know when to stop the process and air-cool them.

And this is where everything seems to go a bit wine school crazy.

According to Don Carlos, the beans should be hand-ground to ensure the proper grind is obtained. His grinder looked like something my grandmother used to mince beef tongue for sandwiches.

Coffee cannot be brewed in just any pot. It needs a special filter (the Japanese and Germans seem to have the best) that contains the right size hole for the brew to exit and bevels to properly funnel the water.

The water is the central key to successful coffee -- 90% of the taste is in the water. The temperature must never be above boiling or the coffee will taste burnt. The paper filter is rinsed to remove residue and the carafe is warmed with water.

The ground coffee is then added to the filter allowing itself to level, and the brewer creates a small hole in the middle to allow the water to completely pass through the grind without lifting it.

It must have taken Don Carlos at least five minutes to carefully pour the water over the top of the grind at about the same rate the water was passing through the filter into the carafe.

His goal is to serve the coffee no more than 10 minutes from the time the beans are roasted. And so he did.

I am not a coffee connoisseur. I am not even a coffee consumer. But I found his two offerings interesting. One was a medium grind. The darker is a fine grind.

Even though I tasted some subtle flavors in the coffee (and the adjectives thrown around would have thrilled the soul of an oenophile), I suspect the brew served could just as easily been served at a truck stop or Denny's.

But, remember, I hardly pass as a coffee expert.

What I learned to appreciate most of all is the hard work and time that both the growers and pickers put in to ensure that cups of coffee appear on tables throughout the world. Whether or not the resulting brew is indifferent.

Sunday, April 16, 2017

the tomb is empty

Today is Easter.

You know that by looking at the calendar. I know it by walking down the street.
Religious processions are not rare in Latin America. I experience them regularly in my part of Mexico. But my Mexican experience is rather narrow. For a lot of reasons, Melaque and Barra de Navidad do not have Cecil B. DeMille-style processions.

Colombia does. Even the smaller towns like Sevilla.

We had just finished breakfast and were on our way back to the house to catch a local bus to our next stop -- Pereira, true coffee country.

The three of us despise routine. By sheer chance we decided to take a new route back to the house of Patty's father. And chance served us well.
The town's Easter procession had just formed and was on its way back to the church -- wending its way through Sevilla.

All of the beloved Sunday school characters were there. Mary. Joseph. Mary Magdalene. And, of course, the risen messiah.

Each on his own separate pedestal, heavy enough to extract the sufficient amount of physical mortification to conform with post-16th century Catholic theology. The weight was relieved during frequent stops only by staffs that were slipped under the pedestals.

What struck me was the seriousness of each participant. There was not a smile in the lot.

I thought that odd because this was Easter, not Good Friday. Theologically speaking, the resurrection is Christmas and New Year's Eve wrapped into one.
The crucifixion absolved us of our sins. The resurrection gives us the promise and hope of life eternal. It is a day of absolute joy.

But I was not entering into a street discourse with a Jesuit scholar -- as fascinating as that would have been. Instead, I was witnessing the devotion of Christians to their risen messiah. Literally, through the eyes of an angelic child.

Had we followed the procession back to the church, we may have seen the street dogs, who had perched themselves on the church’s porch, greet the return of the faithful.

On this special day of faith.

Friday, April 14, 2017

my private armenia

We have arrived in Sevilla.

Not the Spanish city of Columbus fame, but the small town of Colombia fame. Or, at least, famous enough for this traveling trio. Patty’s father has a house there. And that is where we are staying.

If there was any doubt that we were no longer in the urban embrace of Bogota, this is what greeted us when we opened the front door. I almost felt at home. For me, it is goats. For Patty’s papa, it is cows.

This morning, we flew from the capital to Armenia. Even if Armenia had not been on our agenda, I would have requested a stop there. Place names can be rather eccentric, at times. And they are always worth investigating.

A member of Patty’s extended family, Humberto, picked us up at the Armenia airport. It was quite evident that we had left the temperate weather of Bogota behind.

Colombia contains almost every type of biodiversity imaginable. This region grows coffee. The clashing shades of green were proof enough that we had entered a tropical zone. As was the 20 degree jump in temperature -- along with a similar increase in humidity.

Humberto braved the semana santa traffic on the region’s narrow roads. We stopped in Montenegro for lunch. (And, yes, I will get around to writing an essay on Colombia’s food -- just as soon as I can stop savoring it.)

On the ground, the greenery has the texture of a tapestry. Towering wax palms. Coffee trees marching in orderly rows. Banana plants. Yellow bamboo. And a green bamboo called guadua that look like verdant ostrich plumes.

This part of Colombia has been settled only recently -- with the obvious exception of the local Indian tribes. It is now an ecological mix of cattle, horses, coffee, and bananas.

The entire town seemed to have turned up in Montenegro’s plaza this afternoon. After all, the entire country is on holiday. Once again, with the exception of the people who service us tourists.

One of them is a fellow who pushes children around the park in their own personal car. You would almost expect to see something similar in a Paris suburban park in 1895. Both scenes would be equally charming.

As we drove through the string of villages on the road to Sevilla, we made two beverage stops. The first was at a coffee shop. I have not drank coffee for quite a long time. Let’s call it 10 years. I simply am not fond of the taste.

But, we were in Colombia -- the reputed coffee capital of the world. So, I had a cup. I can now say I have recently consumed a cup of coffee.

The second stop was a roadside stand selling chica de piñ
a -- a mixture of sugar cane, pineapple, and water that is allowed to ferment fior 3 or 4 days before it is sold to passing motorists. Just like cowpuccino in Melaque.

Refreshed, we pushed our way up into the hills to Sevilla -- where we will spend the next few days. If we are all lucky, we might learn a few things about the production of coffee.

For now, I will simply relish our newly-acquired bucolic existence. Eva Gabor has nothing on us.

Thursday, April 13, 2017

get me to the church on time

Today is Maundy Thursday.

I was not raised in a liturgical tradition. My Christianity is more plain-spoken. In fact, when I first heard the phrase "Maundy Thursday," I thought it was a Mama and Papas song gone wrong.

It is Holy Week here in Colombia. Of course, it is Holy Week throughout the world. But, in its guise as semana santa, it is a very special week in Latin America.

Back home in Barra de Navidad, Mexican tourists are flooding the town. You could almost believe that the interior of Mexico en masse this week to decamp to the beach. I was curious what Colombians do.

A lot of them go to the beach. But the residents of Bogota head out into the surrounding countryside for a long weekend.

We decided to join the throngs heading out of town today. Our destination? The town of Zipaquira, 30 miles north of Bogota.

There is nothing special about the town itself -- other than the fact that the local restaurants serve up a mean plate of carne a la llanera, a vice in which we indulged. 

The big attraction is a large salt dome in town. The local Muisca indians mined salt from the dome for almost 2000 years before the Spanish arrived in Colombia in the early 1500s.

The mine is still active. In the 1930s, the miners dug out a place of worship inside the salt mine. A more formal "cathedral" (the term is an honorific; no bishop has his see here) was built in the 1950s. Structural problems -- we are talking about digging through salt -- caused the closure of that structure.

A new "cathedral" was opened in 1995. And it is the perfect Catholic retreat for Easter.

Each station of the cross has a chamber carved out to reflect its significance -- complete with kneeling platforms for the devout. The only people I saw kneeling there were indulging in the sin of vanity. Mea selfie; mea selfie; mea maxima selfie.

There is also a dome carved in the ceiling of the mine. It marks the transition from the stations to the church itself.

Then there is the carved church itself with its three traditional naves.

I love church architecture. This place struck me most with its simplicity. After all, it was a place of worship for miners. Originally, at least. Before it became a tourist attraction for the devout and the not-so-devout.

The church is simple enough that even writers with Quaker sensibilities feel comfortable. The cross above the altar, like almost everything else, is carved from the mine's salt and rock. Even the lighting (that shifts slowly) is done tastefully.

When we returned to Bogota, the skies were clear. That was a first for this visit.
One spot tops the "things to see" list for most visitors to Bogota -- the Monserrate Sanctuary, sitting high above Bogota on a ridge.

Besides being Bogota’s number one tourist attractions, it is a functioning church. And, during semana santa, mass after mass is celebrated.

We had put off visiting the church earlier in the week because the clouds were low enough, there would be no view. But this afternoon, the weather was clear.

When we returned to Bogota from Zipaquira, we combined a cab ride with a healthy walk over to the base of the ridge.

We were not alone. Because this is a religious holiday, it appeared that anyone who did not drive out to the country was intent on taking either the cable car or the funicular to the top. I have seen shorter lines at Disneyland.

But the time spent in line was worth it. The view of the city -- a city that stretches far out of sight -- is spectacular.

The church itself is almost Presbyterian in its ornamentation. It has very little.

But that is not why Catholics make the pilgrimage to the sanctuary.

So, today was a church day. As we walked around Bogota this evening, we reviewed the day. Our unanimous verdict was, even though we spent a lot of time in taxis, on a bus, and standing in line, we had a great time learning a bit about another aspect of Colombia.

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

rhyming time

“History does not repeat itself, but it rhymes.”

Mark Twain nailed it. And the adage applies equally as well to our personal histories.

My first visit to London was in August 1973. Richard Nixon had just resigned the presidency, and I had moved from Greece to the United Kingdom as an officer in The Republic’s air force.

Like many a tourist before me, I stood slack-jawed in Trafalgar Square gazing up Nelson’s Freudian column. An older  Englishman in a well-worn suit and shoddy shoes started chatting with me. About what I do not recall.

The sights of London inevitably came up. It turns out he had a background in art and history, and had been the tutor to the heir of some dukedom or other. Or, so he said.

He started showing me around. It turns out he knew his stuff. I did not realize how accurate some of his tales were until I confirmed them from other sources years later.

He ended the tour at the trappiest of tourist traps -- the Sherlock Holmes pub. He was satisfied with a pint and the few pounds I gave him.

I cannot even recall what letter of the alphabet began his name. Let’s call him Nigel.

I thought of him this afternoon while we were standing in Bogota’s equivalent of Trafalgar Square -- Bolivar Plaza. Patty suggested we take one of the walking tours.

She returned with Nigel’s Colombian cousin -- wearing the same down-on-his-luck tour guide outfit. His name was Elgar. We think.

The fact that he spoke only Spanish was not a deterrent. Patty, of course, is fluent. And Dan and I were content to hop into the linguistic equivalent of Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride.

The tour covered a very small portion of Bogota’s central area -- Colombia’s Capitol, its presidential residence, some ministerial buildings with interesting architecture, and several distant churches.

The tour may have not covered much ground. That is just as well. Elgar had suffered a stroke that left him a bit eccentric in walking. 

But he concentrated a lot of information in that small space. We learned far more than we ever could have from a tour book. Elgar, like Nigel, knew his stuff.

Colombia only recently made peace with a group of criminals masquerading as revolutionaries. The war ran for decades. And the area around the governmental compund has long been heavily guarded.

Elgar knew the police, military, and presidential guards well enough to gain access for us. He formally introduced us to each of the guards, and they all greeted him rather indulgently. We never discovered the subtext -- though it was obvious there was one.

And, like any good performance, there were rules. No photographs here. Some there. No walking on the sidewalk. No spelling Colombia with a "u."

We were able to get a close up look at the president’s residence and office -- from the outside, of course. And, at Elgar’s request especially for us, he convinced the presidential guards at the front of the “white house” to perform a reduced changing of the guard.

On my last visit to Washington, DC, the security around the Capitol and the White House was so thick that you would believe the United States was at war with Germany, Italy, and Japan. But, of course, when we were, the security was nowhere near as thick as it is these days.

The young men we met were professional, but took the time to greet both Elgar and us. We ended up posing with one after another until I felt as if I was on an international dignitary tour.

And Elgar? He wanted us to pass on a message to our friends. Colombia is a beautiful country to visit. Everyone we have talked to is proud to be a Colombian. The country -- and its people -- invite all of you to come for a visit.

I second him. I expected a lot from Colombia. And it is delivering even more.

Our afternoon government tour was only a small part of our day.

We spent most of our time in a series of museums. The Botero Museum -- with its millions of dollars worth of Botero’s paintings and sculpture in their distinctive foreshortened perspective, and the associated international art collection with works from some of the art world’s most famous dadaists, expressionists, and impressionists. The Casa de Moneda with its exhibits of the various currencies used in Colombia through its history. And, certainly not least, a museum devoted to the modern art produced exclusively by Colombians.

But those are tales for another day. And I will tell them later. The Botero Museum alone was the highlight of our day.

To all of the Nigels and Elgars out there in our various worlds, I commend you. The amateur historian is a treasure for any country. Especially, when the historian is willing to rhyme history in his patriotic love.

We lift one to you and all your colleagues.