The Houses of Saint Louis

One of the things I particularly like about Saint Louis is the city’s houses. People here take great pride in them, and making them look pretty – painting them in different ice-cream shades, adorning them with matching pots of flowers, decorating their porches. It really makes for pleasant walks, especially now in the summer time.

Here are a few photos I took of some houses while walking around the Central West End:

This last one is my favourite – I want to buy it from whoever owns it now! I guess I will need a job first though.

I don’t know if my photos show how charming the area really is, you might have to come and visit for yourself!

Texas – Part Two: San Antonio

Apart from gorging myself almost constantly, I was also able to walk around San Antonio and enjoy its tranquil ambience, rich history and warm weather. The city features colonial cathedrals, quaint cobbled streets, and Romanesque towers, all hidden like gems in amongst its tall concrete office buildings. After turning every other corner I would be pleasantly surprised to stumble across some charming side-walk café or an old fashioned tram rattling along a stone-tiled street.

I later found out that this is actually the oldest active cathedral in the Unites States!

We also visited The Alamo, a former Roman Catholic mission and fortress compound, and site of the Battle of the Alamo in 1836 (thanks Wikipedia). It is apparently a very important landmark in the history and culture of Texas, but don’t ask me about it – I was too hot and tired to be bothered to read the information provided inside the building. I did like the architecture though, and could appreciate its history though I didn’t necessarily know anything much about it.

My favourite part of downtown San Antonio was, inevitably, The Riverwalk – a network of pathways alongside the banks of the San Antonio River, creating an oasis of tranquillity one story below the bustling city. Elegant restaurants with little white-clothed, flickering-candled tables line both sides of the river, while flowering trees twist upwards and droop over the green water. Picturesque boats of photo-taking tourists glide slowly past underneath stone arch bridges, and the atmosphere is definitely one to be savoured.

Usually, I am not the kind of person who would be taken aback by such a commercial place, but honestly, I loved it. The fact that this peaceful place could be found just by descending a flight of steps from the busy city streets above made it all the more alluring.

One balmy night we decided to eat at a particularly classy restaurant on the Riverwalk. Feeling extremely sophisticated after being seated at one of the pristine white-clothed tables, and getting deep into conversation before our appetizers were brought out, I froze mid-sentence after feeling something warm and lumpy drip suddenly onto my head, down the back of my neck and inside my new white shirt. Already knowing my doom, I rushed (rigidly, with fingers spread out on stiff, extended arms) to the bathroom, and gagged when I turned around in the mirror to find the confirmation that, yes, a pigeon had decided to expel its bowel contents into my hair. In my opinion (and sadly I am talking from ill-fated experience), the Riverwalk is one of the worst locations in the world to be defecated upon. However, if I look on the bright side, I will now certainly never forget that place. Thank you, kind pigeon.

The Riverwalk allows you to see the city from below, so the next day we decided to get another perspective – we visited the Tower of The Americas. This tower with its viewing deck offers an aerial perspective of the city, and like the Riverwalk’s view from beneath San Antonio, the view from above also provides some tranquillity. From 750 feet above ground, the viewer can watch the hustle and bustle of city as though from another world, with the wind whipping through the air being the only sound he can hear.

This was my last day. The 5 days had gone quicker than I had expected and already it was time to say goodbye. That evening we went out for farewell drinks, and, naturally, being with Mexican friends in Texas, we drank tequila. (In an Irish pub, obviously.)

Cheers!

I got home and packed, and eventually slept at 3.30. At 4am my alarm went off, ready for me to wake up and leave for the airport, in order to head back to St. Louis for the next 5 days. As I said before, 30 minutes sleep the night before a flight is never a good idea, but spending the evening with new friends was definitely worth it. I was sad to leave so soon, but I am sure I will be visiting again in the future.

The Cathedral Basilica

This week I have left the home of Mike and Linda Peters – the couple whom I am staying with during my time in St. Louis – as they are out of town, and have moved in with a young family from their congregation:  Jason, Kathryn, and their two little boys. Here I am living in the city, as opposed to the county – the city’s leafy suburbs. Therefore I am closer to all the attractions the city has to offer.

My new view

As well as going to the zoo (which, by the way, is free despite being one of the best zoos in the country), I was able to visit the Cathedral Basilica of St. Louis.

Until now, I had never been awe-struck by entering a church building. The tall walls and high ceilings are completely covered in mosaics which form amazingly intricate patterns, and the light which pours through the stained glass softly illuminates the room just enough so that the tiles sparkle and shimmer as you walk about.

The mosaics cover 83,000 square feet, making it the largest mosaic installation in the world, containing 41.5 million glass tesserae pieces in more than 7000 colours. (Thanks Wikipedia!)

I was shocked to discover that construction of the cathedral only began in 1908. Being from Europe, I am used to these kinds of buildings being ancient – such as St. Paul’s Cathedral which was founded in 604 AD.  The St. Louis Basilica Is brand new in comparison, which was hard for me to believe when I first learned this, as it looks so distinguished and long established.  Installation of the mosaics began in 1912 and wasn’t finished until 1988.

I was so impressed by the cathedral that I visited twice in the same day. My camera ran out of battery on the first trip, so I made sure to revisit after I had re-charged it. The photos don’t do the place justice – it was hard to take them in the dim light, and you can’t appreciate the scale of the building and both the amount and intricacy of the mosaics until you are there in person.

Spanish Lessons, Deadly Fruit Juice, and Surviving the South – An Update of my Time in Bogotá

Yesterday, hanging halfway out of the open door which swung freely to and fro as the treacherously overcrowded bus lurched at full speed down the highway – dodging swerving motorbikes, kamikaze pedestrians and insane taxi drivers as it went, I was yet again reminded of how far I was from home. This led to a train of thought which ended with the sudden realisation that I have not posted on here for almost a month!

A lot has happened since I last wrote. Let me update you:

Firstly, the basil plant (as mentioned two or three posts ago) has unsurprisingly perished under the neglect of my family and the absence of my care. Here is a photo my mum sent me from her phone:

poor basil

Secondly, everyone that was here from England for the conference has now left. When they were here, they would ask me ‘are you nervous about this trip? How do you feel?’ and my response would always be – that, being surrounded by people from home, I almost felt as if I were still in England, but when everyone was to return and I would be left here alone, reality would hit me and the nerves would kick in. However, I was soon to find that this wasn’t the case.

Over three weeks ago I went to Bogotá airport yet again – this time, to say goodbye to my best friend, Diego. I stood amid a crowd of emotional Colombians who cried as they said their farewells to their loved ones (who were probably only visiting the next city for a couple of days – Latinos are very emotionally expressive people!) and waited until Diego was out of sight, waving enthusiastically along with his three crying aunties every time he turned to face us. When he had disappeared beyond airport security, I was hit with the realisation that not only was I not going to see my best friend for over 6 months, but I was now without my personal translator and tour guide! I was truly alone in a foreign country without any friends from back home. But somehow, as I walked back to the car, now alone, I wasn’t accompanied by the feeling of dread and fear that I had expected would come at this moment. Instead, I felt surprisingly calm, and as I looked up to the mountains I felt as if I were seeing them for the first time.

Saying bye to Diego

Another change since my last post is that I have moved house. After I arrived home from the airport, I packed my suitcase, left Diego’s aunt’s house and arrived at the apartment of the family who I am to stay with for the duration of my time here. The eldest daughter of this family lives in Windsor and goes to the church back home. Also, she once lived in my house for a couple of months, so in a way I suppose this is kind of like an exchange programme! Her parents, Mavir and Roberto, have taken me in as their own son, and her younger sister, Lala, has helped me to find a Spanish course, introduced me to new people, and has treated me like a brother! They have all been extremely hospitable and have made me feel like a part of the family from the moment I walked through the door.

Also since my last post, and probably the reason for which I haven’t posted in a while, is that I have started learning Spanish. Growing up, I would spend every summer on the Mediterranean island of Menorca, and for as long as I can remember I have always loved hearing Spanish being spoken there. I also have many Spanish speaking friends, and when I hear them speaking to each other, or to their parents on the phone, I sigh and wish I could speak Spanish too! To me it is the most beautiful sounding language, so I am very happy to finally be learning it. Just over two weeks ago I began a course at a university in the centre of the city which is surrounded by people selling some of the most questionable looking street food I have ever seen. It is a small class, just four people: me, another English boy who is roughly my age, an old French man (who pronounces the word ‘gente’ [Spanish for ‘people’ and pronounced like ‘hentay’] like ‘jaun’), and a young Chinese girl. I was enthusiastic to start the course, but that initial excitement soon dwindled when in the first lesson, all I was taught was the alphabet. Over the last two and a half weeks I have learnt nothing that I didn’t already know. I haven’t been able to move to a more advanced class as it is only a short course, and I left it until it was too late to ask to be moved up. However, it isn’t all bad. Every day after class I have one on one intuition with a friend at home. I am learning a lot this way and every day I am coming to understand more and more of what is being said around me, though speaking still remains a challenge.

More things that have happened since I last wrote include:

I was beaten at FIFA on the play station by a four year old child. No surprise there.

I was conned by a taxi driver when all I had was a 50,000 peso note (£16) to pay the 6000 peso (£2) fare, and given false 20,000 notes in the middle of the pile of change. Stupidly, I didn’t notice this until I tried to pay the next day’s taxi driver with the counterfeit money.

I gave in to peer pressure and tried a glass of the most disgusting looking fruit juice I have ever seen from one of the street vendors outside my university. Every day my friend teasingly asks me if I would like to try some of the white, lumpy liquid that churns inside a clear plastic container, next to a pile of fruits which to me look more like extra-terrestrial life forms, underneath the umbrella of the street vendor’s stall. On Thursday I finally gave in and tried it, and to my surprise it actually tasted good (once I had gotten over the texture) – like a mix of pineapple, strawberry and something citrusy.  However, I have since read that this fruit can cause Parkinson’s disease, so I won’t be trying it again any time soon.

Guanabana street vendor

Also, I visited and survived the south of the city, a place called Usme which up until now I have been forbidden to go to (mostly by Diego) as it is not as safe as other parts of Bogotá. Upon arrival I could see that it was not like the rest of the city. Whereas the north of Bogotá is a sprawling, vibrant and modern metropolis, full of upmarket restaurants and boutiques, high rise buildings, grand hotels, gothic churches and neoclassical museums; the south stands in stark and sobering contrast. The locality is situated on a slope in the foothills of the mountains which surround the city, so the streets rise at absurdly steep angles. A mass of tangled electrical wires are draped across the neighbourhood, above the chaotic, jumbled medley of buildings which, huddled next to each other, all rise to different heights. Most of the streets are unpaved, children and dogs run freely among the muddle of houses, and when a distant police car begins its approach, whistles can be heard as warnings between gang members and criminals. Though it is nowhere near as bad the shanty towns of South Africa, or the slums of Burkina Faso which I have visited, the poverty is still visible, and I found it very interesting to see how the majority of people live, compared with the contrast of the north of the city which, from here, can be seen through a smoky haze.

Usme, Bogota

Telephone wires

Anyway, I have made many new friends and am having a great time with them, trying to learn this new language. I apologise again for the unannounced blog hiatus, and I hope you weren’t all too worried about me! I will try to write again within the next week or two, but for now, I will leave you with some photos of Bogotá:

(these last last six images are all by a friend here in Bogotá, you can check out her photography here:  http://www.facebook.com/pages/Fotografia-KIKA-Santana/151949868172532 )