White Sands, Turquoise Waters, and Gunpoint Robberies: A Fun Few Days in Miami

If I were to be completely honest with you, I would tell you this: before I arrived to Miami, I had very low expectations of the place. Maybe I’m a location snob, but I like places rich in culture, charm and class – places steeped in history, filled with leafy boulevards, beautiful people and quaint sidewalk cafés (which is why I despise going to Brighton and pubs) – so Miami had never exactly appealed to me.

Pictured: the bane of my existence

This is what my face is like in Brighton

Nonetheless, I went there two weeks ago. I was met at the airport by Camilo, a friend of mine whom I had met a couple of years previously in England. (He is a Colombian who lived in Canada, and had I known he was now living in Miami, the whole palaver of not finding anywhere to stay until the morning of my flight [briefly mentioned in the previous post] would have been avoided.) As he drove me through the city, from the airport to his house, I felt that my previous notions about Miami had been correct – It seemed to be nothing but a vast and uninspired expanse of concrete with a few palm trees scattered across it as a half-hearted consolation. To me it seemed the place had no personality, no soul – the entire city, a grey expanse tinted a grubby yellow by the sun, seemed fake.

 
[Reader: if you love Miami and I have offended you, please do not storm off at this point without finishing – things are about to change, I promise.]

 

Though I wasn’t finding Miami to be a beautiful place (or even remotely attractive) I was, nevertheless, enjoying myself. I was spending time with Camilo and his sister, meeting their friends, making new ones, and generally having a good time. It was two days into my stay in Miami that my opinion about it began to change. That night I went, for the first time, to the beach. This was the first time in a year that I had seen the ocean, so to feel the sea-breeze, hear the sound of waves breaking, and look out at an endless horizon came as an unexplained relief. There was something about walking along the shore under the stars and feeling the sand under my toes, with the blue darkness of the warm Atlantic on one side of me, and the restless lights of the city on the other, which was calming and almost alleviating to me. As I walked along the sand I noticed the silhouette of a large piece of driftwood, bobbing along with the rhythm of the waves at the point where they broke onto the shore, suddenly begin to crawl out of the sea onto the deserted beach. I approached cautiously, (obviously it was some kind of sea monster) whereupon I realised it was a huge sea turtle coming to nest. I was even able to touch its shell (don’t attack me, animal rights people – I was gentle.) Maybe you wouldn’t agree, but for me this was an amazing experience.

 
The next day I returned to the beach, but this time in the daylight to swim. Intelligibly, the atmosphere had changed completely to that of the night before, but I hadn’t anticipated the kind of ambience that I encountered there that day. The whole beach and surrounding area felt like a party. Music played from all directions, bar patrons sipped cocktails along the waterfront, and people danced on the beach. Save for its hordes of people, the beach itself – with its white sand, leaning palms and turquoise waters – conformed to the paradigms of how paradise should look.


We spent my few days there eating out at restaurants, relaxing on the beach, and spending time with friends. I went to a Colombian restaurant to relive my time in Bogotá, where I ordered cholado – a beverage of chopped tropical fruits, crushed ice and condensed milk, typically mixed with ice cream. I miss Colombian desserts!


After going out for lunch on my last day, some newfound friends and I decided to go to Bayside – an area in downtown Miami of restaurants and bars with enthusiastic street entertainment all wrapped along the edge of the marina. There we walked around listening to the Colombian salsa that played live on the waterfront, and watching the couples who spontaneously began to dance along to the Latin rhythms. Impressive yachts lined the water’s edge and their proud owners sat out on them drinking wine as the sun went down. The atmosphere was like one big party and it was infectious. I loved the laidback feel of the place, and this was reflected in the attitudes of the people I was spending time with.

After eating at Bayside overlooking the marina, we decided to go to a late showing of Madagascar 3 at the cinema! The movie finished around 11, and while driving home, we all decided to turn around and go to Dunkin’ Donuts for a snack. In Miami, people don’t make plans – they just go with the flow.

 
There were around ten of us at the restaurant, and somehow, as we sat around a long table with our coffee and donuts, we got into an intense debate about relationships. Camilo had some very strong (and controversial) ideas on how relationships should “be done”, and the rest of the group disagreed. Then the disagreeing opinions of the individuals that made up the rest of the group began to conflict with each other’s disagreeing opinions, and the whole group ended up arguing discussing the issue with some intensity. Of course we were all very grown up and diplomatic about the situation, but soon we found it was 3am, and we had been in the donut shop for over three hours. It was time to leave.

When the discussion had become too much

Pushing open the doors out onto what we presumed was going to be an empty parking lot, we were somewhat bewildered when we were greeted by blue and red flashing lights, a helicopter flying low overhead, sniffer dogs patrolling the pavement, a cordoned off street, and hordes of serious looking police officers standing around their patrol cars.

“GET BACK INSIDE!” they ordered.

 
So we turned around and re-entered the shop. The man behind the counter asked us in disbelief if we seriously hadn’t noticed anything that had just happened, and our confused faces confirmed to him that we really hadn’t. Apparently our debate had absorbed all of our attention and the store had been robbed at gunpoint just a few feet from where we had been sitting without any of us noticing. I found this hilarious.
Here is CCTV footage of the whole ordeal. I can be seen sitting at the far left of the screen.

 

 


Anyway, along with that adventure, I had a great time in Miami. Being in a city with a 70% Latino/Hispanic population, its laidback and relaxed atmosphere was something to be expected. The people I spent time with there spoke to each other in a language that can only be called Spanglish – a tongue which oscillated between both English and Spanish equally, which at once I found both charming and confusing. I met many new people and I made some new friends, and I hope to be able to go back there for a longer time in the future.

I am now back in the UK. I have been busy over the last two weeks since i got back, so forgive me for not writing about Miami until now. Tomorrow I fly out to Menorca with my sister to meet my parents who are already there, and while I am there I will try to find a job. I’m writing this looking out of the window at a grey sky and rain, but I will be writing my next post from the middle of the Mediterranean in 30+ degree heat! Until then!

Advertisements

My First Camping Experience

On Thursday night I went camping. That is a sentence I would never have envisioned myself writing, and so what I am about to say shocks me even more: I actually enjoyed myself.

On Thursday night we made the two hour journey from St Louis through endless miles of open countryside – old white-wooden houses and bright red barns were scattered across rolling green hills covered in forests of cedar and oak, like architectural flowers dotting the landscape with an occasional burst of colour. Having just arrived from Bogotá, I was impressed by the quality of the roads – twisting ribbons of smooth tarmac lay streamed across mile upon endless mile of open country, allowing the driver to travel smoothly at an unbroken speed for hours; something I should be accustomed to, being from England. But I had unintentionally adapted to the streets of Bogotá, where holes and cracks riddle every road, forcing drivers to swerve, slow down, speed up – ultimately just to drive erratically. To come straight from Colombia to St Louis proved to provide a great contrast in road conditions, and now I have an appreciation for something I had previously taken very much for granted.

[On an unrelated note, I noticed on the plane from Bogotá to Miami the headline on the back of another passenger’s newspaper. It said ‘Los huecos de Bogotá ya tienen perfil en Facebook’ – meaning ‘the holes of Bogotá now have a Facebook profile’. Here you can see a video on the BBC’s Latin American page. You may not understand what is being said but you will understand my new found appreciation of American roads just by watching]

Eventually, after a pit stop/cultural experience at Wal-Mart, we arrived at Marble Creek campsite: an area in which the woodland had been prepared for campers. Clearings had been made among the trees and fire pits installed into the ground, complete with swerving grills – but that is as far as the civilization went.

Marble Creek – Alongside which is situated the camp site

The camping was for David’s stag-do (bachelor party for the Americans). Ten of us travelled down there in three cars for the night, and upon arrival all the guys started trudging through the woods in search of firewood. This being my first camping experience, I naively assumed that finding firewood consisted of looking for dead sticks on the forest floor. Apparently I was wrong. Whilst calmly wondering through the woods, collecting a pile of sticks in my arms as I went, I came across one of the guys hacking down a huge tree with an axe.  I quickly threw my bundle of twigs behind me in embarrassment, hoping to be rid of them before he saw me. But it was too late – David had noticed. He offered for me to accompany him and see how it was done. We waded through the woods until we came across the creek which gave the place its name. There we found a dead tree that was still standing in the ground.

“This will be perfect for the fire” said David.

“Shall we go back and get the axe?” I asked, but before I could finish the question he had his arms wrapped around the trunk, heaving it out of the ground with his bare hands. I asked if we should chop it up there in order to carry it back to camp more easily, whereupon he patiently explained that we needed to carry it whole through the woods in order to achieve a manly appearance of heroism and grandeur as we emerged from the trees.

Pictured: Manly appearance of heroism and grandeur

After lugging the tree through the woods I sat down and watched as the others hacked away at the collection of logs and full trees with axes and machetes. While I watched, others emerged from the forest with the same expressions of triumph on their faces as they carried even bigger trees than mine and David’s over their heads like trophies.

They would lift the larger trees over their heads and throw them against other bigger, more stable trees in order to cut them in half without the effort of hacking with an axe. This turned into a feat of strength in order to impress everyone else and see who was the strongest. I just watched.

After the lumber had been chopped and the fire started, hotdogs, burgers and steaks were cooked – naturally using a machete to flip them. It made me laugh to see one of the guys eating a steak using a split log for a plate, with a penknife and sharpened stick for cutlery; but they were serious.

Manly improvised cutlery and crockery

Turning hot dogs with the trusty machete

The stars emerged one by one as the earth turned away from the sun, and grew brighter as the evening went on. We ate hotdogs as the smell of smoke filled the night air, and fireflies lit up the darkness in flashes as they floated amongst the trees. We smoked pipes and cigars and had deep philosophical conversations about their benefits. It was generally concluded that a pipe lent a man an air of intellectual wisdom and was useful for pointing at people whilst talking and emphasizing your point during a discussion – no one can disagree with a man who is smoking a pipe – whereas a cigar has the ability to make a man look wealthy and sophisticated.

A Firefly

After hours of eating, joking, smoking and conversing around the fire, we all retired to our sleeping bags: we didn’t have tents, just mats on the forest floor. As the fire died down into glowing embers and the twinkling fireflies became the only remaining source of light, the stars appeared in all their splendour. We lay in our sleeping bags under a thick blanket of them; it was the starriest night sky I have ever seen; and as I looked up into the layers and layers of glistening lights the occasional shooting star would dart across the sky. I inevitably woke a few times in the night, but seeing the stars made the sleeplessness bearable. However, hearing the howls of coyotes and other unknown animals didn’t help me to relax, and I forced myself quickly back to sleep trying not to think about what was making that noise, and how close it may be.

The next morning, I was woken by the sound of a woodpecker drilling against some nearby tree. I emerged squinting from my sleeping bag to find that everyone else had woken up and packed away their stuff ready to leave, while I was still lying on the floor in the middle of everything like an idiot. I quickly got up and ready to leave, and within thirty minutes we were off.

As most of you will know, camping is not something I would have ever chosen to do, so I am glad that I had no choice in the matter and was eventually able to find out that it can actually be fun. Being around good people, having good conversation, eating good food and seeing good stars made it all a very enjoyable experience. I think that sitting around a camp fire and being surrounded by nature inspires a good time. However, I don’t think I will be making a habit of this. As soon as I arrived home I couldn’t get in the shower quick enough.

Toasted Ravioli and SUV’s: First Impressions of St. Louis

Finally, after 19 hours of travel, three airports, and less than two hours sleep over the course of two days, I have arrived in the land of the free and the home of the brave: the USA!

My flight out of Bogotá was to be at 7am. So naturally, being a good and punctual Englishman, I woke at 3 (I didn’t even get to sleep until 1) in order to get ready and arrive at the airport for 4, leaving three hours until my flight. As you can imagine (being in Colombia) the flight was delayed until 8.30. My stopover in Miami was to be 8 hours long, so the postponement caused by ‘technical problems’ affected a welcome delay – on my part at least.

Thankfully Miami airport has vastly improved since the first time I used it as a stopover in 2008. That year my flight had arrived late, leaving me with just an hour to go through immigration (coming from Colombia into the USA, this takes somewhat longer than usual and involves a lot of heated interrogation) collect my luggage, check it in again, go through security for the second time, and catch a flight. Of course this was impossible and the flight was missed – owing greatly to MIA’s impractical layout and streams of never-ending, motionless queues. However, none of that applied this time. Yesterday, upon arrival at MIA, I went through immigration as though through a walk in the park. Travelling alone after spending four months in Colombia (and looking even more sickly-pale than usual after just a two hour sleep) I was prepared for an intense grilling. This was not the case. The officer simply flipped over my passport, indifferently took my fingerprints, and sent me on my way.

“Is that it?” I asked, shocked.

He answered positively though somewhat annoyed by the question, so I quickly made my way to baggage reclaim before he changed his mind.

As soon as I sat down on the next plane I was fast asleep. I have a blurred memory of being woken half way through the flight by a stewardess asking if I wanted a drink. Unfortunately for her I was not fully awake and so after perplexedly looking about, eyes squinted, trying to work out whether or not we were in the air, I grunted incoherently before dropping my head again and falling immediately back to sleep; not waking up again until the stewards were preparing for landing.

As you may have gathered, I am not good at being tired. So when I met Mike and his assistant David at baggage reclaim 19 hours after leaving the apartment in Bogotá, and with only two hours of sleep in 48 hours (sleeping on the plane doesn’t count), I must have appeared as a zombie – traipsing through the airport with vacant eyes, dragging hand luggage behind me expressionlessly – a dead man walking. Or at least a sleeping man walking.

I was driven from the airport in the north of the city to Webster Groves, a southern St. Louis suburb which is to be my home for the next two months. Upon arrival I instantly fell asleep, not waking up until morning.

Today, as light poured through the window (and as the alarm blared in my ear) I awoke refreshed and energized, able to see my new surroundings clearly for the first time. I looked out of the window onto the quintessential leafy street that everyone would imagine when asked to picture a suburban American neighbourhood. Handsome white wooden-panelled and redbrick houses sit far apart from each other, surrounded by wide lawns featuring long driveways adorned with huge SUV’S, at the end of which are mail boxes perched on wooden posts. American flags flutter by each front door and huge trees line the street – the only thing missing from the neighbourhood are white picket fences.

I was picked up and taken around the city by David, who explained to me some of its history (I’ll save that for another post). He also told me that St. Louis is the biggest small town in the world, which I soon found to be true. It looks like a city: there are tall buildings, large roads, big parks, impressive monuments, etc. but there were barely any people, and the atmosphere was that of a small town where everyone knows everyone else – even though over three million people live here.

Looking cautious before trying the ravioli!

For lunch I was taken to a sports bar, where I sampled a delicacy unique to St. Louis – deep fried ravioli. I know, it sounds awful, I thought so too – but surprisingly, I enjoyed it a lot. I would even go as far as to say that it’s better than regular, un-fried ravioli! Here I met a few young people from the church who were very friendly and outgoing, and we were also joined by Mike, who too has been very hospitable and kind.

From what I have seen so far during my first day here, I can tell I am going to enjoy my stay. Before I arrived I had no expectations. I decided not to expect to like it here, and not to expect to dislike it either – just to wait and see what there is to see, as I had no idea what St. Louis would be like. But already I have seen that it is a handsome city, filled with friendly, welcoming people, and I know I am going to appreciate every minute spent here.

My Last Day in Colombia

I have yet to pack my suitcase: a task I am not at all looking forward to. At home in January, I calmly began packing with well-ordered, meticulous care just hours before having to leave for the airport. Upon completion of the task and finding that despite my greatest efforts of tidiness the case still stubbornly refused to close, I enlisted the help of my mother, who (like all mothers) has unexplained though definitely appreciated skills in making everything fit – even allowing for some extra room. This time, however, I am alone – without someone to expertly rearrange my belongings like a puzzle until the case can properly shut – and I am dreading this unavoidable, toilsome labour.

Today is my last day in Colombia. Tomorrow morning at seven o’clock I will fly from Bogota’s El Dorado airport and say goodbye to the land that has been my home for the past four months. It is hard for me to believe that it has been four months; to me it feels as though my time here has been much briefer, and though I am excited to be moving and seeing more of the world, there are certainly things about life in Colombia that I am going to miss.

First off, I am going to miss the people I have met during my stay. Though I have only been here for four months, I have made friendships which I know will last a lifetime. I will also miss eating fried chicken with honey (something that in England would raise more than a few eyebrows, whereas here the honey is given to you in sachets along with your meal). I will miss drinking vanicanelas (vanilla and cinnamon lattes) in Juan Valdez, mixed with a good spoonful (or three) of panela. I will miss hearing the sounds of Salsa, Merengue, Cumbia and Vallenato in rickety old buses and hurtling taxis, and smiling at the reminder that I am far from home. I will miss the outgoing affability of Colombia’s people, and I will miss their carefree, laidback culture. I will also miss these things.

I didn’t even like coffee before I came here

Nevertheless, I am looking forward to what the next two months have in store for me. There have been some unforeseen changes to my itinerary, and after staying in Bogotá for a week longer than originally planned, I will be skipping my stops in Bolivia and Los Angeles, and heading straight to St Louis, Missouri, where I will spend two months as the intern of Doctor Mike Peters – a close friend of my pastor. If I am honest, I haven’t a clue what to expect from these coming months, but I am going with an open mind and without expectations, and I am excited to discover what St Louis has to offer, as well as what I might learn there.

Last night I took Lala, the daughter of the family I have been staying with, and her boyfriend Diego out for dinner to say thank you and goodbye (the parents were also invited, but unfortunately couldn’t make it). I am going to miss them all, and I have really appreciated the way they have taken me into their home and treated me like family from day one. Last night was a great opportunity to say thank you and a good way to spend our last times together. The food was pretty good too.

Lala and Diego

Caught off guard struggling with the chopsticks

Today, as well as attempting to cram all of my possessions into the case, I will be rushing around doing last minute errands before I leave; such as taking advantage of Colombia’s low priced haircuts (I go to the best hairdresser in the city and spend less than £10 – less than half of what I pay for a cut in England – whereas a similar place in London would charge £80 or more for a men’s cut) and stocking up on foods I know I am going to miss.

But anyway, I better make a start with this suitcase. Wish me luck, and I will update you upon my arrival in the USA.

Three Days in Girardot

So I wasn’t able to visit Cartagena as I had hoped, but this week I did the next best thing! On Monday me and Lala (the youngest daughter of the family I‘m living with, who has come to be like yet another sister of mine) decided we should go on a short holiday to Girardot*. Situated in a tropical climate while being just a 2 hour drive from the relatively cold weather and almost daily rainfall of Bogotá, Girardot is extremely popular with the Rolos (people from Bogotá) as a weekend retreat – an easy escape from the demands of the big city.

Gloomy Bogotá

And so, the next morning we woke up sickeningly early in order to arrive at the station for 6am, and from there to take a bus to our destination. The bus left at 7.30, and just getting out of Bogotá seemed to be the longest part of the journey. As I have mentioned before – traffic in this city is a big problem, especially at rush hour.

Bogotá is the world’s fourth highest capital, and to leave the city our bus had to ascend even higher up one of the surrounding mountains in order to then begin its descent toward the tropical valleys. The temperature decreased as we rose, and the bus was sprayed with rain as we drove through clouds so thick that you could barely see 10 meters ahead. This didn’t do anything to knock the driver’s confidence, as he continued to drive with irrational speed along the snaking mountain roads. The knowledge that the road was edged by a sheer drop was something that I tried to ignore, especially when the driver decided to overtake immense oil tankers on blind bends. At this point I closed my eyes, deciding it would be better to die in my sleep rather than with the realisation that I was plummeting to my death down a rocky precipice, but somehow I couldn’t manage to doze off. Soon enough we had reached our highest point, and from now on the journey would be downhill.

I watched through the window at the shifting landscapes and was amazed at how the scenery transformed so rapidly – just a 40 minute decent from the city and already it looked as though we were in another country altogether. The regal Pines and Oaks of Bogotá were quickly replaced with stooping eucalyptuses and flowering acacias reminiscent of the Australian countryside. Eventually these were also replaced with tall leaning palms, banana plants and ferns. Along one side of the twisting road was a sheer wall of rugged rock dripping with vines; on the other side, the ground, rich with tropical vegetation, sloped sharply downward to a muddy river which, churning, followed the path of the road. Beyond the river the earth lurched abruptly upward again, forming a narrow gorge which the water cut through, and enormous boulders lay scattered across the landscape. The scenery looked positively prehistoric – I wouldn’t have been surprised if a dinosaur had come into view as we turned the bend, and for the first time I felt as though I was catching a glimpse of the magical lands described in the novels of Garcia Marquez.

After a few hours we arrived at a rather uninspiring town, and though it was tiny, we still managed to become stuck in gridlocked, motionless traffic. We were welcomed by the sounds of Colombian folk music drifting from open doorways; the calls of young girls leaning out of upstairs windows to talk to their friends on the hot streets below; the blare of car, moped and truck horns all sounded by impatient drivers; and the persistent cries of the street venders who stuck their heads and baskets of goods into the bus’s windows, trying to sell us ice creams, soft drinks, fruits and pastries. Soon enough we were on our way again, and within twenty minutes we called the bus to a halt as we had reached our hotel.

A collection of whitewashed, terracotta-roofed buildings formed the complex, which was surrounded by mango trees and coconut palms. Wrought-iron, colonial style street lamps lined walkways which formed paths between the hotel’s seven different swimming pools, and tropical birds of electric yellow or emerald green darted between the huge trees entangled with drooping vines in the centre of the complex.

Mango Tree

We entered the lobby – a sweeping white room with wicker furniture and high ceilings exposed to the warm breeze without doors, just wide open archways. Here we checked in and then unpacked in our room before proceeding to spend the next three days lounging by the pool, swimming, eating good food in the hotel’s many restaurants, and just enjoying the sun.

The hotel had a bowling alley, a massage service, numerous bars, restaurants, an ice cream parlour, tennis courts and swimming pools. The rooms were spacious and comfortable. But what I enjoyed the most was just relaxing in the hot weather, 30 degrees c, and reminding myself of how cold it was back in England made me appreciate it even more. I was told it was only 6 degrees in London while I was in Girardot!

We arrived on Tuesday morning, and on Thursday afternoon it was already time to check out of the hotel. At this point it began to rain lightly, so we waited in the lobby until it cleared before making our way to the street to hail a bus back to Bogotá. While we waited, I watched as a hummingbird drank nectar from a bush of pink hibiscus under the mango trees. I remembered my childhood summers spent in Menorca, and how I used to love wildlife – I would spend the summer holidays catching lizards and frogs around the house on the island! I even had books about the animals of the Amazon, and was always fascinated by hummingbirds. So one summer, when I was around seven years old, I was amazed when I saw what I thought to be a hummingbird drinking from the bougainvillea outside the kitchen window. I ran excitedly to tell my mum, and rushed to bring her back so she could see, but I was disappointed to find out that it was only moth known as the Hummingbird Hawk-moth. This didn’t stop me from taking delight in waiting for sunset when they would come out and drink from the flowers around the house, and I would catch them in my hands before watching them fly off again after setting them free.

Sitting in that lobby, watching as the bird darted between each flower took me straight back to my childhood, and the excitement I felt that summer in Menorca from seeing a real life “hummingbird” for the first time! I couldn’t help but feel a tiny part of that childhood excitement return as I watched, this time knowing that it was the real thing! Of course I played it cool, and just watched silently from my wicker sofa, smiling at the memory.

* [For those of you reading at home (I’m mainly thinking of my dad – remembering the embarrassing times when he tries to order a beer in Menorca), let me try to give you a quick lesson in Spanish pronunciation, as I know how it feels to read something with a recurring word without knowing how to say it: in this case, the ‘G’ is pronounced like an English ‘H’. an ‘I’ in Spanish is similar to an English ‘Ee’. The Spanish ‘R’ is nothing like in English. There are two ways to say it, but for the R’s in ‘Girardot’, it is similar to a mix between the ‘Dd’ in ‘ladder’ and an ‘L’. The ‘A’ is short, such as the ‘A’ in ‘cat’, as opposed to the long ‘A’ in ‘can’t’. The Spanish ‘D’ is much softer, and similar to an English ‘Th’. I’m trying to help, but I think I’ve just made it even more confusing for every one – including myself. Anyway, perhaps the simplest way to pronounce it with an English spelling would be: Heerarrdot]

6 Things I Like About Living in Bogotá

A few nights ago I couldn’t sleep, and as I lay in the darkness, listening to the amplified sounds of the night – a creaking water pipe, footsteps from the apartment above – I began to think about the things I miss from England. In my mind, I came up with a short list (which mostly included different foods and home comforts) before I realised that this is the trip I have been dreaming about for years, and I should be enjoying everything on offer here rather than thinking of what they don’t have from back home. So, I decided to make a list of some things that I like about living in Bogotá:

1         Here it is socially acceptable to eat tomato ketchup with everything. If you know me, you will know that there are certain things I can’t eat unless I have ketchup to accompany it (such as fries, pizza, toasted sandwiches, pies; the list goes on) however, in England I can’t help but feel slightly ashamed of this affection at times. Eating at restaurants (especially Italian ones) in the UK, and the rest of Europe too I suppose, I always feel an acute sense of guilt when requesting this most vital of condiments to accompany my calzone or whatever else I am eating. The waiter will always look at me with disdain before reluctantly bringing me the sauce, with an expression on his face which silently tells me that he thinks I’m an uncultured buffoon. Some restaurants refuse to serve it at all. Disgracefully, I have even taken to bringing my own ketchup to Zizzi’s – this being the prime non-ketchup-giving-restaurant culprit. Here in Colombia however, this is not the case. For example, one of the countries national dishes, arroz con pollo, is not complete without a generous splodge of ketchup over the top of it. And this is a traditional Latin American dish! Me and Colombia are going to get along well…

2         The moon is bigger and brighter. It might sound stupid, but it’s true, and I have come to the conclusion that it is because of the altitude. Being 2,625 meters above sea level, compared to London’s 24 meters, we are (if only minutely on the grand scale of things) closer to the moon here in Bogotá. The moon is something that I love. I can find myself staring zombie-like out of the window at it for hours – and even more so here in Colombia, where, being in the southern hemisphere, it looks completely different to how it does in England. The face of the moon here looks a lot more relaxed that the ‘English moon’s’ expression of permanent surprise. (if you are in the UK and haven’t noticed this before, look at the next full moon and you will see a shocked face staring back at you)

3         Transport is cheap. Though at times it seems life threatening (sitting in the back of a taxi which weaves a path around other swerving vehicles; or darts through a quickly closing gap between two rapidly accelerating cars; or veers abruptly aside into someone else’s lane to avoid an unforeseen pothole – all of this at high speed and in a car which has no seatbelts) the price makes up for it (as well as the thrill of adventure). Here, I can pay 4000 pesos (£1.30) to take a 20 minute taxi ride, which in England would cost at least £8; or just 1,400 pesos (40p) to take a bus from one side of the city to the other.

Traffic is crazy here (image from http://www.lifeisrealgood.com/wordpress)

4         Rice Pudding. Growing up in the UK, I have always loved rice pudding – a traditional English dessert. However, I can’t deny that the Colombians do it better. Here they use butter, vanilla, cinnamon and condensed milk (which could make me like almost anything) to make a richer, sweeter, creamier and 100 times more amazing version of the dessert. Trust me, you have to try it.

Arroz Con Leche Colombiano

5         People here are more polite (unless they’re driving, and especially if they’re taxi drivers). Whereas in London people don’t look at each other, not to mention say anything, the people here always politely acknowledge one another. If I’m honest, it took me a while to get used to. At first it would catch me off guard when a complete stranger would greet me while passing them on the stairs, and I would respond to their enthusiastic “buenos dias” with a curt nod, or one of those quick smiles (which are not smiles at all) that all English people seem to be expert at, whilst I briskly kept walking and tried not to make eye contact. However I have since become accustomed to it, and I enjoy participating in this aspect of Latin American culture.

Here is a scene I stumbled across when coming out a restaurant, and a good example of friendly people in Colombia: they were all helping to push a broken-down bus down the street!

6         The mountains. I know I have mentioned them at least once in every one of my posts about Colombia, but the mountains that surround Bogotá continue to charm me. Being from England – a mostly horizontal country – I am unaccustomed to mountains, and every time I look out of the window I am enchanted all over again by the rugged, green peaks which tower above the edges of the city, providing a permanent reminder of nature and the insignificance of man. Necessary, at times, as an antidote to the constant, frenzied activity of the big city.

Mountains Surrounding Bogotá

These are just a few of the things I’m enjoying about living in Colombia, aside from the fact that I’m thousands of miles from home and in a warmer climate.

I’m hoping that during the next week I will have a chance to visit Cartagena, a beautiful colonial city on Colombia’s Caribbean coast, but nothing is final yet. I will let you know what happens in my next post! Hasta luego!

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 )