The International Writers Magazine
:Going South

Ari J. Kaufman

Despite having traversed my county through 45 states and nearly every major city over the past three years, my “international” travels were lacking, showing only five cursory visits to Canada and numerous sojourns to the border towns of Mexico for various reasons. Thus, when my girlfriend mentioned the opportunity to acquaint myself with her hometown of Bogota, Colombia, I was quick to accept the offer.

Bogota Bull Ring

Most of my friends and family had a similar reaction: “Can you bring back the good stuff?” I dare to think of what they were alluding to, but am certain it was not coffee.
In any event, money for “good stuff” aside due to legalities, I flew down to South Florida from New York, and on an early morning (the day before Thanksgiving) we jetted from Miami International, 1500 miles south to El Dorado Airport in Bogota.  Immediately after landing, you know you are far from Florida, despite the fact that the airport employees in Bogota may actually speak better English that those in Miami or on our American Airlines flight. You feel removed from the flat, languid swamps of Florida because Bogota is at 2500 meters, or about 8200 feet, above sea level. The mountains are large and green, the farmland is plentiful and the air is fairly lucid.

After a bumpy ride into the city, we had a wonderful dinner at Maria's grandparent’s apartment in the neighborhood known as "Cedritos."  The meal consisted of a typical Bogota soup called "ajiaco;" a delectable, circular corn and flour concoction with a mixture of cheeses.

I then slept my first night outside of North America, anxious to see the city of nearly seven million people on Thursday. We began the day by taking a lengthy taxi ride along a hillside road known as "Circunvalar" on the outskirts of Bogota. The city clearly lacks a sophisticated highway system, so you have to go out of your way a tad to get from one side of town to the other.
Arriving at the center of downtown at lunchtime, one quickly knows you are in a foreign city. Although many businessmen don well-tailored suits and the public square has vendors hawking food and souvenirs, the downtown seemed foreign to me, even European.

We snapped a few photos, walked through masses of families (schools get out early on Friday), panhandlers, and into the Museo de Oro (Museum of Gold) which is a three-level, well-kept building dedicated to some of Colombia's finest treasures. Admission was inexpensive, security tight, but the museum itself was quite unique.
I listened to an American translation of the entities within. Most of the findings are very valuable; so valuable in fact that Maria's brother informed me that Colombia could pay off its grandiose international debt with the value of the artifacts.

Much of the gold was found via the indigenous populations from the Andes Mountains and other Colombian mountains to the West of Bogota. They were used for religious reasons and also as ornaments for the body, specifically nose rings. Yes, nose rings.
After the museum and a little souvenir shopping at the local market called "Feria Artesanal" where I obtained various tchotckes for a little under $10 American, we had lunch at a beautiful restaurant a few miles away in the hills of La Candaleria, the oldest part of town.
At the restaurant, Fulanito's, I let my avuncular new family order for me. I enjoyed a Colombiana (a champagne soda), as well as empanadas, papas criollas and plaintains. It was delicious, fresh and apparently very healthy. You see more obese people in one day in the United States than in a week in Colombia for certain.
 After lunch, we ambled down toward Plaza de Bolivar in the City Center, past many antiquated churches, the well-guarded presidential palace and military/police station. Most authorities in Bogota wear army fatigues and carry far more weapons than any American police officer.
{One point of interest: The United States is possibly more lenient society on crime than Colombia, not to mention a far more open-minded nation in terms of race, gender and sexual predilection. This should be noted when American citizens condemn our citizenry as inexorable and rigid.}
A quick rest back at the apartment and then I accompanied Maria to a pre-dinner meal with her old friends from high school. We took another taxi (these drivers are mostly safe and trustworthy, but heed little attention to any road etiquette and have DVD players in their real view mirror, literally) and arrived on "crazy" Avenida 19 at a Crepes and Waffles place full of teenagers and college students. The food and company, like nearly all Colombians, were cordial. And, as I shared strawberries and ice cream with five beautiful college-aged girls, I felt for the first time as though I could have been in America...aside from the dearth of English being spoken.
A few hours later, I then went to a Thanksgiving type dinner (sans turkey) that I had coaxed/begged Maria's family into having on my patriotic American behalf at her aunt's beautiful, large apartment in the center of Bogota.
Another pristine day greeted me on Friday. Unlike most other major cities in South America, Bogota has nary a hot day all year. In fact, they truly have similar weather all year around: mid 60s for the high with scattered showers mixed with sun, followed by evening lows in the upper 40s. For me, this was ideal. Most days I wore jeans and a light sweater, but could have worn short sleeves.

Zipaquira Cathedral
Maria and I joined her brother and parents for a day out in the country and mountains outside Bogota DC (District Capital). We drove through Third World Ghettos, verdant pastures and university communities, until we eventually hit the small towns of Sopo and Zipaquira. Both towns, especially the latter, looked European, both architecturally and structurally. My only European experience in person having been Montreal, I was not sure I stood correct, but Maria's well-traveled, half-Italian father, assured me of such.

 We had been in the car for over an hour, along the "autopista" (highway), and our journey concluded at the Minas de Sal de Zipaquira, overlooking the city and mountains beyond Bogota below.
These salt mines are impossible to delineate with the written word, but the story (as relayed to me by Maria via the Spanish-speaking tour guide) is that the salt was obviously found, stored and shipped from within, but the beauty is also from the religious perspective. The miners were bored by their laborious days, so they excavated the mines to make it a Catholic sanctuary replete with lights, crosses, statues, a convention center and a usable church.

Afterwards, we found ourselves in a deluge near the Alpina Cheese Factory where we ate a light snack of...cheeses. The roads became flooded and impassable for a bit, but with Maria's dad's local knowledge, we beat the darkness to a wonderful restaurant at the top of a hill with a breathtaking view of Bogota at sunset through the clearing fog. The city kept disappearing then reappearing during our meal due to the opaque haze.

The area, known as "La Calera," is a night-time getaway from the city, just a dozen miles or so up the road from the city of Bogota itself.

After another wonderfully scrumptious meal and tasty beverages (this time, some drink called a "canelazo" was served as we entered, and malt beverage was found when we seated), I found a nice, inexpensive sport coat at a local mall, perfect for tomorrow night's festivities at the Bogota Tenis Club.
The non-stop excitement continued thereafter, as we again met up with Maria's friends for good times. This evening, I was taken to another slice of Americana within Colombia. It was called "Parque de la 93." The area had everything from clubs and restaurants to shops and an over-priced McDonald's, serving as a trendy meeting spot for young adults this Friday evening. It was night-time at this juncture, so unfortunately, I did not see the area in daytime to get further descriptions.
We dined at the fine establishment, Cabala, with Maria's acquaintances, including a couple from Bogota who now called Calgary, Alberta, their home. This especially piqued my interest, and I spent much of the meal questioning this 22 year-old gentleman on his decision to move North and his two months per year in South America. He spoke English, and that was a plus.
Saturday, I enjoyed another Colombiana beverage, and a nap after my $2 American haircut which was aided by Juan's (Maria's brother) magnanimous efforts of translation. Then, post-nap, we all scarfed down some good rotisserie chicken and prepared for the big event of the trip: Maria's grandparents' 50th wedding anniversary at the Bogota Tenis Club just outside town.
That, much like the rest of the trip, turned out to be a pleasant and memorable affair. Overall, I could not have accomplished nor expected more from a three and a half day trip. The people, friends and family of Bogota were more than amicable; they were altruistic beyond my wildest expectations.
© Ari J. Kaufman Dec 8th 2005


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