Category Archives: Travel

Bottles, Botanics, and Boteros

I realized after my last post that I write a lot about drinking.  I, and many friends and family members, enjoy a happy hour drink and drinks during lunch when on vacation, but I am more and more aware these days of the effects of excessive drinking.

You can’t go into anywhere without seeing signs like these, which are marketed to women and sold as “art.”

They’re all over social media, too.

Now you know me—I’m not one to be cynical—but is there some plot afoot by the Wine Bottlers Association of America to get women to drink more?

According to “the experts,” one drink per day should be the limit for women.  That seems restrictive.  That’s on average, right?  So can I have two drinks per day three days in a row and then just one more the rest of the week?   Does it mean I’m an alcoholic that I am asking these questions?

Before saying our good nights in Park Lleras, we conferred on the plan for the next day.  Ricardo, Roxana, and Gaby were going shoe shopping at a mall.  Lynn and I exchanged a nano-glance and declined to join them.  But we would meet them the next evening for another meal.

I was fixated on visiting the Botanical Gardens.  In the depths of winter, I become obsessed with plants.  I buy plants at the grocery and make plans based on whether there’s a greenhouse nearby where I can buy plants.  I repot the plants that have barely lived through winter, spreading dirt and tools and rocks all over the kitchen floor. My bedroom is so full of plants that the windows fog up.  Still, I want more.

First we had to find the Metro Station again.  Lynn and I managed to walk to Park Lleras, then using my unfailing sense of direction, we struck out in what I thought was the path we’d followed with the guide the day before.

Of course we got lost, but we saw some great plant sights along the way.

I asked for directions, in Spanish, and actually understood the simple answer.  It’s times like these I am so grateful for the four years I studied Spanish.

In minutes the Metro had whisked us to the stop for the Botanical Gardens, where we appreciated yet more murals—these were on pillars under the train platform.

The gardens turned out to be a work in progress.

“It’s not exactly the Lost Gardens of Heligan, is it?” Lynn commented.

The much ballyhooed orchid house held only a few puny specimens, although the building itself was impressive and I’m sure it’ll wow in time.

There was one column full of enormous Stag Horn Ferns.

Of most interest were the yoga class and photo shoot for … a quinceanera?

We had read that these gardens were home to “more than 1,000 living species and 4,500 flowers.”  I thought flowers were living species?  Regardless, we highly doubted if there were anything near that many species, unless—which is entirely possible—we missed some huge swath of the park.

There was a bamboo forest.

I have this plant at home but it’s about 1/10 the size.

The ever-popular unfurling fern photo.

After half an hour we headed for the restaurant, which had plant-covered pillars.

It was a very good restaurant and we spent a couple hours there consuming yet more ceviche and fish main dishes and a bottle of wine.  The girl in the fancy dress and her family—the women attired in bedazzled dresses and the men in suits right out of The Godfather—were seated at the table next to ours.  It turned out the young woman was graduating from college.

We hopped back on the train and returned to the square with all the Boteros, which had a museum we hadn’t had time to visit the previous day.

We saw this sign from above.  Hatikvah means “hope” in Hebrew and is Israel’s national anthem.  I had seen several stores with Jewish names but when I asked Daniella if there was a Jewish community in Medellin it was as if she had no idea what Jews were.

There was a collection of (surprise!) Boteros inside, including this voluptuous sculpture.

Rain, Snow, and Pesos

Here we are on our walking tour of Medellin.  From left, that’s me, Roxana, Lynn, Daniella our guide, and Ricardo.  See how sunny it is?

The sun didn’t last.  On our walk back from the Metro to Park Lleras, it began to rain buckets.  I was glad I had my packable poncho from the UK—and that I had actually brought it along.

As I write this, the sun is out in St. Paul and it’s supposed to hit nearly 60F/15C today.  Six days ago, we had a record-setting blizzard with 14 inches of snow that closed schools and businesses for the day.  I spent hours shoveling wet heavy snow and trying to get my car moved because the city had declared a snow emergency and there is a complicated set of rules for where you can park or you will be towed and have to pay a nearly $300 ransom to get your car back. I found a spot to park four blocks from my house then had to wade home through calf-deep snow.  The next day I had to move it again.

A guy who lives a few houses from me, and his adult daughter, came and helped.  He wore New York-style tortoise shell glasses and we made small talk about how the post office had accidentally delivered my issue of Foreign Policy magazine to his house. He was wearing gloves so I couldn’t see if he was wearing a ring or not.

My car was parked on a slight incline and the spinning tires had worn into shallow grooves of sheer ice.  It wasn’t just my car; there were people stuck kittywampus up and down the street.  A plow truck was jackknifed across the street, spinning its tires.  After an hour of shoveling and pushing back and forth with no results, another neighbor came along—a large guy with missing front teeth and a cigarette dangling from his unshaven face. “It’s a Mini!” he pronounced, as if we didn’t know that.  “Just push ‘er from the front on the side and spin ‘er around 180 degrees into the street!”  Which is what we did and “she” was free 30 seconds.

“I know cars!” the big guy crowed.  “I’m from Chicago, Illinois!”  I don’t know what being from Chicago had to do with car knowledge, but the next time I’m stuck, I’ll seek his help first.

Later, I helped another neighbor move her car.  When she lowered her window, a billow of pot smoke hit me in the face.  That evening I was so exhausted I could barely pour myself a drink, but at least I had waited until after the herculean physical exertion of car pushing and shoveling.

I got to my yoga class a few days later and realized I had no mat—because I had shoved it under one of my tires to get traction.  It hadn’t worked.  The spinning tire had just sent it whizzing through the air into the street, covered with black tire marks, blue ice salt, and crusty snow.

The point of this long detour of a story is, we Minnesotans tend to idealize the weather everywhere else and arrive unprepared for the fact that it can be bone-chillingly cold in San Francisco or Mexico.  Maybe, in my late 50s, I was finally gaining some common sense. Still, the poncho didn’t save my feet from getting soaked.

We made it to the Park of Bars, as Park Lleras should really be named, soaking and laughing and ready for some drinks and dinner.  We tipped Daniella generously (I hope she thought we were generous).  Roxana’s daughter Gabriella joined us, and we had a great long dinner with fantastic Peruvian-Venezuelan-Colombian food and several pitchers of Sangria.  Ricardo kept refilling my glass. Look how happy we all look!

When it came time to pay the bill, the tab was something like 350,000 pesos.  “I know it’s real money,” I said in a low voice.  “But it feels like we’re playing Monopoly.”

“Just take off the zeros at the end and divide by three!” Gaby kept saying, exasperated.  We eventually figured out we each owed $25 for a three-hour-long, fantastic meal.

Fat Cats, Fat Ladies, Fat Men

Daniella led us from the light tube square past a lovely old warehouse that was now the Education Ministry.

We entered a pedestrian mall lined with stalls selling everything from “Adidas” to batteries to bananas.

Here is Daniella explaining the significance of some indigenous jewellery.  “My mother doesn’t believe in religion and isn’t superstitious, but when I was a little girl and I got sick, she did buy one of these charms and tied it to my foot—just in case,” she ended with air quotes.  I bought two for the little kids in my life.

After a few blocks we began to enter an more open area leading to a very large square.  There was a beautiful colonial church—tainted by the fact that slaves had been sold in front—next to an art deco-era office building.

And then the Boteros began. I’d always thought of Botero as a novelty artist—an artist for whom it’s true that “a little goes a long way.”  But somehow, seen outdoors, in situ in the country of the artist’s birth, I became a fan. Here’s Ricardo taking a snap of Roxana.

This part of the tour must drive guides crazy.  We stopped every 10 feet to take photos.

This was my favorite.

We stopped for a coffee in a café overlooking the square. There were a lot of LLLs (large ladies in lycra) strolling by.

“I wonder if Botero was inspired by the women of Medellin,” I asked, hoping I didn’t sound like I was fat shaming, “or were the women of Medellin inspired by Botero?”

Daniella pointed out that all his figures looked like they’d been inflated with an air pump, not just the women. “He means to represent bloated political figures, and egos, and sometimes he’s just being humorous,” she said.

Our waiter had really been hustling to keep everyone served.  “He is Venezuelan,” Daniella said quietly. He is probably working illegally so they don’t have to pay him full wages.  It’s a big problem.”

“So there are Venezuelans here, in Medellin?” I asked.  “In the US, we read that they’re all on the border.”

“No!  They’re everywhere,” Daniella replied emphatically.

“And in the US they’re referred to as migrants,” I said, “probably because if they were officially declared refugees then the UN and US and other countries would be obligated to help them with funding.”

“Yes!” Roxana added, “They are refugees, not migrants!  ‘Migrants’ sounds voluntary.”

“They have no food, no petrol, no toilet paper,” said Daniella.  “How could you choose to stay if your children are hungry?”

We walked across the square toward the Metro.  This building, which looks like a cathedral or palace, is a government office building.

We rode the train a few more stops then got off to take the cable car system to the top of a mountain.  This is not a sight seeing ride, it’s public transport.

Up we went, over sprawling shanty towns. Six or eight people could sit comfortably in each car.

There was a stop midway.

We stayed on and kept going up, up, up.

Daniella kept saying the last stop was “RV Park,” which had me wondering if there would be trailer homes at the top.  Finally I consulted my Metro map and realized it was Arvi Park.

We wandered around the neighborhood at the top.  I imagine the cable cars solve any number of problems, like shrinking people’s commute times and helping women get around without being harassed, or kids being bullied or recruited into gangs.  Imagine, just sailing over the heads of your tormentors!

A little boy was running a street pet shop selling ducklings, rabbits and hamsters.

We walked to a cliff-side park where men were pushing little kids in what looked like go carts and young lovers were trying for a bit of privacy.  The smell of weed was pervasive.

There was a lot of poverty, but also a lot of art and people having fun out and about and clear efforts by some to improve their lots by adding second stories to their homes or painting them bright colors.

This mural says, “They tried to bury us. They didn’t know we were seeds.”

Medellin by Metro

Our tour was billed thusly: “You will take the public transport—the symbol of the city of Medellin, and visit the most important squares and learn about the extreme change that this city went through from being considered as the most dangerous city in the world to becoming the most modern city of Latin America.”

Daniella actually didn’t say much about “the drug thing” or Pablo Escobar.  I would have been interested to hear about it from a first-hand account, but having had a son who personally contributed to the international drug trade by being an addict and drug dealer, I was okay not knowing the details of how the US demand for drugs had made life hell for the residents of Medellin.

Daniella led us along the streets toward the Metro.  It was Monday, but a holiday, so traffic was light.

The walkway to the Metro itself afforded fantastic views of the city, with misty hills in the background.

The Virgin Mary stood guard at the entry to the station, blessing our travels.

While inside, there was a 10 by 30 foot ad for tampons.

I snapped a photo of the Metro plan since they didn’t have artsy little handouts like in London.

Daniella paid for our passes and away we went.  The station and the trains were spotless.

This was amazing, given that so many vertical surfaces in the city were covered with murals and just plain graffiti.  Daniella explained that the residents of Medellin felt proud ownership of their relatively-new Metro system, and thus didn’t want to see it go to pot like the filthy, tattered, litter-strewn systems in Washington, DC; London, Naples, and elsewhere.  I liked that.  A social compact.  If only we had more such things the US.

We rode the train a couple stops and emerged near the old central train station.  Daniella glanced around shiftily, then led us across the street to some metal barriers on the side of the station, which she proceeded to try to slide open.

“We will see if we can get in,” she said.  “Sometimes we are lucky, sometimes not.”

“Hey, hey!  Stop!  No entry!” a man in some kind of uniform yelled in Spanish from down the block.  He wasn’t threatening, but he wasn’t joking either.

Daniella looked momentarily deflated.  She turned and beamed at him as he approached, and they had a brief consultation. She led us around to the other side of the station, where she conferred with more guards.

I didn’t see any money exchanged.  I think we just caught the guards in a good mood. Regardless, they moved one of the metal barriers aside so we could scoot through to the plaza.

And what was so important here that it was guarded so closely?  This square was the site of Medellin’s city office buildings.  In St. Paul, you have to go through a metal detector to get into city hall, so Medellin is no more of a security state than we are.  In fact I thought there was much less of a military/security apparatus on display than in many other places I’ve traveled—notably London, Ramallah, Addis Ababa, and even Copenhagen.

But we were there for the art, not a lecture about government or Medellin’s recent history.

This soaring piece is by a sculptor named Betancourt. It contains all the elements of Colombia’s development, from natural resources, to horses and the rail road, to the indigenous workers and Spanish conquistadors. The four of us are very well traveled, and we were in awe.  The photo doesn’t do justice to the humbling feeling of standing beneath it.

We left the square, and Daniella thanked the guards who again moved the barrier so we could exit.  Across the street was another square filled with light tubes.

“The idea was to have 328, for the days in the Inca calendar,” Daniella explained.  “But they ran out of money so there are only 300.”

There was also a charming display of posters featuring children’s books, since the main public library was here.

“Are the tubes lighted up at night?” I asked.

“Yes, but don’t come here after dark; this square is full of drug addicts and robbers.”

Marmot in Medellin

It’s a good thing I friended our Bogota tour guide on Facebook, or I might not have known he was featured in a New York Times article about the city this week.  Here’s what it said about him:

“Cyclists here often seem as abundant as cars, streaming down equally abundant protected paths. Bogotá is credited as the first city to host a Ciclovía — and it still does, shutting down large swaths of street every Sunday for bikers, pedestrians and even acrobats.

“Itching to get on two wheels, I joined a three-hour ride that offered a fascinating look at the city through the eyes of our guide, Michael Steven Sánchez Navas, a graffiti artist and passionate enemy of inequality. He told us about Justin-Bieber-gate, when the Canadian singer tagged a wall under police protection just a few months after the police had shot and killed a popular graffiti artist — and inadvertently sparked a street artist uprising.”

If Michael told us that he, himself, was a graffiti artist, I missed it.  But it fits.

Back to Medellin.

The four of us sat around the lounge drinking coffee and waiting for our guide to arrive.

“Mota!” Roxana exclaimed, beaming at me from across the table.  Mota, short for marmota, meaning marmot, because I sleep a lot.  Roxana’s pet name for me.

Roxana and I met at the University of Minnesota School of Public Health where I was the director of development and she was the development assistant—a position for which she was way overqualified.  We soon spent our weekly meetings talking about our personal lives.  I was a hot mess.  My son was in jail, homeless, or missing much of the time due to his addictions.  I had been diagnosed with multiple sclerosis and was injecting myself with steroids every day.  I had such extreme vertigo at times that I couldn’t open my eyes or sit up.  I wasn’t able to focus on my job and my employment was precarious as a result. I either had insomnia or slept for 12-hour stretches.  Thus the marmota moniker. Roxana was like a mother to me during those dark days.

Finally, to everyone’s relief including mine, I was fired.  I went back to grad school, got a part time, completely flexible grad fellowship, and started to travel.  First I went to Mexico for a week to study Spanish.  It was such an exhilarating experience that I went back for three weeks, then three months.  My MS symptoms disappeared.  Eventually I was told there had been a mistake, that I didn’t have MS after all.  Now, I’m not saying that MS is just a symptom of stress.  Most people with MS really have MS, an extremely serious condition.  I got lucky and was misdiagnosed.

“When you first came to Scotland,” Lynn said, as we discussed how we had all met each other, “Richard was sure you had survived cancer or some terrible accident, because you had such zeal to see and experience everything. And you took all those pills.”

“Oh, those pills were just supplements that gave me expensive urine,” I said.  “And Richard wasn’t far off.  I did live for two years with that MS misdiagnosis. I thought I would be in a wheelchair within five years.”

That was 18 years ago.  When Roxana went through her divorce, I got to mother her.  Now that we’re both in good places we mostly talk about books, movies, politics, our families, and of course, travel.  She works two jobs and has built her own translation business so I don’t get to see her as often as I’d like.

I was excited to spend two whole days with Roxana and Lynn, and for them to get to know one another.

I had met Ricardo over one of many excellent dinners in Peru, where Roxana had been my excellent guide.  He reminds me of an old-time movie star like Cary Grant.  He’s smart, funny, and well traveled.  He worked for the Peru Tourism Board for years and is now with Regus , which rents out office space on an as-needed basis.

Our guide, Daniella, arrived.  She was a serious young woman, but she lighted up when she learned Roxana and Ricardo were Peruvian.  She was going to Peru the following week, so our guide would be getting tourist tips from her tourists.

Caracol de le Campana

I used the “emergency” What’s App number to ask Responsible Travel if we could add Roxana and Ricardo—the friends we were meeting here in Medellin—to our tour the next day.

“That’s fine,” was the answer, “But they will have to pay five dollars per person.”

Five dollars.  For a four-hour tour.  Done.

“I have no illusions of being able to find anything based on addresses,” I told Lynn.  We had both tried to make sense of the system.  The address of our hotel was CLL 11a 31a 70.

Lynn and I consulted the map, took a left outside of the hotel, and were immediately lost.  Medellin isn’t quite as high as Bogota—5,000 feet—but we were still plenty breathless.  Whichever way we turned, we were headed up a hill.  The few signs that existed made no sense to us.  But the neighborhood was lovely and I was in the mood for a hike after sitting in airports and planes and taxis all day.  There was little traffic, so hailing a taxi seemed unlikely.

“Let’s hail a taxi,” I heard Lynn panting behind me.  And as if she had magical powers, one appeared.  In minutes we were at Patrick’s Pub having a beer in Park Lleras, where we had agreed to meet Roxana and Ricardo.  As soon as I got a wireless signal there was a message from Roxana saying they were too tired and wet from getting caught in the rain to join us; they would meet us at our hotel in the morning for the tour.

Park Lleras is a neighborhood with many bars, much like Division Street in Chicago.  It’s a “safe zone” for tourists.  In addition to the Irish pub there was a British pub, complete with a red phone box out front as if to signal, “It’s okay!  We’ve got your lager here and sport on the big screen!  You can even call mummy from the phone box if you’re scared!”

We had a burger and chatted with the owner of Patrick’s, a guy from Boston.

“You should have seen this place on St. Patrick’s Day,” he recalled.

“We had 600 expats and tourists in here drinking green beer.  There’s this Irish expat, Jerry O’Brien, he drinks in here all the time and it’s scary how much, but on St. Patty’s Day he brought this Colombian woman he’d picked up at his bank for a ‘date.’

“Har, har, har!”  Somehow he even managed to laugh with a Boston accent, which I can’t capture in writing.

“After he’d had about six beers she asked him if they were just going to sit here and drink all day.  So he walks her out to the street, puts her in a cab, gives the cabbie a ten and tells him to take her wherever she wants to go, and waves her off!  Har, har, har.  Then he came back in here and drank eight more beers, then switched to Jamison and had 11 shots.  He was back the next morning for more.  A true Irish alcoholic.”

I felt queasy just thinking about drinking that much.  Time for an early night.

I always wake up first and go down to breakfast so as not to disturb Lynn, but it never works.  The more I try to be quiet, the more likely I am to bump into something in the dark and let out a yelp.

The breakfast area at La Campana was outdoors and surrounded by beautiful gardens.  I sat next to one of those walls of water that comes from some invisible source, making a nice swishing noise.  The breakfast was the same as in Bogota—eggs, arepas, fruit, juice, and coffee.

My appetite was a bit dampened by this large poster nearby.

“Avoid touching, transporting, and eating.”  I could do that.  Thankfully, I never saw any giant African snails.

Lynn joined me, then Roxana and Ricardo arrived and there were hugs and kisses and introductions all around. I had met Ricardo but Lynn had never met either of them.

“I can never remember how many kisses,” Lynn said.  “It’s different everywhere.”

“One kiss—on the right cheek,” instructed Roxana.

So now you know.

Fiery Waters and Stuffed Sausages

Too soon, it was time to leave Bogota.  I would definitely return to see more.

Our friendly driver and I chatted all the way to the airport as we drove past the throngs of bicyclists on a parallel, closed boulevard.  It was bicycle Sunday.

In the airport, we were looked after by the Virgin Mary and this hard guy. I wasn’t sure what his look implied as I took a photo of the BVM—was he amused?  Insulted?  Would he tackle me to the ground for taking photos in a security area?

Our 45-minute flight to Medellin was uneventful, but there was no driver waiting for us on the other end.  We waited 15 minutes, then I sent a What’s App message to Responsible Travel’s “emergency” number.

Responsible Travel quickly responded that they were checking.  Was this an emergency?  Not really.  But as the minutes ticked away, we thought it had been best to contact them.  If we took a taxi to our hotel, it might cost the driver—who perhaps was just stuck in traffic—his day’s big fare.

After half an hour, a man appeared and explained there had been two flights from Bogota at the same time and he had been waiting at the other one.  He seemed angry that we hadn’t been on the other flight. Had he not been given the flight information?  He stomped away with our bags, not looking back.  We ran to keep up with him, and this time I sat in the back because he was clearly unhappy and noncommunicative.  Was he mad that we had contacted Responsible Travel and “snitched” on him for being late?  It had only been a half hour delay, but we hadn’t known it was going to be a half hour, so what else should/could we have done?

When he dropped us at the hotel he managed to say thank you for the tip, then was gone.

La Campana (The Bell) Boutique Hotel was very nice, with two real beds this time.  The mattresses were as hard as concrete, and they must have been slung on ropes because they made loud creaking noises with every slightest move.

The art, once again, was “interesting,” this time by another European artist, Dali.

“There’s a mini bar!” I exclaimed happily.  It was stocked with water, which according to the menu cost 3000 pesos.  I was still getting used to the currency conversion and had my usual reaction to overpriced hotel room water until I realized it was only $1.

“Look, firewater!” I told Lynn as I held up one of three bottles in the mini bar.  And they were not mini bottles, but serious 750ml bottles.

Aguardiente literally means fiery water.  In Colombia, the eponymous local brand is distilled from sugar cane molasses and anise essential oils.  The resulting booze apparently tastes like pastis, sambuca, or anisette.  Ugh.  It wouldn’t be hard to resist.

Lynn was ignoring me, until I got to the sausages.

“Salchichas Viena!”  I called out.

“You’re mad!” Lynn responded.  “Tell me you’re not going to eat those.”

“Of course not, they’re pork.  But you might like them, British person.  Oh wait—they’re probably not proper sausages ….”

Lynn and I have had long conversations in places from Chicago to Cornwall about what proper sausages are.  Anything that looks like severed human fingers are not.

The wireless signal was strong in the lobby but grew progressively weaker as we climbed the stairs and walked down the hall to our room.  In order to communicate with Roxana, who we hoped to meet later, I had to leave the room and walk down the hall to the top of the stairs.

This was okay.  I had little Internet access for 10 days, and I have to say my mind felt calmer.  Did I use this to reset my cell phone habits?  No.

We were to meet Roxana at the nearby Park Lleras, so we asked for a map at the desk.

“No one can find our hotel,” the desk clerk said, obviously shy about speaking English.

“Not even taxi drivers.  Walking is the best way to not get lost.”

Lynn turned to me.  “So we’re stuffed.”