Big City Bogota – The Realities of Daily Life

Just as I wrote about the realities of life in Dhaka, I thought I’d post about Bogota.

Bogota is a big city with nine million inhabitants. The traffic is that of a big city. Muggings and robberies are normal here. Again, it’s not going to happen every day. I’m not sure what the crime rate is compared to New York, but Bogota doesn’t “feel” dangerous. It’s best to not go out alone after dark (male or female) and take the usual precautions that one would take in a big city. The rich neighborhoods are not free of muggings, sadly. There doesn’t seem to be anywhere really safe. That’s the main difference, I think, between, here and there (where ever that might be).

The people are big city people so they are not always perceived as the friendliest in the world. Outside Bogota, the people of Colombia are very friendly. Also, the friendliness level may change depending on if you are visiting a strata six or strata two neighborhood (six is the rich area). I find the people friendlier, the lower the strata…

And then there’s “scope,” scopelamine. Actually, on the walk up to Guatavita Lagoon, we saw the beautiful flower from which the “scariest drug” in the world is made. Read up about this online. Don’t get scoped. Watch your drinks when you go out.

Also, never let the waiter take your credit card out of your sight. Watch your wallet at all times. And, if you get mugged, don’t fight (at least that the advice I’ve been given). Unfortunately, some of the muggings have ended in murder which seems to exemplify how dangerous it is here.

But, again, I know people who have lived here for years and don’t feel that Bogota is dangerous at all. They walk outside at night by themselves and are fearless.

Some of the other downsides to life here in Bogota is the pollution. Also, to many, the fact that the weather is always 65 F, every single day, every day, for 365 days of the year… well, some consider it to be cold. This is not the tropics. It’s not Panama. I think that the biggest misconception that people have about Bogota is that they think this is a Mexico with warm weather, corn tortillas, beans, and sand. It’s not. It’s a cool, temperate climate with overcast days and rain on a daily basis. It’s also sunny every day. There is no heating or air conditioning in the apartments. Most people live in apartments. So, if you want a house with a large yard, then this is not the city for you.

On the other hand, if you like dogs, this is the place for you. If you like having a nanny (for your kids…), a dog walker, etc. then this is the place for you. Also, exercise, gyms, and plastic surgery are normal parts of life here. But, the sidewalks are cracked, the traffic can be awful, the drivers aggressive, and the politeness can drive you mad! In traffic, the drivers take out their aggression but in other ways, people are very polite, even when they keep telling you that you can’t pay there, or that you have to go to the next counter, or that the line is busy, or the till just closed, etc. It can drive you bonkers!

Mainly, for me personally, the lack of diversity and lack of quality Vietnamese, Lao, and Thai food is the biggest downside. But, give it 40 years.

The photo below is from one of my adventures when I went looking for a multi-pocketed “chaleca” vest like what the workers wear (and photographers and tour guides).

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Best Massage in Bogota

Some things are difficult to find in Bogota. Thai massage is one of them. The closest one gets is from Alvaro Silva. His phone number is 314-357-6656. Email address is sinergia79@gmail.com. His massages are 90 minutes long and cost 150,000 pesos. (Massage therapists don’t usually receive tips, and some refuse, so that’s the set price.)  Alvaro does Thai-, hot rock-, pressure point-, oil-, and Swedish massage. Plus, he also offers other wellness products like personal training sessions and exercise classes.

His massages are usually done on the floor on yoga mats (so he can pretzel your legs and arms) but he also uses a massage table if you have one. Only caveat with Alvaro is that he doesn’t speak English. It’s still easy to communicate with him and he can usually tell where you are in pain. Another thing that I like about him is that he doesn’t talk during the massage (unless you want to) and he doesn’t keep checking on how you like the session (I usually play music from a relaxation app on my phone so I tend to zone out and concentrate). Sometimes I wish that I had booked more than one massage because he’s spent the whole 90 minutes unknotting my back.IMG_2716

Most hotels have spas so one can get massages in fancy environments. I’ve only tried a few massage therapists and spas in Colombia. As this is Bogota, you can get the massage therapist to come to your house. The style of massage in Colombia seems to be mainly “Swedish.” I prefer pressure point and deep tissue. The other massages I’ve had here cost about half the price of Alvaro’s, but they were also only half as good. Most of the other massages involved lots of oil and Swedish style (light sweeping strokes). But, some people don’t agree with me and tell me that they get strong massages from other therapists (but each person has a different level of pressure that they like — one person’s pain is another person’s so-so).

My advice is to try them out and see which one you like.

 

American Grocery Shopping In Bogota

In my cultural classes about Colombia, it was made clear that “American” applied to everyone in this hemisphere, so the proper term for someone from the U.S.A. was “unitedstatesian.” Of course, here in Bogota, if you say that you are from New York, then the Colombians will say that you are an “American” or a “gringo” … so… so much for that.

Bogota has many “American” grocery items but some of them are very hard to find. But, most of the main grocery stores (like Carulla, Jumbo, and Exito) carry “American” goods. The specialized produce store, Surtifruver, has a meat counter and a cheese store, Cava de Queso, inside their stores. Also many items can be found at the Carulla on Calle 84 is what I call the “expat” Carulla as they carry pickled herring from Sweden and other items that expats look for.

IMG_7085The following are some of the items that I have found hard to find, and where to find them:

Sweet potato: sometimes called the “Peruvian camote” as the orange fleshed American sweet potato is used in Peruvian ceviche dishes (like the one in the photo above). This can be found in Paloquemao, not just at Peter’s Chinese vegetable stall, but at more and more places. They can’t be found every time I visit, but with more and more frequency.

Kale: Now it’s even available in styrofoam containers at Paloquemao. Also can be bought at the organic shop on Calle 72, and more and more, at the mainstream grocery shops.IMG_0463

Chili: It is possible to find chilis in Carulla, Surtifruver, etc. but the Chile Lady of Paloquemao has a wide assortment, both fresh and dried.

Lemons: seen sometimes in Pricesmart (Costco) and I’ve heard, in Exito.

Spring onions: Oh, you can find them, but they aren’t the succulent tender kind that I’m looking for.

Asian vegetables: read about it here.

Thai basil: It can be had once in a while in the Surtifruver on Calle 85. But, if you ask at the herb stalls at Paloquemao…. you will get some other herb with tight small leaves.

Mint: Also, if you ask for “menthe” you will get handed something that doesn’t quite smell like you imagined. If you want biggish mint leaves, then ask for “yerbabuena” and it’ll be good in your summer rolls.

Fresh milk: At Carulla on Tuesdays (and other days but Tuesday seems to be delivery day). Also, can be had from some organic grocery delivery companies.

Fresh cream: Nope.

Four Years of M’s Adventures

I’ve been writing this blog for four years. In terms of subjects, my informal assessment is that the social media world is most interested in Bangladesh… Or rather, my blog is one of the few about expat life in Dhaka, Bangladesh. When I check the statistics, I’m amazed that my blog has more than 3,000 readers every month.

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Having this blog has changed the way I travel, sort of. Mostly, my friends are now quite accustomed to waiting to eat so that I can take a close up photo of their food. Thank you.

 

 

Secret Restaurants and Speakeasies in Buenos Aires

Eat, drink, and be merry on four continents.
Eat, drink, and be merry on four continents.

There’s a well known secret about Buenos Aires. Actually, there are more, but here are two gastronomic ones.

One is that there are “secret” restaurants to go to (sort of like the inadvertent secrets in Dhaka). The concept is a fixed menu in someone’s home and you pay a suggested amount. It’s all sort of furtive and illicit, therefore enticing. The concept is the same as in Washington, DC and other cites.

Nola, come on in.
Nola, come on in.

 

In BA (that’s what the they call Buenos Aires), I went to a former secret restaurant. Instead of being located behind the closed door at the back of a garage, it’s now open to the street. Called Nola, it was started by a Louisiana expat, and it serves some good ol’ food. It was the best fried chicken in the city. The fried chicken has crispy batter. The sweetbreads with red pickled onions makes a savory bowl of crunchy goodness. The cornbread was more like a bread pudding and the tea, it was sweet. Best go early for BA, around eight, so that you don’t have to stand while eating your chicken. As the place filled up, the patrons spilled out onto the sidewalk through the open front. The restaurant looked like a former garage. They have a few desserts as well, including a cupcake sized blueberry pie. While the prices were not cheap, Nola was as sweet as its pie.

Blueberry pie, single portion.
Blueberry pie, single portion.

The second secret in BA is the “speakeasy,” A speakeasy refers to a bar that is hidden, just like back during Prohibition in the U.S. In current-day BA, these are bars with a fake entrance. The one that I went to had an innocent looking bakery as its facade. We went in and walked to the back “brick” wall. I imagining a secret knock or handshake would be required. But, we simply told the hostess that we wanted to go “to the back” and she let us through. Once through the looking glass, we entered a world of Victorian England, and I half hoped to see Johnny Depp swish or sway past wearing a cape. Alas, other than the disproportionate number of tall blondes, the only swaying I saw was a short gold lamé skirt that glittered and glistened as its owner made forays to the powder room.

A cocktail for 10 bucks.
A cocktail for 10 bucks.

Perhaps next time, I’ll blog about the 48-hour eating tour of BA to match my 48-hour food tour of Lima.

The World Market in Bogota at Codabas

The world's spices at the spice shop in the fruit and vegetable market.
The world’s spices at the spice shop in the fruit and vegetable market.

Where to find the world’s products in Bogota? Recently, I went to Codabas, a market in the northern part of Bogota. It’s up on Carrera 7 # 180. Codabas has a central building with fruit stalls surrounded by a parking lot of shops.

Inside the central building is a spice shop with every spice you didn’t know that you couldn’t find in Bogota. Cardamom. Chili mix. Fresh honey. Salt from the moon. Okay, I jest.

Clean fruit and veg.
Clean fruit and veg.

Some of the shops around the parking area include an Italian shop (they sell wine for less than 15,000 COP = $8 which is fairly cheap for Bogota) and other Italian items.

Frozen shumai dumplings.
Frozen shumai dumplings.

I was thrilled by the “Arabic” sandwich shop where I bought pita bread. (All of it. I also bought hummus. But, mostly, I was excited to find flat bread like I’ve found in the middle east.)

Hummus, babaganoush, labnah, and pita bread.
Baba ganoush, hummus, labnah, and pita bread.

Across from there is a Peruvian store but it was a bit pricey.

Arabic cafe.
Arabic cafe.

There were several fish shops which sold lots of frozen Asian seafood, like clams from Vietnam, and Asian foods (like frozen shumai dumplings). Plus, they sold a good brand (from Canada) of pickled herring. And squid ink. Just in case you were making squid ink pasta.

Pickled herring and squid ink.
Pickled herring and squid ink.

I will go back to explore some more but personally for vegetables (and especially for chiles and napa cabbage) I like the less sterile feel of Paloquemao a little bit better. IMG_8137Also, the Carulla on Calle 84 actually caters to the expats and carries many imported products.

Cartagena de Indias – The Most Beautiful Town in the World?

The lane where El Boliche cevicheria is located.
The lane where El Boliche cevicheria is located.

It’s just possible that Cartagena de Indias, on the coast of Colombia, is indeed the most beautiful town in the world. The old city, the “ciudad antigua,” is well preserved and pleasant for tourists, with lane after lane of prettiness and plazas. Wander from gelateria to ice cream shop (two are right next to each other which makes an comparisons much easier), after a dinner al fresco. The humid weather makes the juice (50 cents a glass) from the street vendor taste extra refreshing. Maybe try one of the “plantain hotdogs” which is a deep fried plantain stuffed with shredded meat and topped like a hotdog.

So pretty!
So pretty!

While this town is expensive, I recommend staying inside the walled city anyway. The city is different at night, and it’s nice to call it home for a while. During the day, enjoy the ridiculously picturesque lanes. Sure, it’s touristy but the vendors are not unpleasantly aggressive.

Many buildings are a cheery yellow color.
Many buildings are a cheery yellow color.

If you want, take a day trip to one of the nature reserves located out in the Caribbean. The main attractions in Cartagena for tourists seem to be the warmth, the beaches, the castle of St. Philip (“castillo san felipe”) and the walled city itself. Just outside the walled old city is the Getsemani, a neighborhood getting more publicity these days for its culture rather than for being the red light district.

The modern hotel strip of Cartagena (pronounced “Car-ta-heh-nah”), called the big mouth, “boca grande,” is a bit outside the walled city.

The famous walls make for a pleasant walk. The cars enter through small portholes.
The famous walls make for a pleasant walk. The cars enter through small gates under your feet.

Speaking of “Car-ta-HAY-nah” — If you go looking for scenes from the movie, Romancing the Stone, you will not find it since that was film was filmed in Mexico. But never mind, Cartagena de Indias will romance you (couldn’t resist!) even if you are made of stone. And yes, you can buy emeralds here (more on emeralds later).

The fruit ladies are famous! At over ten dollars for a bowl of fruit, they smile all the way to the bank.
The fruit ladies are famous! At over ten dollars for a bowl of fruit, they smile all the way to the bank.
A view of the modern part of Cartagena.
A view of the modern part of Cartagena from the castle.

Learning the Local Spanish in Bogota – Carbonated Pig?

A "carbonated pig?" to non-Spanish speakers?
A “yes, here rich lecher at 3,000 and 5,000 with carbonation?” to non-Spanish speakers?

Having a non-Spanish speaking friend visit is the best language training. After all, it was up to me to figure out how to communicate. Here are a few of the Spanish phrases that I hear all the time.

effectivo = “cash”

tres quarto = how I like my steak cooked

muy amable = “so kind”

a la orden = what the shopkeepers cry out to get your attention, and so much more. It’s like “sure” or “okay” as well.

listo = okay or “ready.”

But, just when I think I’m getting less baffled, I go to Carulla or Jumbo, and I can’t understand what the cashier is saying when they ask me if I have a membership card? At least now I understand them, I just don’t actually know what they are saying…

Salt of the Earth Underground in Zipaquirá

Another chapel.
Another chapel.

Zip-ah-what? I played tourist for a day and visited the salt cathedral of Zipaquira. There’s no spelunking or crawling along on one’s knees. This place is a walk in the dark, more like doing a pilgrimage (like in Jerusalem on the via dolorosa) underground. The one-mile walk leads you through tunnels which lead to the stations of the cross. The goal is the large church at the bottom. At each station, there is a cross carved from salt and some kneeling posts. At some of the stops, there is piped music playing “Ave maria” which adds to the atmosphere.

One of the stations of the cross.
One of the stations of the cross.

As an experience, the salt cathedral is well organized and our English-speaking guide was both pleasant and audible (he wore a microphone). All the guides wear yellow hardhats so catching a glimpse of them in the mines adds to the experience.

The big cathedral.
The big cathedral.

At various photogenic locations along the way, the staff will take photos of you which you can then buy at the end of the tour. The end of the tour, at 180 meters below ground, has a host of trinket and jewelry shops, plus cafes. For those of us not moved religiously, the whole thing is a bit like a ride at an amusement park. Apparently, the Catedral de Sal is one of the “must see” things to do before dying. That seems like a bit of advertising exaggeration. The original salt cathedral was carved by the original salt miners seeking salvation in the salt. But, they were not engineers and therefore the original cathedral is too unstable for visitors. Hence this modern version.

A reflection of the salt ceiling.
A reflection of the salt ceiling.

It is possible to take the train, very slowly, from Bogota, and I imagine that is an experience worth trying.

I also think it is better to try to get away from the crowds. Alone in the quiet dark spaces, all the better to imagine meeting that knight from Raiders of the Lost Ark, guarding the holy grail. Maybe the grail is made of salt?

A deep cup of coffee.
A deep cup of coffee.

 

I Remember Eid In Dhaka – Bloody Eid

Foreigners warned me that the streets would run with blood. They told me to get out of town for “bloody Eid” which is the second Eid, Eid-ul-Adha. As Eid will be in early October this year, I wanted to share my experience from last year. A warning: while I am not going to post the most graphic photos, some of you may think that the ones I’ve chosen are still TOO graphic. If so, please stop reading now.

Forcing the bull to the ground.
Forcing the bull to the ground.

Early on the slaughtering morning, we set out for a walk around the neighborhood. All along the streets, lots of groups of men were butchering cattle. There were also lots of “professional” butchers with giant knives ready to butcher for a fee. In reality, once an animal was forced to its knees and had its throat cut, the butchering only took about ten minutes (everything is done halal). Everything was very organized and there was a constant washing and sweeping of the streets. Everyone worked together. The hides were stacked up on rickshaws and taken away.

The streets are cleaned constantly during butchering.
The streets are cleaned constantly during butchering.

Perhaps the most surprising thing for an expat started a few days before the butchering. I came down one day to find a doe eyed bull tethered in the garage. Then, after the day of slaughtering, there were only the hooves and a newly washed patch of cement where once the bull had been.

Butchering is done on the streets.
Butchering is done on the streets.

While plastic shopping bags are banned in Bangladesh, I did see during Eid, lots of beef being sold in clear plastic bags. To the Bangladeshis, this is a big family holiday. I wish them a happy Eid!

A professional butcher for hire.
A professional butcher for hire.

The Bangladeshis told me that slaughtering a cow (actually, they meant a bull — read about my visit to the cow market) was traditional. Normally, a bull or goat (if your circumstances are lesser) or camel (if you have lots of money), is kept tethered until it is slaughtered. Then the meat is shared out to family, friends, and poor people as an act of charity.

The "cow" is cut up quickly after the skin is peeled open.
The “cow” is cut up quickly after the skin is peeled open.

During Eid, the town is empty as everyone is off with their families. Apparently, Bogota also empties out in December for the same reason. And then the traffic is better, a stark contrast to the traffic in Dhaka.

The Market in Bogota – Paloquemao

A salesman peeks out from his herb stall at Paloquemao market.
A salesman peeks out from his herb stall at Paloquemao market.

Paloquemao is possibly the most famous market in Bogota. Paloquemao is located in the west of Bogota. As people often refer to it as the “flower market,” I had expected rows and rows of flower stalls under and open roof.

One of the passages in the market.
One of the passages in the market.

Instead, Paloquemao was a warren of narrow stalls all bunched together like a souk. There were separate sections for fruit, meat, house plants, and food stalls. The prices were better than at the supermarkets.

The fruit lady was very friendly and kept making me try new fruits, once I told her that I only wanted to try fruits I’d never tried before. I left with a backpack full of produce for 30,000 Colombian pesos ($15). It didn’t even occur to me to bargain. Should I have?

There is an even bigger market, Abastos (also called Corabastos or Central de Abastos), which is the wholesale market and apparently the second largest in South America. I’ll visit it one of these Sundays.

The array of fruit and vegetables from the market.
The array of fruit and vegetables from the market.

Trying the National Dishes of Colombia? Ajiaco, Sancocho, Empanadas, and Arepas

Ajiaco, soup with chicken breast, guasco, rice, corn, and avocado.
Ajiaco, soup with chicken breast, guasco, rice, corn, and avocado.

Every place has it’s national dishes. Here in Colombia, if you ask, they’ll probably mention the two most famous soups: sancocho and ajiaco. Or the empanadas and arepas.

I really like ajiaco because it’s got cream on it and you can add your own rice and avocado (like bacon, avocado makes everything better). The distinctive taste and color of ajiaco is a herb called “guasca” which is translated into English to “gallant soldier” but I’ve never heard anyone call it that. It also has medicinal uses. There are many types of corn in the world. The cob in my soup was different than in the corn in the U.S. The corn that most of the world, outside from the birthplace of corn — the central Americas, eats is the small and sweet variety. This corn was starchier and each kernel was much larger (choclo, like what I’ve had in Peruvian restaurants). The way to eat the cob in the soup is to take the handy skewer, turn the cob, and spear the skewer into the end of the corn. Then it’s easy to bite the kernels off the cob. I’ll write more about the restaurant where I had the ajiaco another time.

Freshly deep fried empanada and salsa.
Freshly deep fried empanada and salsa.

Every country has a dumpling of some sort, sometimes boiled, steamed, or fried. The other day, I had a delicious fried Bogotano empanada. The sauce was surprisingly spicy. Everyone told me that Colombians don’t like spicy food. That may be, but this salsa did not take prisoners. Wowza. Eating these empanadas from a street stall reminded me of the fuchka of Bangladesh.

Inside is rice, beef, and chicken.
Inside is rice, beef, and chicken.

As for the arepa. This one was made of white corn, griddled and brushed with butter. Inside was a center of melted cheese. I didn’t actually like this very much as it had a slightly soured yogurt-like tang to it which I didn’t find all that appealing although I love that flavor in dairy products (more about dairy another time). I’ve had arepas before which were spliced and stuffed like sandwiches but this one was more like a pupusa. Will have to try others along the way.

Arepa, straight up with melted butter.
Arepa, straight up with melted butter.