Luke's South American Diary
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September 1997

2 September 1997

After a relatively modest stay of 3 weeks in the hotel, we parted company like old friends, despite some heated exchanges over the bill, which came to an unbelievable 9 million pesos (I know a peso is not worth very much – the exchange rate, which had been quite stable for some time before we arrived, started to go haywire soon after, an effect we seem to have wherever we go – but it still seemed a very large number). We loaded all our accumulated boxes, bags and cases in Julie’s Blazer like a family of well-to-do vagrants on the move, and I imagine the hotel staff breathed a (very polite) sigh of relief when we were gone. I was back within hours anyway, as Maritza had packed the hotel’s coffee-maker (which incidentally had seen good service cooking everything from soup to pasta for Elena), thinking it was ours, and I had forgotten to give in the keys anyway!

But, at any rate, by the end of August we were (sort of) installed in our new apartment. Compared with the shenanigans over the previous (abortive) contract, these negotiations went quite smoothly, and the owner seemed genuinely reliable and trustworthy – a real caballero in fact. The apartment, which is huge even by our spoilt ex-pat standards, was meticulously cleaned and painted, and the owner pointed out to us many minor faults, which we would probably never have noticed, and which he proceeded to fix for us without our even asking. Granted the pace of the repairs slackened considerably when we had paid him the first quarter’s rent, but even so we were well pleased with the way things were going. As an example of how big the aprtment is, I had to go out and buy 20 light bulbs in addition to the many halogens and fluorescents already in place.

It is situated right at the northern end of Bogotá in one of the city’s
Photo: View from apartment, Bogotá, Colombia. Sep 97.
View from apartment, Bogotá, Colombia. Sep 97.
few leafy suburbs, and on the slopes of the mountains which flank Bogotá in much the same way as in Caracas. Although a long way from the old centre of town, then, it does have the distinct advantage of being just ten to fifteen minutes from Julie’s office, near many of the best shopping centres, and away from the horrendous traffic and smog of the city centre. Up on the eighth floor, and well above the flat plain on which Bogotá is built, we also have one of the city’s few good views, (almost 360°) which transforms into a splendid light-show at night. The apartment is light and airy, and we had started trying to teach Elena not to smear Play-Doh on the carpets, nor throw herself off the vertiginous balconies.

Of course not everything has been plain sailing. We were still without furniture, for example, and were camped out in sleeping bags in the middle of a vast expanse of carpet, although with the necessities we had brought with us and the odds and ends we had bought here, it seemed likely that we would survive another week (and anyway it was preferable to another week in a hotel. Something else we had not bargained for (and no-one volunteered us the information) was water-rationing on a daily long-term basis. Apparently this was city-wide due to major repair to the main pipes, which started as long ago as last May, although at least the rationing times were reasonable and regular.

The security in the complex looks impressive, which is I suppose at least half the battle, but is in fact pretty cursory. We pass in and out of the conjunto with impunity, despite not having the correct stickers yet, mainly because we look foreign and our cars are quite new (if dirty). On the first day, I merely told the guard on the gates of the building itself (who wears fatigues and a scarlet beret, but is only about 1.7m tall and looks disarmingly like Prince) that we were the new tenants in the penthouse, and he jumped to open the gates despite not knowing us from Adam (and Eve). All the same it is, I suppose, at least sufficient to deter the hordes from the local barrio.

Meanwhile, Julie has been receiving a double-dose of the removal blues, as her new office has been completely remodelled from the shell inwards, and has proved quite a series of headaches for her. Even her normally tranquil approach to such things has been severely rattled at times, when things have been delayed beyond all reason, or when items had been installed without any prior approval or notice. But at least they were out of the cramped temporary offices which had served for the previous month or so – namely the spare bedroom of her deputy, complete with fluffy toys and even a bed for when it all became too much – even if they were working in the latter stages of a building site. Her colleagues at the bank in Toronto just could not believe why it was taking so long to set up the office – if only they knew to what lengths she had been in order to expedite it thus far!

22 September 1997 Back to top

An early learning experience happened just recently, when we were in a small local restaurant, with the car parked just outside, some three or four metres away and in plain sight. The restaurant owner suddenly went dashing outside, gesticulating wildly, and shooing away another car which we had not notice pull up on the road-side directly behind ours. Apparently, someone had been unscrewing our spare wheel, (a common problem with Blazers, it seems, although we had no idea), under cover of their own car, and the restaurant owner had luckily caught them halfway through. He then helped us screw it back on, explained how to put a lock on it, and generally lectured us on security. It is sometimes difficult to believe that those kind of criminals exist in the same city as people of such urbanity and kind-heartedness.

Although the water rationing has been continuing unabated, there is now the threat of further rationing even when the pipe repairs are completed, this time due to a lack of rain, apparently all due to the El Niño phenomenon, (yesterday it rained hard for the first time since our arrival, drenching Bogotá, and apparently causing floods near the coast, but somehow it missed Bogotá’s main reservoirs completely!). In addition to water cuts, the lack of rain also raises the spectre of electricity cuts too, due to the country’s reliance on hydro-electric power.

This year’s Dia de Amor y Amistad (the Colombian equivalent of Valentine’s Day) passed off well this year with only 28 violent deaths compared to last year’s 44! Statistics for the nine months to September apparently showed a similar improvement - just 2,143 violent deaths!.

Elena, who seemed at first to have settled in very well, has been increasingly cantankerous, partly because she has been cutting her last four molars to be fair, but she has also been demonstrating text-book "Terrible Two’s Syndrome" paddies at the drop of a hat. We should really have known
Photo: Elena painting, Bogotá, Colombia. Sep 97.
Elena painting, Bogotá, Colombia. Sep 97.
better than to think that we had put all that behind us a year ago! In addition, hardly a day has gone by when at least one of us, usually Elena, and sometimes all of us, has not been suffering from a cold or a virus of some sort. However, I do get quite a kick from hearing her ever-growing facility and confidence in Spanish, and her ability to change and even translate between English and Spanish with no apparent effort. As I also do from her complete inability to understand that going for a ride on a llama is in no way more exceptional than going for a ride on a horse or donkey (she does all three regularly), and the way she will ask for an arepa (the staple diet here even more so than in Venezuela) in the same way as an English child will ask for a sandwich. It remains to be seen just how far she will take her most recent craze for yoghurt – she is currently approaching four pots per day – can too much yoghurt possibly be bad for you?

Maritza seems happy enough in her non-committal sort of way. She was clearly quite home-sick at the start, and became so bored in the mornings (with Elena at school), that she volunteered to do the cleaning, washing and ironing, which suited us just fine. She is accepting a minimal amount in pesos for her pay (although, as she very rarely ventures out on her own, I would be surprised if she was spending much of that), and we send the rest on to her family in Venezuela. She has a nice room with a view, next door to Elena’s (the maid’s room being ridiculously small and pokey despite the size of the apartment), and, although Elena tends to burst in on her unanounced even during the time when Maritza is supposed to be off-duty, (and we have never really discussed exactly what those hours are), it all seems to be working out fine.

Our first real excursion of any interest within Bogotá was up the cable car to the shrine and church of Monserrate, a popular place of pilgrimage,
Photo: Monserrate, Bogotá, Colombia. Sep 97.
Monserrate, Bogotá, Colombia. Sep 97.
which stands at about 3,100m on the crest of the wooded mountains overlooking the city. The view over the red roofs of the old town, and the mass of concrete and brick which constitutes the rest of the city, is spectacular, and the setting very pleasant with cobbled streets, whitewashed arches and some old houses, which now serve as restaurants. On a Sunday afternoon it was seething with pick-nickers, tourists and worshippers, but at least it was relatively safe, and made for an enjoyable family jaunt. (Certainly it begged comparisons with Caracas, whose cable car has been out of order for nearly twenty years now, although I am told it has just been privatised). We finished off with a stroll around the old centre of Bogotá and the historic colonial neighbourhood of La Candelaria.

29 September 1997 Back to top

Just six weeks into our stay in Colombia, and already we have identity cédulas, (which in Venezuela took about a year-and-a-half), and the next day I obtained a driving licence with a minimum of fuss and palaver (which we never achieved in Venezuela). Just another measure of the difference between the two neighbouring countries.

Nemocón, Colombia (steam train)
We hit the tourist trail en famille last weekend, taking the so-
Photo: Turistren, Nemocón, Cundinamarca, Colombia. Sep 97.
Turistren, Nemocón, Cundinamarca, Colombia. Sep 97.
called Turistren, which we had spent so much time waving at during our stay in the hotel. We went all the way to its terminus at the sabana town of Nemocón (no-one bothered to mention to us that it made other stops en route, including some at more interesting towns like Zipaquirá). We really went for the experience of being jolted along on a steam train rather than the final destination, which was just as well as Nemocón is a pleasant enough little town, but not destined to become a major tourist attraction. Before the train I can imagine it being a pretty, sleepy little village - Maritza mentioned that when her brother had gone to school there some thirty years before, it had been a tiny little village, where almost everyone wore the traditional ruana, or woollen shawl. But, as the hordes descended, (us among them), it turned into a very noisy, brash little place, with booming disco music to accompany the
Photo: Nemocón, Cundinamarca, Colombia. Sep 97.
Nemocón, Cundinamarca, Colombia. Sep 97.
skateboard competition in the main square, the restaurants outdoing each other in their attempts to lure the weekend custom, and the only old-timers wearing ruanas were either leading donkey rides or shaking their heads sadly at the shenanigans (and, I imagine, longing for the peace of Monday morning). The town’s salt mines, which would once have been something worth seeing, had long since closed down, so we contented ourselves with a bad pizza and (yet another) horse-back ride for Elena, before the bumpy two-and-a-half hour trundle back. Maybe I may have appreciated it more had I not been suffering the effects of a seriously ugly virus.

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