Luke's South American Diary
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August 1997

15 August 1997

Our last few days in Caracas were spent in a whirl of packing, sorting, cleaning, and unavoidable admin (although I was more than glad to be able to hand over at least some of the admin to Lilian in the office). One of the last things packed was the computer, and I took the opportunity to download some kids’ software from a friend, who was not too worried about copyright laws. When Julie, Elena and Maritza (now effectively promoted to part of the family) finally left for Bogotá, I had a thoroughly enjoyable "lads’ night out", my first such for years. Although a positively tame affair by past years’ benchmarks, it was still enough to produce an almighty hangover.

The car, trusty (-ish) companion on many a Venezuelan adventure, was technically sold when we left to an office employee, insofar as I had handed over the keys. But, as it turned out, we had been missing some documents for over three years, and as my ID cédula had expired anyway, the buyer had to obtain the missing documents, transfer them using a notarised power of attorney, etc, etc, all of which I did not envy him in the least. So long as we received the money (and so far we had only received half, although he is a trustworthy person, and an employee of Julie besides!), I agreed to him taking the car and doing whatever it was he had to do.

So, after a last swim in our pool, and fond farewells from everyone at the office, I was soon on my way to a new life an hour-and-a-half down the continent in Bogotá (although in many respects it would be very much just an extension of our old life).We had had, on balance, a very good three-and-a-quarter years in Caracas, but I was not so sad to be moving on. Our friends there were good people (although almost exclusively ex-pats to the end), but there were very few with whom I could imagine us remaining in touch in a few years’ time. Luckily on the last day it was rainy, overcast and miserable in Caracas, which made leaving the climate a little easier.

The apartment we thought we had secured in Bogotá was looking ever further from our grasp, as the owners delayed, changed their minds, kow-towed a little, and then finally started lying. After some increasingly vitriolic exchanges, we came to the conclusion that they were not after all trustworthy enough to deal with, and cancelled the whole agreement, which put us right back on the apartment-viewing trail.

Meanwhile, we were living in the very smart, but quite soulless, Bogotá Radisson, at great expense to the bank. Keeping Elena amused was somewhat tricky (especially when the pool was out of service for a week), and her, and our, diet took a nose-dive. The hotel staff, however, were friendly and attentive to a fault, and managed to ignore Elena’s tantrums in the dining room. Her behavious was increasingly erratic, and while I understand that she must have been feeling displaced and insecure, a good part of it seemed to me to be sheer bloody-mindedness. We were soon reduced to bribes of sweets and cakes, which, as I pointed out, only made her worse.

Bogotá, Colombia (Initial impressions)
So, with this background, we redoubled our apartment searching efforts, and quite soon had a handful of possibilities, with one gem in particular attracting most of our attention. In the meantime, we were discovering, of necessity, the local area’s playgrounds, of which there were surprisingly many, and most in good condition. We would watch the old tourist train which came past twice a day, and generally fell into a routine of sorts.

We made little forays out to the superstores and furniture stores on the northern outskirts of the city, which were in all respects (except price) just as good as anything in North America, and certainly streets ahead of Venezuela. We discovered several chains of supermarkets, all of which were infinitely better than the best Caracas had to offer, and boasted things we had almost forgotten, like clean, wide, well-lit aisles, debit card facilities, salad bars, friendly and efficient service, and a whole range of new fruits and vegetables to explore, in addition to pretty well everything which had been available in Venezuela. It was quite a shock suddenly being faced with a choice of ten different types of arepas, and indeed with a much larger choice of everything. Even Cadbury’s Fruit and Nut is widely available! The prices, however, as with almost everything, were substantially higher.

Despite the chaos of the traffic, there are several other respects in which Bogotá is noticeably more first world than Caracas. The cash machines, of which there are seemingly several on every street corner (all the banks are interlinked), are multi-language wonders, some with voice commands or screen touch, where you can pay a bill or obtain an up-to-the-minute balance as easy as take out cash. Stores miraculously open over lunch time, and on Sundays. On Sunday mornings and Bank Holidays, many of the main roads around the city are given over to bicycles, roller-blades and jogging, all policed by an army of volunteers (this of course wreaks havoc with the traffic, but is nevertheless a laudable – and a very popular – pursuit).

Our hotel was just opposite the huge Hacienda Santa Barbara shopping
Photo: Hacienda Santa Barbara, Bogotá, Colombia. Aug 97.
Hacienda Santa Barbara, Bogotá, Colombia. Aug 97.
complex, a beautifully-designed multi-level shopping centre, (complete with food court, fountains, gardens, etc), which would more than hold its own in downtown Miami. The supermarket in the Hacienda even has live piano music and a creche! Within a short car trip are two or three more large and well-maintained shopping malls, featuring everything from live music to free child strollers and guarded parking. One weekend there was a free festival of international theatre and mime throughout the malls and parks of the city (the French troupe we caught were bizarre in the extreme, but for free who can complain?). Really not what the name Bogotá conjures up.

One benefit of having Maritza living with us is that we can go out in the evenings with hardly a second thought. On my birthday, for example, we had a lovely civilised evening in a classy Italian restaurant in the Zona Rosa. Although, having said that, frankly, we have tended to spend most evenings quietly in our room, or amble down to the swimming pool.

I have also been getting used to our new car too, a little Vitara 1.6. Little, at least, compared to the 4-litre tank of a Jeep we had in Caracas – I have had to re-learn proper hill-starts, and how to move out of the way of
Photo: Hills above Bogotá, Colombia. Aug 97.
Hills above Bogotá, Colombia. Aug 97.
faster cars! Our first tentative little trip out of town was up the eucalyptus- and pine-covered mountain to the east of the city – after three years of mountains to the north, this took a bit of getting used to - picking our way through the knots of Bank Holiday cyclists, and past several little restaurants with spectacular views over Bogotá, the sabana, and the more distant mountains (some of these little asadero restaurants serve the best barbecued corn on the cob I have ever tasted). Over the pass at 2,900m, the road dropped down through green hills and cattle ranches to the tourist town of La Calera, a disappointment in itself, but set in pretty scenery and fresh, clean air – a relief after the unfortunate smog of Bogotá.

After our first week, we were already feeling quite at home in Bogotá, (a process which took well over a year in Caracas), whether driving back late at night from a restaurant, lounging around a grassy suburban plaza while Elena played on the swings, or just walking around. We were at times conscious of having flouted even the most basic of the security rules we were supposed to be observing, but the atmosphere was so convivial and unthreatening (certainly Bogotá feels less threatening than Caracas, generally speaking) that we were willing to let our defences drop for a while. At one point, ever-trusting Elena wandered off into the hotel kitchens with one of the staff members (soon to become a favourite pastime of hers), and we just glanced at each other briefly, and went back to our aromatica (the ubiquitous herb tea of the area). Elena emerged some time later, completely unabashed (which is more than we could say for ourselves). Clearly the greatest danger which threatens us is complacency.

The weather continues cold to our delicate tropical sensibilities (apparently unusually cold for the season), dropping to around 5°C at night, although often rising to around 20°C during the day (and the afternoon sun can be quite fiery at just 4° from the equator). The hotel, which seems to be much colder than outside, has amazingly gone to the trouble of installing air-conditioning but no heating, so we sit around in sweaters and coats, and creep under the quilt in the evening. Actually, perverse though it might sound, it was quite a pleasant change to be somewhere where it is not always hot and sweaty, and we have been re-discovering little pleasures like being able to cuddle up in bed without breaking into a sweat.

28 August 1997 Back to top

By two weeks into our stay at the hotel, we (and especially Elena) were well-known characters, although I think we were probably tolerated rather like a family of itinerant gypsies, as we carted a succession of our purchases (TV’s, vacuum-cleaners, disassembled beds, etc) through the lobby. Elena became a regular guest in the hotel kitchen, where she was spoilt rotten, and paraded around and amused by a series of willing entertainers, including visits to the staff canteen and piano lessons in the main lobby.

We continued to discover unexpected delights, like stores and restaurants selling soya burgers, veggy sausages, wheat gluten steaks, etc, and even veggy ham, mortadela and salami - vegetarian convenience foods for the first time in three years! It certainly helps having a telephone directory with full addresses (unlike Caracas), and a sensibly numbered grid system (to the extent that from the address one can pinpoint a house on a map with an accuracy of metres, even down to which side of the road it is on – definitely not like Caracas, which cannot even boast house numbers). The newspapers have complete What’s On Guides and film reviews, which even makes going out easier. Just the sheer luxury of having people speak Spanish clearly and intelligibly makes things so much easier.

A few more early observations and images: horse-and-carts
Photo: Flower stall, Bogotá, Colombia. Aug 97.
Flower stall, Bogotá, Colombia. Aug 97.
(the original rag-and-bone men) sharing the roads with heavy traffic and smoke-belching buses; flower-stalls overflowing with giant sunflowers, multi-coloured cala lilies and hydrangeas of all hues; the best croissants I have tasted outside of France (or, more specifically, Paris), as well as a whole range of scone-type things, cheesy balls, etc, which melt in the mouth at breakfast-time and turn to industrial strength rubber by lunch-time; cows grazing in a public park behind a five-star hotel in the middle of the city; "volunteer pothole-fillers", who never actually get around to filling any holes, so intent are they on touting for contributions; cigarettes for sale on the street singly.

Soon Elena started in her new school, coincidentally one of the most expensive of the 20 or so I looked at, but at least one with what appeared to me to be a healthy mix of play and learning, a good, friendly, informal approach, and right-on values (neither did it it insist on no less than three separate uniforms as some of them did). I have my suspicions that she would have been happy enough wherever we put her (provided it got her out of the hotel), but we can feel that we are fulfilling our parental duties too. Either way, she apparently acquitted herself well on the first few days, without disgracing either us or herself, and I am sure that five mornings a week rest are very welcome for Maritza, who has probably been bearing the brunt of Elena’s peevishness, and the difficulties of living out of a suitcase or two.

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