Friday, November 21, 2003

Letter from Bogota

Well, first of all, sorry I haven’t written anything in so long. I’m certainly not busy, so I must be very, very lazy. Here’s the latest:

Matt got his leave approved and we’ll be in the U.S. for two weeks over Christmas. We’ll be flying into Atlanta on December 20th, where we’ll borrow a car from his parents and drive to Washington. We’ll be in DC from the 21st until the morning of the 24th. We’ll drive down to North Carolina and spend our first Christmas somewhere quiet, probably Chapel Hill. On the 26th, we drive to the Johnson cabin in Franklin, N.C. It’s in a dry county (the South really has those), but there’s some wicked mini golf to be played. On December 31, we’re driving back to Atlanta for the Widespread Panic show (anyone got headphones I can borrow?). We’ll be in Atlanta until January 4th. I’m not really sure yet where we’re staying for most of the trip, but we’ll let y’all know as things get firmed up.

I’m starting to figure out the basics of living in Bogota: 1. If anyone asks, say you’re Canadian - they’re not as rich a source of ransom money 2. Never buy food from a street vendor, unless salmonella is your favorite hobby 3. Look both ways before crossing the street, even if its one-way, then run like hell.

I’ve never seen anything like the roads in Bogota. Imagine the battle scene from The Two Towers, the mall the day after Thanksgiving, AND Grand Theft Auto. Violence, chaos, and utter disregard for the rule of law? Fun! Not only do pedestrians NOT have the right of way, the government puts a star on the street wherever somebody got hit. The stars exist to warn pedestrians, not drivers. Awesome. Weirdly enough, I’ve only seen one car accident, and it was a minor fender-bender.

If you want high adventure for less than a dollar, take a cab ride. Bogota cabbies are notorious for breaking the laws of traffic, common decency, and physics. Stop signs are a suggestion, speed limits are nonexistent, and street vendors are target practice. Riding in a taxi is made even more fun by the fact that taxis are late-model Hyundais that don’t have seat belts. Sometimes there’s a belt, and sometimes there’s a buckle, but never both.

My Spanish is improving by leaps and bounds. I can now speak in complete sentences, thanks largely to my tutor, Diana. I meet with her three times a week, which can get stressful. When you’re in a class with 20 other people, you can hide. When you have a private tutor, information just keeps getting shoveled in until you explode.

I still make the occasional amusing mistake, mainly because some words sound very similar. Example: ham is jamon, and soap is jabon. I went to the store the other day and tried to buy ham to wash myself, but at least I didn’t eat a soap and cheese sandwich.

Last Saturday, Matt and I went to a Casino Night party hosted by the British Ambassador. The week before was spent shopping for a cocktail dress. Shopping in Bogota is interesting, if only because the shop clerks are even more aggressive than the cab drivers. One woman literally tried to block me from exiting the store, and then chased me with a halter-neck lace dress more appropriate for Britney Spears than an old married lady like me. The language issue reared its ugly little head: I don’t speak Spanish, and Matt doesn’t speak Women’s Clothing. We finally found a nice Italian boutique where they customized a little black dress for me.

Overall, fashion is more European than American in flavor. American brands like Tommy Hilfiger (known here as “Preppy”) and Esprit are expensive, but Moschino sweaters sell for only $30. Oh, and all the women wear low-rider jeans with significant butt cleavage. I’ve never felt like such a conservative dresser before.

Speaking of butts and cleavage, we hosted a Casino Night pre-party for Matt’s friends. We gained instant Kennedy class by serving cocktail weenies and Maker’s Mark. Then a fairly hefty swarm of us crossed the street and went to the party. I won about 40,000 pesos at the slots (about $13, served as a supremely heavy bucket of change), while Matt lost the same amount at the blackjack tables. By the way, Colombia is perhaps the only country in the world where you can tell your wife, “I lost 40,000 gambling,” and NOT spend the night on the couch. Viva exchange rates! Matt and I were also spotted on the local news. We’re famous!

However, we had to leave the party early because of the explosion at the Bogota Beer Company. We weren’t sure if Matt would have to go in to work, so we went home and drank coffee until we were relatively sober. (We also checked out “Hot Ticket”, the MGM Saturday night soft-core film. Last week was lesbian housewives finding themselves with each other, or some such Oprah nonsense. It wasn’t as great as the guy who turned into a monkey and then bumped uglies with a princess, so we didn’t bother with it for long. Besides, Saturday soft-core isn’t as interesting as it used to be, because they show full frontal nudity and tantric sex at two in the afternoon on the Film Zone channel. Wow, I'd never realized how prudish Americans really are.)

As for the Bogota Beer Company, one person was killed in the explosion (a young Colombian woman), and 72 were injured. The only American to be seriously hurt was an American Airlines pilot. Basically, a FARC operative was told to hit some gringos, so he lobbed a grenade into the most popular expat bar in Bogota. The grenade hit a propane heater and the whole place went up in flames.

We never went there anyway - it’s just not wise to be with large groups of foreigners. Overall, our lives haven’t changed much. We’ve been told to not go out with large groups of Americans, not to eat on patios, and to avoid expat bars. All of those things should be pretty easy for me, as I don’t have enough friends to constitute a “large group”, I don’t like to eat on patios because it’s cold out, and most of the expat bars are kind of cheesy.

Anyways, that’s it for now. Wubba wubba, good-bye, God bless (10 points if you know who I’m quoting). See you at Christmas!

On a random note, if you look at the top of my site, Blogger lists these searches as "related information": "7th Heaven" and "How to Make a Bong." Awesome.

Tuesday, November 04, 2003

Good morning from Colombia! Now that I’ve settled in a little bit, I thought I would let everyone know what I’ve been up to.

My last full day in the States was spent glaring at the movers, whose supervisors are going to get a piece of my mind as soon as I figure out how to make international calls from here. They showed up two hours late, left a crack in my window, argued all day long, and referred to my belongings as the S-word (and I don’t mean “stuff”). They also refused to properly pack my Aboriginal bongs. Bastards.

Once they left, Mike and I were presented with the challenge of cleaning the apartment before “The O.C.” came on. The solution was a game of “how many surfaces can be cleaned with a mop?” Windowsills: moppable. Bathtubs: not moppable. Ceilings: Moppable. Shannon: Not moppable. Mike: Eminently moppable.

The journey from D.C. to Bogota isn’t much longer than the one to L.A., unless you count my 3-hour delay changing planes in Atlanta. The pilot had to take his dad to the hospital, which meant Delta had to round up a new flight crew. All was not lost, as I got to spend some quality time in the E Concourse at Hartsfield, which looks like 1983's Vision of the Future. I can just see some architect in leg warmers saying, “In 2003, people will ride jet packs and live on the Moon!”

I finally arrived in Bogota, and the altitude is just plain extreme. I’m about 9000 feet up, which is almost as high as that time in college I took Dexedrine with a vodka chaser and watched TV static for an hour. I sleep between 10 and 16 hours a day, and usually wake up gasping in the middle of the night. I’ll adjust in a week or two. The buses here run on coal, so the pollution can get pretty strong as well. Maybe I’ll pop in to Los Angeles for some fresh air.

Although pollution can get bad, the climate here is quite nice. It rains a little most days, but the high temperature is usually between 60 and 70 degrees. It’s sort of permanently October here. No heat, no snow, no summer and no winter.

The apartment, like Colombia itself, is lovely and scary all at once. State pays for us to live well, so we have 3 bedrooms, 4 baths, a big kitchen, lovely views and marble everything. The only sore spot is the State-issued furniture, which is overstuffed, hunter green and in a terrible tapestry pattern. It looks like Ethan Allen threw up in here. What’s even funnier is that every Foreign Service family gets the same stuff, so this furniture will follow me to multiple continents. There’s no escape.

Our view is terrific. I can see most of the neighborhood and a lot of the mountains. I can even see into the British Ambassador’s compound, and sometimes I watch him play tennis. He’s pretty bad at it. He also has a guard with an AK-47, who carries an adorable red umbrella when it rains.

I’ve gotten a bit of a chance to see the neighborhood between naps, and so far I like it. We live in North Bogota, which is relatively swank and has a lot of shops and restaurants. It reminds me of Georgetown. Except in Georgetown, you probably wouldn’t see as many burro carts as you do here. It’s a bit of a surprise to see a Mercedes drive past, followed by a Fiat, followed by a horse.

The restaurants here are lovely and cheap. On Sunday night, Matt and I went to an Italian place near the apartment. I had gnocchi with a creme brie sauce, he had veal. We also had cocktails, wine, coffee and dessert (mango mousse, yum) for about $30. They also have a chain of coffee places called Oma, which is like a Xando. Fortunately, I speak enough Spanish to order food. But if the waiter asks me a question afterwards, I get flustered and have to elbow Matt to get his help.

My Spanish is coming along nicely. I can say a few pleasantries, introduce myself, and purchase eyebrow tweezers. On Saturday I had my first unsupervised conversation with a taxi driver:

Driver: “It’s hot out.”
Me: “Yes, it’s very hot out.”

Wow! I also spoke my first complete sentence to the maid this morning. “Elsa, if you would like some coffee, it’s in the kitchen.” Most people here realize that I don’t speak Spanish, and communicate with me using hand signals. I have a much clearer idea of how Coco the Gorilla must have felt. The porteros (doormen) wave hello when I come in, and point to the door to ask if I want to be let out of the building. I’ll start Spanish lessons next week, but in the meantime I’m learning the language the old-fashioned way. Television.

For more fun than a body has a right to, I recommend Colombian television. They show the most random movies, like "Breakin' 2:Electric Boogaloo" in Spanish, along with the entire Emilio Estevez ouevre. And the MGM affiliate shows soft-core porn on Saturday nights, called "Hot Ticket." This week's Hot Ticket movie was about a monkey who could write in Arabic. He was dressed in finery and brought to the a rich man in the village. The monkey turned into a man, and the rich man's daughter spontaneously combusted. Then the man played hide-and-go-seek, then went on a sea voyage. The ship sank, so he landed on an island and shot down an empty suit of armor with a bow and arrow. Then he found a teenage boy living underground and they took a bath together (I changed the channel, because eeeeew). Then he led a battle in the desert and a princess took off his clothes. It was in Arabic (I think) with Spanish subtitles. I have no idea what the movie was really about, but it was cool.

Fortunately, I’m able to get most of my shows here: The O.C., Everwood, Angel, and even Mutant X. So far there’s been no sign of 7th Heaven, which is a testament to the grace and class of the Colombian people.

When I’m not watching TV or sleeping, I’m attempting to leave the apartment. I went to a Halloween party on Friday night dressed as Hugh Hefner (paisley robe, pajamas, and cigar). We were supposed to go to the Marine Ball on Saturday, but we cancelled because I slept until 6 pm that day. Oops. This week we’ll probably go out for my birthday (I turn 27 tomorrow), but that’s about it.

Speaking of about it, that’s all I’ve got for now. I’ll try to post at least once a week.