Monday, August 31, 2009

Ain’t Nothing Like the Real Thing, Really?

My last week in Colombia included a trip to the glorious coast. La costa is another side of Colombia, filled with the tantric rhythms of cumbia music, the musty smells of seafood and the Atlantic, and the sticky, dewy glaze of 90 percent humidity like icing on your skin. The piece of me that lived in Florida relished the Caribbean-Latin concoction.

I traveled by myself for a while, sitting on buses and planes taking in the landscapes and reading. But inevitably, friendly (there really are no other kind) Colombians (usually of the male variety) would chat me up, my obvious gringa-ness driving them to show

me something fabulous about their town. I took it all in stride, and enjoyed learning every nook and cranny factoid of every pueblito I passed.

Inevitably, the question came. What question? The “are you married” question. At first, I answered honestly, which means no. This invited a series of questions, lectures, sermons, you name it, all in the name of my being a single gal.

William, who I met on a beach crowded with fisherman selling off their daily haul, told me I didn’t want to be married. He waxed on and on, as he waited for the best fish of the day, telling me there was nothing physically wrong with me but that my time was running out. This continued until a boat coasted onto the beach by only the moonlight, with fish as long as my forearm. Finally, William could go home with what he came for. Phew.

No man in North America would ask me this question after knowing me for 20 minutes on some beach while waiting for the fisherman to come in. In fact, I don't even think an Argentine would ask (not as friendly as the Colombians, for starters). I think it has to do with the currents of traditionalism that have a strong hold in Colombia. Women get married, women are married. And if not, there has to be a reason why not. In North America, maybe people are too polite but if you were even asked the question, I can't imagine the discussion going down the road of mine with William.

After that, I decided to create an imaginary boyfriend. Somedays, he would be a dashing Argentine, others just an ordinary North American. Lawyer, doctor, or mechanic. Either way, he was lovely and fabulous and better than any real boyfriend a girl could have. In fact, it might have been better than having a real boyfriend. At least some days.

photo from:

Monday, August 17, 2009

Securely Insecure

As in all of the Latin America that I know, Bogotá joins the ranks of security obsessed. In front of every shopping mall, there are always a gaggle of security dudes sewn into pseudo-Army styled uniforms, with dogs ready to turn a snarl on a moment’s notice. It’s not just window dressing either, they don’t mess around here - every car that goes into a public parking garage is searched and sniffed, presumably for explosives.

Now granted, here in Colombia (unlike some other places that are security obsessed) stability and a non-violent existence are relatively recent developments. A friend here in Bogotá shared numerous stories with me as we walked through downtown a week or two ago, pointing out buildings that have been rebuilt after being torn to bits by explosives, even a tale about a classmate from school that was left maimed by a paramilitary’s mistaken bomb. Just tragic, especially considering that this all happened less than 15 years ago.

This security obsession doesn’t just extend to public places. Every apartment building has a doorman. Doormen range from scruffy looking guys that spend more time sleeping then guarding to the starched, pressed and proper variety. Regardless of appearance or work habits, they are all stunningly polite (a la Colombians in general). It’s a nice touch overall, except for one thing… you don’t have a key to the front door of the building. Yes, people. You don’t have a key to the place where you live!

It may be a matter of security (making sure there are no duplicates made, allowing the unauthorized to enter) but I find it a little much. This over-secured mentality seems to make me a little more paranoid and a little more edgy, which trust me… I don’t really need.

I also think this affects the psyche of people. While people in Latin America generally lean on the side of the over-security obsessed, I have heard endless cautions from nearly ever person I have met about taxis (always, but not from the street) and walking at night (don’t do it, ever). Now I know Bogotá ain’t Kansas, but c’mon people. The US is plenty sketchy. Ever been to Washington DC? I think it had the highest murder rate before Bogotá snatched the honor away years ago. But no more. These days it’s Caracas, Venezuela that’s taking the honors.

Whatever. Ultimately, it’s just annoying when you have a slacker door guy, it’s super late, you’ve had a few and you need to pee.

photo from:

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Third World Women and Bikes

So… you probably didn’t know this, but Bogotá is a city that rivals any Western European city for bike friendliness. There are tons of bike paths and a weekly event where the bikes take over the vast majority of the city streets. It’s not Amsterdam, but it beats the hell out of my favorite bike lane in Washington, DC (on 9th St NW) where you are supposed to do halvesies with the bus.

Anyway, I have been talking to people about the fab bikeness of Bogotá and something really interesting came up that I have never considered… the gender divide of cycling. Not surprisingly, women of Latin America bike less than their male counterparts. This mostly has to do with the fact that women never even learn to ride a bike because this is seen as something unfeminine. Whhhatt?

Latin America is not the only place where this divide exists. According to research done by the UN, this divide exists in Africa too. In addition to the perception that riding is unfeminine, if a bike is the fastest mode of transportation available, you know who gets it. And it ain’t the chicks, I hate to tell ya.

This divide even exists in the US. Recently blogger Anna Letitia Mumford wrote about the bike divide in US, citing a study in San Francisco showing that women make up 49 percent of San Franciscans, but make up only 23 percent of frequent cyclists (meaning cycling two or more days per week) in the city.

Well, what can we do? First off, teach chicks how to ride bikes. I heard that the weekly cycling event in Quito, Ecuador has a bike riding clinic for women - a good step in the developing world. What else? Hmm… maybe make cuter cycling clothes? Just a thought.

P.S. The photo is the Porsche. Love her!

Saturday, August 1, 2009

Girls without Guns

Last week, I took a few days of R and R and headed to the Zona Cafetera, which is the coffee country for you gringos. My journey included nearly every type of motorized vehicle you could think of - my lovely roommate drove me to the airport at 7 am, a tiny crop duster sized plane carried me over the towering Andes (bumpy all the way), a surly taxi driver got me from the tiny airport in Armenia to the ramshackle bus station in the center of town. And all before 10 am.

For the last leg, I got on a small bus headed towards a colonial town called Salento, where I would have four days of coffee plantations, hiking and some R and R. The ride was a curvey one as we scaled the emerald hills with 60-foot high Wax Palm Trees that stood waifishly against the indigo sky and fincas fertile with bananas, pineapples, coffee, blackberries and bamboo.

The bus weaved through a small town or two, someone even gave the driver a package to deliver to the next pueblo, extracting promises that the package not break during the journey. There are kids with their parents, excitement in their eyes as they embark on visiting a family friend or relative and young men who are fragranced just a tad over the top, every hair in place.

The bus moves along for a while but suddenly, we stop. I look out the window to see what the commotion is, but before I can focus a young man in fatigues gets on the bus. A gun lays along his back, spanning from his narrow shoulders to equally narrow thigh. He barks a greeting in Spanish (the Colombians are the most polite people, always) and then asks the men to exit the bus with their papers. The men? Why only the men? I think.

It’s a government checkpoint and they are searching for rebels on our way into this tiny town of less than 10,000 people. Seriously. Although the military is not an uncommon presence in Colombia (or most of Latin America, really) nor are extremely large machine guns. At first, I was a bit freaked out. I mean, here I am in the middle of nowhere in Colombia and the military has boarded my bus. With big guns. But then, I became kind of incensed – I mean, why only the men? Hadn’t they ever heard of Gioconda Belli, who was a Sandinista? Women can be rebels (like Belli) or drug mules too, ya know.

I guess the most disappointing thing is that this is the depth of Colombia’s sexism I have seen so far. There’s no stares or yells or talking to my legs. Only an assumption that I’m not a lefty rebel. Boo and hoo.