Thursday, November 22, 2018

A Few Weeks in Bogotá, Colombia

Looking down from Colpatria building
Studying Spanish is a fascinating journey. The language understanding and improvements happen subtly and seemingly without notice. Most days speaking is a complete struggle and then, one day, the fog starts to lift and concepts start to make sense. Instead of saying 'I don't know' I'm starting to put sentences together. It's as if I'm learning how to think about how to speak Spanish and I'm training my mind to navigate the language. The words have suddenly started to come together easier. I still get letters mixed up and my pronunciation isn't the clearest but I am speaking a bit faster without as much hesitation. I can also understand more of what others are saying to me.   The place where I'm at in my Spanish learning is tough and I think I'm going to be here for awhile. I think this is the place where most people quit because it's really hard. I'm just starting to speak, without panic, in complete sentences instead of simply blurting out words. The process is slow and it will be awhile before I have any kind of mastery of past tense verb conjugation but at least I understand how to put together ideas. Speaking in the past tense is very important. It is how we tell stories.  I enjoy telling stories and looking forward to getting over this hump.

50-story Colpatria building

Bullfighting ring and city from Colpatria


The language school I am attending, Whee Institute, is very small. My classes have had 3 other students in them and I take classes for 3 hours a day  and 5 days a week. We do all kinds of exercises and games in class to stay interested and make the process fun. The people that run the school and my teachers are all very young, enthusiastic and also very sweet. A couple of times a week there are outside activities like learning to salsa dance, visiting local sites, going to the top of Colpatria, cooking classes, going dancing at Teatron (a club with 14 dance floors), learning to play Tejo or seeing a movie together. I've gone to a few of these extracurricular activities and found the students to be absolutely adorable. These are all really good kids.

Video of learning to play the Colombian game Tejo

Language school buddies

My first homestay has also been a fantastic experience. Maritza and Antonio Luiz are lovely and the perfect host couple. Their home is very comfortable in a walkable, safe neighborhood. Whenever I need something they have been very attentive and helping me resolve any problems. With the homestay room I also asked for breakfast every morning which is very nice. They often invite me for dinner as well. Maritza is a wonderful cook and I am enjoying her tasty food. I have met the whole family and been invited to many family events which has made this an even richer experience. They know people all over Colombia and have given me many contacts. I bet we will be stay in touch throughout my travels.

Video of riding Ciclovia

Originally, I had planned to stay in Bogotá and study Spanish for 3 weeks but something came up and I will be here for 4. My host family learned that I have trouble sleeping and didn't like that I take medication every night. They made me an appointment with a Dr. friend, a neurologist, who is head of a sleep clinic at a large hospital. I met with her last week and she gave me all kinds of terrific information to help me fall asleep at night.  So far so good, it seems the best piece of advice was to stop using electronics an hour before bed and make sure I am tired. She had me get up an hour earlier than usual and stay up an hour later - until 11 pm. Wow, by 11 pm I am tired and sleep is coming much easier!  I will meet with her again tomorrow for a follow up appt but I am happy to say I have been sleeping without meds. I have also gained 2 hours to do stuff during the day.

Over the weekend I had a bit of a set back when I got food poisoning from restaurant food. I was very sick for 12 hours and it has taken a few days to recover. My host family was extremely concerned. I'm sure it was hard for them to hear me be sick all night as well. Yesterday, Wednesday, I finally felt like I was back to normal.

Colorful neighborhood
I've taken care of some lab blood work here in Bogotá as well. The healthcare system in the US is so expensive that I like to do my lab work while traveling. Complete labs to check my blood levels to make sure my hypothyroid meds are the right dose was $40. I also got a 2-month prescription filled for $30.  In the US I have to pay $70 just to make an appt to see a dr plus the $600/mo for the insurance.

Surprisingly, I've also been losing weight which is great news. At first, the 9,000 ft elevation was keeping my appetite suppressed but now, I think the bus/car/truck exhaust from this city of 10 million people is making me feel somewhat nauseous all the time. The thick, black diesel smoke that comes from vehicles is truly shocking. I've actually had both pair of pants taken in ($5) which feels really good. I'd like to lighten my load by another 10 lbs and I hope to keep this weight loss happening.

Christmas Lights

Street food

Street art

Speaking of lightening my load, I'm also thinking to send home a box of gear.  It's been interesting to see how different Colombia is to what I read before coming here.  For instance, I had heard that Bogotá is cold at night.  It isn't. Everyday, the temperature is the same - high 60's during the day and 50's at night. I brought a 2nd sleeping bag rated to 20 degrees that I don't think I'll be needing. I had also read the food isn't very good and meat centric. I like meat but my body doesn't and I need to be conscious of how much meat I eat. Every restaurant I've been to has a good selection of healthier options. Plates with fruit, vegetables and also many soups are listed on every menu. So far, I really like the food in Colombia. There isn't nearly as much meat in the meals as there is in México. I love the food in Mexico but it has much more meat than my body likes. I brought cooking gear thinking I would start my mornings with a healthy breakfast of fruit, oatmeal and coffee.  I'm finding that it's easy to find healthy food for breakfast and don't think I'll need my cooking gear. I also read that, outside of the big cities, there isn't much. I was under the impression that hotels are harder to find than in México but this isn't true either. I really like to stay at cheaper hotels in towns. I only need a safe place for the night, the accommodation doesn't need to be fancy. For me, towns are much more convenient than camping. They have everything that I need. I carry a significant amount of electronics that need charging every day, I also really like having a shower after cycling as well as hotel wifi to upload photos, video and work on my blog. It's nice to walk around and explore a town after cycling all day and have conversations with locals. My host family assures me that there are hotels and restaurants everywhere.  I've already got a good mound of gear set aside to ship home. I'm still not sure if I should ship home my tent. We'll see .... It's Thursday and I'll make a decision by tomorrow when I'll find a Fedex office.

Monserrate high above Bogotá


Bogotá from the viewpoint

I've also done some sightseeing on my own going to museums, historic sights, gardens and Monserrate high in the mountain above Bogotá.  I flew my drone a bit over the city from a viewpoint on the road not far from the entrance to Monserrate. Security is always a concern in this enormous city but I didn't have any problems.  It was a very nice day and seeing the city from above is really impressive.

Botero horse

Alrighty then - Sunday is the day I'll cycle out of Bogotá and make my way to the mining town of Zipaqauirá to start my tour. This town is famous for an huge cathedral underground in a salt mine. My 1st route in Colombia will go through the mountains making my way to Santa Marta on the Caribbean coast closest to Venezuela. This leg of the trip will go through lots of sweet touristic towns rich in history with fabulous scenery. From using Googlemaps, it is about 850 miles to the coast with 40,000 ft of climbing. Since I'm starting at 9,000 ft there should be a lot of down as well. As I descend, the temperature is going to soar and the climate will be much more humid than here in Bogotá. Probably similar to what I experienced on my last tour in México. I'm ready to get out of the big city and explore Colombia.

Route to the coast and Santa Marta

My plan for the blog is to update it once a week with photos, videos and links to Garmin GPS ride data. I would also like to do YouTube videos of my rides twice a week. This ride to the coast is going to be very relaxed. After riding to the coast I will follow the Caribbean to Barranquilla, Cartegena, inland to Medellin and then to Cali. I will be doing fairly short mile days so that I can take the time I need for photos, video, drone shots and to really explore Colombia. I also might stop in Medellin for a longer period to study more Spanish. Once I reach Cali, I'm not sure if I will continue south to Ecuador or fly to Panama and ride to San Jose in Costa Rica. If I do this ride as slowly as I'm hoping to, maybe I won't even make it out of Colombia. Vamos a ver! 

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Monday, November 05, 2018

Flying to Colombia and My First Week in Bogotá

With Bill, my Lyft driver

My flight from Portland to Burbank was very easy. A friend picked me up from the Burbank airport which made the trip even easier, thanks Mary! After a week with family in Los Angeles it was time to catch my flight to Bogotá, Colombia. I used Lyft for the 1st time to go the airport. In year's past, I've reserved a space on a Super Shuttle share van but the last couple of times, the drivers were annoyed by the trike even though I called and explained and wrote a description of the trike and my luggage in the ride request. It always worked out but I thought I would avoid unpleasantness and use a private car. Interestingly, Lyft doesn't make it easy to request a particular type of car. You can ask for a 4 seater but I needed, more specifically, a SUV type car or a car with a hatchback. A driver would accept my request and the model of car they were driving would be listed under the driver's name. I'm not a car expert and had to cancel many cars until one came up that I knew would have enough space for my folded trike. I called Lyft driver Bill and explained that the back seat would probably need to be put down and asked him if that was OK. Bill was driving a Prius V and he was great about the trike. In fact, he took the above selfie photo and sent it to me.

Myrtle and gear ready for flight
Myrtle in a Toyota Prius

I arrived at the airport early and wheeled Myrtle with my panniers to the Avianca, Colombia's airline, check-in
Checking in with Avianca
counter. It was really good that I arrived early because checking in took a long time. This airline presented me with more obstacles to accepting the trike for a flight than any other airline has. They couldn't understand what the trike was even though I explained that it is a mobility device and I've had it on probably 50 flights. I had to talk to many people. One by one, I answered each person's questions and then they would call someone else. Finally, a supervisor was called. It took a long time for her to arrive. She asked for a picture of the trike unfolded. That was a request I had never heard before. I knew if I showed her a picture of the trike unfolded she would come up with a reason for not accepting it. I didn't have a picture with me on my phone so I told her there wasn't a picture. After that, she couldn't think of another reason not to accept the trike so Myrtle was then taken away by a baggage handler. I've discovered that if I just keep talking, calmly while smiling, eventually the answer will be 'yes'. Every time I show baggage handlers how easy it is to steer the trike by simply lifting the rear wheel, they are so happy.

Baggage Handler rolling Myrtle to the plane
While I was talking to all the people to get Myrtle accepted, I was also going through the check-in process. I did a lot of research before deciding to tour in Colombia. I never saw anything that I needed a flight out of the country before I could check-in. This also happened to me on a flight to New Zealand. What I can't understand is how it is possible to buy a one-way ticket to a country that requires a ticket out. Just like my flight to New Zealand, I bought a refundable ticket online using my phone standing there in front of the check-in agent. Once the agent took my information and I received a confirmation email, I canceled the new flight to get my money back. The ticket agent who finally finished up my paper work and handed me my boarding pass also said everything would have gone smoother if I had requested a wheelchair. Even though I don't need a wheelchair, she suggested I request one for my return flight. Interesting!

Myrtle tipping the scales at 14.8 kg (32.6 lbs) Tire pump, water bladder and side seat bar are under the seat straps.

I always like to get to the airport extra early mostly to get the trike checked in before the agents become frazzled with customer requests. This flight showed me why getting to the airport is a really good idea. Another interesting thing I've noticed is for the last couple of years, I am always given TSA pre-check status. This makes going through security so much easier.

On my flight to Bogotá
Aside from this being an overnight flight and not sleeping, everything went fine. Myrtle was waiting at oversized baggage claim and I picked up my panniers from the carousel.  In Bogotá, I am going to study Spanish for 3 weeks. One of the reasons I picked Colombia to tour is the Spanish is supposed to be easier to understand. Colombians are known for speaking slower and clearer. I figured that would be a real plus to learning the language. While I talked to the school about how long, what level of Spanish I should study at and what I wanted from my language classes - I also made arrangements to stay with a family and asked for a driver to pick me up from the airport. When I came out of security and passed through immigration, Hans was waiting for me holding a sign with my name on it. He was such a nice guy with a big smile and a lot of energy. It was as if he was genuinely excited to drive me. He didn't hesitate when he saw the trike. I had explained to the school that I need a bigger vehicle when being picked up from the airport but you never know how that things get interpreted. Hans drove a huge van that could hold at least 10 people. He carried Myrtle with ease and plopped her on a row of seats - no problem!

Myrtle waiting in oversized baggage in Bogotá

Hans, my driver in Bogotá, and Myrtle in the van

Soon we arrived at my homestay families home near the Universidad Nacional and Simon Bolivar Park. They have a 4 bedroom apartment in a nice neighborhood with a 24-hour doorman. Myrtle was shown her own large locked room off the garage. Maritza and Antonio Luis were very welcoming with big smiles giving me a tour of the apartment and showing me to my room. They have been married for 30 years and are very adorable. I could have asked to include 3 meals with my homestay but I only asked for breakfast. Maritza is an excellent cook and I can't tell you how nice it is to have breakfast prepared for me every morning. She also always makes good strong Colombian coffee which I love.

Video of my flight to Bogotá

The next morning, on Sunday, I went down to the garage to check on Myrtle and put her together after the flight. She handled the flight like the champ she is. The only casualty was a small plastic piece splintered that holds two parts of one of my flags together. This plastic part was totally unusable. I have a feeling this was just bad luck and a coincidence to find after the flight. It is very possible the plastic part was splintered before the flight. I think I can repair this with a few zip ties. After unfolding the trike, removing all the bubble wrap and attaching the side seat mount bar - Myrtle was ready to ride. 

With my Bogotá family - Antonio Luis,  Maritza, Luis jr and Grace

Cycling a main road during Ciclovia

All kinds of bikes on Ciclovia

Every Sunday and on all holidays there is a ride called Ciclovia in Bogotá. Miles of roads are closed to car traffic and made safe for walking, skating and cycling. There are many Ciclovias around the world and, I think, this is the original. I took off from the apartment and joined the Ciclovia route very close by. Maritza had suggested I try to find some zip ties from one of the many bike mechanics on the route. Unfortunately, they didn't carry any zipties. While on the route I had many interactions with people. Recumbents are unheard of here. I didn't see even one. I did see one other trike which was very exciting for both of us. It was a homemade delta type trike that looked really good and the rider was, understandably, very proud of.

Pro Bikes guy who gave me zip ties

There were thousands of cyclists and the route went through el centro. It was extremely busy. There was lots of construction as well as venders lining the route for many blocks making the path extra crowded. I looked at the map to find a bike shop close by and turned off to get some zip ties. The guys at the professional, Pro Bike, were very nice and generously gave me a handful of zip ties. I actually have some zip ties but wanted to have extra. Using duct tape and zip ties, I repaired my flagpole. I expect it will be strong enough to last the whole tour.

Coco vender on Ciclovia

Cooked meat vender in Plaza de las Mariposas
On my way back to the Ciclovia route, I stopped at a big plaza, Plaza de Las Mariposas, to get something to eat. There were lots of people selling food and clothes and many, many other things. There was even a dressed up llama waiting to make money from pictures. I saw a guy selling cut up watermelon and stopped for a snack. I was using my K1 video camera while riding and put it in my side seat bag to eat. While I turned to pay, another man quickly and stealthily opened my handlebar bag and took my camera. Wow, that was fast! I jumped out of the trike to chase the man and I caught him quickly. Unexpectedly, he turned and handed me back my camera. He didn't drop it, he didn't throw it - he handed it to me. Once the camera was safely back in my hands, I yelled at him 'hombre malo, hombre malo!' and hit him over the head a few times. As I was doing this, I suddenly thought - what if this is a diversion and someone is stealing my tricycle right now? Luckily, no one was and Myrtle was exactly where I left her in front of the watermelon man. I had given the watermelon man a good tip and wonder if he didn't chase off people who might have tried to steal my trike.

Niños in a cargo trike

Street art

I made my way back to Ciclovia and then returned to the apartment after my big adventure. Later, recounting the story of being robbed to my house family, I learned that Plaza de Las Mariposas is one of the most dangerous places in Bogotá and they couldn't believe my luck at getting the camera back. They said everyone gets robbed in that plaza. There are teams of robbers that probably saw me as easy pickens. Wow - I had no idea the danger I was in.  Lucky for me all that happened is I have a good story to tell.

My classmates

On Monday, I started Spanish school. Whee Institute is very small with only a few classes. There are 4 others in my class. One student is from Brazil, one from France and 3 are from the United States. I love my teacher Camilo. He is young, smart and has an easy style. He speaks fast but very clearly. For this week, we will be going over conjugating verbs in 2 past tense forms. We played fun games, did various exercises and after 3 hours I was exhausted. Speaking in the past tense is so important. We are always telling stories in the past. It would be amazing if I could get comfortable with these 2 past tense verb forms by the time I leave.

Clowns out on the street
Trying a new fruit

Another reason I am spending 3 weeks in Bogotá is to get used to the 9,000 ft elevation. I've had small headaches and my muscles feel like they aren't getting quite enough oxygen. Every day is easier. The weather in Bogotá is also much warmer than I expected. Everyday the temps have been in the low 70's. Every afternoon, just after I return to the apartment, there is a big rain storm. Apparently, November is known for afternoon rain storms. I have my drone with me and would love to fly. I hope the weather will cooperate while I am here in Bogotá. This is a huge city of 10 million people and there is lots to explore. So far, I'm loving the city, it's people and, for sure, the food here is fantastic.

Halloween with badass maestros at Whee Institute
At Whee, we took a break between classes to have a halloween party

More soon!!

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