Thursday, April 27, 2017

putting on the bite


Coming home is a task.

Or, at least, tasks that have been patiently waiting while you are gone are always waiting on the front porch like a sad step-child.

The day I left Bogota, I made a list of telephone calls I needed to place on my first day home. One of those calls was to my dentist. It was time to finish the installation of my dental implant.

But, it turned out that a telephone call would not do. And that is the conceit of this tale.

To avoid another surprise like the gargantuan bill I received from my mobile telephone carrier when I returned home from my Australia trip (plugging pesos into telcel), I decided to buy a SIM chip in Colombia for my travels there. It worked perfectly. I consumed data like Teddy Kennedy knocked back cocktails. And I spent no more than I would have for two weeks of service in Mexico.

But even the best of relationships must end. As we were nearing the Mexico City airport, I decided to retire the Colombia chip to the envelope I carry for telephone service outside of Mexico. I carefully opened the tray on my telephone and slipped the Colombia chip in with the remainder of the inventory. I then placed my Telcel chip in the tray.

I would like to say a bit of air turbulence unexpectedly bounced me or the flight attendant jostled me while handing out drinks. But none of that would be true. What happened was the chip was in the tray, then it was gone. My aging fingers must have caused it to flip out of the tray.

So what?, you may ask. After all, even though I was sitting in the equivalent of a Barcalounger hurtling through the atmosphere at 80% of the speed of sound, I was not sitting on the wing. It was an enclosed space, and that little rectangle of plastic could not have strayed far.

But after a half hour of diligently searching, I resigned myself to the fact that the chip had gone to that mysterious place where lonely socks from the dryer wander around like Diogenes.

If I wanted to use my telephone, that meant I had to make a quick trip to Manzanillo to see if Telcel would replace the chip -- or if I would be telling everyone my new cellular number. It was the former.

A very helpful young woman patiently listened to my tale of woe in very broken Spanish (think of Andy Kauffman playing Desi Arnaz). Within minutes, Telcel had $116 (Mx) of my money, and I had a new chip.

Now, the purpose of that tale was to tell you I did not need to call my dentist for an appointment. I simply stopped by his office. And received an appointment for the next day. Today.

Mexico is great that way. No long waits for medical attention.

When we left off our tale of my dental implant (mind the gap), I told you I had finished the process of getting a new molar. It all started in 2013 with an abscess. My molar went, and I started the steps of getting an implant to replace it.

Last August, I thought I was done. But the crown kept loosening. After several re-adjustments, my dentist decided the screw hole in the crown was too large. So, out came the crown.

Due to a combination of events -- my trips to Australia and Colombia, and my dentist's trip to Argentina -- my crown and I were strangers to one another as much as an exiled monarch. That ended today.

With a few twists of the screwdriver, some modifications of the crown surface with a drill, and a bit of permanent filling, I was fit to take on a prime rib dinner. Even though I am sticking to vegetables for a bit (as you will discover when I finish my Colombian food essay).

You can see the final product at the top of the essay. On the big screen.

I have  been very happy with the process, though I doubt I will get another implant for some time. The cost was certainly a lot better than I would have paid up north. And, I suspect, my dentist was far more patient with me.

But those were only two of the tasks that faced me on my return. I am not certain how many I will accomplish in the next week. Saturday next, I will be on another airplane.

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

walking to bogota


Some people hate airports.

Not me. I  cannot say I love them, but I do find them interesting. Probably in the same way Bill Buckley meant when he said 99 out of a hundred people are interesting -- and the other is interesting because he is different.

Dan, Patty, and I arrived at the Bogota airport this morning in time for their 8 AM flight. Because I was not flying until the late afternoon, we breakfasted together and I saw them off on their flight to Florida. These days that means watching them disappear into the maw of security.

That left me with six hours to spend wisely. Did I read? A little. The Oregonian. A couple of articles in The Economist on the US-China Pacific power struggle. And articles in National Review on health care legislation and the science of climate change.

But my feet started itching. Even though the Bogota airport is not as large as Mexico City’s, it provides a perfect arced track for some serious walking. And walk I did.

It is also far better organized and less crowded than Mexico City’s. So, getting in my multi-mile steps was a pleasure. I was having enough fun that I almost missed my check-in time.

AeroMexico has so few flights to and from Bogota, its presence is very subtle. The company does not have permanent counter space.  A couple of monitors transform one airline’s check-in into another’s. The staff was about to close up shop when I showed up.

Speaking of AeroMexico, I finally resolved my flight change from Mexico City to Manzanillo tomorrow. I thought my request was simple -- changing only the date by one day.

I was wrong. I spent over two hours on three evenings to complete the transaction. Even though I had a first class ticket that was reduced to a coach ticket to get on the plane, I was charged $137 for the flight.

The experience has left me with a rather bad feeling about AeroMexico’s customer service. None of the representatives I talked with could explain what the extra charges were for -- nor why it took so much telephone time to change the date. All I was told was the fees existed, and I would be sitting in Mexico City with only my dreams of flying if I did not pay up.

The company could resolve this by doing as other airlines do. The ability to change flights should be part of the airline’s web site. And, if there are any associated charges, they should appear with itemized explanations. Alaska does it perfectly. (I suspect the United web site causes electrical shocks whenever a customer tries to change anything.)

I do not mind paying additional fees. I do mind paying fees that neither I nor the person charging them can explain.

But that is now in the past. I trust I will have a seat when I arrive at the AeroMexico desk on Wednesday morning.

If not, my friends Lou and Wynn Moody will have made a trip to the Manzanillo airport for naught.


Monday, April 24, 2017

a tale of two cities


While Dan and I were walking around Bogota today, he stopped and watched a group of men on the corner of one of the city's busy streets.

"Have you noticed something interesting about the streets in Bogiota? Here we are in a city with a population almost the same as New York City, but everyone is so calm. No one is in a hurry. Look at those men standing over there. They are enjoying their day in conversaion."

He was correct. Almost everywhere we traveled during the past two weeks in Colombia could be characterized as calm. That is doubly ironic when you think of the reputation Colombia has throughout much of the world. A reputation it does not deserve.

Bogota is tranquil, but it is also a big city. A big city with a lot of similarities to New York City, but far more differences.

All big cities have their own version of street art. Bogota is no exception. Many of the buildings near our apartment are adorned with graffiti art.


This one is not the best, but it is representative of the genre. I know some of you consider this form of art to be vandalism. I don't. As long as the property owner has acquiesced.

But that is not Bogota's only claim to art. The city is filled with first-class art collections in its museums. We re-visited the Botero Museum again today.

It contains a large collection of the works of Fernando Botero, probably Colombia's most famous artist. Certainly, the most popular.



 A second wing houses a portion of his personal art collection. From the impressionists to modern art. Such as this Chagall.


I will write at least one more essay about the museum. It deserves treatment of its own. Suffice it to say, Bogota holds its own with art.

There are a couple of areas in town with skyscrapers. But this building is special. It is the BD Bacata. And, when completed, it will be the second tallest building in Latin America.


New York may have Tiffany's. Bogota has emeralds. Lots of emeralds. And lots of shops selling unset and set emeralds.

I had a front seat in emerald buying today. Patty is an old hand. She has bought unset gems and then sold them to other buyers. On this trip, she was looking for emerald earrings.

While I was waiting, I looked in some of the stores. We are not talking about shoddy stones. Most of the stores featured major pieces -- usually, necklaces.


This was my favorite. It was created by a Japanese artist -- all of whose works bore the same balance of luxury and simplicity. Before you bother: if you have to ask the price, you do not have enough Colombian pesos in your pocket. I didn't ask.

Bogota is in the process of upgrading its mass transit system. Where New York may have its subways, Bogota has dedicated streets for its articulated buses.


It is possible other cities have these three-car articulated buses. If they do, I have never noticed them.

While Dan and I were standing in front of a grocery store, seven of these mammoths drove by in just a few minutes. All of them almost filled to capacity.

But Bogota has sights you could not possibly see in New York. Well, unless you visited Anthony Weiner's apartment.


This man and his burro had collected left-over food from local restaurants. They toted their treasure to this spot to feed a flock of pigeons feverishly waiting for the feast to begin. Feed the birds, tuppence a bag, indeed.

Trying to compare places is a fool's game. One inevitably ends up with the silly question of which place is best.

They both are -- in their own ways.

But I found the tranquility of Bogota to be one of its most charming qualities. That, and its pigeon-feeding donkeys. And that is good enough for me.

Sunday, April 23, 2017

climbing the greasy pole


Every major city has its swankier part of town.

New York has its Park Avenue. London has Belgravia. Mexico City has Polanco.

Bogota is no exception. It has Usaquen.

Once a separate settlement (founded in 1537), it went through some rough times. Depopulated. Repopulated. A battle site during Colombia's war to attain independence from Spain. The scene of the termination of one of Colombia's many civil wars.


It is now part of Bogota. And if you want to be seen, this is the place to live and work.

Because it has been around since the 1500s, it has some venerable colonial buildings. Like this church.



It also has what every Colombian town seems to have -- a flea market. The kind of place where you can buy plastic souvenirs, some handicrafts, and clothes.

But Usaquen is different. It has an artisan fair that is so tidy and organized, you quickly learn that Colombia is an unusual South American Country -- with uniform booths lined up like soldiers marching off to make the world safe for artisans.

You will find a lot of the same category of goods as are in the flea market. But the quality is not what one usually finds sold in the street.

Rugs. Jewelry. Boutique clothing. Woven goods. Coffee. Dried fruit and nuts. Specialty shoes. Leather goods. Paintings. Sculptures.



Anyone who has ever attended a craft fair in Sausalito would feel right at home. And, of course, there are the inevitable musicians. All of them quite good playing Colombian music.



But this was the booth that caught me in mid-step. Please remember I have lived in a small Mexican village for almost a decade, where books are somewhat rare. So, this booth was a pleasant surprise.



The book stall is indicative of the high percentage of educated Colombians. That is evidenced daily by the number of people -- young and old -- sitting at coffee shops or in the park reading books and newspapers.

When we had had our fill of batik and wool, we took a taxi to the zona rosa -- where small hotels and restaurants cluster. This park was our introduction to the area.




Being a Sunday, it was filled with parents watching their children play on the park's equipment while dog owners allowed their dogs to do what dogs do -- as long as the dogs remained leashed. The children roamed freely.

But we cut our Sunday in the park with dogs to sit down for a platter of blood sausage, chorizo, and criolla potatoes to watch Real Madrid defeat Barcelona in a Spanish league match.



That is, that was our intent. We did get our snack platter at La Hamburgueseria -- a sports bar on the park. Unfortunately, Barcelona proved to be too much for the combined strengths of Real Madrid. Even though the fans were split in their allegiance, we were in the vast majority with our support of Real Madrid.



The high point of the game for the local fans was in the second half. Real Madrid trailed Barcelona 1-2. Then, out of nowhere, Marcelo of Real Madrid put a simple cross into the box and James Rodriguez, unnoticed by the Barcelona players, directed it into the net to tie the game.

The goal was important on its own. But the fact that it had been made by James was even more important. He is a Colombian who has been pressured by the team management to move on to Manchester United.

The Colombians in the sports bar roared in approval -- without regard to their team loyalty. To my surprise, I spontaneously joined in the melee.

And what better way to see another area of Bogota? On top of the greasy pole I have never deigned to climb, but with people who were truly proud of their country and the accomplishment of its citizens.



Saturday, April 22, 2017

bolivar, we are here


We have returned to Bogota.

If I were a pessimist, I would say that means our trip was almost over. I am not, and it isn't. We still have two full days to explore the city.

Patty grew up in Bogota. So, we have a certain advantage in ferreting out the city's more interesting places. Not to mention its people.

When we flew in from Armenia (and how often can someone make a claim like that), a bonus welcomed us to Bogota.  Sunshine. During our two stays here, we have seen the sun only one other day

We set out with a couple of destinations in mind. The first was the Teatro Colon de Bogota -- Colombia’s national theater named in honor of the Great Admiral.

The exterior of the theater belies its provenance. Neoclassical architecture was the rage in the late 1800s when this building was built.



We intended to take a tour through the building -- a place prized by Colombians as much as New Yorkers do Radio City Music Hall. I was looking forward to it. My dramatic side always loves a new stage to admire. And I had heard it was quite a nice theater.

Unfortunately, only two tickets were available. So, we trekked off to our second destination. When we were taking our governmental center tour with Elgar (rhyming time), he pointed out a church with a very distinctive architure. He called it the Florentine church.

It is not Florentine, at all. It is El Carmen church. A neogothic style, honoring one of Colombia’s most popular manifestations of Mary -- as the Virgen of Carmen. (Not the opera. You would have better luck finding that at the Colon Theater.)




The architecture has very little resemblance to the Renaissance Florentine facades that give the adjective meaning. By “very little,” I mean none. At best, the red and white stripes are distinctive. a quite pleasant church. And it is a quite pleasant church.

Having bagged our two quarry, we headed down Carrera 7 -- the pedestrian mall that stretches from Bolivar Plaza through a majority of Bogota’s older commercial center.

We had multiple goals. I wanted to get in as many steps as I could. Patty was on a mission to buy a leather backpack. Dan was enjoying the sights.

And sights there were. This was a Saturday -- a day that draws locals and tourists downtown, as well as an eccentric collection of street performers.

This older couple opened my tipping pocket. I suspect they were dancing a variation of the traditional folk dance called cumbia.




Whatever it was, it was amusing. Of course, the man’s comic glasses, mustache, and very threatening anaconda are what caught my attention. He could have been a reincarnation of Groucho Marx.

Not all of the performers were that funny. This string quartet (minus the viola) must have been students putting their talents to lucrative pursuits playing some rather predictable Mozart and Vivaldi, and learning the lesson that familiarity pays in the music world.





They were not expert musicians. But they were good. And worthy of the coins and bills they collected. They reminded me I need to get my reservations for San Miguel de Allende’s chamber music festival this August.

The Michael Jackson impersonator was about as good as most Michael Jackson impersonators. Which means not very.


What made this performance unusual was the little boy from the audience who volunteered his services, and did a rather good impersonation himself.

Considering some of the allegations that haunted Michael Jackson, there was a rather creepy feel to the boy grabbing his own crotch.

And then there was my favorite. As we walked by this group, Dan said: “I think they are from Peru.”




Said I: “Of course, they are. They're the Inca Spots.”

Patty found a perfect leather backpack, and Dan and I found amusement amongst the street performers. I also managed to get over 26,000 steps. The only thing I missed today was a Bach concert at the cathedral.

Due to a sudden rain storm, I could not have made it to the church on time. Instead, the three of us filled ourselves with a plate of traditional Colombian appetizers-- which I forgot to photograph because I was too busy eating.

I cannot emphasize enough how much I have enjoyed most everything Colombia has offered us. I still have plenty of new places to visit in the world. But I intend to return to Colombia before too long.


Friday, April 21, 2017

errmexico


Mexican corporate web pages are just like the little girl with a curl in the middle of her forehead.

When they are good, they are very good. But, when they are bad, they are horrid. AeroMexico (Or as I have re-dubbed it, ErrMexico) is in the latter category.

Through a scheduling mistake on my part, I needed to change the date of my flight from Mexico City to Manzanillo when I return from Colombia. Being a naive sort, I thought all I would have to do is open AeroMexico's website to change the date. After all, all I wanted to do was change the date.

Finding my reservation was easy. But the website would only allow me to change my seat on the same flight -- or to purchase an additional luggage allowance. To change a flight, I had to call the customer service desk.

I have talked with the customer service desk in the past. I would rather have three root canals.

But, there was no alternative. I called and went through the mandatory wait-for-the-next-representative routine.

What should have been an easy change of date, turned out to be a byzantine dance. I told the woman on the telephone all I wanted to do was to change my flight from one day to the next. Otherwise, everything else was perfect.

She put me on hold for several minutes.

When she returned, she told me there would be a penalty of $34. I told her I understood.

She then put me on hold for several minutes.

When she returned, she asked me for my email address. The company would send me a voucher for my cancelled flight.

"No," I said. "I don't want to cancel my flight. I just want to change the date. Can't I pay with my credit card right now?"

She put me on hold for several minutes.

When she returned, she said I needed to forward my request to an email address. She would give it to me if I had a pen.

"No," I said. "I want to pay for the change with my credit card right now."

She put me on hold for several minutes.

This time she returned with a chirpy response that she could honor my request. But the total penalty was now $96. We went through all of the usual credit card information -- with multiple repetitions of misunderstood numbers. (That is why it is far easier for someone to enter his own information online.)

With that information -- she put me on hold for several minutes. I assume she was checking with my bank.

When she came back online, she assured me my flight had been changed, and that I would receive a verification at the email address she had repeatedly misunderstood. The conversation took 47 minutes.

I am not the least bit surprised that the receipt has not shown up in my inbox.

Mexico is quite efficient in very many ways. AeroMexico is not one of them.

When I show up at the Mexico City airport on Wednesday morning, I am willing to lay odds my ticket will still be for the wrong date. I hope I am proven wrong.


Thursday, April 20, 2017

who says i can't?


I am infamous in these parts for teasers.

You know how it goes. I start describing something as "the best day of my life," and then anticlimactically tell you: "I will write about that later."

I am not going to do that today. At least, I am not going to do it as a tease.

This morning we left our hotel in Pereia. The hotel was once a family town house in another era. It is now the Hotel Don Alfonso -- and just as elegant. One thing that made it very special was its internet. Six times as fast as mine in Barra de Navidad.

Our new home for the next two days is the Hotel San Jeronimo in Armenia. It is quite adequate for our purposes -- other than the internet. I just ran a speed test. It is one-tenth as fast as my Barra de Navidad connection.

During the past two days, we have been part of some very interesting experiences. Notably, a zoological reserve outside of Pereira and a botanical garden complete with a butterfly park a few miles from Armenia.

I have a lot to say, but I also have even more photographs to share.

And there is the rub. With the internet speed here, I will be back in Mexico for a week before they upload.

So, here is my promise. I have barely skimmed the surface of what we have experienced in Colombia. I will continue to post what I can while we are here. But I will also produce a couple of summary essays when I return home.

Deal?


Wednesday, April 19, 2017

who wants to be a millionaire?


Consider me your life line -- or your call-a-friend. Either way, I am here to help you stuff your pocketbook and stop those blasted creditors from ruining mealtime.

In just four easy steps, you can join me as a member of the millionaire club. Here is how.

1. Buy an airplane ticket to Colombia. They are amazingly inexpensive.

2. Drive to the closest ATM.

3. Request the standard debit card limit of $500 (US).

$. Stand back. You will have over $1,000,000 in your hand. $1,435,600 to be exact. What a country!

Congratulations! You are now a millionaire.

OK. It is in Colombian pesos. But you still have over one million of them. And they are yours.

Before I arrived in Bogota, I knew the dollar-peso exchange rate would yield a lot of pesos. But not even my experience in Mexico prepared me for the size of bills I would receive.

I checked the current rate on my telephone when I arrived at the airport. Each US dollar would yield me over 2,800 pesos. Because I needed to enter the requested amount of pesos on the ATM screen, I tried to do the arithmetic in my head. All of those zeroes eventually overcame my calculations. I settled for a preset $700,000 (CO).

Over the next few days, I withdrew enough pesos several times to top the million mark. It felt good.

It felt good, that is, until I started spending them. $25,000 for a taxi. $362,000 for two nights in a an incredibly comfortable hotel. $20,000 for breakfast for the three of us.

That appears to be a lot of money. It isn't. In US dollars that is just $8.72, $126.24, and $6.97 respectively. Once again, is all of those zeroes.

And I should not have that zero block. I have traveled in lots of countries where the exchange rate results in as many or more zeros. For one dollar, I can get 22,724 Vietnamese dong. Or over 32,463 Iranian rial. And then there were the pre-Euro days when Italian lira would stuff your pockets. Now, very little stuffs Italian pockets.

But there is something about all those extra zeros that makes calculations difficult. I carry a piece of paper in my wallet with some common dollar-peso comparisons.

Colombia has tried to dump three zeros from its currency several times -- as have quite a few other countries, Mexico being one. But the Colombian congress has never approved the reduction. Colombians are concerned that when the zeros go, so will the value of their savings. There is some historical support for that if the change is not done properly. The Kleptocracy of Zimbabwe is a perfect example.

But, Colombia being Colombia, a clever solution was devised. New bills are now being issued that take off three zeros and substitute them with the Spanish word for "thousand." A $50,000 (CO) note will now offer up an elegant 50 mil, instead. It is still a $50,000 (CO) note, but it looks like a $5 (CO) note.

I talked with a couple of younger Colombians. They said they were accustomed to the old notes, but the new ones are far easier to read. I suspect older Colombians may not be so sanguine.

For me, the new notes are perfect to use -- and to spend. "50 mil" is the equivalent of just less than $20 (US) That makes figuring out equivalent prices quite simple.

As you may have noted above, visiting here is not very costly. That breakfast for three for the equivalent $6.97 was not a typo. I cannot eat that inexpensively in restaurants in my Mexican village.

But, I am on a trip. I have had no problem emptying my wallet of a million pesos here and a million pesos there. With apologies to Everett Dirksen, it isn't pretty soon that I am talking about real money. Because real it is.

Now, you have no excuse for not jumping on a plane and joining me in my not very exclusive millionaire club. 


Better yet, do not come for the money. Come to visit this delightful South American country for its own sake. Think of the million as icing on your trip.

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

coming to jesus


Today was the day that Dan, Patty, and I had hoped to meet Jesus. Jesus Martin, that is.

There is no reason you should know his name. But he is a Colombian with a mission. A coffee mission. A mission he calls "the coffee dream project."



Those of us who live outside of Colombia, the world's third largest coffee producer, and have enjoyed its coffee, may not be aware that like many countries famed for their agricultural products, Colombia historically has not kept its best coffee for national consumption.

Jesus Martin wanted to change that. His coffee farm is just outside of the small town of Salento, where we visited today. We wanted to talk with him about his project of offering high quality coffee to Colombians.


I will spoil the story by telling you we didn't get to see him. But, we will come back to that in a moment. (If you would like to know a little more about him, take a look at this BBC article.)

What we did was to head off to the valley of the Cocora River for a little country hike.

I should have learned from my hike with Ray in Melaque (city slickers duding it up) where my imagined stroll was turned into a rock wall-climbing reality. This time I should have figured it out.

We have been staying in a country where the Andes begin. A Chilean would probably say "where they end." Whichever, this is not a region of rolling hills. We are in the mountains.

The trail head's altitude is about 8000 feet. And the ascent is not a gradual grade. But, we were promised treasure at the end of our climb.

Maybe some animals. Certainly some birds and interesting plants. And, best of all, a wax palm forest.

The wax palm is one of the indigenous palms of the new world and grows in the western Andes of Colombia. What makes them spectacular is that they are the tallest palms in the world. Up to 200 feet.

And slow-growing. It takes ten years for a wax palm to grow a ring.



It is also the national tree of Colombia.

Who could turn down such an offer? Even when our destination loomed high in the fog forest of the Andes.



I will admit that the distant peaks gave me a momentary Bilbo Baggins pause. But, just like Bilbo, I felt a stir. "Then something Tookish woke up inside him, and he wished to go and see the great mountains, and hear the pine-trees and waterfalls, and explore the caves, and wear a sword instead of a walking-stick."

So, we struck out. You have already met the cast. Dan. Patty. Me. Paula, our guide. Alejandra, the UN observer.

Paula kept her promise about animals. But they mainly fell into the domesticated category. Dogs. Beautifully-coiffured horses. And herds of some rather oblivious dairy cows.



But there was plenty of wildlife. Mainly birds. Vultures. A turkey-like paua caucora, which is rarely seen in these parts. Several shy songbirds. And a true prize.

We had seen a couple of adult carkakays perching in the wax palms along our walk. When Dan came up over a rise, one was perched on a fence post at the top of the hill. It immediately flew off.

The reason it was there was apparent. A juvenile was just on the other side of the fence. While we caught our breath, we shot away with our cameras.



The juvenile merely walked up the hill until we got too close for comfort. It then glided to safety down the steep of the hill.

The bird, often known as the caracara elsewhere, is a falcon that lives throughout the Americas. That rather prosaic description takes nothing away from its majesty.

Paula gave us a running commentary of the plants as we continued our ascent. Ferns as ancient as dinosaurs. Medicinal plants. Flowering plants. 


But one of the most interesting group was the bromiliads -- parasitical plants that offer their hosts no benefits, but provide home, food, and shelter for amphibians and insects.

They may not be helpful to the host plants, but the bromilads on this mountain were eccentrically beautiful.



Almost 1000 feet higher, we reached our goal. The wax palms in the fog forest. That should have been the title of a Somerset Maugham novel.


We took great pleasure in conquering the mountain. But that was not our only reward. Looking back at the way we came, we could see other mountains framing the valley with its dairy and horse farms.



But there was still far more adventure for the day. We had two more towns to investigate.

The first was Salerno -- known for its coffee. That is where we had hoped to meet up with Jesus Martin.

He has a coffee shop in town that is part of his "coffee dream project" to bring the best coffee to the mouths of Colombians.

Even though we did not get to meet the man himself, we decided to taste his wares. The coffee was good, but we all agreed the specialty coffee we tasted the day before was probably better.



Having said that, we were pleased with the brew. And it was certainly a long step up from the coffee that is often served at Colombian tables.

Salerno itself is a quaint town that reflects the colors of Colombian coffee country. Unfortunately, the buildings are shielded from view by the tarps of temporary stalls lining the plaza.

It is a town that caters to coffee tourists. This mobile coffee shop may or may not be a good example. I am still not certain.



I have seen several coffee vendors with similar setups in Pereira. What makes them local is not just the coffee makers. It is the jeeps. The jeeps are a staple of the local coffee farms -- transporting both coffee and workers to town.

But I found the people in Salerno far more interesting than the town itself. Whether it was tourists (mainly Colombians) stopping for chats and snacks.



Or locals watching what the tourists have wrought.


We were then off to Filandia. For those of you who are now humming Sibelius's tone poem, please note there is no "n" between the "i" and the "l." It is Filandia. A town much larger than Salento -- and perhaps with more charm. That may be because its mental hospital.

Dan, Patty, and, I agreed this is one of the most interesting provincial towns we have visited. That was partly due to the obvious care and love that was put into maintaining its buildings.



So, what is today's hook? I suppose it has something to do with the recurring discovery that not getting something you want often opens up an opportunity to be enthralled by a different experience.

If that is it, today was a practically perfect day.


Monday, April 17, 2017

is that a chocolate layer i taste?


We spent the day today amongst the grands crus of Bordeaux. The equivalent of Chateau Latour, perhaps. Well, at least, Chateau Pichon Longueville Baron.

The fact that we were in Colombia and the subject was coffee does not matter. And that needs a little explanation.

Last night we arranged a coffee plantation tour with a local guide, Paula, and her husband-driver, Juan Carlos. They picked us up in the morning at our hotel, and we were on our way to Santa Rosa de Cabal. More accurately, to Finca El Placer. "Us" being the traveling trio along with Alejandra, a Chilean who works for the United Nations as an observer of the peace agreement between FARC and the Colombian government.

Pereira is surrounded by coffee plantations. It is not a coincidence that it is also surrounded by steep mountainsides. Coffee and steep are natural partners.

Finca El Placer has two missions: to grow both commercial and specialty coffees. The plantation once contained 200 hectares -- large for the average coffee plantation. Like many of the local farmers, the owner, Juan Carlos Ortega, has been forced to sell off some of his land to keep the plantation operating. He now grows only on 22 hectares.




You can read elsewhere about the byzantine relationships between international coffee buyers, the local growers, and the cooperatives to which the growers belong. Suffice it say, the grower receives only 7 cents for each dollar sold at retail. Of the amount the grower receives, 75% is labor cost.

Colombia has long sent its best coffee out of the country -- with the exception of a small contingent of growers who are attempting to creating an internal premium coffee market (and I may tell you more about that tomorrow). Juan Carlos's coffee -- both the commercial and the specialty varieties -- are destined for export.




Coffee trees are slow growers. It takes 
a minimum of 30 months before a newly-planted tree will produce fruit -- or cherries, as the professionals call them. The trees will then grow for seven years, be cut back to the roots for another 5 five years of growth, and then be cut back a second time -- again for five years of growth.

During that time, coffee fads change. Some buyers want coffee grown in shades. Others only coffee grown in sunshine. It is a bit like steering an oil tanker through a storm with constantly shifting hazards.

That is one reason acreage is sold. Another is the shifting market that any commodity faces. Tied with the expense of water and the lack of pickers, some of the growers simply throw in the towel.

It is easy to see why it is hard to find adequate pickers. Most of the plantations are on steep hillsides and harvesting is often done in very difficult conditions -- spiders, scorpions, rain.



My cousin Dan makes it look easy. But if any of us had been forced to live off of the coffee we picked, we would have starved.



Don Carlos taught us how coffee gets from the cherry to the cup. How the cherries are fermented for 2 to 4 days to make the removal of the skin easier. How the beans are then dried -- and, in most cases, shipped off to the international buyers as green, unroasted beans.

The next step is roasting -- usually, in large commercial roasters. Don Carlos used a specially-designed pan that stirred the beans while they roasted. Time, sound, smell, and color lets the person roasting the beans know when to stop the process and air-cool them.



And this is where everything seems to go a bit wine school crazy.

According to Don Carlos, the beans should be hand-ground to ensure the proper grind is obtained. His grinder looked like something my grandmother used to mince beef tongue for sandwiches.

Coffee cannot be brewed in just any pot. It needs a special filter (the Japanese and Germans seem to have the best) that contains the right size hole for the brew to exit and bevels to properly funnel the water.



The water is the central key to successful coffee -- 90% of the taste is in the water. The temperature must never be above boiling or the coffee will taste burnt. The paper filter is rinsed to remove residue and the carafe is warmed with water.

The ground coffee is then added to the filter allowing itself to level, and the brewer creates a small hole in the middle to allow the water to completely pass through the grind without lifting it.

It must have taken Don Carlos at least five minutes to carefully pour the water over the top of the grind at about the same rate the water was passing through the filter into the carafe.

His goal is to serve the coffee no more than 10 minutes from the time the beans are roasted. And so he did.

I am not a coffee connoisseur. I am not even a coffee consumer. But I found his two offerings interesting. One was a medium grind. The darker is a fine grind.



Even though I tasted some subtle flavors in the coffee (and the adjectives thrown around would have thrilled the soul of an oenophile), I suspect the brew served could just as easily been served at a truck stop or Denny's.

But, remember, I hardly pass as a coffee expert.

What I learned to appreciate most of all is the hard work and time that both the growers and pickers put in to ensure that cups of coffee appear on tables throughout the world. Whether or not the resulting brew is indifferent.