Friday, December 21, 2007

Break Part I: Time Machine

First off, I must say that I am thoroughly enjoying the flexibility that having three entire weeks off between semesters is allowing me to do.

This first week off of school I jumped on a plane and flew the (barely) hour hop to Bogotá and met up with two other teachers who were already there, Christine (hailing from Sheboygan, WI and fellow UWEC alum) and Luis Armando. We spent the night in Bogotá, which is quite a bit cooler than the Cali heat I've been accustomed to the past five months; I guess elevation will do that to you. It is also significantly cleaner and more cosmopolitan than Cali as well. Kind of like if Chicago was in the mountains. I will definitely be planning a trip back to just explore Bogotá.

The next morning we took a bus to small town about an hour north of the capitol called Zipaquira. After a quick Colombian lunch of soup, beef, potato, and rice we continued walking through town until we reached the other side. Our main intention of stopping here was to visit the famous "Salt Cathedral." This subterranean attraction is exactly what you would think it is - a gigantic cathedral carved out of salt. This area of Colombia was once an ocean and therefore has a high salt content in the ground. Mining the salt has been a lucrative but dangerous business. In the early days of the mine, the workers would bring a statue of the Virgin Mary down in the tunnels with them to pray to. Eventually someone suggested that they carve out a cathedral where they have already mined so that they have an actual place to worship. And in the early 1950's that is what they did. In the tunnels of this working mine is an enormous cathedral about 200 meters into the side of a mountain. Along the way to the actual cathedral room, we passed 14 smaller chapels, each representing one of the Stations of the Cross. While walking through the tunnels, which smelled strongly of sulfur, we would pass prayer benches that looked like they were made of marble. Who knew that when salt hardens in creates a stone-like material that is like a transparent marble. The guide showed us how light can pass through it and that the pulpit and baptismal fountain are all made of this hardened material. (Side note: They have to use salt water in the baptismal because pure water will "eat away" the salt stone.)

After breathing in some fresh mountain air, we navigated our way by two different buses and a cab ride to the beautiful little town of Villa de Leyva, roughly three hours further north. This area of Colombia is still cool, but also surprisingly drier than the rest of the country. There was no need to pack shorts for this trip!

We spent the next three days exploring the little village and the surrounding area. One of the big attractions of the town is the huge center plaza. It is supposedly the biggest in all of Colombia and could probably rival many a city center throughout certain European and colonial American cities as well. It was almost as if time found a way to skip over this tiny pueblo each and every year as the rest of the world moved on. It was not difficult to picture yourself back in the early 1600's.

The food was amazing, as were the little craft shops all along the cobble-stoned streets of the town. One of the favorite flavors of the region is a soup called ajiaco (say: ah-hee-ya-koe) which consists of chicken, corn, and potato stew flavored with a herb called guasca, and avocado. There was also a type of fruit that Christine nor I had ever come across, called feijoa. Luis Armando explained that is very expensive to ship to other areas and because Cali has so many other fruits the demand to bring in others, such as feijoa, is not there, so neither is it.

There is so much to do in and around Villa de Leyva that it is nearly impossible to get it all done in one trip and relax at the same time. And really, if you're not relaxed in Villa de Leyva, you're doing something wrong! The last whole day we were in the place that time forgot we rented horses and a guide and took a tour of some of the local attractions on the outskirts of town. The first place we stopped at was a collection of small ponds that had a brilliant gem-like blue color in the very desert-like area of the valley. Being from the water-filled Midwest, this site wasn't terribly exciting to either Christine or me so, after a couple of quick pictures, we remounted our horses and left the Pozos Azules behind us.

Next stop was an ostrich farm! Now, just to be clear, ostriches (or "avestruzes") are NOT endemic to Colombia or anywhere else in South America. Just to be clear. Anyways, we walked through the farm and learned a lot of interesting facts about these huge birds. Did you know that males can live to be 70 years old but only reproduce between the ages of 3 and 26? I was secretly hoping I'd get to ride one a la Swiss Family Robinson but I had to settle for being pecked at and chased for the ostrich food in my pocket. However you picture that is probably how it looked. Feel free to laugh but just think about what you would do if an eight-foot tall BIRD were coming after you. Yeah. Think about it.

Moving on...the next stop was a small museum off the road built around a kronosaurus fossil in the ground. As I said before, this area used to be an ocean so everything in the museum that has been found in the area was marine in nature. There were a lot of shells, fish, and aquatic plant fossils. And let's not forget the gigantic alligator-like aforementioned museum centerpiece. After a good ten minutes (seriously, it wasn't that big) we were off again.

The final and most ridiculous stop on the horse-led tour of the country was a visit to an ancient Muisca Indian site. There are two reasons this area is important archeologically. The first is that it is like a smaller and simpler Stone Henge. There are two parallel rows of two to four foot tall pillars spaced about one meter apart from each other and nine meters apart from the other row. The position of the shadows apparently told the Muisca when certain growing periods were to occur and they based their festivals around this primitive clock. The other interesting aspect of this area is the abundance of giant stone penises standing, excuse the expression, perfectly erect out of the rocky mountain ground. When the Spanish settlers first began taking control of the area they were so appalled by these enormous phalluses that they knocked a few over and then decided to rename the area El Infiernito (or "The Little Hell") in an attempt to make this place suddenly evil and discourage the Muisca from going there. I can see why they gave up knocking them down when some of them are as big around as an old oak tree and up to two stories tall. Crazy stuff here in Colombia, I tell you...

Break Part II: The Mob & Me

After an enjoyable and relaxing week in Villa de Leyva, Christine, Luis Armando, and I left the little pueblo to head back to Cali. The plan was to catch a bus to Tunja and then another to Bogotá in time to get some lunch and head to airport in time for our 3:30 flight. Simple enough, yes? That's what we thought too.

The bus travel went well, with the minor exception of being randomly stopped and searched by the Colombian military, but I'd rather have to put my hands on the side of the bus and get patted down than have unsafe highways.
We got to the Bogotá airport at around 2pm and were immediately told that our plane had been overbooked...BUT we were being put on a later 5:30pm flight AND were getting some free bonos for future flights. In return we had to stand in line at the check in for a little over an hour. Finally having checked in, we made our way to the appropriate gate only to find that our original 3:30pm flight was at the neighboring gate and had not left yet at about 4:30pm. Eventually they took off and simultaneously our flight was delayed until 6:30pm. The first ting we noticed, other than the fact that no one seemed to really know anything was that somehow an entire planeload of people had been overbooked. I would love to know how that happened, especially when everyone we talked to was supposed to have been on the 3:30pm flight with us. Hmm...

Fast-forward another hour and we are told that our plane, which incidentally, has not shown up yet, is not going to be there until "maybe" 10pm. Or it could just be canceled altogether, they don't really know. At this point our fellow airline travelers began to get a little...peeved? Angry? Riotous? Let's just say about 60% of the flight basically stormed the gate desk all screaming at the same time. The military police stationed at the airport were summoned and were a solid presence from here on out, guns, batons, giant boots and all.

Luis Armando spent a lot of the next few hours with his fellow proactive Colombians questioning the airline workers about the location of our plane, why everyone at the airport was so ignorant, and when when when? Christine and I laid on the floor and watched the growing mob and equally growing number of armed military personnel. Various members of the mob began to emerge in our minds with names and predictable personality traits. There were several stereotypically power tied businessmen on the flight who were obviously used to being in control and getting what they want. They became our favorites to watch. There was also the man in the backwards Kanga hat and sports coat who looked like a Samuel L. Jackson wannabe, the "lady in white," and "chair guy" who seemed to feel that standing on various elevated places yelling random things to the crowd was helping things. "Chair guy" was mostly ignored although on several occasions he was successful in inciting the mob into chanting, "mentirosos" (liars) and "bonos." With each chant the mob caused at least one or two more military troops to show up. (There was also "good hair man" who didn't ever do anything except become our own minor celebrity solely based on his Patrick Dempsey-like locks.)

Eventually, around 11pm, an airline spokesman showed up to let us know that a plane was found to take us to Cali, unfortunately, the pilot had "timed out" and a new one needed to be found. How an airline shortchanges a plane and is out a pilot is beyond me but they haven't asked me to run the company yet so I'll stay out of it.

At about 12:15am we had a pane and a pilot and a crew. At this point the airline thought to themselves, "what else can we do to not get these people off the ground very quickly? I know! Let's board them by calling out their names one at a time! Brilliant!" So, one by one we were called by name and allowed to board the plane. After about 15 minutes Stephani Johnson got called to board. It was like getting the VIP treatment walking down the tunnel to the plane since no one else was in the tunnel with you. A few minutes later Christian Dussault joined me on the plane followed by our pal Luis Armando, who had no identity crisis. When several of the "Power Tie Crew" boarded they were greeted by an ovation of sorts. It doesn't take much to be a celebrity. We were also given more bonos, as if we were all dying to fly this airline again.

Wait! We can't take off that easily! As we were taxing down the runway an older man in the front half of the cabin suddenly passed out. This was most likely due to the fact that while sitting on the slowly filling plane there was very little circulating air. After returning to the terminal to drop this gentleman off, we finally were in the air at 1:45am - ten hours and fifteen minutes after we were supposed to take off.

I know others of you have probably spent many hours in an airport due to cancellations for various reasons; however, the introduction of near riots, the police, and complete ignorance raised this airport experience to a whole other level for me. Moral of the story: Don't fly AeroRepublica.