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...

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