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Friday, July 31, 2009

Scenes From La Candelaria

We are SO glad to have left Bogota for the countryside - which seems very lush and peaceful from the little that we've seen during the 8-hour journey by bus. (Our estimated time of arrival was delayed by 2 hours, thanks to a horrid traffic jam which just had to happen a mere hour before our stop.)

Sad to say, we left the hostel feeling rather miffed this morning. We had originally planned to leave Bogota at 10am sharp, so as not to arrive under the pitch-darkness of the night in a new city that we were unfamiliar with. One of the hostel staff offered to accompany us to San Gil, as he was coming here for the weekend too. We agreed to leave together at 9am, so as to suit his schedule. Anticipating an early departure, we rose at 7.30am and were ready by 9am, only to spend 1.5 hours spacing out on the couch waiting for this guy who never turned up!

Anyway... (deep breath)... we have decided to put all the negative stuff behind us - stinking robbers, freezing weather, polluted air, icy showers, rude hostellers and non-existent so-called travel companions - and look ahead to discovering Colombia's beautiful side.

So here's a simple picture-book post of some of the prettier scenes in Bogota's historic La Candelaria area, to end our 18 nights in the city on a high note.

(All photos taken with my Canon DSLR on the first, only and last time that I brought it out on a walk.)

Plaza de Bolivar, where you can buy a packet of birdseed to feed the pigeons

Hundreds and hundreds of icky pigeons. We had to guard our food and drinks (especially ice-cream!) closely to prevent errant feathers from sticking to them. The beautiful Catedral Primada and the smaller Capilla del Sagrario in the background.

Dan, flanked by the Capitolio Nacional (the seat of the Congress) in classical Greek style and the French-style Alcaldia (mayor's office)

Against a backdrop of 3 churches in a row - Inglesia de San Francisco, Inglesia de la Veracruz and Inglesia La Tercera

A very grand-looking school compound we pass by everyday when walking from the hostel to the city streets and back

An interesting tile painting on Calle 10 - a paved pedestrian mall. The lower part of the street is heavily patrolled by military police 24/7. The upper part - don't go there. The robbers will get you. They got us.

The narrow streets in La Candelaria are flanked by old buildings in pretty colours. They help distract us from the harrowing uphill walk that leaves us panting everytime. Many of the buildings house beautiful airy courtyards bathed in natural light (and chilly air) - similar to shophouses in Singapore.

I wonder whether there's actually a room behind those windows. Seems funny to build a wall for the sake of holding up 2 fancy bay windows. Or maybe the entire second floor was demolished and all that's left is the facade?

One of the many museums in the area. Entrance is all free-of-charge

Sunset casting an orange glow on the buildings. Flags all unfurled in celebration of Colombia's Independence Day

Spectacular sunset

Until The Fat Lady Sings

"Meet you at the Fat Bird at 1pm okay?"

Those working in Singapore's Central Business District would have uttered or SMSed this phrase to a lunch or dinner companion at some point during their weekdays (I'm really really sorry for those making such arrangements at Raffles Place while back in the office on weekends. It's time to change your job) spent slogging in Raffles Place

Meeting up with friends under the big fat toes of The Bird was my first encounter with Botero, more famously known for his paintings of fat women than birds, actually. The Colombian artist was born in Medellin, a city 9 hours by road from Bogota. Nevertheless, he has an impressive collection on display at the Donacion Botera in Bogota - 123 of his paintings, drawings and sculptures are available for public viewing, free of charge. There are also 85 other pieces by famous artists such as Dali and Picasso. The gallery (located in a very large old house) is a mere 3-minute walk from our hostel in the La Candelaria area.

We decided to explore Botero's artwork one afternoon. Now, we are not really the artistic sort - having never been to any art exhibitions or galleries back home, except for the Singapore Biennale - simply because the event, on both occasions that it was held, was linked to my work. I do like dabbling in art (I speak for myself only because Dan tells me he constantly failed at art throughout school) but spending a day gazing at art pieces isn't quite my cup of tea.

Uncultured as we deem ourselves to be, we went anyway, because (1) which better place to learn more about Botero than in Colombia itself; (2) entrance to the gallery was free of charge; and (3) we were running out of things to do in Bogota.

The Great Hand at the entrance greets visitors with a cheery wave... Hola mis amigos!

The gallery was packed with school children of all ages on the day we were there. I think it's really great that the kids here can enjoy an excursion to an art gallery on a school day. Goes to show that it's okay to screw maths and science for a day in the name of art appreciation. I definitely don't recall having the luxury of visiting a museum or art gallery as part of my school curriculum. Excursions of any sort took place only once a year after the exams ended and were limited to the zoo, Pasir Ris Park and repeated visits to the Science (yawn) Centre. Thankfully, the bar was raised in secondary school and we got to travel overseas. Somewhat. To Kukup (seafood lunch at a kelong) and Malacca (visit to the rubber plantation.)

The primary school kids were pretty enthusiastic about the gallery tour and were giving their utmost attention to the tour guide. Until we appeared and distracted them with our ching-chong Chinese faces. They called out "hola, hola!", "buenos tardes!", "chao!" each time they trooped past us, and 2 little girls took turns to pose with me and photograph each other with a handphone camera. I'm not sure being asked to pose for a photo is a compliment, given that this was a gallery that glorified fat women. Or, maybe, amongst all the fat sculptures and fat-people paintings, I must have looked like a goddess. Yes, yes, I believe that was it...

The older students - girls all prettily made-up and wearing flashy earrings, were alot less excited about viewing Botero's artwork. They preferred to sun themselves in the courtyard, snap pictures of one another, nap or talk on their mobiles. Pity how we all go through this cynical it's-cool-to-be-bored stage at some point during our school days.

Bored with Botero

We embarked on a self-guided tour of the house. Within the first 10 minutes, we managed to embarass ourselves by venturing too near to the paintings, triggering the sensor and setting off the alarm. The security guard and other visitors had to tell us to move further away from the walls. So suaku right. Well, we cosied up to the sculptures, because unlike the precious paintings, the metal men and women weren't surrounded by sensors and welcomed us with open arms, if any.

Paying a courtesy call at Adam and Eve's. They weren't expecting visitors and thus weren't wearing their fig leaves (blush)

Dannie spying on Venus in her (naked) sleep

Botero seems to like depicting men on horses alot, so Dannie tried to model for him. The kids and other visitors seemed to find his pose very amusing.

Photo taken by Dannie (obviously) who was very amused at how such a tiny leaf was all that was needed to give this beefy torso a little privacy.

Botero's pieces are all given very simple titles: Mujer en el Bano (Woman In The Bathroom), La Chica (Girl), Cebeza y Hombros de la Mujer (Head and Shoulders of a Woman), Hombre a Caballo (Man on Horse), etc. Our visit was quite timely actually. Alot of the titles were basically just descriptions of the parts of the human body depicted in the paintings. We had just learnt the names for the parts of the body in Spanish that very morning, so we could could read all the painting titles (no English translation)! Gee, I knew what la cebeza and los hombros were!

Don't hope for any in-depth critique of Botero's works here. All I can say is that I like Botero's style of drawing and painting very much. His work has a very soft and full quality to it - in his depiction of fruits, animals, buildings, rooms, scenery, and people. In my simplistic interpretation of his work, I would say that what he's trying to express in his subjects is the fullness of life?

Dannie obviously not agreeing with my "fullness of life" interpretation when it came to this horse's life-giving abilities

At the end of it all, it was a pretty enjoyable way to spend the afternoon. And I can safely say that this won't be our last visit to an art museum (as long as the others over South America remain free.) Who knows, this may just be the start of a new interest in art.

As the saying goes, it ain't over until the fat lady (not me) sings.

Not quite achieving a successful impression of that famous mysterious smile

PS. Botero's Pajaro (bird) sculpture in the gallery was the size of a chicken. Many times smaller than the one in Singapore and the two in his hometown, Medellin.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

How To Not Eat Your Heart Out When Eating Your Heart Out

As mentioned before, for the first 3 months of our trip, we ate our way through all the fast food chains (MacD's, KFC, Taco Bell, Wendy's, Arby's, Domino's), IHOPs and Ben & Jerry freezers throughout the United States. The good thing is - fast food is the cheapest meal option The bad (very very bad) thing? All those burgers, pizzas, fries and ice-cream flooded our bodies with fat, thousands of calories and icky bad cholesterol.

Our health situation isn't much better here in Colombia. Alot of the food we eat is deep fried - roadside snacks, fried plantains (similar to goreng pisang) and grilled meats.

Shaping Up

"You guys should try getting some exercise!" I hear you say. Except for the daily exertion on our lungs from plodding uphill back to our hostel at this high altitude, and short of signing up for a membership at a home gym (no big California Fitness and Fitness First chains here), going for a jog in Bogota is simply not an option. The air is severely polluted and blackened from the toxic fumes spewed out from collectivos and buses, and ever-rampant cigarette smoke. I fear for my lungs every time we step out onto the street. The pavements are crowded with mime artists (yes, irritating clowns who insist on trailing you and imitating your every action, and expect you to pay them for it), vendors spreading their wares on the ground, spray-paint artists, touts shoving everything from thumb drives to menus in your face and the alluring combo of potholes, spittle and pigeon poop. We are looking forward very much to moving into the countryside once our Spanish lessons end.

Looking Inwards

That said, regular exercise can only target one of the problems brought upon by an unhealthy diet - it only burns excess calories. What about all the bad cholesterol that's trapped inside your body? How do you get that damned evil stuff out?

To recap, how is bad cholesterol harmful to our health? While moving through your body via your bloodstream, the cholesterol decides that it likes the snug environment of your arteries and happily makes itself a permanent home on your artery walls. With the intake of more fatty foods, this spot of prime real estate attracts more fat neighbours. Unlike the traffic situation in Singapore, there's no equivalent of Electronic Road Pricing strategies in your body to regulate the speed at which the fatty deposits are building up. As a result, your arteries start to get dangerously narrow. This is what increases your risk of getting a heart attack.

So, just like how you take care of your car - by giving it a good scrub on the outside and cleaning out the interior (all those errant chips and cookie crumbs) - you not only need to care for your body by showering everyday (even if it means freezing your toes off in chilly Bogota), you also need to flush out those toxic residents that are throwing a weekly neighbourhood party in your arteries.

Cleaning On The Go

How do we take care of our insides while on the go, without (1) starving ourselves silly on a self-imposed detox diet (and missing out on all the great local food); and (2) signing up for expensive and time-consuming professional detox treatments?

We take Forever Living Arctic-Sea Omega-3 capsules as a dietary supplement.

Forever Living Arctic-Sea Omega-3 capsules - your Heart's best friend

Omega-3 is a fatty acid present in the layer of oil that lies under the skin of certain types of fish, namely salmon and mackerel. Also known as "good cholesterol", these fatty acids play a part in reducing the risk of contracting heart disease by countering the influx of bad cholesterol. In the case of Forever Living Arctic-Sea Omega-3 capsules, each 1000 mg capsule comprises 75% pure fish oil and 25% olive oil.

Why olive oil too? Olive oil contains Omega-9, which enhances the rate at which Omega-3 works to reduce cholesterol levels. Our friend Jasmine demonstrated this fact to us through an interesting experiment involving some Styrofoam. Styrofoam has a chemical structure similar to that of bad cholesterol. When oil from an Arctic-Sea capsule was added to the Styrofoam, the Styrofoam immediately started to dissolve. The conclusion is quite clear: the rare combination of Omega-3 and Omega-9 in a single capsule helps to dissolve solid fat deposits in the arteries. Liquid toxins are more easily flushed out of the body than chunks of fat. Regular intake of Arctic-Sea thus helps to keep the arteries clear and open, which optimises the flow of blood - and thus oxygen - to the heart.

There's Lots of Fish in the Sea

Exactomento. Omega-3 supplements are a dime a dozen in pharmacies. But where is the fish oil coming from? The polluted sea near you? Or unhealthy farm-reared fish, all packed fin-to-fin in grimy tanks? As you can imagine, the quality of the oil extracted from fishes living in such poor conditions can't be very good.

As clearly stated in the product name, Forever Living's Omega-3 is harvested from fish living in the Arctic Sea, whose remote location and severe icy temperatures work together to keep human activity at bay and its waters unpolluted. The Arctic waters are partially covered in ice throughout the year, and almost completely so in winter. To survive in such harsh conditions, its fishy residents need to store substantial layers of oil under their skin to insulate themselves against the cold. Healthy fish roaming freely in unpolluted waters, all warm and cosy under their thick oily coats? Paints a pretty picture indeed! So, in order to harvest their bounty of plentiful high-quality oil, we... kill them? Uh-huh. No fishes are harmed in the oil extraction process. Forever Living simply extracts the oil from under their skin and releases the fish back into the ocean, unharmed. To avid divers like us (and all you nice, kindhearted people out there!) who believe in the motto "Fish Are Friends, Not Food", that is good news indeed.

The Comparison With Brand X

Yeah, but how do we know for sure that Forever Living Arctic-Sea capsules work better than aaallllll the other brands of Omega-3 dietary supplements out on the market? Well, to be honest, we don't. Simply because we haven't eaten Omega-3 from aaalllll the other brands and we don't know anyone who is crazy enough to do so.

But take my dad's word for it. Prof Tan is The Ultimate Hypochondriac who indulges in an occasional serving of char kway teow, durian pengat, cereal prawns, chendol and buttery goodies that my mum churns out from her oven. He has been taking Omega-3 capsules since ... forever. We gave him a bottle of Artic-Sea capsules to try. After a month, he excitedly reported that he preferred Forever Living's capsules over his Brand X ones because:

(1) Forever Living's soft gel capsules were easier to swallow than Brand X's hard, plasticky rugby balls that stabbed at his throat on their way down;

(2) they helped him poop better (sorry Dad, you were so excited about this - I just had to say it);

(3) as a result of point (2), he felt lighter, cleaner and more energetic; and

(4) ever since he started taking Arctic-Sea, he has not fallen ill (my dad's very prone to the sniffles and sore throats) even though a recent bout of the dreaded Office Flu wiped out his entire department.

Don't Miss The Boat!

It's never too early to start taking care of your heart and keeping heart disease at bay. If anyone is interested in getting on track to a healthy heart, drop our friend Jasmine a note by clicking here or emailing her at jasjas.ng@gmail.com. Don't just stop at the heart though - Jas knows some professional nutritionists who can help do a thorough check of your insides too!

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

A Spanish Mistake

Although the Spanish alphabet encompasses all 26 letters of the English alphabet (with a few more extra ones tossed in), some of the letters are pronounced rather differently from what we are used to back home.

For example:

- "g", in some instances, is pronounced as "h" (so you make the "hehh" sound) You pronounce "gente" (people) as "hen-tay"

- "h" is silent. You pronounce "hola" as "oh-la"

- "j" is pronounced as "h". Laughter, in Spanish, would be spelt as "jajajajaja" but sounds like "hahahahaha"

As I just found out over a Facebook chat with my Spanish teacher (una Colombiana bonita!) who is living in Singapore, it is REALLY important to keep your ears peeled for such subtle differences when hearing words starting with "g" or "h".

In my last entry, there was a picture in which I was posing with a street vendor selling marshmallow-like sweets, which I had purchased. I thought the sweets were called "heladinas", which was what I had heard the vendors' shouting throughout Bogota and Zipaquera.

Looks good, doesn't it? Like mochi - yums!

Now, because we're such fans of ice-cream, that was one of the first words that I looked up in the Spanish dictionary. Ice-cream, in Spanish, is "helado" (prounounced "ay-la-doh".) Thus, I deduced that it was perfectly logical for the soft, sweet, creamy-white snacks to be called "heladinas" - like, small ice-creams?

To my utmost horror, Alejandra (my Spanish teacher in Singapore) just informed me that the snack I ate was not a mini ice-cream.... but rather a "gelatina" (pronounced "hay-la-tina") - gelatin extracted from boiling the body parts of the cow, namely it's hide, bones and hooves!!!!!

*covers mouth and turns green*

Okay, people, you can all stop laughing now.

At least I got a good dose of collagen! Jajajajaja!

La Comida de Bogotá

After spending the first few months of our trip eating our way through fastfood outlets and IHOPs in the US, and limited choices of local cuisine in the Caribbean, arriving in Colombia was like stepping into food paradise. While the range of local food can't be compared to the offerings in Singapore, it has kept me more than happy during our 2 weeks here in Bogota. Being able to sample a new food item everyday at a cheap price gives me something to look forward to after 3 hours of Spanish lessons.

Hostel Food

One of the first meals we had was in the hostel - a weekly Thursday night BBQ at COP 8,000 (US$4) per person. Eating off the table tennis table was a good opportunity to get to know our fellow hostel guests who hailed from Korea, England, America, etc. When it came to the food however, variety was limited to beef fillets, salted baked potatoes, grilled bananas and some guacamole. The staff were frantically tossing the meats on the grill and went into a fanning frenzy in order to feed the hungry guests. The beef got charred on the outside but was left raw on the inside. We didn't sign up for the BBQ held the following week.

Thursday night BBQs at the hostel

Colombian Set Lunches

We read about the value-for-money Colombian set lunches costing US$1.50-2.50 and the hostel pointed us to a small restaurant down the street called Don Rafa. Not knowing how the set lunches work, we had a rather frustrating conversation with the staff when placing our order. That said, humans, when faced with conversational hurdles, inevitably find a way to communicate with one another through gestures, half-guesses and common words in our languages like "pasta"! Now we're pros at ordering the Colombian set lunch!

Basically, you get to choose an item under each of the following food categories:
- Sopa y frutas: soup (usually with vegetables) or fruit
- Carnes: pollo (chicken) or carne (beef), cooked in different styles
- Principals: pasta, verdura (veggies), frijoles (beans, ugh), patatas fritas (chips) or ensalada (guacamole salad)
- Jugos: usually mora (raspberry), fresa (strawberry), mango (well, mango), lulo (passionfruit) or pina (pineapple)

Every plate comes with a serving of egg fried rice, salad and half a grilled banana. For COP 5,000 (US$2.50), it's awfully good-value-for money and leaves us stuffed till dinnertime.

Digging into our first hard-earned lunch at Don Rafa - sopa verdura, pollo, pasta y pina.

Not much choice when it comes to soup - it's always veggie soup with a mixture of root veggies and lentils. My favourite is ajiaco - which, due to some herb in it, is more tasty than regular soup

Set lunch at a restaurant in Zipaquira after visiting the Salt Cathedral. COP 6,000 (US$3) I had the fried chicken, which was REALLY good.

Back at Don Rafa - our favourite eatery. I had the sobrebarriga asada as the choice of meat - roast beef (from the flank of the cow, literally "over the belly") Muy muy decliciosa!

Other Restaurants in La Candelaria

We tried some of the other food offerings in the La Candelaria area. Each dish doesn't cost more than COP 4,500 (US$2.25). Smaller items like desserts or sweets, such as arroz con leche (a rice pudding with milk and topped with raisins) cost less.

Arepa con chorizo. Arepas are small doughy pancakes made of white corn. Totally tasteless, so it's usually served as a side as part of a bigger meal.

Banjera paisa - typically Bogotan. A massive serving of food comprising rice, minced beef, beans, an arepa, a chorizo sausage, a grilled banana, a slice of avocado and a huge slab of deep fried pork lard.

Tamal - reminded me alot of our meat dumpings (bak chang or zhong zi) back home. Instead of rice, corn meal is used to enclose the meat (usually chicken) and is then wrapped in leaves and steamed. Absolutely yummy. We ate it, together with Vincent from Taiwan, and lamented about missing Dumpling Festival (held in July) back home in Asia.

Chocolate Santefereño - a Colombian tradition. Hot chocolate served with a buttered bun, a puff pastry and slab of cheese. You dunk the cheese into the chocolate.

Western Tastes: We checked out a pizza place nearby which the hostel recommended. We also made a pilgrimage to a fastfood outlet serving fried chicken to satisfy Dan's cravings (no KFC here!)

Enjoying a simple set lunch at Pizza Poli - a slice of freshly-baked pizza and a drink for COP 4,400 (US$2.20)

Donning guantes (gloves) for his oily meal - fried chicken, salted baked potatoes, fried bananas, and a drink (COP 5,000 or US$2.50)

No fried chicken for me, thank you. I had pechunga a la plancha - grilled chicken breast for COP 6.000 (US$3) Also served with salted potatoes, fried banana and an arepa.

Street Food!

Everybody loves street food! And Bogota has plenty of it! There's grilled corn on the cob, meat skewers topped with a small potato, fresh slices of coconut or coconut candies cooked in brown sugar, hot black coffee poured from thermos flasks and served in tiny cups (called tinto), cut fruits (mango, papaya, guava) and fruit juices (like soursop or guanabana as it is called here.) I'm not really into skewered meat cooked on the streets but personally love anything sweet or doughy. Here are some of our favourite street snacks:

Empanadas - similar to the curry puff, but the pastry is made of corn meal instead of flour. Filled with chicken, beef or veggies and eaten with a variety of dips. Empanadas with meat cost about COP 1,300 or US$0.65.

Obleas are our favourite. Light, sweet and crispy. They must be really popular with the locals too cos there are dozens of vendors selling obleas on the streets. Depending on what spreads you choose, an oblea can cost anything between COP 1,000 to COP 2,000 (US$0.50-$1)

This vendor was very proud of her Mickey Mouse wafers

Choose from a selection of spreads - mora (raspberry jam), dulce de leche (sweetened milk), arequipa (caramel), queso (grated cheese) and peanuts.

We chose mora, arequipa and dulce de leche, which are spread on a wafer and sandwiched with another.

On Independence Day, we took a walk around Plaza Bolivar which was bursting with activity. Food vendors were out in full force. We discovered a couple of new food items served on carts, which are not usually seen on a normal day. We tried bunuelos and avena - which reminded me a little of the soya bean milk and pancake combo at home. Bunuelos are deep fried balls of cheesy dough, fried to a golden crisp on the outside but the inside remains white and fluffy. Avena is a chilled oatmeal drink which Colombians are raised on, as an alternative to milk. Apparently, most Latin Americans are highly lactose intolerant and don't take diary products.

The buñuelo y avena combo for COP 2,000 (US$1)

I don't know exactly what these are called - helatinas, I think. Basically sticks of marshmallow.

This guy was doing a roaring business on Independence Day. We caved in and bought a soft-serve ice-cream, topped with chocolate sauce and rainbow sprinkles for COP 800 (US$0.40)

At Montserrat (which we will do a blog entry on later), we came across a market place where various open-air stalls were hawking local delicacies. We gave the intestine stews and scary-looking sausages a miss though. We saw some people spooning into some colourful red and white snacks, which turned out to be cheesy curd paired with your choice of mermalada (marmalade - a huge slab of it!) or arequipa

Red and white - a new National Day snack for Singapore?

The panaderias - or bakeries - here are quite a draw. The bread and cakes aren't exactly unique, and don't taste very nice at times, but the aroma wafting from the street side ovens is just heavenly and we occasionally stepped into one to buy a bun or a Swiss roll.

A Swiss roll? Just after wiping out a super heavy lunch set at Zipaqueria.

Fruits: Typically tropical fare - like what we have back home: papayas, soursop, bananas, mango, guava and the imported stuff like apples and oranges. What really tickled my bones was this tiny tiny comb of bananas we came across while shopping at Carrefour, even smaller than the small pisangs we have at home.

A whole bunch can fit into the palm of my hand!

Coffee: What's a visit to Colombia without sampling Colombian coffee? Besides buying a cup of tinto from the coffee carts along the street, you can also enjoy a cuppa at one of the chic cafes like Juan Valdez. A cup here costs less than one at Starbucks (not that there are any Starbucks outlets here) and tastes really good! Except for an ocassional craving for a kopi-peng, I'm not a coffee-drinker (refuse to get entrenched in the I-need-a-coffee-to-start-the-day habit) and I hate coffee-breath, but just had to give the coffee here a go.

Queueing up for a cuppa at Juan Valdez - all prepared to place my order in Spanish

The courtyard at Juan Valdez is a nice place to relax and people-watch - as long as you make your way back before dark.


While food in Bogota is relatively cheap, dining in a restaurant would still cost more eating out back home at a coffee shop or hawker centre. To save money, we only eat out in the day because of the availability of cheap set lunches and it's safe to walk or take the bus during the daytime (or so we were lead to believe, until the stupid robbers found us.) If we went out at night, we would have to spend extra dough on cab fare.

Being rather lazy cooks, we are limited to eating either instant noodles or simple pasta dishes. We started off on the wrong note - trying to cook pasta with just basil pesto and nothing else (we hadn't discovered the cheap combo of sausages and ham packaged together at the supermarket yet.) It was DISGUSTING. I almost died from my own cooking and Dan accused me of trying to murder him.

Is my cooking really THAT hard to eat?!

We were saved from more bad food when we discovered pre-packaged Oriental-flavoured pasta (you just dump the whole packet into boiling water) going at 50% off at the nearby supermarket. However, we're pleased to annouce that through a daily trial-and-error process, I'm now churning out pretty good pasta for dinner every night! Whoo hoo! And I estimate that we're spending less than COP 4,000 (US$2) for a dinner for 2.

To wrap up, we are enjoying our food in Bogota and can't wait to sample other local delicacies in other parts of Colombia - even hormigas culonas - literally ants with huge asses in the Santader region!

Eat on!

Monday, July 27, 2009

Something Old, Something New, Something Borrowed, Something Blue

Haha... no, the we're not getting married again! But married life sure is great.

The wife did something really sweet the other night. After I purchased my new camera, I was talking about getting a small pouch so that the LCD will not get scratched.

"No need", she said. "I'll make one for you tonight."

So, while I was pulling my hair out while being totally frustrated with T-Mobile (and yet trying to be polite), she was going back to her Home Economics days. After a bit of snipping and sewing, look what she made!

"Borrowed" the velcro from my old Olympus pouch

Not bad, eh? I got something new out of something old. Some of you may be able to immediately identify where this blue cloth came from, after all, our travel wardrobe is really quite limited.

She promised to wear only the remainder of her blue top when we visit our next nude beach

Yup. That was a huge amount of cloth she used! Why? Simply because I had said that one layer was not sufficient protection for my camera. So this small little pouch is actually double-layered!

It's like making a molehill out of a mountain!

So sweet, right? :)

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Finger Lickin' Good

Okay, enough doom and gloom in the last few entries. We're glad to introduce the nicer side of Bogota to the world. This entry was meant to be posted much earlier, but got superseded by all the bad stuff which happened, which is a shame. And since our readers back home are probably suffering the weekly bout of Monday blues today, we hope that this picture-heavy entry will bring some cheer to the start of your week.

On one of the weekends in Bogota, we made a day trip to Zipaquira to visit La Catedral de Sal - literally "the Salt Cathedral". Together with our new Taiwanese friend, Vincent, we embarked on the first leg of the journey - a 40-minute ride on the Transmileno.

The Transmileno is said to have revolutionised Bogota's public transport system. It's pretty much like our MRT back home, except that instead of overhead or underground tracks, the Transmileno buses run along designated lanes (a bit like our bus lanes) and instead of trains, passengers ride on bendy-buses. It costs COP 1,500 (approx US$0.75) per trip, regardless of time or distance traveled.

The Transmileno bus-stops are not like anything we've seen before. They function like bus terminals where there are designated boarding points for different bus services, but are built like MRT stations, complete with platforms and sliding doors.

Inside one of the "bus-stops" for the Transmileno

The hardest part of taking the Transmileno is figuring out the transport map. Although it initially looks less intimidating than the complex tangle of coloured lines representing the New York City subway or the London Tube, Bogota's version requires alot more brain cells to be sacrificed in deciphering the colour codes. After getting incredibly lost on our first ride, we managed to decode the mass of colours and now move around town confidently on the Transmileno. Sometimes more so than the locals (who have, on occasion, asked us where to drop off.)

Somewhere over the rainbow lies our stop

Meeting Vincent made us effectively multilingual - learning Spanish while conversing in English, Mandarin and a smattering of Hokkien.

View of Bogota's city streets from inside the Transmileno. Picture taken by the Canon SX200 in "colour accent" mode. Muy cool.

At Bogota's Porte de Norte, we searched amongst the hoards of inter-city buses and hopped onto the one marked "Zipa" - short for Zipaquira. The inter-city bus was much older than the Transmileno and looks more like a (non-airconditioned) coach, costing COP 3,400 (approx US$1.70) for the hour-long ride. Halfway through the trip, a conductor comes around to collect the fare and peanut vendors come onboard to hawk their wares.

Going to Zipaquira on the inter-city bus

Zipaquira was abuzz with activity, it being the long holiday weekend to mark Colombia's Independence Day the following Monday. We walked up a lovely pedestrian mall lined with shops, towards the salt mines.

Avocados are pretty popular side dishes in Colombian fare, eaten with a pinch of salt

Cresting the first stretch of the hillside, we found ourselves in a large town square. Although the salt mines are suppose to be a short 15-minute walk from the bus stop, we found ourselves taking much longer as we kept stopping to take in the sights (especially the local food!) and to soak in the festive atmosphere.

In front of a church that reminds me very much of a sandcastle

Checking out local wares - steaming hot tamales, crepes, soups, pastries, etc.

The Colombians in Zipaquira have quite a sense of humour when choosing decorations for their building facades. Giant butterflies here...

... a colony of leaf-cutter ants covering another building...

... and a heated stand-off between a steely bull and a wiry man here.

Stopping, gawking and snapping every few steps. The expression on my face tells Dan that he's taking way too many pictures here.

Lost in the hustle and bustle of the marketplace, we strayed too far from the turn-off towards the salt mines and once again, got lost. Stuttering in broken Spanish, we managed to ask one of the locals which direction we should be heading in. Gesturing madly, with grand sweeping motions towards the right of the town square, he repeated "Zooooosshhhh, deracha (to the right)!! Zoooooooshhh! Derecha!" We got the idea.

Uphill from the Zipaquira town centre, near the entrance to the salt mines

La Catedral de Sal is built in the salt mines, where salt is still being extracted. Visitors and worshippers enter the cathedral through a series of tunnels from which the salt has been removed. The original cathedral was built in a cave inside the mines in 1954 and has since deterioted. A new one was built in 1995, 180m below the surface. Entry into the cathedral is COP 15,000 (approx US$7.50), which isn't cheap. It costs less to visit on a Wednesday (COP 10,000). Apparantly, the Great Cross that emerges from the crack that is the entrance, when projected onto the town square, symbolises the union of the town. Or something like that.

All set to go deep down, 180m underground

Walking down through the tunnels towards the cathedral, as blinking eyes adjust to the darkness, visitors will come across 14 crosses carved out of or into the salt walls, commerating the various stages of the Way of the Cross, which in turn depicts Jesus Christ's final hours before his crucifixion. Each station is designed by a different artist and is subtly but beautifully bathed in gentle coloured lights.

The route through the tunnels is said to prepare the pilgrim as he transcends from an external, material world into a conceptual, interior world. From the terrastrial, to the spiritual. As we told Vincent, in a language he's familiar with, "si beh cheem ah."

Light eminating from the crucifix carved into the wall

Trying out the stone-hard pews.... oww

Many of the crosses are really big. This one seems to be rising from the skies, bathed in heavenly light

The biggest cross of all, seen from afar. You can see tiny human-shapes in front of it. A trumpeter angel carved in stone stands out against the lurid green background.

Crucifixes aren't the only things carved in salt here. Delicate angels, perched on rocky ledges and hovering high above our heads, looked down upon us. Joseph, Mary, baby Jesus and a couple of barn residents also put together a heartwarming nativity scene.

Angels we have heard on high

Away in the manger, no crib for a bed

You can see the softness in the angel's wings, hair and robes despite it being carved out of hard mineral. Lovely.

The blessed babe watched over by angels

We finally reached the cathedral, 180m below ground. It was a very quiet, awe-inspiring and humbling experience just sitting on the pews or standing before the altar. Just imagine the cave echoing with voices of people singing hymms on a Sunday and the strong voice of a priest leading all in prayer. Wow.

Having a quiet moment

The pillars supporting the roof of the cathedral are so HUGE and perfectly symmetrical

No visit to a tourist attraction is complete without the, well, touristy stuff. Visitors pop out from the cathedral and into a cave dotted with souvenir kiosks and, get this, a cafe. Kitschy as it all seems, the idea of a cafe in a cave is actually really cool. Dan entertained the thought of getting a small crucifix carved out of salt for his parents. We decided that it would probably (a) get wet and dissolve; (b) break; or (c) disintegrate, during some point of the trip and so didn't get anything in the end.

Freshly brewed Colombian coffee served in a cave

The craziest part of the tour had to be the 3D movie at the end of it, which is included in the ticket price. Visitors don red-and-blue paper spectacles and are treated to an animation telling the story of how the tunnels and cathedral were created using a complex system of explosives. It was a pity that the spectacles were rather poorly made - the red cellophane was way too opaque and made us feel super sleepy - cos the animation was actually quite well done.

We may have missed Ice Age 3 and Up but we still got to watch a 3D movie on this trip

Some readers may be asking - was all this really carved out of salt? How did we know it wasn't just some ordinary rocky cave made of other types of minerals?

Well, we scrapped at the walls and gathered the crusty white crystals that fell into our palms.

Then we licked them.

And yes, they definitely tasted very salty.

Living life with a pinch of salt

PS: Pictures taken with Dan's Canon SX200 The First, before it got camera-napped. And with my Sony Cybershot (I miss shooting with my 450D!)

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