The Call of Colombia

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Let’s get this out of the way: there is no U in Colombia.

“Colombia? That’s the last place in this hemisphere I’d want to go to for vacation,” warns Gabriel, my dentist of 35 years, a well-traveled, sophisticated kind of guy who thrives on adventure and whose very own father came from Ecuador. “You couldn’t make me go there.” Never mind that we live in one of those places that’s on the U.S. State Department’s no-go list. You would’ve thought I’d suggested a winter holiday in Detroit. But then his reaction mirrored most of my friends’.

When I pitched this piece to the Voice of Experience editorial board, you could practically hear the eyes rolling. You’d think I was urging travel to Venezuela or Somalia. Let’s just say the board’s enthusiasm about Colombia piece was less than audible. Colombia has long been the poster child of the unruly society that many associate with Latin America.

“But you’ve already been there,” other friends tell me, issuing the same refrain I’d hear forty years ago when I kept returning to Mexico. Never mind that these are the same people who return to France and to Italy and even to Disney World year after year.
Upper-middle class bachelor parties in Mexico have started opting for a long weekend jaunt to Colombia instead of old-time standbys of Cancun, Cuba, or Las Vegas. It’s been making the New York Times lists of up-and-coming places to visit, and it’s got Lonely Planet’s endorsement.

“The only risk is wanting to stay!” A little over a decade ago, the Colombian export commission and tourism ministry launched an advertising campaign explicitly intended to ameliorate the country’s “most dangerous” reputation in South America. But the odd logic practiced by the U.S. State Department would continue to play Chicken Little, issuing a Level 2 Exercise Caution advisory for Colombia with a Level 3 Reconsider Travel advisory for some regions. Forget what you saw on Narcos, Romancing the Stone, and Scarface, will you? Like the readers of VOE, I’m not traipsing off into FARC territory or trying to score illicit sex and drugs. There’s no question that Colombia is security-conscious, but frankly, I’ve felt more danger lurking right in front of Neiman Marcus on N. Michigan Ave. in Chicago on some random Tuesday afternoon.

Twice the size of Texas and France, four times bigger than Italy, this country packs in loads of landscapes—two coastlines, the Andes, Amazon rainforest, deserts, big cities, middling villages, rivers, lakes, jungles, valleys, and savannahs—and the second-highest biodiversity in the world. It consistently rates as one of the happiest countries in the world, according to the World Happiness Report. Its position near the equator means that there’s very little variation in temperatures throughout the year, although the higher elevations are cooler than the lowlands. In Bogota, it’s possible to experience all four seasons in the span of an afternoon. This is a place where the sun rises early and sets early with very little change throughout the year.

Colombia’s first allure to me was its ease of access: a 4-hour affordable flight from Mexico City. Even from the U.S., flights to Colombia are relatively inexpensive. High quality and good value would come later as selling points.

My favorite venue, and consequently the site of most of my travel in Colombia, has been in the Andean Region. Bogota, Medellin, coffee and quaint towns, all at an altitude, are my idea of a great holiday.

Retail Therapy

So many visitors to Latin America are enchanted by traditional markets, dancing natives, folk art, nature hikes, and visits to coffee plantations. Don’t get me wrong: I’ve enjoyed that stuff, too. But nothing fascinates me more than a visit to the mall, and Latin America has some of the best ones in the New World. Arlene Dávila’s El Mall: The Spatial and Class Politics of Shopping Malls in Latin America explains how and why Latin American malls are light years from Mall of the Americas. They’re for more than just shopping because malls create and host a Main Street, a cultural space, restaurant venues, events, and plenty of opportunities to just people-watch. Whether it’s Bogota’s Centro Mayor (the largest in South America) or Centro Andino or Medellin’s El Tesoro Parque Comercial, I just can’t get my fill, easily spending the better part of a day easily entertained at any one of them.
And then there are the treks to antique stores, flea markets, hippie markets, pop-up stores, and even grocery stores, all sources of never-ending exploration.

Getting Cultured

Just as Buenos Aires calls itself the Paris of South America, Bogota is tabbed the Athens of South America, and for good reason. Bogota boasts over fifty museums, all at prices ranging from free to only a few dollars. This is culture at a price I can afford. In Bogota, the Museo del Oro, the Museo Botero, and the Museo Nacional are right up there with the best anywhere. Medellin has the Museo de Antioquia, with its world-class Botero collection, the Botero sculptures scattered throughout the city, El Castillo Museo y Jardines, the Museo del Agua, and the Museo Casa de la Memoria. But what is really memorable is simply stumbling across some museum housing something that you’ve never really thought much about and then visiting it just for a clean bathroom, some shade, or to bide time, only to be pleasantly surprised. I still chuckle at how I came across and actually enjoyed museums dedicated to philately and numismatics, subjects I’d never really considered interesting.

It doesn’t take a lot to entertain me in Colombia. Just wandering around can be entertaining enough, but coming upon an unexpected event, like the Bogota International Book Fair, a bazaar for new designs, a clown workshop, a dog adoption fair, or an exposition of women-owned small businesses, is always a highlight. Planning a trip around some event means higher prices and higher expectations, but just picking up the local newspaper to see what’s going on doesn’t.

Victuals

Because I’m usually travelling alone, I never plan meals at some destination restaurant or even one well-ranked in Trip Advisor. I just stop at whatever looks good when I’m hungry and in the mood. Some of the most memorable meals have been at restaurants I couldn’t even identify again by name, simply because they were situated within a museum or recommended by the owner of some ratty antique shop as a good place for lunch. The $2.50 chicken fried steak and a $.65 cup of coffee (freshly baked cookie included), both consumed in Envigado, a suburb south of Medellin, stand out in my memory as much as the $20 steak I enjoyed later in the day in El Poblado.

Colombia isn’t the place to go looking for fine wines. Carulla’s liquor department had a lonely bottle of Colombian wine. But it is the place for artisanal beer, coffee, fruit of every hue, bread, and, of course, arepas. There are the fancy restaurants, the world-famous Andres, Harry Sasson and Leo, and just about every ethnic cuisine under the sun. Traditional Colombian cuisine comes across first as bland and well-fried, but upon reflection, it eventually all comes together as simple, honest, and straightforward fare, devoid of pretense and harboring no mystery ingredients. It’s just home-cooking: Ajiaco, a chicken, corn, and potato stew, and Bandeja Paisa, a platter filled with pork-flavored beans, rice, ground meat, chicharron, plantain, chorizo, hogao sauce, avocado, and lemon. Even the traditional breakfast dish, Recalentado, made up of last night’s meat, reheated with some rice and beans, is surprisingly satisfying, reminiscent of the Spanish rice many of us remember from our childhoods. If you like beer, cheese, and charcuterie, Colombia’s the place for you. Liking none of that, I spend my time looking forward to fruits not easily accessible elsewhere, like lulo and mangosteen, and the coffee.

Getting around

Bogota and Medellin both have excellent public transportation systems and traffic that would make Mexico City’s traffic problems look Lilliputian. But taxis are plentiful, safe, and cheap. Uber and its kin are just as available.

Domestic airfare is a real bargain once you learn to book on the airline’s site as if you were in Colombia, paying in Colombian pesos. Doing that will deliver an airfare that can be more than 50% cheaper than booking on the U.S. site in U.S. dollars. And you can still use English on the website. You may need to notify your credit card issuer that you’re virtually in Colombia ahead of time when you’re buying plane tickets that way.

Money

The rate of exchange for the Colombian pesos to the U.S. dollar is 3,284 to 1.

Foreigners visiting Colombia as a tourist are exempt from paying the 19% hotel tax. This doesn’t apply to tours and some package plans.

Foreigners also are eligible to receive a refund of the V.A.T. for certain purchases.
A 10% tip is automatically added to all charges for food and beverage, even at Starbucks, but it is optional, as is explained on the additional 8” of every receipt that accompanies a purchase.

For convenience and to avoid ATM fees, many of us are accustomed to withdrawing the maximum possible from each visit to an ATM. Colombian ATMs routinely limit the transaction to the equivalent of $125 USD. Only Colpatria and Citibank have more generous limits: $265 and $375. Use your credit card whenever possible to cut down on the need for frequent trips to the ATM.

You are going to love the place. It is as if the Germans were running South America. And I mean that in a good way, too. Think about tranquility, well-mannered tidiness, red bricks, and even fried food. Just don’t talk about Pablo Escobar.

From Ferragamo to Flexi

It’s no secret that Red Shoes are Better than Bacon likes her shoes. Cool shoes always held a fascination for her. From Cinderella’s glass slippers to her mother’s yellow satin wedding shoes to the pair of shoes she’d select for that one school day each week when she would wear the non-corrective kind, shoes were magic. Red polka-dotted patent leather flats, shocking pink cowboy boots, black velvet rhinestone-trimmed Mary Janes, kitten heels, French heels, Spanish heels, Cuban heels, blue suede shoes.

She would take measure of another’s worth by shoes and teeth. The wrong shoes or malocclusion were deal-killers.

She would go on to water buffalo sandals, fringed Indian moccasins, Earth shoes, platform shoes, Jack Rogers sandals, high heeled boots, Charles Jourdan pumps, and Gucci loafers (a spare pair still unworn in the original box). One day in 1989, a cast on her leg and in search of Mephistos, she happened upon Frost Brothers’ going-out-of-business sale in San Antonio, spending an extra day en route to Mexico and stockpiling endless treasures which included multiple pairs of the most beautiful shoes in the world in lace-trimmed gold and silver, which still repose unworn.

Finally, she settled upon Ferragamo Vara (priced then at $145 USD) in practically every color and fabric ever manufactured and Mephistos, which she first learned about through J. Peterman, who sold them for $180. By 2013, the same Ferragamos which once sold for under $150 had skyrocketed to just under $500 USD, and Mephistos, once made in France, were now made in China and leaped over the $300 mark.

She had spent years snickering at the Mexican-made sensible shoes which looked like they were made for schoolchildren, old people and lesbians, not that there’s anything wrong with those people, mind you, but she was neither a schoolchild, nor old, nor a lesbian. And then one day, impelled by nothing more than curiosity and time on her hands, she dropped by a Flexi store. And life would change. Not the least of it was being able to find shoes to fit size 9.5 or 10 feet. These shoes were pure, natural leather, inside and out, well-made, light, and rubber-soled.

She bought a pair of what were marketed as School Shoes, simple round-toed, solid, good-quality black pumps. They were instantly as comfortable as old shoes, and she wore them all day long, almost forgetting to take them off before going to bed. And they cost less than $50 USD. She could never imagine that inexpensive shoes could feel so good. She would move on to sandalias pata de gallo (“Rooster feet sandals” sounds much better than thongs.) in three colors, plain and jeweled. She found a favorite pair of bronze ultra-lights that carried her through three continents. Fearful they might be discontinued, she stockpiled an extra pair.

 

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Now, there is a real problem with Flexis. They never wear out. Walk over cobblestones and adoquined streets, walk through puddles in the rain, drive in them, wear them to the market and to a fancy restaurant, subject them to abuse that would have Ferragamos crying for mercy, and they just kept on going. Flexis are the Everready Bunny and Timex of shoes.

Once a week at the mall in Morelia, she would walk past a Mexican version of Michigan Ave.’s Hanig’s Footwear, a store selling fine shoes from Spain: Pikolinos, Hispanitas, El Naturalista. And she would admire the glove-soft leather, gawk over the constant markdowns, almost always coming to the hard realization those shoes seldom came in sizes that would match their price. And she would walk to the next block of the mall, stopping in at the Flexi store just to see what was new.

She would marvel at quality of Flexis, even if most did come in a color palette designed by Henry Ford. “Any customer can have a car painted any color that he wants so long as it is black.” But then there were suede moccasins in purple, bright pink, cobalt and red. There just weren’t a lot of styles in bright colors. This is a conservative shoe, after all. High quality at an affordable prices does have its limits.

Grupo Flexi is a genuine Mexican success story. In 1935, 18-year old Roberto Plasencia Gutiérrez started up a small workshop with very little money to make children’s shoes under the name “César,” changing the moniker along the way to “Duende.” In a decade’s time, production increased to 300 pairs of leather shoes a day, and by 1965, the company came to be known as Flexi. The nearly 300,000 pairs of Flexis produced each week in factories employing over 4,300 people in Leon, Dolores Hidalgo, San Luis de la Paz, and San Diego de la Union are not only sold in Mexico but exported to the United States, Canada, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, and Japan. And the company’s still headed up the founder’s own son, Roberto Plasencia Saldaña.

Flexi has 335 stores, and, if those are not enough, Flexis are sold online through its U.S. and Mexican sites.

Red Shoes are Better than Bacon bids farewell to Ferragamo and Mephisto for now. But she really, really wishes that Flexi would come up with red school shoes for her. Maybe she’ll just write the company president and ask.

 

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Boku for Christmas

Babs has her Christmas list, and Felipe has his Christmas wish list. Ben Stein has his perfect Christmas gift. Calypso has his unique gift idea. I got mine this morning.

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Barrels of shit.  Gallinaza. Mierda. Chicken crap.

A neighbor who raises fighting cocks and borrows (and returns) my ladders always delivers, just in time for Christmas, barrels of his poultry’s best. And we make it last the entire year, carefully doling it among the gardens.  It’s the best fertilizer.

In years gone by, I’ve received some great and memorable gifts. Some that were both, some that were memorable for not being great, and I’m sure some that were great but unremembered. A first class plane ticket, pukka and not the non-revenue kind from miles. Plane tickets that weren’t first class. A complete set of Cuisinart professional cookware.  A Burberry coat. French luggage. Gucci loafers. Books.  Amazon.com gift certificates. A juice extractor. Cashmere sweaters. Anything tied up with great packaging from Gump’s. A Perfex pepper mill. A Dooney & Burke purse. A Ralph Lauren flannel nightgown. Gelt. An oil painting.  A NordicTrack treadmill. Satin sheets. Etch A Sketch. A gold ring. Perfume. Two toy pistols in a double holster. A ballet tutu. A black doll I picked out at a fancy doll shop somewhere in Italy. License plates for my car. Ugly clothing I wouldn’t be caught dead in. A dreadful yellow nightgown. The traditional socks and soap. The iPad I bought myself last year.

But somehow nothing compares to the gift my neighbor gives me each year. It’s the right thing for the girl who has everything.

Have you ever noticed that their stuff is shit and your shit is stuff? – George Carlin.

(Boku is Turkish for shit.)

Catalog Fantasies

There’s no question that, after getting magazines in the mail, my favorite activity is shopping. Mail order catalogs combine the best of all worlds.

I got my start on the Sears and Spiegel catalogs; carefully marking up everything I wanted Santa to bring me. And when my mother would tell me there would be a budget for Santa’s offerings, I’d invest even more hours, totaling up prices for my wish list.

I left the Old Country before everything, absolutely everything, was online. Amazon was about as good as it got back in those days. Merchants would send paper catalogs in the mail, and sometimes the day’s harvest would be a foot high. Neiman Marcus.  Horchow.  Sakowitz.  Orvis.  L.L. Bean.  Williams Sonoma.  Chef’s Catalog.  Sur Le Table. Patagonia. Edward R. Hamilton. Jessica’s Biscuit.  Smithsonian.  The museum store catalogs. J. Peterman (I still have the inaugural issue). Bloomingdale’s.  Bonwit Teller. Banana Republic. Zabar’s. Smith & Hawken.  Honeybee.  Chadwicks of Boston.  Sky Mall. Vermont Country Store. Eddie Bauer. Lands’ End. I. Magnin.  Archie McPhee. Design Toscano. Garnet Hill. Gump’s. Ferragamo. Jack Rogers.  Famolare. And that’s not counting the seed catalogs, which are a story for another day.

I never met a catalog I didn’t like – except for those from someplace in Pennsylvania that bought up addresses and sold polyester bed sheets with a thread count of less than 360. Those hit the wastebasket right at the post office.

After dinner, I’d pour over them, sometimes pretend-ordering stuff. By the time fax machines rolled around, ordering was even easier than ringing up that 800 number.  A friendly voice at L.L. Bean was ready to talk, any time of the day or night. One time I called Famolare to place an order and got to talk to Joe Famolare himself.  The gargoyle over my gate came from a catalog.

Before moving to Mexico, right along with sending out change of address cards for everything else, I made sure that catalog merchants got notice of my change of address. I wanted the catalogs to follow me. Some did, and some didn’t. Now the catalogs have dwindled down to just a few, mostly because I’ve gone to the websites and re-upped.

Ordering online just isn’t the same, unless you’re talking about books and electronics. But for everything else, I want to savor the enchanting copy, dog-ear, mark up, and tear out the page, appreciate the paper quality and even file it away. It was the perfect shopping experience, combining the thrill of the hunt with finding the best prices from the comfort of home.

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And then there’s the catalog that’s a class unto itself: Hammacher Schlemmer. It doesn’t promise fashion or style, but it will make everything right in your life. More than just FAO Schwartz for adults, Hammacher Schlemmer is a mirror of what we are. Back in the day, I’ve ordered an electronic rodent repeller, a stepladder which I still use, a comfy wool blanket, and more gadgets than I can remember. Hammacher Schlemmer is all about “the best,” “the only,” the soft and comfortable, and stuff you not only can’t find anyplace else but didn’t even know existed.

Hammacher Schlemmer is back in my mailbox, in full print glory, reminding me of what today’s customers really, really want. It’s all about aches, pains, and iStuff.

In the iCrap category, you can find:

The iPhone Binoculars
The iPhone Slot Machine
The iPhone Photo Printer
The iPad Pen
The Bose iPhone Sound Dock
The Rolling Bedside iPad Stand
The iPad Charging Floor Stand
The Only Read and Write iPad Flash Drive

Hammacher Schlemmer has always promised relief for aching backs, necks, bottoms and feet, but this year, there seems to be a theme.  Plantar fasciitis must be a plague among its customers, because the Last Minute Gift 2013 catalog offers up:

Plantar Fasciitis Insoles

The Gentleman’s Plantar Fasciitis Orthotic Walking Shoes

The Plantar Fasciitis Relieving Foot Sleeves

The Gentleman’s Indoor-Outdoor Plantar Fasciitis Slippers

The Plantar Fasciitis Orthotic Sandal

The Lady’s Plantar Fasciitis Indoor/Outdoor Slippers

The Lady’s Plantar Fasciitis Athletic Shoes

But wait, there’s more. Those aching feet must’ve affected Hammacher Schlemmer’s customers’ minds as well, because there’s a full selection of the best from the Painter of Light Thomas Kinkade:

Thomas Kinkade Revolving Christmas Tree Topper
Thomas Kinkade Illuminated Crystal Snowman
The Night before Christmas Reciting Santa Designed by Painter of Light Thomas Kinkade
The Thomas Kinkade Animated Christmas Tree
The Thomas Kinkade Glistening Wreath
The Thomas Kinkade Illuminated Musical Sledding Snowman
The Thomas Kinkade Crystal Santa Claus
The Thomas Kinkade Crystal Music Box

I don’t need any more iThings, my feet don’t ache, and I really am not worthy of Thomas Kinkade’s finest, but there are some things you can buy me from Hammacher Schlemmer for this year’s Christmas:

The Exact Reproduction Wizard of Oz library, a bargain at $949.95

The Heated Zero Gravity Massage Chair, $3,000

The Authentic Morgan Three-Wheeler, $59,000

Or you could just save yourself time and money by sending me an Amazon.com gift card.