Colombia '12

This summer, I spent five lightning-fast weeks in Colombia, working for The Nature Conservancy in Bogotá while studying Spanish and traveling around the country. I thoroughly enjoyed immersing myself in splendid Latin American culture (once again!) and meeting some precious human beings.

Día 280

I started this morning with a round of calls to the grandparents before my departure for Colombia. I then stuffed a few last things into my bag before Mama and Priya whisked me away to the airport.

There, we were graced with a cameo appearance by the infamous Christina Chang -- again! She prepared to take off for Korea as I went through the security line for Bogota, not before an affectionate (spaced out) sister photo!

I grabbed a smoothie (complete with one whole banana -- yuck) before making my way to Gate A2B. After a quick hour of napping, I arrived in Newark, where it felt odd to be surrounded by so many people and not know a one of them. I filled this void with a round of rapidfire Laura-texting, supplemented with messages from assorted varlets and other kin. (Being surrounded by Spanish-speakers helped in lifting my loneliness as well.) My next iced drink was consumed over a phone call to Mama, reporting a flight delayed due to weather.

I fell upon the great fortune during this second flight of making friends with Claudia and her niece Monica! Monica just finished up her freshman year in the States and is returning to Bogota, from where her family is. After chatting about the joys of taking a gap year (and the excitement of high school in The Middle Of Nowhere, USA), Monica and I each popped in an earbud and watched Moulin Rouge on her laptop. What a fun way to watch such a krazy klassic!

It was after this film ended that I learned of Monica’s craze for baking. I saw her scrawling away in a notebook and asked what she was working on: turns out she was making a table of contents for 87 pages of notes she typed verbatim from four different cookbooks belonging to Claudia -- what commitment! I perused her notes (finding cooking-tongue akin to a foreign language) and flipped through her copy of Rachel Falker’s Demolition Desserts, a super intense book about baking.

For the rest of the flight, aunt and niece shared with me a list of interesting things to do here, and I am pleased to announce our discovery that we will be living about ten blocks apart! Monica and I plan to hang out around the city this week. We landed smoothly and breezed through a usually packed immigration queue to enter Bogota officially! I was greeted by Elena Auntie right away, and a cab sped us to her lovely apartment.

I got the grand tour and can’t wait to spend time in my cozy musical room! There’s a lot to say and I’m so excited but for now I think it’s important for me to get some rest -- big day tomorrow!

Día 281

I had a blissful morning, which started with meditation and ended with fruit. In between were yoga and some core exercises, which felt a bit more difficult than usual (I soon realized this was because of the change in altitude).

At "midday," Paula/Viviana, Elena Auntie's niece, came over to show me around (and help me not burn the water I was trying to boil). She showed me around "Zona G," where our apartment is, and gave me an orientation of the amenities available nearby. Our first stop was Carulla, a 1940 house converted into a supermarket.

We then went to Juan Valdez Café, where I really got to know Vivi. She and I were very self-deprecating about our respective English and Spanish, and it was fun to teach one another our native tongues. I must say though, I certainly got more instruction time, as this sweetheart diligently made sure I was practicing my Spanish at all times, in preparation for my interview with my to-be professor this evening.

These "lessons" continued as we roamed the streets, giving patronage to an ATM and barely being able to resist doing the same at roadside jewelry shops.

For lunch, we feasted at Crepes & Waffles, the home of my heart ever since I tried it in Ecuador in 2009. I was a bit boring (or homesick) and had a tandoori chicken crepe as my meal, but I don't regret it a bit, as it was heaven on earth. Speaking of heaven, Italian tiramisu adapted with Colombian coffee ice cream . . . cannot be described.

We ran a few more errands after lunch, including grabbing me some fruit and a sandwich for my dinner, before Vivi walked me home.

During this last leg of our adventure, I was beginning to experience some altitude sickness. Being prone to headaches even at sea level, I thought it best to take some rest before the evening's introductory class. My siesta was followed by some irreverent Spanish banter with Laura and a peek at The Power of Now.

Marcela, who will be one of my teachers, dropped by our apartment to assess my level of Spanish proficiency. I was relieved when she said, "oh, so you have some Spanish already!" Thank goodness.

My biggest challenge during this immersion experience will be losing my fear. I have nothing to prove and no one to prove it to. I don't need to remind myself that I'm "intelligent" or "a fast learner" because that's whence a lot of my inhibitions about making mistakes hail. I just have to jump in. ¡Vamos a ver!

Día 282

Slow mornings are the best. I rolled out of bed at leisure to find Tia enjoying a novel in her room. She offered me a traditional Colombian breakfast of arepa and chocolate, which we enjoyed over a conversation about the insane technological transformation witnessed by members of her generation.

After breakfast, she returned to her novel and I sped me to The Power of Now before a splendid hot shower and some yoga. I dozed back off the bed and before I knew it, it was time to take our tiny appetites out for some lunch. We visited Suna, an organic restaurant nearby (Zona G has the best cuisine) and I ordered a knock-off Indian arroz Bengalí. Stuck record over here!

I requested that we spend the rest of the day downtown, and so we set off for La Candelaria, the heart of the city. The drive into town was absolutely idyllic, with the sun reflecting off of Monserrate to the left, Guadalupe to the right, and the red rooftops of Bogotá all around. The town itself is beyond charming. There's nothing quite like visiting a cathedral, so the first thing we did was pay our respects at Templo de San Agustin.

We wandered about the picturesque streets . . .

. . . and arrived at Bolívar Square.

Having bemoaned the graffiti splattered on every inch of the square, we settled in for a cup of Juan Valdez. My capuccino arequipe was so scrumptious I could have polished it off in one swig, and my pan de chocolate was messy but delicious. Over coffee, Elena Auntie reminded me that just as she is my Spanish practice partner now, I "taught her English" when I was younger. "No wonder your English is so good!" I exclaimed when she reminded me of this fictional fact.

After our little treat, we ventured into one of Tia's favorite bookstores. As she perused the Russian literature section, I read the balcony scene from Romeo and Juliet in Spanish. ¡Que romantico!

The sky darkened as we rushed out of the libreria and homeward to buy some groceries. At Carulla, we purchased baby spinach, baby carrots, and . . . baby bananas! All the essentials.

I meditated briefly at home before catching up with Nizar, eating my cereal dinner, and beginning this post. I already love this town!

Día 283

This morning, I received news that the Times of India articles about Gyaan Ghar have been published! Journalist Nidhi Singhi, who interviewed me when I was in India, has written one piece about our vision for the school, and another about the school's day-to-day activities and the students' progress.

Click here to read the former article and here for the latter.

After I had read these and sent them all over, I hopped in the shower and Tia and I sped to her sister's house for an outing.  We drove to the north of Bogotá this morning to visit a friend of Mario Uncle (Elena Auntie's brother-in-law), who is a bishop. Hector is currently living in the beautiful and grand Centro Sacerdotal San Juan María Vianney, a retreat for members of the Church. What a view!

After we received a tour of his spectacular residence, mass was held. I am proud to say that I heard my first Catholic mass all in Spanish!

Around noon, we went to a nearby cafe and enjoyed a typical Colombian Sunday brunch, complete with countless types of meat, arepas, corn, baby potatoes, and guacamole! I'm not much of a meat-eater but this was really good.

What made it even better was our charming surroundings, completely representative of temperamental Bogotá weather.

Our drive home featured the same, and Elena Auntie and I both fell asleep on the way. My delicious coffee was consumed at an hour a bit too late last night, and I therefore hadn't slept very well. We both hid from la lluvia and cuddled up in our rooms for lengthy naps upon returning home.

I awoke to meditate and make myself some soggy lasagna.

The lack of flavor in my food was countered by the warmth of catching up with a few old friends on Skype. It's time for Tia and me to do some organizing before bed!

Día 284

One side of the highway is closed on weekends in Bogotá, and since today was a holiday, the ciclovía was in full swing!

Elena Auntie and I met with her friend Patricia and her grandson Samuel for a visit to the street market held on Calle 119 on the weekends. We walked 5 kilometers to the lovely display of traditional wares, and settled in for a snack before checking out the market.

There were bolsas . . .

. . . and boars,

 zapatos . . .

. . . and doors!

The street was so colorful and the weather so wonderful -- we had a great time! I tried many typical foods today: pastel de pollo, empanadas, ajioca, and natural coco ice cream.

Ajioca: soup with chicken, corn, potatoes, and capers -- with avocado on the side!

After lunch, Elena Auntie and I broke off from the rest of the group to go back for a scarf I had had my eye on, and browse some beautiful indigenous jewelry.

We enjoyed a very nice day at the market!

Día 285

This morning was a blur of amazing meals prepared by Avelina, Elena Auntie's housekeeper, who was so sweet that she inspired me to write a short piece about her.

Somewhere in between breakfast and lunch, Tia and I went to the drugstore to buy some minutes for my antique cell phone. Then I saw her off as she left for Cuenca, Ecuador and spent a few hours meditating, yoga-ing, and catching up with DanKim.

This afternoon, I moved to the home of Elena Auntie's sister, Rosalia (and niece Viviana whom I met last Friday). I will be staying in the room of their son Sergio, who passed away ten years ago, the day before he turned 25. He was buried on his birthday.

After I had settled in, we went right across the street to Unicentro, a grand shopping mall (the first big one in Bogotá). There, I replaced my fossil of a local cell phone with something clearly more sophisticated.

Exciting as my new Nokia cellular is, the highlight of the night was a stop at Crepes & Waffles, where I tried their legendary ice cream. One scoop of brownie and one of almendra (almond) left my taste buds singing!

I'm now just figuring out my new home and my phone, and preparing for the first day of work!

Día 286

The energy of an office is tangible as soon as one walks in. I was excited to be at The Nature Conservancy the second I set foot in the reception.

I often wonder how environmentalists are able to stay connected with their passion for the planet despite staring at documents all day, everyday. My boss, Jose Yunis, answered this question for me. What I thought was just going to be a brief introduction to the office and my internship turned into an hour-long description of the environmental make-up of Colombia. This explanation was one of the most beautiful, poetic, and impassioned I have ever heard.

I had no idea I was living in the midst of such a unique ecosystem! Jose's introduction will breathe life into every step I take in this city.

The main work our office is doing right now relates to the hydrological mapping of the Magdalena watershed, an unbelievably intricate pastiche of interrelated ecosystems.

To be able to go forward with the mapping (which will be used to determine environmentally, economically, and socially sustainable locations for dams and other infrastructure), TNC is applying for a number of grants from organizations around the world. These proposals must be in English. Here's where I come in.

I spent the morning catching up on a proposal being submitted to a German firm, cleaning up the English idiom here and there while educating myself on the proposed project. After getting to know my team in this capacity, I went out to lunch at the beautiful Andino Mall with Rosario (the team leader), Kate (a fellow intern attending law school in Colorado), Mauricio (the head of fundraising here), and Diana (a recent Masters grad who just started working here yesterday). What cool colleagues, and what a chévere mall!

After eating and chatting, it was time to dive into the work for real. We headed to the conference room and wrestled with the structure and wording of the proposal quite a bit, essentially transforming the setup of one major section of the document  (outputs of the project). It was a proud moment for me when I had so many suggestions (and so much spelling ability) that the team asked me to be in charging of typing as we discussed and reworked the proposal.

It feels so great to edit writing when one's corrections make a big difference because they're essentially doing the work of a translation. On my first day, I already feel like I'm contributing to the NGO's work conceptually and grammatically, learning about the environment, and practicing Spanish all the while!

I was elated after my day at work, and started my post about the same while waiting for my adventure of the evening to begin.

North hemisphere or south, all I do is "socialize." Tonight, I met up with my friends from the plane! Andino Mall seems to be the place to go, so Monica, Anna,  Daniel, and I sauntered back there for a snack at . . . you guessed it -- Crepes & Waffles. I refuse to be brave and try something new when I've already located heaven, and it's on every block of Bogotá.

I made a phone call while we stood in line, and Monica made my day by complimenting my Spanish profusely -- I think my Hindi-influenced accent fools some people into thinking I actually know the language. :)

After my nutella crepe with vainilla ice cream, I wanted to wander the centro commercial. The four of us meandered about, and I even got a new notebook from the Colombian (and therefore far superior) version of Vera Bradley, called Hojas.

I currently sit in a cab on my way home, hoping to squeeze in some meditation before dinner.

Nature-loving colleagues and helado-loving friends -- oh what a day!

Día 287

The office gives me a rush like no other.

(Or maybe it's all the Colombian coffee.)

I love being around environmentalists. I love playing with words. I love finding perfect phrasing. I love taking notes about how happy I am and how The English language is actually quite beautiful.

(Even compared to Spanish.)

I love being in a bilingual workplace. I love documents. In short, I love TNC.

We continued to work on the specific wording of the funding proposal this morning, fine-tuning one fairly elaborate section of the document. At noon, we ate. Imagine my glee when Mauricio suggested Crepes & Waffles! (We talked about India in Spanish on the way to the lunch.)

Mauricio, Diana, Rosario -- some of my crazy colleagues! :)

I can't get enough of the menu at Crepes. It's enormous and it seems like everything on it is perfect. I had promised myself that I wouldn't put up any more photos of food for a while, but what I ordered today was the highlight of my stomach's life.

Call me boring; call me desi, but the red curry chicken crepe at Crepes & Waffles is about as authentic as Indian food gets. I forced all my colleagues to try a bite from my plate, and a few of them had trouble finishing their own meals having experienced this splendor. For my part, I managed to finish the whole thing. Every last bite. And that's saying something.

Too full for ice cream (¡que pena!) we returned to the office, where a representative from Fundación Alma, another NGO in Bogotá, was sharing lessons learned from a similar project they implemented in Barranquilla.

As Juan Carlos spoke entirely in Spanish, I was having a bit of trouble following the experiences he was sharing. Being a fairly detail-oriented worker, it's difficult for me to follow a conversation when I don't understand parts of it (I experienced this a bit during meetings in Mumbai as well). I was very thankful when Diana, TNC's newest full-time employee and a Colorado State master's student, moved to my side of the table and whispered translations and explanations in my ear. ¡Muchas gracias, chica!

I was totally jazzed that I had a female driver, Maria Victoria, today. We talked in Spanish all the way home about her three sons, two of whom are celebrating their birthday this weekend and will have a Phineas and Ferb birthday cake -- my favorite TV show! She'll be picking me up again tomorrow, and I'm so excited.

Back home, I "medi-napped" for a short while before my first official Spanish lesson! Mario (mi profesor) and I reviewed some basics before moving to the conversation section of our class. His main observation was that I speak Spanish as though I'm stressed, and I need to chill out -- good call, Mario!

I enjoyed dinner with my Colombian parents Rosalio and Mario before Viviana and Leo came home and wanted to hear all about my day. I just introduced them to Flipz milk chocolate-covered pretzels, and I think they quite approve. But now it's time to put the snacks aside and do my Spanish homework!

Día 288

I'm realizing that language doesn't matter. You can make the same cute jokes, have the same great conversations, and use pretty much the same silly sarcasm wherever you go, if you find the right people and you have an open mind.

This morning, I stopped peeping at the proposal over Diana's shoulder and instead suggested that we collaborate via Google Docs to edit our sections of focus for today. I designed an "editing legend" for myself, to make sure I was making consistent changes passim, and I was so into the work this morning that my colleagues almost had to wrench me from my seat for lunch.

But wrench me they did, and we headed to La Plaza de Andrés, which I just now realized is the restaurant that Monica and Claudia had recommended to me on the plane!

Over lunch, I had a dish whose name I couldn't remember for the life of me (calentado paisa), a maracuya smoothie, and lots of chistoso (amusing) conversation -- faux Spanish lessons came from all sides as my colleagues did their best to land me in embarrassing "malapropismic" situations in the future.

Now back at the office, Diana and I were having some issues with version control as edits to the proposal bombarded us from TNC offices across the world. One of my biggest achievements for today was convincing my team to move to Google Docs as a way to streamline our edits, at least within our Bogotá office. We tend always to be hesitant to play around with new technology but I swelled with pride as all the members of our team joined the document online in my last two minutes at work before Maria Victoria and my taxi arrived.

And what a lovely gift awaited me in the car! Maria had brought along her two somnolent sons, Juan Sabastian and Nicolas, to pick me up. The latter napped as the former initially giggled at my Spanish but eventually became my tutor, quizzing me with palabras for buildings, fruits, and animals. (Meanwhile, I tested his knowledge of characters in the show Phineas y Ferb.)

At home I regaled Viviana and her mom Rosalia with anecdotes about my day as they laughed at my enthusiasm. I chilled out long enough for a quick workout and meditation sesh before pestering Vivi to explain her masters thesis to me (she's a sociologist). We distracted one another from our respective responsibilities for quite some time before she got cracking on her case studies, and I on this post.

We're now off to El Corral, a country-famous hamburger joint!

Día 289

There's no better word to describe the way this morning felt than healthy.

First thing, I argued with myself over whether I should first do yoga or send an email to Tierney. After some deliberation, I decided the two were essentially the same and decided upon the latter. Here's what I wrote.

I spent the early hours of the day relaxedly catching up on things I've been meaning to for a while. This meant a lot of computer-cleaning and other odds and ends. One of the biggest items crossed off my to-do list was transferring my computer's documents to the USB drive Magister Chang gave me on Day 266.

Over the course of the morning, I checked in on Priya's Latin-studying progress, took a magnificent shower, and experienced some of the most empowering yoga I've done in a while.

I enjoyed a scrumptious two-course lunch with the whole family (first spaghetti, then a traditional rice dish) before sleeping generously to balance out this exciting week.

In the afternoon, I had my second Spanish lesson with my teacher Mario. I was happy that today's lesson advanced at a faster pace than my first, and requested to be given a quiz at the end of the class. I'm fairly sure I bombed it.
Since then, I've been resting and reflecting on the life of the beautiful Marina Keegan. I look forward to trying a new type of Colombian soup for dinner -- I'm sure my sinuses will appreciate it!

Día 290

I was awoken at midnight by the sounds of a Mariachi serenade -- ohhh, Sudamerica!

Fathers' Day could equally appropriately have been called "Food Day" in the world of Ratna. I think I consumed more calories today than I have all year.

The stuffing of my face commenced with a grand breakfast Viviana had prepared for her father with pancakes, pan de yuca, scrambled eggs, and hot chocolate. Despues de desayuno, I talked to my own "Papa" on Skype, and then did a massive reorganization of all the photos on my computer, digging up some old gems!

Soon, Elena Auntie came home! We greeted her outside and headed across the street to Unicentro, where the ladies bought Fathers' Day presents for Mario as I snuck off for a scoop of hazelnut ice cream at Crepes & Waffles (guilt is impossible when the culprit is so good) and snooped around drooling over empanadas being sold at a nearby cafe. I am impossibly spoiled here, and before I knew it, the empanadas were being bought as the appetizer for our lunch!

We had a most sumptuous feast as our almuerza, with the whole family here. The cheesy snack above was followed by sushi, a special type of ham, and another traditional rice dish.

Leo, Elena, Viviana, Rosalia, Mario

The force with which I "hit the sack" after this meal actually had Vivi and her family worried for my life. I sleepwalked back into the dining room like a zombie two hours later, and everyone taunted me by telling me I was in a dream, and offering me more food every time I turned the corner. Ah!

I can't say I didn't end up trying some of the foods they dangled in front of me, before packing my things to return to Elena's apartment. It's a bit scary how quickly one can pack up and leave from a place that has been such a wonderful home, even if for a short time.

I now sit back in Elena Auntie's kitchen, typing this post after having made a tentative schedule for my remaining three weekends in Colombia!

Día 291

My mornings here are like meditation in themselves. This morning, I did a really fun workout preceded by a few rounds of sun salutation, and then Elena Auntie told me to listen to her beautiful music by Silvio Rodriguez and Joan Manuel Serrat while reading the lyrics, to practice my Spanish.

Over breakfast, we discussed the environmental curse that is plastic use these days. We use plastic for everything, when we could be using petroleum so much more efficiently!

We set out leisurely around noon to climb Monserrate, a mountain in the center of Bogotá. The weather was idyllic all day (kind of rare for this city) and we enjoyed the beautiful view from atop the hill immensely.

We wandered about taking photos and made our way to the church at the top of the hill.

After checking this out and lighting a candle for the health of our families, we went in search of what we were really looking for -- lunch. We achieved our goal at a cafe in a row of cafes that all served the same thing, arbitrarily selecting one and surprisingly finishing everything on the rather heaping plates in front of us.

We then had to bid the beautiful Monserrate “adios” for the day.

Tia and I sauntered downtown with the sun beating down on our backs, for a walk through the Museo Botero. Botero is famous for his exaggeratedly big figures.


A stroll through the museum had me feeling pretty skinny, and Elena Auntie and I spoiled ourselves with a mandarin and mango juice respectively in La Candelaria just afterward.

This is an apartment building -- I think I'm moving.

Then, she went out to run an errand as I let myself into her apartment to meditate for 27 minutes and nap for 3 before my Spanish class.

Having done my Spanish homework, dried my laundry, cooked my dinner, washed my dishes, and written this post twice because my computer crashed the first time, I hope now to speed me to bed.

Día 292

I love walking to work. I love the energy of everyone with his own purpose, from the businessmen eating roasted corn on the side of the street to those with more focused direction. I walk looking straight ahead, stopping but once to take a photo and find that my bag has been hanging open for much of the walk. I love walking to work.

This morning was super exciting at the office because Kate and I finalized tickets to travel to Cartagena at the end of this month -- I couldn’t be more excited that our wildest dreams worked out so perfectly, long weekend efficiently used and all!

She and I worked on our respective assignments in the conference room and were about to excuse ourselves when we found out that this morning’s meeting would be taking place in English! It was just too tempting to resist. Luckily enough for us, the subject matter of the reunion turned out to be even more exciting than the language in which it took place.

Ben Roth, who graduated from my favorite university and works for The Nature Conservancy in China, gave us a presentation on how TNC can influence China’s incorporation of environmental considerations when investing in hydropower projects affecting the Magdalena. Given my newly fostered ove for the Magdalena River and my interest in what the crazy powers of China and India are up to, this presentation was super interesting! I look forward to reading more about the topic and helping with this project however I can.

For lunch, the Colombia and China teams made their way to Sopas de Mamá y Postres de Abuela.

We enjoyed various soup dishes and delicious desserts before Rosario, Julianna, Diana, and I had to make a dash downtown for a meeting with IDEAM, the Colombian government’s Institute of Hydrology, Meteorology, and Environmental Studies. The volume of Spanish during this particular meeting however left me entirely focused on my Colombian coffee and some doodles in my cuaderno.

We bussed ourselves back to the office afterward, but I left right away for my Spanish lesson with Mario. Today’s class was really enjoyable and left me grinning while hacking away at my homework.

Tia and I are now enjoying some ravioli prepared with far more finesse than I possess.

Día 293

Climate change has officially arrived in Colombia! The Bogotá sun was my natural hairdryer this morning as soon I left my apartment, yoga done and Power of Now read.

Today was an educative stream of meetings, conference calls, and more conference calls. It was interrupted by a lunch which I really enjoyed at Bagatelle, a cafe/restaurant with fabulous desserts.

This almuerzo was extra special because we were celebrating Ben’s birthday! In honor of his 25th, I asked him to tell me the story of his life, which has been spent thus far, for varying degrees of time, in California, Oklahoma, Paris, New Haven, and China. So cool!

In the afternoon, I helped Diana rephrase the steps of the proposal we’re working on into concise paragraphs for the projected budget of the project. Side-by-side, I made a diagram for her to review the pronunciation of certain similar-sounding words in English.

I then had to run home for my Spanish class, but not before Ben showed me the super catchy TNC video about the Magdalena River.

At home, I meditated briefly before my teacher arrived, but found myself sleepy and somewhat disrespectful during class -- yawn . . .

Papa, Elena Auntie, and I had grand plans to hit the town for dinner tonight, but since it’s raining and my eyes are watering with fatigue, we’re planning to stay in. Let the countdown to Laura’s birthday begin!

Día 294

Today started as many of the best days do -- with a great conversation. Ben and I met for breakfast and “meditation talk,” and ended up hitting on many of the thoughts that have been flitting through my mind lately, about college, life, self-actualization, and other such fairly grand topics.

It’s a bit difficult to return to work after a talk like this, but this morning, it was time to buckle down and finalize the phrasing of the ICI proposal...for real. Diana and Julianna plugged away while I made rude remarks that earned me the nickname “ill-mannered” in Spanish from my colleagues.

For lunch, some of us went to El Corral, but Mauricio and I made for the mall to do some errands. As he found an ATM, I searched for a “secret book” which I only later revealed to him was his very own copy of The Power of Now, in which he had expressed an interest at lunch yesterday.

The afternoon held a bit more of the same “hawk-eyed copy editing” before we felt like we were at a good stopping point. This also seemed like a good point to go out for farewell drinks for Ben. I enjoyed my mango smoothie and the usual chistoso conversation before it was, sadly enough, time to say “再見” to Benjamin!

Back home, I had my first real exchange of today with the birthday girl, our very own Laurita Kambourian, the best person I know.

After a talk too short and lightning-paced summaries of our days, we had to put our discussion on pause as I went to dinner with my Colombian family, to celebrate both Laura’s birthday and the anniversary of Viviana and Leo.

We had a nice dinner with wonderful desserts and plenty of jokes at the expense of Papa’s Spanish, and I’m now home speeding to finish this post before midnight!

Día 295

I started my penultimate chapter in The Power of Now this morning, and my yoga was augmented by exercises taught to me by my Tia Elena.

Upon arriving at work, I asked Diana what our plan for this weekend would be -- this is the itinerary that she whipped up for me.

Today’s was the last round of copy-editing for the TNC’s International Climate Initiative proposal, so it was high energy and required a lot of café Colombiana.

Over lunch, Diana and Mauricio introduced me to Wok, where we enjoyed some scrumptious sushi.

We also took a few moments to review the various nicknames I have accumulated from my colleagues over the last two weeks:

Irrespetuosa - disrespectful

Grosera - rude

Maleducada - badly brought up

Consentida - spoiled

Malcriada - badly behaved

After lunch, I finished up my last look at the proposal and then made my way to the World Bank office in Bogotá. Here, Papa introduced me to his wonderful colleagues Daniel and Natália, whom I look forward to getting to know better over the next few weeks. Their office has a spectacular view!

I arrived home breathless, just a few minutes ahead of my Spanish teacher, and enjoyed my lesson, during which we reviewed numbers in Spanish. What Mario doesn’t know is that it’s not the Spanish that gives me trouble -- numbers seem to be my weakness in every language.

We enjoyed some Tia-made pasta for dinner and it’s now time for me to pack! Diana, Federico (Diana's husband), and I will be making our way tomorrow to a nearby colonial town called Villa de Leyva, and spending the night at the Iguaque Sanctuary of Flora and Fauna -- forgive me if I have no internet access and am not able to post tomorrow!

Día 296

I woke this morning to yoga and yogurt before my friends came by to pick me up for our adventure!

It was great to meet Diana's husband Fredy, who is a professor and researcher at
La Universidad Externado, focusing on sustainable tourism, tourism research, ecotourism, and community tourism.

We had a coffee (and choco fiesta donut) at the bus terminal and then seated ourselves in our lovely "interminicipial" bus for the four-hour ride ahead.

For the first leg of the drive, Diana filled me in on environmental education initiatives in Colombia, as well as social issues such as guerrilla groups and paramilitaries in the country. Somewhere on the way, Diana acquired an adopted child (Carlos) whom she held in her lap for the ride.

The rest of the time, she pointed out certain ecological features of the ecosystems through which we passed on our beautiful drive to Villa de Leyva.

After purchasing our return tickets from the reggaeton-filled terminal in Villa, the three of us enjoyed lunch in the pleasant Plaza Mayor, where Diana was even more uncertain than usual about my state of sobriety. What I love about Diana and Fredy is that when they hear music, they dance.

We ambled after our afternoon almuerzo to a cafe called Galleta, for post-prandial coffee and desserts. The place was most agreeable indeed to our taste buds.

It was now almost 5, and time to make our way to El Parque Iguaca (a semi-sacred nature sanctuary nearby).

The 15-minute all-uphill walk left me heaving such heavy breaths that I was dubious about my level of mobility for tomorrow. But the clearing to which we came served to clear my mind. We are nestled in the middle of nature.

After checking out our charming lodging, we headed to the dining hall, where Diana and Fredy again enjoyed the heck out of teasing me, and I found no way to take a break from the ridicule (and the Spanish) but to start writing my blog entry for the day.

Just minutes after I had begun writing, the facility lost power and we found ourselves without electricity, but for the power of the stars.

I'm off to look straight up at the sky again -- it's moments like this that remind me what I'm out to save.

Día 297

We rose at 6 this morning to bundle ourselves in layers and commence our climb to Laguna Iguaque. This lagoon is from where the Muiscas indigenous tribe believes all life originated.

At first, the climb was complicated not by the terrain but by the altitude. I didn't realize that the entrance itself of the park was 100 meters higher than the city of Bogotá, and we would climb to a spot 1,000 meters higher! (I also didn't know my lungs could work this hard!)

It's difficult to sum 6 hours of tough climbing into a few words of a blog post, but I'll try. A very wise person (ok, Ben) said that one should do at least one thing each day that makes him/her uncomfortable -- this hike was mine for today! (It's lucky that I didn't see the sign that effectively said "turn back now if you're having trouble breathing.")

The first third of the walk up was cloud forest, with a soft soil trail interrupted by only occasional huge rocks and roots. I would realize only later what a luxury this ground was, after encountering "the wall."

This was an endless sea of crumbling boulders that started after the forest ended and changed to sub-paramo, an ecotone between forest and paramo (Diana distracted me from my fatigue with ecological tidbits throughout the walk.)

The "wall" of huge and steep rocks lasted for what seemed like forever, and sometimes what kept me going was the view. Nature is just grand, and we simply must keep around places like this, where it feels like one can be alone nothing but nature.

The last third of the walk couldn't come soon enough. What is referred to as the "plain" is actually just a less rocky uphill slope. It was comforting, though, to catch glimpses of la laguna toward which we were headed as we mustered strength for this last leg of the hike.

The lagoon itself (situated at 3,700 meters above sea level) was both frigid and serene.

After a snack and some snaps, I found a nook for myself and meditated for a spell.

When we started our return journey, we were ahead of schedule. But we somehow found ourselves midway through "the wall" with little time to spare before our taxi back to Villa was to arrive. Perhaps this was due to the fact that Diana had to hold my hand all the way down, as I counted how many times my right knee made a "crack!" sound while walking (the grand total was 23).

We ended up almost jogging the last stretch of the return, before bolting to our cabin, changing hurriedly, paying the bill, and piling into the cab.

Utterly exhausted, we've been wandering Villa de Leyva for a while now, eating fritanga, drinking refajo, and treating ourselves to ice cream.

Our bus back to Bogotá leaves in 20 -- I'm tired, aching, and totally satisfied.

Día 298

At least one of my colleagues manages to amaze me each and every day. The story we heard this morning was one of maternal resilience and strength, the history of Rosario and her precious five-year-old daughter Gabriela. Gabi was born with her esophagus connected to her windpipe instead of her stomach, and therefore at risk of choking as a result of her lungs filling with any liquid she drank. She underwent a series of incredibly invasive surgeries within the first few months of her life, and the only thing that kept her newly single mother going was the strength which her tiny baby displayed throughout the process. Gabi is a success story. Rosario learned the meaning of “hope” during this indescribably horrid phase, and her optimistic and peaceful description of the countless complications and her young daughter’s wisdom had Kate and me in tears within an hour of getting to work.

Having dried our eyes, we attempted to return to the International Climate Change Initiative proposal, which was due today. After some minor last edits and peaches from Mauricio's farm, we made our way to lunch.

As I pestered Mauricio to finish his lunch so we could get dessert (from Crepes&Waffles), he plotted my demise all the while, compiling a list of counts on which to complain when he meets my father tomorrow.

Full and feeling fatty, we returned to work. My reto del día (or challenge of the day) from Diana was to translate a three-page terms of reference document from Spanish into English. This was a really fun exercise to help me brush up on my workplace Español!

And speaking of Español, my Spanish class after work today was just rockin'. I got Mario way off-topic during our first exercise and instead of going chronologically through the book, had him quiz me on verb forms for an hour and a half, Certamen "verbal gymnastics" style. This activity was unbelievably fun, until I was hit by a wave of fatigue and semi-sickness halfway.

Despite my insistence on the same and my wailing pleas, Papa dragged me out to dinner at Zona Rosa, where I'm currently feeling too nauseous to eat anything. A night well spent to be sure and lo! Dessert approaches.

Lemonade and ice cream for dinner? I think si.

Día 299

As seems to be common in the story of my existence, I woke up this morning sick with a stomach infection (shame on me for drinking tap water at Iguaque!).

But as Kate and I were discussing just yesterday, there's a world of difference between being unwell in Colombia and in the States! I hopped on Skype for a second to let my boss know that I wouldn't be coming in, and within an instant all of my TNC colleagues were shooting me "¡pobrecita enfermita!" and "get well soon!" messages. People are so warm here. This is the life.

Diana even went so far as to order a medicine for me and have the pharmacy deliver it to my house! My day was a string of naps, crackers, and electrolyte-refreshing drinks.

Continuing to demonstrate Colombian hospitality and sweetness, Paula paid me a visit in the afternoon to chat about life, tell me all the things I shouldn't have been eating today, and aid me in making fun of my father. Her first words upon my opening the door were "you look horrible!" -- which I actually appreciated a lot. :) Papa's presence wasn't all bad: he brought me some food and an amazing present from Natalia, my "Colombian Mama."

This lovely journal held inside a note about how I should jot down my pensamientos (thoughts) here and my consciousness will grow like the arboreal tresses of the young girl on the cover. How beautiful!

For a sick day, today has really been very nice . . .

Día 300

I woke up this morning and read about joy in The Power of Now. I then found some joy right away by catching up with my little sis via Skype, swamping her with stories about the last few days as she flaunted her new flute books (again).

I was actually able to eat today, and I happily sucked down some chicken noodle soup this afternoon before meditating at length. I then spent some time convincing my favorite friend to come to National Latin Convention this summer -- I think I was successful!

After some more sleep, I took a very musical shower and enjoyed some "Indian" herbal tea in preparation for my much-anticipated event of the day -- dinner with my colleagues! (Oh, and dad.)

Our dinner was absolutely wonderful, a perfect blend of jocular complaining about my lacking work ethic and more "serious" conversation about our family backgrounds and the story of Gyaan Ghar.

After tonight, Papa finally realizes exactly what I mean when I talk about how blessed I am with the friends I've made here at TNC. As Diana said, "nací con estrellita" -- I was born under a star. :)

Día 301

For my first breakfast this morning, I had rice, potatoes, and Spanish homework.

When I got to work, Diana immediately started raving about one of her favorite conservation-related softwares, Miradi, and encouraged me to read the Open Standards of the same -- a series of best practices for designing, managing, monitoring, and learning from conservation projects.

We took a very sudden break from this pursuit when a craving for pan de chocolate overcame me and I had to get some. Diana and I walked a few blocks up the street to make the purchase that would cause the commencement of my consumption of countless calories for today.

Pan de chocolate, literally "bread of chocolate" is just normal whole grain bread with huge chunks of dark chocolate therein. ¡Dios mio!

Too soon after devouring this delicacy, it was time for lunch. Mauricio showed us the fancy Club Colombia today, and my collegas and I enjoyed huge portions and invasive conversation for a while before returning to work.

Upon doing so, Mauricio decided to act upon Papa's advice and enlist my efforts in a project more intellectually confounding than what I've been working on. He is to design a corporate platform, selecting around 20 organizations (from a list of 116 -- ¡caramba!) to be supporters of The Nature Conservancy's Magdalena River Project. This process is complicated slightly by the fact that the list that contains the potential organizations is entirely en Español and no criteria have been developed as of yet to actually select the supporting organizations. I guess this is my reto (challenge) for . . . the rest of my time here!

Utterly puzzled by this project, I left the office and, after convincing my taxi driver that I definitely am not from Brasil (as much as I wish that were true), found out that his sister lives in Boston! He encouraged me to check out her glass school near Harvard next year -- how interesting!

I barely had time to scarf down some pizza and review a document Elena Auntie wanted me to look at before it was time for my Spanish class. I was more delirious than usual today, as I completed my conjugations crazily and in an annoyingly exaggerated Mexican accent.

I'm now rocking out to some Reggaeton supplied to me by Diana -- Latin music makes it impossible not to move!


Song of the day:

Día 302

Colombian food will be the death of me. I ate 6 meals today; 2 breakfasts, 2 lunches, and 2 dinners. I've truly had a tough time convincing my friends here that I usually don't eat much!

After my already-heavy breakfast of arepas and chocolate had been inhaled this morning, I arrived at the office to calls of "¡empanadas!" from Diana. We went on a mission for these crunchy snacks, which Diana eventually found at a construction site.

I somehow acquired a bag of 4 croissants on this voyage, which, I swear, I proceeded to share with my office mates.

Beyond stuffed, I spent a while exploring the conservation software Miradi further with Diana this morning, creating a fictional project #113 called "¿De donde viene la cumbia?" as an example.

I at first elected not to go out for lunch today and instead chow on some leftover pizza, but this snack left me yet unsated and so I ventured to Miriam Camhi for a wrap Mejicano and a chocolate and nutella souffle. Lord have mercy.

In the afternoon, Diana and I underwent a training by Harvard ManageMentor on creating a business plan, which was rather unpleasant in its structure and content, and solicited a few scowls from this future Harvard student.

In the afternoon, Rosario sent us a document in "Spanglish" which Diana, Kate, and I tag-teamed to get edited and out the door. Also in the afternoon, Diana and I went out for assorted errands including getting sunscreen and a 6-dollar haircut.

I left the office and met my teacher at our apartment at 6, commencing another conjugation-crazy class. I spent the last minute of this class trying to talk him out of giving me homework over the long weekend, but alas, he purveyed it, and I thought it best to complete it.

I'm now eating my third dinner, churning out this post, and preparing to polish my packing for the puente -- to be spent in Cartagena!

Día 303

I awoke up at 5 today and was soon joined by an excited Kate for our drive to the Punte Aereo. There, we checked in and met up with Rosalia and Samuel for breakfast before our flight to Cartagena!

The flight was startlingly short, and we could feel the change in temperature, humidity, and altitude the instant we landed. Kate and I immediately ran into the ladies' room to change into more sun-conducive attire before we all scooted into a taxi and sped to our hotel!

We are staying at a 19th century colonial villa turned hotel -- with a sea of plants making up our lobby and two well-placed fans providing us ventilation.

After dropping off our things, we wandered around the old town searching for lunch and taking pictures of the stunning colors at every corner.

We slipped back into the hotel just as it started to pour, and Kate and I hit the sack -- hard. Something about waking up before dark and being accosted by humidity really takes the energy out of you!

We dragged ourselves out the (tiny) door in search of ice cream and a day tour to Barú, a nearby island with beautiful beaches.

We then joined our friends at El Cafe del Mar, a gorgeous cafe perched on the wall encircling the city, overlooking the ocean on one side and the old clock tower on the other.

We are now sitting in the park outside Pizza en el Parque, waiting in the oppressive heat for our medium margarita before we head back to 4-76 for bed, ready to rest before a long tomorrow!

Can't wait for Cartagena día dos!

Día 304

Cartagena has me feeling so content.

Kate and I went to sleep last night with grand dreams of running in the morning, but woke instead to a three-course breakfast.

Curso uno:

Curso dos:

Curso tres:

Soon after desayuno, we packed our things and headed across the street to our new hotel, one with air conditioning, wireless internet, and a very descriptive façade.

Our bags deposited, we cooled off at Juan Valdez and went in search of an ATM. This quest soon turned into one for Mila, a favorite bakery of Diana, our very our Cartagena trip advisor!

We enjoyed a few hours of beef, bliss, and chocolate before having to tear ourselves away. We walked along the wall encircling the city and bought some camera batteries for Kate before embarking on my favorite adventure of the day.

Castillo San Felipe de Barajas is an enormous fortress amid skyscrapers in Cartagena, outside of the historical district. Kate and I were like kids in a playroom as we climbed all over the castle and enjoyed the overwhelmingly pleasant breeze.

It was reluctantly that we said goodbye to our playroom and headed to the dock (el muelle) to purchase tickets for tomorrow's island adventure. (I also stopped to purchase some fresh and sanitary sliced mango!!)

From the dock, we darted judiciously across the highway to the closest thing to a beach in downtown Cartagena, drinking in our surroundings for a while . . .

. . . before sneaking back to the clock tower to get some sweets for our friends back in Bogotá. (We also bought a sample platter for ourselves, which Kate and I are scarfing down as we speak.)

We're back in our room now, updating our respective blogs before we get dolled up for dinner and dancing -- salsa, here we come!

Día 305

The short version is this: Kate Belford and I spent today at the beach.

But the real version is that it's been quite a day. We returned to our hotel room about an hour ago and I proclaimed, "success." Kate responded, "happiness."

We awoke half an hour behind schedule this morning to a spectacular breakfast, and hurriedly shuffled to the dock in our flip-flops. We found a stampede of people and sweat as we waited in line not quite sure which boat was ours or how our company would find us.

But anything is possible in Colombia and sure enough, we were on the romantically named "Por Ella" within minutes, welcoming the sea's breeze. This ride was one of those "nothing here is missing" experiences, one of those "I'm glad I took a gap year" rides, one of those "I'm excited about everything I'm doing now and in the near future" times.

We arrived at Isla Barú to a slew of families playing in the water and vendors pestering us in the sand. We were talked into renting a tent, allured into purchasing sarongs, seduced into getting massages, and sorely swindled into supporting corporate control of drinking water. (Luckily, none of these scams cost more than $5.)

After a vegetarian lunch, we moved to a quieter part of the beach and made some friends, who served as support for Kate's observation that children tend to flock to me. They enjoyed fortifying their sand castle, but when it filled with water and melted away, they found a new game. Why can't we be more like that?

I denied every jewelry artist who came my way all day (there were many) but gave business to many fruit peddlers. It's all about the mango.

Bronzed, covered in sand, and waiting for the boat to take us back, we made more friends -- Sophia and Cecilia, who wanted to know how to say their names in English.

The ride back to Cartagena was the highlight of my day. Now rising against the wind, we were battered with an insane gushing of air, water, and sound all the way back. The exhilaration of it all distracted Kate and me from the fact that our boat leaping out of the water multiple times was actually rather terrifying. What a ride.

At the end of this adventure, our driver announced, "you may be surprised you're still alive, but at least you weren't bored!" Yes, holding on for one's life and getting a facial massage from the jets of air hitting your cheeks certainly isn't boring.

Kate and I staggered onto the dock giddy, enthused, and really, really tired. We made only one stop on our way home -- to pick up some cocadas, my new definition of heaven. Coconut chunks smooshed with pure sugar? Joy.

De-sanded, showered, and moisturized, we are grabbing a few minutes of rest before dinner at El Baluarte, a restaurant and bar situated atop the wall that girds the city. Another Diana Morales recommendation -- we can't go wrong!

Día 306

Kate went for a run this morning as I finished the penultimate chapter in The Power of Now. We washed and packed up before heading into old town Cartagena and stumbling upon the gorgeous and open Plaza de la Aduana, which we had somehow missed while walking all around these past three days!

After admiring the modern bronze sculptures in the square, we embarked on a mission of paramount importance -- accessory shopping.

I emerged from our gallivant in Azulu with a pair of azul sunglasses for the little sister.

Breathing in the beautiful sights again, we made our way to Colombia's TNC headquarters -- which is located in an old discotheque in downtown Cartagena!

We snooped around and caught it all on film before Julio, the "big boss," took us around the office and introduced us to everyone who was in today.

By this time, it was getting pretty close to our 3:30 flight, but we decided to take a chance and have one more Cartagena adventure before departing.

We had promised Papa that we'd have lunch in Hotel de Santa Clara before leaving, and we weren't about to let him down! Kate and I enjoyed fancy food and fresh juice with entertainment provided by Mateo the fussy toucan, before making a run for it.

We now sit outside our gate at the airport updating our respective blogs. It seems like the flights here run on Colombian standard time too, because we were some of the first people to arrive for ours! Munching on Alfajores and enjoying the laid-back life, we bid Cartagena goodbye. What an awesome long weekend.

Día 307

in SpI woke up at 6 for some strange reason, to find Elena Auntie working. I wished her "buena suerte" and she me "buenas noches" as I went back to sleep for a second time. I woke at 8, my normal time, to yoga and breakfast.

At work today, I continued to read the background information needed to developed TNC's corporate platform, while my beautiful colleagues prepared for this afternoon's meeting with the Adaptation Fund.

Lunch was consumed at a place called "Esta Es Una Panaderia" -- literally "This Is A Bakery." And a bakery it was, one with delicious pan de chocolate!

After some more work and a sighting of José Yunis this afternoon, Diana and I went out to enjoy the descuentos abounding at Andino Mall this time of year. I caught a bit of yellow fever (and cosumermania), buying 5 items, out of which 3 were yellow.

The most notable of these items is a purse purchased to replace my old bag, to which Mauricio refers as "las cortinas" or "the curtains."

After our shopping excursion, I was running late for my already-postponed Spanish class! I bounded through the shadows in my tights and ballet flats, and made my way panting into my lesson. During class, we read a recent article published in Spanish about the río Magdalena in an Avianca Airlines publication.

This piece happens to be on page 113 of the magazine, and we also happened to arrive at page 113 of my Spanish textbook today -- what luck!

Viewing an evening potentially littered with an array of irksome tasks, I did exactly what one should do when she has a lot of work -- put it all aside and meditate instead. A bit less agitated, I start this post with a long night of chores ahead . . .

Día 308

After my yoga and Power of Now this morning, Elena Auntie insisted on massaging my right foot, which is currently in extreme agony, supposedly due to the extensive walking this weekend in Cartagena. Nevertheless, her offer made me uncomfortable as it rendered me even more worthy of my nickname consentida -- clingy and super spoiled. Ay, dios mio.

Apart from its moral implications, my massage was divine, and I left for work with a newfound spring in my step. Upon arriving at the TNC office, I was happy to earn Mauricio's wholehearted approval of my new purse and matching yellow sandals. Thank you to Diana for picking out the bag!

I worked with Mao more closely this morning to brainstorm organizations for The Nature Conservancy's corporate platform. We selected 11 organizations from the 116 on the list for me to do some preliminary research on, and I spent the morning working on this task "during my breaks from helping Rosario and Diana." For lunch, we went to Andino Mall, discussing throughout the walk there, our meal, and the walk back which gender has an easier time selecting outfits. Kate and I argued that dressing is easier for men, but the ever-fashionable Mao had to disagree.

I left work right after lunch for a field trip with my Spanish teacher -- to Museo Nacional de Colombia! It was cool to stroll through the museum with Mario, who is an artist himself, but I think he was practicing his English a little more than teaching me Spanish. I also have a tendency to pick up on only the most peculiar words, so I ended up learning a lot of random interjections today, such as "¡sanbombas!" and "¡recorcholis!".

We took the bus back to my apartment and I set out to buy myself dinner and dessert from locations that required crossing as few streets as possible. So PanPa'Ya and Reposteria Maria Luisa it was. I'll miss the bakeries here more than almost anything else!

I'm getting ready to do a bit more research before calling it a night. 

Día 309

After my yoga and Power of Now this morning, Elena Auntie insisted on massaging my right foot, which is currently in extreme agony, supposedly due to the extensive walking this weekend in Cartagena. Nevertheless, her offer made me uncomfortable as it rendered me even more worthy of my nickname consentida -- clingy and super spoiled. Ay, dios mio.

Apart from its moral implications, my massage was divine, and I left for work with a newfound spring in my step. Upon arriving at the TNC office, I was happy to earn Mauricio's wholehearted approval of my new purse and matching yellow sandals. Thank you to Diana for picking out the bag!

I worked with Mao more closely this morning to brainstorm organizations for The Nature Conservancy's corporate platform. We selected 11 organizations from the 116 on the list for me to do some preliminary research on, and I spent the morning working on this task "during my breaks from helping Rosario and Diana." For lunch, we went to Andino Mall, discussing throughout the walk there, our meal, and the walk back which gender has an easier time selecting outfits. Kate and I argued that dressing is easier for men, but the ever-fashionable Mao had to disagree.

I left work right after lunch for a field trip with my Spanish teacher -- to Museo Nacional de Colombia! It was cool to stroll through the museum with Mario, who is an artist himself, but I think he was practicing his English a little more than teaching me Spanish. I also have a tendency to pick up on only the most peculiar words, so I ended up learning a lot of random interjections today, such as "¡sanbombas!" and "¡recorcholis!".

We took the bus back to my apartment and I set out to buy myself dinner and dessert from locations that required crossing as few streets as possible. So PanPa'Ya and Reposteria Maria Luisa it was. I'll miss the bakeries here more than almost anything else!

I'm getting ready to do a bit more research before calling it a night.

Día 310

Today was just inspiring.

I spent the day with Natalia Gomez and her five dogs at her country home in Sopó.

Natalia is living her 18-year-old self's dream of working in Bogotá during the week and resting, truly resting, in the countryside over the weekends. It took her a number of twists and turns to arrive at where she is, but now she's there all the time.

Our halts during the drive included rest stops solely for the purpose of buying baked goods. I knew I was going to appreciate this day as soon as it started.

Natalia told me about her house as we drove through La Calera, and her description of it is pure poetry. It was the first house ever designed by her niece, and is built just for Natalia. The place is beauty, with the ground floor serving as an independent lounge for her three children, the middle floor an open kitchen and den, and a slightly elevated and entirely open loft making up her bedroom. It's hard to picture the magnificently positive inside without being there.

The place is like meditation in itself. Natalia proudly gave me the grand tour as I gaped in awe at the modern design and elating feel of the place. The house is blue to match the mountains.

We peeled ourselves from this peace and ventured on to Zipaquirá to visit the "must-see" Catedral de Sal, an underground Catholic sanctuary located inside a salt mine.

My "Colombian Mama" and I zipped through the site before devouring our mora ice cream and returning to the farmhouse, where we hung out briefly with some horses.

Then, Natalia magically prepared a delicious meal for me, forcing me to lay in the sun and rest as she cooked, and not even allowing me to pretend to help.

I was sad to have to leave in the evening, but what breathtaking surroundings in which to have spent a day of one's life.

Natalia drove me all the way back home to Bogotá, intending to make the one-hour drive back to Sopó tonight itself. She was happy to have me as her "daughter for the day," and I was more than happy to be the same.

Día 311

Last night, Diana and Fredy took me out salsa dancing, and I fell in love with Latin American culture all over again. I was exhausted before we left, and even during the walk over, but I was bowled over by what we saw when we entered Disco Jaguar. Everyone here has rhythm. If I was expecting something akin to my perception of inane nightclubs in the States, I was gravely mistaken.

I was perfectly happy to sit in a corner of the room and just gape at the casual perfection with which the Latin Americans around me were moving their hips and feet at a speed mathematically unimaginable. But I was grateful for my dance lessons from Diana, and for the sequence of Colombian boys who deigned to dance with me and went on to lie to me about my ability levels of both salsa and Spanish. I love to dance but tend to be inhibited when it comes to dancing in public places, but Latin rhythms are irresistible. What a night.

And what a perfect way to start off the 21st birthday of Kenneson Chen, the world's most entertaining and precious person!

Today was spent in true Kenneson style as well -- shopping more than I ever thought I could! The entire Zamora family accompanied me as I made my last minute Colombian compras throughout the day. They first took me back to the market I visited on Day 284. We had lunch at Wok, and my doggie bag truly understood my intentions for the (big) part of my meal I was not able to finish.

"Reheated oriental food tonight!"

We then set out on a mission to buy some decorative doors that I had seen and loved my last time at the mercado de las pulgas -- these wooden panels represent doors found in different regions of the country, and I can't wait to gift them to Mama!

Two bags in tow, it was time to go to Palatino in search of assorted comfy Colombian cotton products, of which I found quite a few!

Our last stop was Unicentro, where we met up with Diana, Fredy, and Kate, whom I awkwardly introduced to Paula before she and I returned to our errands, picking up a few "necessities" from Éxito.

After debriefing about our day (and my purchases), the Zamora clan drove me home. I'm so pleased at the family I've "collected" here in Colombia.

Día 312 

Like most mornings here, today's was majestic. After my daily routine, I made my way to the office, where Diana and I soon realized we were wearing a common dress code of solid colored t-shirt with black sweater, pants, and shoes.

We spent the day formulating responses to comments on our proposal to the International Climate Initiative, from the ICI itself. This mostly entailed elaborating on answers Diana had already written, but also involved a bit of research on Fundación Alma and the Fondo Adaptación.

For lunch, we went to Oma, a bakery and cafe with a wonderfully illustrated menu.

There was a dessert there called "fiesta infantíl" (infant fest), which Diana and Kate both agreed I should order based on my high-pitched voice, cartoonish Spanish interjections, and overall antics. However, I kept it classy and had an enormous pasión de caramel ice cream dish for dessert.

We spent lunch discussing the fate of the beautiful Magdalena River, whence comes the cumbia.

After lunch, Diana and I finished up our work relating to the proposal before she went home, and I spent some time catching with Mauricio on the latest and greatest in his life. Soon, it was time for me to drag myself home to my Spanish class, where I forced Mario to teach me the last 10 chapters of my book (which has 23 chapters total).

After a very loud class (my fault), I slowed it down with some meditation before enjoying my Avelina-made ajiaco.

Dormiendo, dormiendo, dormida . . .

Día 313

This morning, that same extreme exhaustion steamrolled me that in high school I would have powered through, but this year I have learned to heed. My grandfather says I "live a life of averages," extremely energetic most of the time, and then completely wiped out at others.

I woke at 7:30, had breakfast, and fell promptly back asleep at 8.

I arose next at 11 in time for lunch and a quick chat with colleagues, to fall back asleep at 1.

Up again at 5, I decided to change out of my pajamas (barely) and find some dinner for myself before I could fall asleep again, and before it got dark. Would it be incriminating to say I went to my favorite French bakery Bagatelle again? Well, I did.

I ate my meal with my sister over Skype, and then commenced my Spanish lesson. Kate dropped in for a while as Mario rushed to teach me the preterito indefinido, pluscuamperfecto, and subjunctivo.

I just finished my homework and I think it would be prudent of me to begin my packing for this Saturday, provided I don't fall asleep again . . .

Día 314

I was very juiciosa last night and did as much packing as I could, while excluding from my suitcase four pre-planned outfits for the remainder of my time here. My fingers are crossed that I'll be able to travel with just one bag!

I awoke this morning singing, "ayyy, mi Cuba," and made my way to the office. Diana and I continued to collect our thoughts for the business plan today, and Kate pointed out that I possess no middle ground between shouting and whispering. Perhaps my volume was induced by the brigadeiro-flavored treats that Diana brought us. Or perhaps I'm just loud.

For lunch, we all enjoyed our respective favorite cuisines in the food court at Andino. Mauricio ate his chicken with gloves as Rosario inspected her luxurious plantains.

After almorzando, Kate and I went to KisMi, a salon near the office, for five-dollar manicures and six-dollar pedicures.

My beautician, Angela, gave me the fastest mani-pedi she's ever delivered in her life, as I was counting the minutes before I had to be home for my last Spanish lesson. Today, Mario and I visited the Museo del Oro, which boasts a huge collection of pre-Hispanic gold artifacts.

Even despite my lack of knowledge about jewelry, the place is quite a marvel. I was especially fascinated by the gold shells, while Mario enjoyed drawing my attention to all the frogs in the place, because my name resembles the word for "frog" in Spanish, rana.

We also identified three Spanish words whose pronunciation I constantly forget:

1. joyería - jewelry
2. lagarto - lizard
3. almojábana - this pastry thing

The drive from downtown was delightful, and Mario reviewed my homework from yesterday before leaving me to my dinner and my blog. I may not have learned to cook here in Colombia, but I've learned to make huge frozen masses of food resemble actual comida, by means of a microwave.

I'm chomping on my dessert of French fries now, and hoping to turn in for an early night.

Día 315

Today, I learned that when people say "you should always have an umbrella in Bogotá," they mean it.

I walked to work in the drizzle and Diana and I zeroed in on the part of the business plan we’d be focusing on today, Situation Analysis.

Mauricio treated me to a farewell lunch at Mini Mál, a really cool fusion restaurant with lamps made out of colanders.

We enjoyed their fabulous cuisine as Mauricio told me part of his life story, and got me a cuaderno made from a recycled record as a memento of “favorite colleague.” So cool!

After lunch, I went back to yesterday’s salon to ask Angela to touch up a few of my nails, which I had chipped during the scramble to Spanish class yesterday. I suppose this “revisit” to KisMi made me worthy of my nickname princesita.

In the afternoon, Diana and I continued to map out the business plan as it started to pour outside. I walked home and arrived with my galoshes (i.e. ballet flats) soaking wet, and immediately went in for a hot shower.

I’m warm, meditated, and ready for dinner out with Diana, Fredy, Kate, and Juan Pablo!

Día 316

After my reading and irksome re-packing this morning, I drank in my last Bogotá walk to work -- for now. At the office, I finished my draft of the Situation Analysis section of the business plan I started yesterday, elaborating on institutional opportunities and challenges regarding the Magdalena River project. Go team Magdalena!

For my "last supper" (lunch in a food court), we made our way to Andino, arousing intense nostalgia of my first lunch here (*sniff*), although with my volume much louder and Diana's back muscles much tenser. A truly emotional moment came when I consumed my last almendras ice cream at Crepes & Waffles after lunch. ¡Tan triste!

Back at the office, I continued to massacre Diana's notes with neon colors as I began the Outcomes section of the plan, which tied my brain in knots as I wrestled with the best way to structure it.

Mauricio rescued me from this challenge by taking me out for a most wonderful coffee at Myriam Camhi, which we enjoyed at a most leisurely pace as I urged him to finish his cheesecake so I could return to my favorite girls.

I now sit in the otherwise empty office writing this post as Rosario and Diana, my lovely jefecitas, hack away at a budget proposal. I am not yet ready to say hasta luego to this beautiful pais -- and indeed, will not yet, as I have some spicy salsa plans for tonight!

¡Colombia, te quiero!

Día 317

I had a most peculiar night. While Rosario and Diana worked away at the office, I did my best to call a cab, as the sun had set and I was not in the mood to walk the spooky ten blocks home in the dark. Because it was raining and a Friday, no cabs were available. After almost two hours, lots of frantic phone calls, and a few tears as I took one last look at the conference room, my “Colombian Mama” came to the rescue! I got to give her a big hug before leaving, promising to be back soon (with tears in my eyes again . . . ).

Our salsa plans were scrapped as Elena Auntie and I experienced the extreme exhaustion endemic to the unabashed Energizer bunnies that we aim to emulate. We put our efforts instead into magically packing my five maletas’ worth of stuff into one check-in suitcase and one burdensome handbag. This must have taken over an hour, and we crashed just before midnight, with our Osaki take-out eaten.

It seems that the bar of soap in my shower counted down my time in Colombia -- there was but a sliver left this morning as I rose at 5:30 and prepared for the drive to the airport. Maria Victoria picked us up and sped us there, where we ran out of time for breakfast at Crepes & Waffles, and I instead enjoyed my last cafe Colombia at Oma as I sent and received the usual “I’ll miss you!” texts from friends and colleagues before going through security.

Papa was flying through Bogotá from La Paz this morning, and I showed off my Spanish skills (lack thereof) to him briefly before I boarded. And bemoaned the fact that I’m leaving this breathtaking nation!

My first flight was nothing out of the ordinary, but for its insufferable length and the steward for whom I had to pretend not to understand Spanish to avoid being chided for last-minute texts to my sisters Priya and Laura.

Upon arriving at Newark, I consumed some flavorless food, missed Colombia some more, called Mama, finished reading The Power of Now, and started writing this post.

My second flight seemed to land as soon it took off, with classy salsa and tongue-in-cheek Reggaeton to keep me company. I touched down at Dulles to my favorite welcome party!

Priya Gill

We drove off in search of Indian food and enjoyed it after I bestowed upon Mama her puertas, coffee maker, coffee, and keychains.

I’m sleepy and I miss Colombia. Severely.

Nothing to Declare

They question me at Customs:

How long were you in Colombia?

Five of the most unassumingly lightning-fast weeks of my life.

What was the purpose of your trip?

To drink in a culture, to fall in love with new friends, to bask in Spanish tongues.

What are you bringing back with you today?

The heat of Cartagena, the views of Iguaque, the streets of Bogotá. A home to return to.

Did you receive any gifts while you were there?

Remarkable Rosario, darling "Dijana," mirthful Mauricio.

32% improved Spanish proficiency. Food that made me smile. Music that opened my eyes.

An aunt. A sister. A mother. A river.

Well welcome home, Ms. Gill!

Gracias. Muy amable.


  1. go team ratna! we're all cheering for you. couldn't be more excited!!

  2. Brendan Esteban O'FlahertyJune 11, 2012 at 10:11 PM

    best country on earth! congrats

  3. wow, adding this to my list of places to visit some day :)