Wednesday, December 26, 2012

The Vase That Gave Birth To Colombia

Imagine coming across a box of tea from the Boston Tea Party. I did when wondering around a museum in the center of Bogota last week. Well, actually it wasn't a box of tea but its Colombian equivalent - a flower vase. Diana checking out the Florero de Llorente:

If you're not up on your United States history, the Boston Tea Party wasn't really a party but rather a protest in 1773 Boston where the colonists protested what they saw as unfair British taxes. The colonists boarded a ship full of tea in the Boston Harbor and threw the tea overboard. This act is seen as one of the things that led to the American Revolution.

In much the same way, an event in 1810 "instigated" by the Florero de Llorente (the Llorente flower vase) symbolizes the eventual separation of Colombia from Spain. A close-up of the Colombian-independence vase:

From what I understand, a group of Creole (Colombian-born Spaniards) separatists went to borrow the vase from Llorente who was a cranky local Spanish merchant with a shop located across from Bogota's main plaza. They knew that the request to use the vase as the centerpiece at a dinner celebration of another local Creole would be rejected by a "real" Spaniard. Once the rejection was received, the Creoles would spread out in the plaza and begin to fire up the locals against the Spanish. As part of the ruse, another Creole verbally attacked Llorente, which led to a fist fight between Llorente and the Creole outside Llorente's shop.

The image of the fist fight over a flower pot, which I photographed of the souvenir post card the museum gave out, is now iconic of the Colombian independence movement:

So yes, Colombia eventually got its independence because of a relatively ugly flower vase rather than some tea thrown into a bay. As the term Tea Party has been adopted by a rightist political group in the U.S., I wonder if Colombia will ever have something like the Florero party?

The view from Llorente's shop's balcony, which you can see in the above painting, overlooking Bogota's Plaza Bolivar:

Monday, December 24, 2012

Casa de Nariño (The Colombian White House)

A couple of days after our visit to the Colombian National Congress building, we visited the Casa de Nariño, which is where the president of Colombia lives and works. It's a similar to what the White House is for the United States. This is the view of the front of the house looking from the National Congress building next door:

You need an appointment to visit, which you can get by sending an email somewhere apparently. Anyway, it looked like the first available appointment would be the week after New Years but they contacted us a couple of days later to tell us that they had an opening last Sunday. It wasn't until the day of our visit that I found out that the Bogota soccer team (The Millionaires) was playing against the Medellin soccer team in the national final later that afternoon so there were probably a bunch of cancellations.

We arrived at the recommended 15 minutes early and signed in. The guard checked our IDs against the list and we waited along with about ten other people for our tour. I was very surprised when our guide, a super-fast-talking soldier, led us in the door without us having to go through a metal detector or even a pat-down. Could you imagine entering pretty much any major public building in the U.S., much less something like the White House, without going through a metal detector? I honestly expected a full rectal exam but we hardly even got a second look. It's not to say there was no security though - we were accompanied by another, larger soldier that didn't seem like he'd put up with any bad behavior. :-)

Unfortunately, you can't take a camera, cell phone, or even a purse (for the women or Euro guys) so I don't have any other photos. Trust me, though, when I say that it's by far the cleanest place in the entire country of Colombia. Even the dirt in the planters outside the building was clean - I checked!

The tour takes you through one wing of the house, which is named for Don Antonio Nariño who originally translated France's Declaration of Human Rights for use during the Colombian independence movement. The building and its furnishings are basic European castle styling with its share of old fittings and artwork. One of the highlights for me was seeing an awesome Fernando Botero original painting in one of the rooms.

Unlike our visit to the Congress building, I didn't have a meetup with anyone famous. I was hoping to see the president but he was probably at some swanky party getting ready to watch the big game. By the way, Bogota ended up winning, which was a big deal since they hadn't won the national championship in something like 25+ years (Philadelphia fans can sympathize...).

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Touring The Colombian Capital Building

After the first few days of me being in Colombia again visiting with her family and eating too much of her mother's food, Diana planned for us to do tours of a couple of Bogota and national-government buildings.

Bogota is the capital of Colombia and all of the major government buildings are either on, or within a few blocks of, the Plaza Bolivar, which is the historical center of the city. The first tour we took was of the Lievano building, which is the French-style building to the right of the Christmas tree and the second was at the National Capital building, which is to the left of the Christmas tree:

Colombia's been trying to be more open and available to its citizens and one of the things that it's done is to open many of the government buildings to the public by offering tours. The Lievano building tour didn't end up being too interesting. It houses the offices of the Bogota-city government and the tour only covered the central courtyard and didn't go inside the building at all. It'd probably have been much more interesting if the women's prison, which was there prior to this building, was still open and had tours...

Our second tour was of the Capitolio Nacional (National Capital), which is the Colombian equivalent of the U.S. Capital in Washington, D.C. Perhaps following the influence of Antoni Gaudi and his Sagrada Familia, construction started in 1848 and finished in 1926.

The stone capital building, like its United States counterpart, serves as the offices and meeting places for both houses of congress. The Colombian senate has 102 representatives, 100 of which come from a single national ballot (I so wanted to write ballet instead!), and the remaining two representing the indigenous peoples.

The Colombian House of Representatives currently has 166 members, which are elected based on a formula that includes a minimum per department (state) plus a factor for population. As the population of Colombia increases, the number of representatives increases. The representatives meet in the room below, which has a mural by Santiago Martinez Delgado showing the founding of Colombia. The mural, which was politically charged at the time of its creation, is one of the highlights of the tour.

It was kinda' fun to watch the congressional proceedings. There were a couple of people paying close attention to the speeches that were being given but, for the most part, people were (loudly) having conversations, drinking coffee, looking at their smartphones, or just walking around. It wasn't as chaotic as when they show something from England but it wasn't nearly as orderly I expected...

Diana doing her best to look like an elected official working on official government business:

The tour was great and led by an excellent guide who seemed to allow us a lot of freedom. At one point, we had the chance to use the congressional bathrooms!

The final part of the tour took us through the tunnel that connects the Capital building to the congressional offices across the street. While our guide was summarizing, one of the more popular and approachable senators (or so I was told) who was also formerly the president of the senate (sort of like Joe Biden is currently in the U.S.), Aurelio Iragorri Hormaza, stopped to talk to our group. Our guide told him a little about the group (mostly Colombians, a couple of Dominicans, and me) and he immediately singled me out and started asking me about California. We spoke for about a minute and I was able to get my photo with him. Super cool!

I actually learned quite a bit about the Colombian government on the tour and would recommend taking it. Bonus if you get your photo with a senator!

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Five Guys Burgers

On our way home from horseback riding, we stopped off for a late lunch at a Five Guys.

If you're not familiar, Five Guys is basically the East Coast version of In-N-Out, which is sort of like a high-end McDonald's. The difference between Five Guys (as well as places like Nifty Fifty's and In-N-Out) versus McDonald's is that the food is actually good and the service is (usually) competent and friendly. Ask anyone who has ever lived in California what the best burgers are and 99% of the time they'll say In-N-Out. The problem with In-N-Out for most people is that they're located primarily on the West Coast. Five Guys solved that problem by copying In-N-Out (in my opinion) and spreading the idea beyond In-N-Out's original stomping grounds.

A flock of cuties munching on the free in-the-shell peanuts while waiting:

If you weren't paying too close of attention, you might not know whether you were at an In-N-Out or a Five Guys. They both have white-tile interiors with red highlights. The soda machine is all-you-can-drink (free refills). The staff is friendly and efficient. You can see the whole kitchen and all the prep. The fries are fresh-cut from whole potatoes. The biggest difference, if you can call it that, I can find is that instead of In-N-Out's food coming in a brown-cardboard box, Five Guy's food comes in a heavy brown paper bag.

My sister picking up our meal (in a paper bag):

The similarities continue with the food. Somehow, I ended up with a double-cheeseburger (I believe I ordered a regular cheeseburger), which was, at a minimum, equally good as what In-N-Out's got. I'm going to go out on a limb here and say that I think that the fries might be better at Five Guys. Oh, and the peanuts are a nice bonus. (Note the jalapeños on my burger!)

Apparently kids like Five Guys' food too!

I'm kinda' mixed on the whole Five Guys' thing but I'm thinking that it's because, to me, In-N-Out is the original. On the other hand, the food is good and there's a lot more of them in a lot more places. I think In-N-Out missed their opportunity to spread across the United States since Five Guys beat them to the punch. Hmmmmm... I guess that the reality is that I'd go to whichever was closest if I were in the mood for a good burger.

Four satisfied Five Guys' customers:

Friday, December 7, 2012

Horseback Riding For Christmas

Growing up in the city there weren't really too many opportunities to be out in the countryside and even fewer opportunities to be around big animals like cows or horses. I can count on one hand (maybe two) the number of times that I've been in contact with something larger than a big dog (like when I milked the cows, for example).

Nature growing up in Philadelphia was "going down the park". The park in this case was the nearby Pennypack Park where we'd fish, build forts, break stuff, light fires(!!!), and even build BMX tracks (remember those days, Dave T.?) - you know - boy stuff. There was even a place where you could rent/ride horses by the hour, which my dad took me and my sister to at least once. I remember that day, which must have been like 30 years ago, very well.

Flash forward to this year when I was thinking about Christmas gifts for my six nieces and nephews. I really didn't want to just go out and buy "stuff" that they wouldn't remember eight minutes after opening. Nope, it had to be something different - something memorable. That's when I remembered going horseback riding with my dad and decided to try to take everyone this year. It took me two days to find a place, coordinate schedules, and make a reservation and off we went last Saturday.

My sister's three oldest (my brother-in-law should buy boyfriend-deterrent shotgun now!):

The closest stable I could find with availability is on the Pennsylvania/Delaware border just over an hour (via car) from my dad's place. The only issue was that the two youngest (a two and a three year old) couldn't ride with us. After talking it over with my sister and sister-in-law, we decided that it was okay and that we'd go only with the four oldest (ages four to nine).

My sister's second oldest on Freddy the horse:

Our reservation was for 2pm and we got there a bit early so that we could hang out and check out the horses before our ride. We ended up being four kids and two adults and we did a trail ride for about 45 minutes. The trail ran (literally) right along the Mason-Dixon Line, or also known as the border between North and South, and, now, just Pennsylvania and Delaware:

We weren't sure if the kids would be afraid or something. Each one had their own guide and they all ended up doing well. I was happy that we had no problems at all and the kids really seemed to enjoy it.

My sister's number three:

The biggest surprise of the day was my sister-in-law's riding ability. I had no idea that she had done quite a bit of it in the past (and even had the boots, jacket, and all!). Doesn't she look like a pro here?

I was a little concerned about the reservations as the stable I chose seemed a bit flaky. I originally called them and left a message with what I wanted. They called back and asked me to confirm the wrong time and wrong number of people. I corrected them and all was good. My sister-in-law then decided she wanted to ride as well so I called them back to request the change. They, once again, had the wrong time and wrong number of people (but different than the first time). The day before our ride, someone called and left a message confirming our ride for the next day and, again, had a new time and a new, seemingly random, number of people. I called back once more and gave them the "new" information. It all ended up going well though. The people at the stable were super nice and accommodating.

My sister-in-law and her oldest:

My sister walked with us (and took all these photos) while we rode just in case one of the kids got scared and didn't want to ride or something. During the ride, my sister kept saying to me that my horse was huge. I hadn't noticed when we were mounting up or riding. It wasn't until I got home and saw the group photo below that I realized what she was talking about.

One other semi-related story. After I graduated from grad school in Los Angeles, I went to work for a bicycle-helmet manufacturer. While I was there, we started developing and selling horse-riding helmets. They were basically bicycle helmets with horse-helmet styling, except with grossly inflated prices and super-high margins (got to love horse folks and their money)! At the time, we weren't sure if they'd ever sell because those same rich horse folks tended to be (very) conservative and the helmets' styling was different. It's been almost 20 years and those same exact helmets we developed are now the standard. It was cool to see my nieces and nephew wearing something that I helped develop. By the way, I didn't get to use one of the helmets I worked on as they didn't have one in jumbo-head size.

Ride 'em, cowboy:

I had an awesome time. Everyone really enjoyed it and I loved having the extended time with the kids. I hope that it's something that they'll (also) remember in 30 years. The only problem now is how I'll top it next year! Skydiving, anyone? Do they allow three-year-olds? We could do a formation!

Thanks to my sister for taking the photos!

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Thanksgiving Weekend

I've been back in Philadelphia for just about two weeks now and I'm finally getting around to posting some stories from here. As I write this, it's like 65 degrees Fahrenheit (17C) outside, which is verrrry unusual but also verrrry nice after living in that frozen land called Germany!

Anyway, Thanksgiving (or a link to a less traditional one) was a week ago Thursday and it began like it does every year - with eggnog in my coffee (thanks dad!) and the MASSIVE Thanksgiving day newspaper. I had paper routes for about five or six years during grade school and high school and always dreaded Thanksgiving because of how big and heavy the papers were. Thanksgiving 2012's paper:

If you've ever wondered if Americans are truly consumer oriented, look no farther than the contents of the day's paper. The local newspaper, the Philadelphia Inquirer, had at least 58 (!!!) pull-out color advertisements in addition to the regular ads that appear throughout the paper. Most of them advertised Black Friday specials, which this year started at like 8pm on Thanksgiving night. They're not even waiting for midnight on Black Friday anymore. Yes, I think it's crazy and, yes, people in the United States love love love to shop. Baseball may used to have been the most popular pastime but today it's shopping.

As in prior years, dinner was at my cousin Mike's house. He's got the biggest house in the family and the party is able to spread over two floors. I love being in town for Thanksgiving as it's basically the only time during the year when my entire family gets together in one place. I think the thing that amazed me most this year is how crazy big all the "kids" in the family are. There are "kids" that will be in university in September! Damn, I'm getting O.L.D.!!!

The kitchen during the dinner rush:

I had promised Berat, my roommate from Stuttgart, that I'd take a photo of the turkey and send it to him so that he could see what a real cooked one looks like. Unfortunately, the turkey had already been cut before I ever had the chance to take a photo so I snapped one of my dinner plate instead. Just in case, clockwise from the top (12 o'clock), there's: stuffing, hot macaroni and cheese, (half of) a biscuit, ham (6 o'clock), sweet potatoes, and some turkey with the light meat to the left and dark meat towards the center, cranberry sauce (back up near the stuffing), and some mashed potatoes taking center stage:

Oh, and Thanksgiving dinner, and the similar Christmas dinner, is my favorite meal ever. Wawa has a sandwich that's called the Turkey Gobbler, which has turkey, stuffing, cranberry, and gravy, that I just can't get enough of. I've already eaten three and might go for another today!

Something that I've wanted to do for a few years is take an extended-family photo so I decided that this was the year. My dad's got my sister's, brother's, and my wedding photos hanging up in the living room of his house and the photo from my sister's wedding from like 13 years ago is really the last photo where everyone in the family is present. It was time for a new one. I warned people when I arrived that we'd be doing the photo and they seemed game. Believe it or not, it only took about five minutes of being "Mr. Pushy" to get everyone outside and smiling with the nice photo below being the result:

Just a quick note that missing were Diana (she's in Colombia) and my one cousin and his wife and two kids so I'll have to try again next time.

Oh, and I pretty much was immobilized by the quantity of food that I ate that night. I remember going to bed thinking that I just can't ever do that again. And, my diet should start the next day. You know the drill, right?

The next morning I was driving through my dad's neighborhood and came across a flock of wild turkeys walking down the street. Okay, a couple of things. First, I had no idea that my dad (and sister, who lives nearby) had wild turkeys for neighbors. There were at least six of them and they were giant - it was a f'n trippy sight to see. Next, I'm wondering if they were out celebrating that they made it through another Thanksgiving? Possibly. Of course, there's always Christmas!!! [cue: evil laughing] Hahahahahahahahaha!

Later that evening we went to meet up with a couple of relatives from my dad's side of the family who he hadn't seen in over FORTY years (and I didn't even know about)! My dad's an only child and, for the most part, our "family" is made up of folks from my mom's side. My brother, sister, and I were excited to finally meet some more peeps from the other side. From left, my brother, my dad's cousin's husband, my dad's cousin, their daughter, my dad (partially blocked), Ginny, the most beautiful guy in the world (cough, cough), and my sister:

Another note: I ate waaaaay too much that night too. The pumpkin-pie martinis and extensive bar-food menu were just too much to resist. It was another super uncomfortable night of sleeping! So much for never again...

Can I just say how nice it is to be back home? Family, fun, and FOOD! What could be better? Now to get outside to enjoy the amazing weather!