Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Apple Replaces No Fear In Quest For Cool

I was once somewhere in China doing a quality-control audit at a belt factory. What I really remember, other than the bathrooms were really grody (free tip: a great test of a company's - as well as a restaurant's - commitment to quality and quality control can be found in how they maintain their bathrooms), is that they were simultaneously producing belts destined for both Walmart and Louis Vuitton on the same production line (no, I'm not sure if they were legit but the factory was very proud). I'm thinking that those belts cost about the same to produce but the LV ones would probably end up going to retail for, what, maybe 100 times more? Who knows.

At another past company, we would ship product to the Japanese that was identical to what we sold in the United States. The only difference was that they "just" doubled the price of everything we shipped there because "the Japanese will pay anything for the [product]". Note that this was during the boom years in Japan and I'm not sure that pricing model would hold up now. (For another fun business-case analysis, check out my surprisingly popular google referral bagged-drink post.)

Aspirational branding, a goal of product managers everywhere, is when a product or service is priced such that a large percentage of potential buyers cannot currently afford it but hope (aspire) to one day. Think TAG Heuer, Coach, Beats Audio, and so on. Related to this is the way people want to be associated with popular brands by being seen with a certain shoe, purse, or even belt. For years, I've seen this brand love displayed on the back of vehicles via logos like Oakley, No Fear, and Nike. (By the way, I'm also guilty of having "logoed" my car at times.)

Love, love, love this Nike-Renault combo logo I spotted in the neighborhood (and yes, these old Renaults, which are everywhere, deserve a story of their own):

I remember growing up that you'd see lots of audiophile cars stickered with Pioneer/Alpine, Oakley/No Fear for the sporty folks, or even the generic powered-by-[name of automaker]. Sometimes, like in the photo below, the owner will put a bunch of stickers from various brands on the car like it's Formula1 or something. I love the combination - Bennigans???

Here in Colombia, Chinese, Korean, and even some Indian car makers are duking it out in the local car market. In an attempt at true aspirational branding, one Korean company, Ssangyong, even goes so far as to put "Powered [or Licensed] By Mercedes Benz" on the back (right-hand lower corner) of their middle-class-aimed small SUVs:

Probably my favorite though is how I've seen a TON of Apple logos. You probably didn't even notice it on the window of the car above. Here's one on a Chevy Aveo at a local shopping center:

Who'd have ever thought that a funky little California computer company would one day replace No Fear and Oakley, also California companies, in the quest for cool?

It really makes me wonder what the next "it" brand will be. I could imagine one day in the future, the cool folks might have some sort of genetic-modification or implantable-device hologram logo on their driverless cars...

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Day Trip To Tierra Caliente

When I was growing up in Philadelphia, during the summer people'd often say "it's not the heat, it's the humidity". It was/is in reference to the fact that Philadelphia tends to have very humid summers and that people "didn't mind the heat" as much as they minded sweating profusely and not being able to cool off. All I know is that it was f'n hot...and humid...and not pleasant especially during late summer.

Bogota's weather, on the other hand, is much more like southern California in that its Mediterranean climate is fairly consistent during the year. I looked up the weather history for the last calendar year and the overall, annual average temperature was about 57F (14C) with a range of around 66F (19C) in the day to 45F (7C) at night. The daily average temperature really doesn't vary much (maybe 3F) but I can't count the number of times that someone's said something along the lines of "today's colder than yesterday" to me. It's Bogota's weather-expression equivalent to Philadelphia's "it's not the heat...". I laugh every time I hear it as it feels the same to me every day since the only difference is whether it's sunny out or not.

Even though Colombia's in the tropics, Bogota's high elevation (~8,600 feet above sea level) makes the weather pleasant and non-humid most of the time, even after a rain. The rest of Colombia, on the other hand, tends to be much lower in elevation and, for the most part, fairly tropical. People in Bogota call every area that's not at high elevation, and therefore warmer and more humid, "la tierra caliente" (the hot lands). The hot lands are surprisingly close to the city; it's possible to drive there, down some pretty dramatic hills, in about an hour or so.

This past week, Diana's best friend from when she was growing up, Angelica, invited us to go visit her in-laws for the day at their second home in tierra caliente west of Bogota. Her in-laws needed Diana's architectural advice for some work they're considering. How could we say no?

Their place is in a village about a two-and-a-half-hour drive from where we're living. Along the way, we stopped at the Salto de Tequendama (Tequendama Falls), which is a 433-foot-tall ** (132m) waterfall on the Bogota River:

The area is especially amazing when you realize that it's like a 15-minute drive from the creeping edge of Bogota. If you look closely at the photo above, you'll see an old hotel on the right cliff that was once pretty posh but is now abandoned. Supposedly it's haunted by the souls of the folks who chose to take the big leap at Tequendama. There are a couple (of other) bummers at the site including a smoke stack at a business located near the falls that's dumping out what looks (and smells) to be pretty toxic smoke. Add to that the unnatural foaminess of the Bogota River, which is claimed to be one of the most polluted rivers in the world. Other than the seemingly sketchy environmental oversight, it's a lovely place and well worth a visit.

About ten minutes farther on our journey, we stopped at the side of the road to look out over some of tierra caliente stretched out below:

In a way, the trip down the mountain reminded me of the Big Island of Hawaii where you can go from sea level up to the top of the volcano, which is at about 13,800 feet (4,200m). You go from tropical at the bottom to sometimes seeing (quite a bit) of snow at the top. Going from Bogota down isn't as dramatic but I love watching the foliage change on to tropical on the way. Some Colombian banana plants in our hosts' tierra caliente "garden":

The temperature and humidity difference between when we left the city and when we arrived at their house, which is at around 2,000 feet, was staggering. My guess is that it was in the high-80s (~32C) and quite a bit more humid. I fully understand why the lowlands are called caliente!

A jumbo-sized mango tree with about 1,000,000 mangoes that we passed while on a walk around the area. And, yes, that's a (ill-fitting) sombrero that I'm wearing. Angelica's father-in-law bought it during a trip to Chichen Itza in Mexico. (Side note: I should write one day about where I used to live in Mexico. Maybe when I run out of stuff to write about...)

I firmly believe that I'm meant to live in the tropics, especially where coffee grows. I love the weather. I love the plants. The down side (if it is one) is the desire to take a nap around 2pm every day. Some wild flowering orchids (!!!) that I found:

I recently wrote about some of the foods in Colombia. We weren't disappointed at the feast that Angelica's parents put together for us. The sancocho soup has corn and yucca from their garden, beef, and potatoes. On the left is some rice, gallo (rooster) leg, and an avocado also grown in the garden. The little container at the top is "aji" (ah-hee), which is a lightly-spicy Colombian salsa. Oh, and all of this was just my serving! Amazing. Amazing. Amazing.

Like I said, the problem, especially after a meal like that one, is the overwhelming desire to nap. How's this for my view from the hammock where I enjoyed a bit of a siesta?

A big-ole' hug to Angelica and her husband Hernando, their youngest, and his mom and dad for having us out for the day. I love, love, love tierra caliente and your homemade (and homegrown) food was wowsie! Let's do it again soon - at your place! :-)

** Note: Tequendama's height depends on where you check. I went with wikipedia's number although I've seen the height (drop?) at up-to 515 feet.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Depends On Your Perspective

The neighborhood where we lived in Barcelona, Poble Sec, was amazing. We had everything a person could need within a block or two (at most) and many of the businesses were open until very late. In addition, the whole world lived there. You can stand in front of our old place and, in about 15 minutes or so, hear probably half the languages spoken. Seriously. The downside was that it was busy, really busy, and noisy, all the time. But, to tell you the truth, I can probably count on one hand the number of times that I couldn't sleep or was awoken by noise. My guess is that I just had built up some kind of tolerance.

I can remember being awoken a few times by noise in Stuttgart though. Even though the neighborhood we lived in, Vaihingen, was basically deserted during both the day and night, it wasn't the people (or cars or trains for that matter) that woke us up. It was the damn birds that hung out in the tree outside our window each morning to welcome daylight. Yes, I could sleep through a couple of million people squeezed into a tiny square next to the Mediterranean but I couldn't handle birds.

So now we're in Bogota. And, this time? First, since you can read about the other places we were living in the blog archives, a little background is probably good so that you can have an idea about our current neighborhood.

Diana and her family used to live in another area of Bogota called Kennedy (yes, after JFK) but her parents bought a lot in the northern end of the city in Prado Veraniego a little more than 30 years ago and built a house. The neighborhood grew up around them and is basically now heavily commercial (mainly retail). It's not a bad area though. Mostly it's small, independent, and/or family owned businesses with many of the owners living above the store fronts. It's a mix of mostly car-repair and car-parts shops but there are also a bunch of "neighborhoody" shops like restaurants, bakeries, butchers, salons, etc. Much like Poble Sec, almost everything a person could need is within a couple of blocks

It really comes alive between 7:30 and 8:00 am each morning. This was taken about 3:00 pm on the street that runs in front of their house. In it, you can see a bunch of cars on the street, the businesses open, employees in the streets, a food cart on the corner (look below the no-parking sign to the rear of the red car), and cars being worked on.

The neighborhood is definitely not as quiet as Vaihingen but there's more to offer within a two-or-three minute walk. What's most amazing to me is what happens around 6:30 pm each night. The whole neighborhood shuts down. The cars and people disappear, the metal shop doors are lowered, everything goes silent.

For what it's worth, Prado's much more like Poble Sec during the day and Vaihingen at night. So, what's the problem? Occasionally, during the night, I've been woken up by someone walking through the neighborhood blowing a whistle. Not whistling. Using a whistle like a sports coach would use. A handful of nights went by and I was getting frustrated. One day when I finally remembered, I asked Diana's dad if he knew what was up with the whistle person making noise all night. He looked at me with even more confusion than he normally does with my not-so-good Spanish and asked "what noise?". I tried again and this time he got it. "That's not noise. That's the neighborhood association's security guard. We have him whistle so we know he's there."

Doh! My noise is his sense of security. Learning something new every day.

Monday, January 14, 2013

What's Colombian Food Like?

In April 2012, Facebook bought a company called Instagram for about a BILLION dollars. If you're not familiar with Instagram (I'm guessing you'll at least know Facebook), it's basically a software company that gives away a program that people use on their smartphones to take photos (lots of times of food). It's most popular feature is the ability to modify the photos by making them look old.

Berat, our roommate in Germany, doesn't use Instagram but he does take lots of food photos. His goal is to one day write a recipe book and include the photos that he's taken. Oh, and the food that he cooks is, ummm, pretty awesome. He makes the best authentic Thai food, for example, that I've ever tasted in my life.

When I got to Colombia last month, I started taking photos (not with Instagram) of the traditional Colombian food I was eating so I could share them with Berat. At first, I was sending them via Whatsapp, but I ended up with so many that I thought I'd share them here. This post has eleven food photos (well, maybe ten-and-a-half) in no real particular order and I already have more so I'm guessing that this will be part one. Bon provecho! Guten appetit! Bon profit! いただきます!

I, of course, had to start this with my absolute favorite, the Bandeja Paisa, which I've written about before. It comes from the coffee region of Colombia and it's an evil combination of meats, beans, egg, rice, avocado, and arepas:

This was lunch one day. Chicharrone (fried pork ribs including all that fatty goodness and pig skin), fried plantains (a not-so-sweet banana), fried potatoes, white rice, and some beans. Don't worry, I made it healthier by not eating the rice...    :-)

Tamales are often eaten for breakfast in Latin America. This Colombian version is made from corn or rice meal, chicken and/or pork, onions, peas, chick peas, spices, and it's wrapped and steamed in a banana leaf: Oh, and don't do what I tried to do the first time I ate a tamale in Mexico - don't (try to) eat the wrapper!

One morning, to my surprise, my breakfast had a sliced-off cow's foot! Mute (moo-tay) comes originally from the Santander state but this version is from Cundinamarca (home to Bogota) and is made from cow's foot, hominy corn, and spices. I was confused but learned that you cut the gelatinous meat from between the bones and eat the "meat" with the soup. At first, I wasn't crazy about the meat until I cut it from the bone and had it with some soup and corn at the same time on the spoon. Then, love!

In the photo below, the soup is called Mondongo and that's Diana's mom. Mondongo is popular all over Latin America with the Colombian version made from chicken, potatoes, chopped tripe (a part of a cow's stomach), and spices. I'm not crazy about organ meat so this one's not one of my favorites. Oh, she's eating fried fish and we were at a local restaurant called Cocina Colombiana.

Diana's parents come from Chiquinquira, which is a ranching/farming area north of Bogota. I think that a lot of the food that her mom makes comes from the farm. It may or may not be typical of the whole of Colombia (I'm assuming it's not) but it is damn good! Many of these photos are of food that she made. Jealous?

This one's called Entero and it's another soup/stew this time with a roast-beef-type of meat, corn, platano, and potato.

Every Saturday morning, Diana and her mom go to a church service on the other side of town. Afterwards, they stop at one of the nearby cafes and get some snacks before heading back. One of their favorites are fresh Arepas, which are kinda' like super-dense-pancake-like breakfast food that are made from either corn or white flour and grilled. The day I went with them, we chose cheese-filled arepas, which were like buttah! On a side note, arepas are also eaten in the Canary Islands.

Diana's mom sometimes makes this rice with raisins and cola. It's has an unusual, but delicious, flavor that I've never had before. On New Year's Eve, we had pernil de cerdo (pig leg), potato salad with peas, a fruit salad, and her cola rice:

During our visit to the Lago de Tota, most of the family had some sort of fish for lunch. This fish is called Trucha (Trout in English) and it was served with salsa and cheese. The long yellow flat item at the top of the plate is a fried plantain.

This last one, called Lechona, is one of Diana's dad's favorites and comes from the Tolima state in central Colombia. Think of a lechona as a (American) football filled with pork, rice, peas, and spices. The outside is entirely pig skin, which is stuffed, sewn shut, and baked in a large brick oven. It's an evil, and of course, delicious meal. Oh, and yes, that thing sticking out of the top isn't telling you the turkey's done. Nope, it's the pig's tail!

One of my favorite things to do when traveling is visiting local markets. I find that I learn so much about a place from the visits. Everything from how people behave in the aisles to what foods are available are all of interest to me. The big local supermarket that we've been going to in Bogota to buy food and wine is called Exito. I think it was a couple of days after Christmas that I spotted this guy for sale in the frozen-food section. Yep, that's an entire frozen piglet for sale! I wonder what Berat and/or Diana's mom could create from this!

I hope you enjoyed my non-Instagram photo tour of some of Colombia's trad foods. Stay tuned, it shouldn't be long before I have part two up!

Friday, January 11, 2013

Family Road Trip (Lago de Tota)

On the Sunday before New Year's Day, we loaded two cars full of family, including two dogs, and drove three-plus hours to the Lago de Tota:

The Lago de Tota (Tota Lake) is a large (20-plus square miles), natural lake about 120 miles (~200 km) north of Bogota. It's supposedly "the second largest navigable lake in South America after Lake Titicaca" in Peru, which I visited just about three years ago, as well as "the largest freshwater lake in Colombia". Side note: why is it that every tourist attraction is the "largest X" or the "most famous Y" in the world? Anyway, like Lake Titicaca, Tota is at very high altitude, just a hair under 10,000 feet (9,892 if you're wondering)!

Getting to the lake is, let's say, somewhat challenging. Not only do you have to fight the normally, let's say, aggressive drivers on the way (if you've driven in Latin America, you already know), but you need to know what random turns to make in a couple of small villages to follow the route. The final part of the trip involves climbing (in the car) a mountain where the day we went there was some sort of organized bicycle ride with hundreds of riders crowding the sometimes single lane road. Once we passed the riders, the road changes from paved to dirt/gravel and then changes back and then changes again. It's certainly "interesting" driving.

The lake is not nearly as awesome as Lake Titicaca with its Uros man-made floating islands, but its sandy beach is a great place to hang out and barbecue or picnic. The weather was somewhat cool but because of being in the tropics, the sun is, as always, blazing hot. I took the chance to finally get some sun on my Pillsbury-Dough-Boy-colored corpse, especially since my skin hasn't seen the sun since before we moved to Germany last year). I left my shirt off for less than 25 minutes, which was enough to be tomato red that night and loose a layer of skin over the next week or so.

Getting a photo of Diana's entire family is like trying to get a school of fish to all face forward at the same time. So, in spite of this challenge, we managed to get almost everyone in attendance to be in a photo. From left, Diana's dad, sister-in-law, nephew, niece, brother, sister, mom, niece, brother, and that white flash in the right-hand corner is me (I believe that Diana took this photo):

Against my better judgement, I agreed to go with about half the group on a boat ride around the lake. I'm not afraid of boats or anything but every time I'm on one (like this time, for example), I wish I was somewhere else. Add to that, the air temperature is probably 60F (15C) and the water's even colder. In other words, I froze my ass off!

After our boat tour, we ate lunch at the seafood restaurant that's on the beach. The location and the fish were good, the service less so. Thanks to Diana's brother for picking up the tab!

"Self portrait" as the food was arriving:

After lunch we loaded up again and started the trip back towards Bogota stopping near the little town of Paipa to check out the unusual but awesome war memorial there:

During the war of Colombian independence, a battle took place in the Pantano de Vargas (Vargas Swamp - seriously!). The battle wasn't going too great for Bolivar's men but an opportunistic charge by a lancer division changed the course in favor of the revolutionaries. The memorial shows the lancers, some of which were naked, on horseback charging the enemy. Why naked? Oh, it was raining cats and dogs that day apparently and not having clothing gave the lancers an advantage over the heavily uniformed British forces, which to this day is credited for part of their success. Who says success can't be obtained while naked?

Another family shot at the Monumento de los Lanceros del Pantano de Vargas. Diana's brother, niece, me, nephew, brother, sister-in-law, and niece:

Our final stop of the day was in the small colonial town of Raquira. Raquira means "city of pots" in the native Muisca language of the area. It's especially known for its pottery, baskets, other handicrafts, and as a cool town to check out.

I've been there a couple of times already because it's only about 15 minutes away from Chiquinquira, where Diana's folks have their farm. We ate dinner at a traditional-Colombian-food restaurant on the main plaza, which was still decorated with Christmas lights:

The family outing was fun and there weren't even any spats (that I saw or heard). We arrived home about 15 hours after we left and I was relieved to not be driving anymore. Total driving time for the day was something like eight of those hours, which was just way too much "Colombian driving" to take. On the other hand, it was a great chance to hang out with a bunch of Diana's family for the day, which made all the driving worth while. Now, to go put some more aloe on my pink skin!

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Bogota's Disco Taxi

Taxis are relatively cheap in Bogota, costing somewhere between $4 and maybe $7 U.S. depending on how far (more to cross the city). Contrast that with the bus, for example, which costs like $0.75 U.S. per person and you can see that it's a bit more expensive to take a taxi.

Even though taxis are convenient, they have a couple of drawbacks. For one, the Transmillenio buses have their own lanes, which allow them to cruise past Bogota's massive parking lot (a.k.a. traffic). Also, I (sometimes) feel safer taking the bus because taxi drivers tend to drive like the car's on fire and they need to drop us off before they can put it out. The reality, though, is that most taxi rides here are at most, "exciting", and normally, uneventful.

Although Diana and I usually try to take mass transit or walk pretty much everywhere we go, one night last week we decided to take a taxi back to the house from the local shopping mall. What we didn't know was that we had entered The Twilight Zone Bogota's disco taxi:

The taxi driver had blue LED lights throughout the car that were synchronized with the (loud) music he was playing. It reminded me of that TV show Cash Cab because, getting in, what you encountered was not what you expected. Our entire trip lasted two or maybe three songs during which I took a bunch of really dark and blurry photos before trying video:

It's definitely not Cash Cab (we didn't win any money), but Bogota's disco taxi was certainly an experience. If you're in Bogota, maybe you'll be "fortunate" enough to experience it too. Just look for the flashing lights and/or listen for the bumpin' music...