Friday, March 22, 2013

Lightning Bugs!

Last weekend I went with Diana's mom up to the farm in Chiquinquira for a few days. Since Diana's over in Germany and Spain for a while taking care of some work stuff, it was a great opportunity for the two of us to get to know each other better (and especially not on a crowded bus during some trip to a doctor's appointment). We had a lot of chances to talk and I learned a lot about her and her history. It was fun!

During the days, there's lots to do around the farm but the highlight's always when everyone stops what they're doing and we go down to milk the cows. After my dad's visit, he mentioned to me one day how going to milk the cows was like something out of the 1800's since it involves a donkey pulling a cart and hand-milking. In fact, I know he's right because Diana's family has been doing this same basic process in the same place for well over 100 years.

After the sun sets and we've eaten dinner, there's not a lot to do. Diana's parents usually end up watching one of the two channels that they can get on the old television and Diana and I will read or just hang out. One of the things that I enjoy is looking at the stars because there's so little light pollution. Every time I look up, I'm amazed at how clearly I can see the milky way, stars, and even some planets. One night, after Diana's mom had gone to bed, I put on a warm jacket and went out to check out the stars. What I saw once I was outside surprised me and made me flash back to summers when I was growing up in Philadelphia.

Lightning bugs! Fireflies! What ever you call them - there were tons! I hadn't seen lightning bugs since I was a kid and had no idea that they were in other parts of the world. I spent the next probably 30 minutes chasing them around the farm trying to catch some. I can remember that we used to get a jar and fill it with our bounty but, this time, I'da been happy catching even just one! I'm not sure if it's because I'm old and can't see but it was waaaay harder to catch them at the farm. I'd like to think that it was because there is (almost) no ambient light making it very hard to see them while their lights were off. Yeah, that would be greaaaat!

After feeling embarrassed at my lack of lightning-bug-hunting skills, I went and grabbed my camera to take some photos. It would have to be easier than catching them, right? After all, there were hundreds blinking on and off. Well, let's just say that I wasn't much better taking photos of lightning bugs than I was at catching them. This photo shows three greenish glowing specs towards the left-side (and this was the best shot I got out of probably 200...):

Later, looking over the photos, it reminded me a lot of trying to take pictures of the river dolphins in Puerto Inirida, Colombia, a couple of years ago. In that case, instead of lots of photos of almost nothing but black, the photos were almost nothing but water. Fortunately, digital photos cost nothing to take and nothing to develop!

It wasn't until I sat down to write this story that I learned lighting bugs are a type of beetle and are found pretty much everywhere in the world where it's warm, humid, and there's water around. The light is their version of a Mercedes or a McMansion; it's used by the males to help them pick up chicks. Having lived in California, Mexico, Spain, Japan, and Germany and not having seen them in any of those places, I just kinda' figured that they were an east-coast United States thing. Wrong! Yep, still learning something new every day!

A not-so-clear photo showing a lighting bug up close:

What a blast! I couldn't believe that there were lightning bugs in Colombia! This country has everything (except a good marketing department, of course)! The next morning, I couldn't wait to tell Diana's mom all about it. She listened patiently like she always does but, at the same time, kinda' had that "are-you-crazy" look on her face. I totally understand but how could I resist being right back to when I was a kid running around the neighborhood on warm summer nights collecting bugs?

Saturday, March 16, 2013

Today's Office: 16 March 2013

Don't you hate when you're working and someone's staring over your shoulder?

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

On The Value Of Time

I haven't been writing as much on this trip to Colombia. Mostly it's due to just not having as many adventures to write about. It's not that we've been lazy (well, maybe sometimes) but rather that we've had to be available for Diana's parents and their medical needs. What the trip lacks in the adventure department has been made up for ten times over by good, old-fashioned, family time (including having my dad come visit last month), which I wouldn't trade.

When we were in Germany and talking about going to Bogota, the decision for me was very easy. Of course we should go. It almost wasn't even a question that needed to be asked. Back about four years ago or so, when my mom was sick with cancer, I watched in awe at how my dad took care of her through it all. He made sure that she got to all her appointments, that she had taken all her meds, and, towards the end, even hand fed and bathed her. It was hard for him much of the time but mostly because he never felt like he was doing a good enough job. He did. More than anyone could have asked. It was inspirational.

My dad took care of my mom almost to her last day. It was only when she needed to be put on a morphine drip for her pain that her 24-hour care had to be done for a day or two at a hospice. Later, while thinking back on everything that my dad did for my mom, I committed to myself that if and when my dad ever needed someone to care for him like he cared for her, I'd be there in a minute to do it. Whatever the cost. So, when the "opportunity" came up for us to help out Diana's folks, like I said, there wasn't even a second thought. We could always go back afterward and pick up where we left off.

One of the things that I've learned, over and over again, in the last few years has been that family, friends, and time are all we got. Everything else, and, by that, every thing is replaceable and not really that important. I've learned that I would trade, and in some ways have traded, the "stuff" for more time. More time to learn. More time for experiences. More time to grow. More time to spend with those I care about. I guess that's what's important.

Friday, March 1, 2013

What's For Breakfast? Colombian Drinking Chocolate

I've always been a fan of chocolate. Like, in a big way. Growing up, I can remember my mom making me (cold) chocolate milk or hot chocolate depending on the time of the year or what I was in the mood for. When I'm in Philadelphia, I often go over to my sister's house where she serves up a mean pre-bed chocolate milk for the kids.

Later, when I lived and traveled in Mexico, especially in Oaxaca, I always loved getting some hot chocolate along with my breakfast. What I especially enjoy is that they usually have cinnamon and spicy chili peppers mixed in. There's nothing like that old-fashioned-Mexican combination of dark chocolate, cinnamon, chili peppers, and raw sugar!

Even later, I found and fell in love with Churros and Chocolate in Spain and hot chocolate in France. In these cases, the drink has been refined and improved but there's still something to the simplicity of the Latin-American version.

Drawing of a traditional Mexican drinking-chocolate ceremony:

Colombia also has a tradition of drinking chocolate. As in Mexico, the chocolate is sold as a solid, as opposed to the syrup or powder that's commonly used in the United States. Four servings of Colombian drinking chocolate in bar form:

In lots of cases, like in Mexico, flavors such as cinnamon (or even vanilla) are added - but I haven't found a chili-pepper version yet even though the stores are loaded with different types. While Americans like Hershey's, Quik, or Swiss Miss, for Mexicans it's Ibarra (my favorite) or Abuelita and for Colombians it seems to be Corona. The drinking chocolate aisle at the local supermarket:

In the United States, we tend to like our drinking chocolate made with milk but in Colombia and Mexico it's almost always just hot water and chocolate. One section of chocolate is added for each cup of water and heated until the water just about boils. (For some reason, aluminum cookware, like the pot shown below, is all the rage in Colombia.)

At that point, the chocolate is almost completely melted and a Molinillo (mole-len-knee-oh) is placed between the palms and rapidly spun back and forth to stir and froth the mix. From what I understand, tradition has it that the chocolate is best served a bit foamy and the molinillo's design and the pre-boiling timing is key to achieving the right amount of foam. The molinillo in this photo is fairly simple but I've seen very complicated/ornate ones both here and in Mexico. I've also been led to believe (and may have witnessed) that molinillos make a great weapon...

I've always thought of both hot and cold chocolate as an anytime beverage. When I was in university, I'd buy two pretzels and a pint of chocolate milk for a mid-morning snack (oh, the days of eating unlimited carbs!). In Spain, hot chocolate, often served with churros, is an evening or even late-night, post-night-out-drinking snack. Here in Colombia, once again like in Mexico, it's definitely all about breakfast. Most days I opt for a bucket of coffee and some eggs but, every once in a while, especially when we're in Bogota and there are almojabonas (a slightly-cheesy-flavored corn-flower-based bun usually served for breakfast) or, if we're at the farm, arepas (cheese-filled corn-flower-based baked item - sense a theme here?).

Probably the most unusual thing is that Colombians will place a piece of cheese into their hot chocolate, drink the chocolate, and then eat the warm-and-softened cheese at the end like the gum in the bottom of a Screwball. Even though I'm not a fan, I'd never criticize it since I'm the same guy who'll eat avocado dusted with sugar (Hawaii, anyone?), put salt and chili pepper on a fruit salad (viva Mexico!), or eat wasabi on almost anything...

A simple, but very lovely Colombian breakfast spread:

Writing this story makes me want to have some hot chocolate for tomorrow morning's breakfast. I think I'll go "mention" in front of Diana's dad how much I looooooooove the almojabanas from that local bakery he goes to so that might get some in the morning. Hahahahahahahahahahha! So evil!