Sunday, June 15, 2014

Colombia Cartagena: Day 9

We left Cartagena yesterday. The hotel and streets were very quiet because the big game - Colombia's chance to shine in Mundial - started in the morning. All of the hotel staff were wearing bright yellow sports shirts with navy trim - the Colombian team colours. We saw the same yellow sports shirts on people everywhere, including a very cute toddler learning to walk in the airport lounge. 

Bogota is beautiful as you approach it from the air. The surrounding hills have a geography very similar to those we see flying over the more northern Rocky Mountains, except that in Colombia they are not snowy or rocky but amazingly green & lush. 

By the time we disembarked from our flight & found our gate in the international end of the terminal, we had very little time to kill. I find it interesting how the sense of language gets diluted so quickly! At the gate while waiting for our flight to Toronto, it was refreshing to hear a few pockets of English here & there after a full week of very intense Spanish. Once contained within the airplane, it seemed almost half the conversation was in English. And as soon as we disembarked at Toronto, the Spanish thinned out so quickly that within a half-hour it was a novelty to hear it nearby.

As it turned out, I had plenty of time to hang around the airport & listen to the Spanish peter out of the background noise. My suitcase did not arrive with me but it takes a long time to confirm that that is indeed the sad truth & it takes even longer to fill out all the paperwork to start the baggage trace.

At this point, we have another hour or so before landing in Calgary. It's been a successful assignment, although somewhat frustrating at times.  It would be helpful for me to a) learn to work efficiently with a translator; b) learn to work more effectively in a bilingual situation; or c) learn to speak & understand more Spanish.

Friday, June 13, 2014

Colombia Cartagena: Day 8

It was our last day of work here in Cartagena, and only a half-day at that. Many of the participants in our workshop have to travel to get to where they live so we wanted to wrap it up early enough to allow for travel time.

The workshops have been somewhat frustrating for me. For the most part I feel as if I'm sunk at the bottom of a hot pool of Spanish, totally immersed by (what sounds like) random words & phrases, several conversations at once, all spoken very, very fast. Occasionally I can pull a scrap of meaning out of it all but in general  I can't tell whether the impassioned debate is about the workshop at hand or whether it's an argument about who will win the Mundial.

But during the small group discussion about gender inclusion, one of the participants who has a bit of English-speaking ability invited me to sit with his group. He translated the gist of the conversation for me & translated back my occasional comments. It was a very interesting discussion. For the most part, it seems, women in Colombia enjoy a much stronger position in the community and even in the family. Of course, a certain amount of machismo is obvious but as Brian points out, that's only a thin veil over the fact that this is a matriarchal society. Or it may be a reaction to the fact that women hold most of the real power.

The man who invited me to join his discussion group pointed out another interesting example. He asked me if I had noticed the women selling fruit along the wall in the Old City & in the park squares. I told him yes, I had noticed them (in fact it's hard to NOT notice them). They are all very dark-skinned, obviously of African origin, & they all wear brightly coloured 'chiquita banana' style dresses. He explained that they are part of a distinct ethnic group called the Palenquera, who speak their own language & live in a community not far from Cartagena. The Palenqueras are descended from a group of African slaves who escaped & created this community in the 17th century. According to my friend, it's only the women who sell the fruit; the men do very little. Women create & manage the wealth. When a girl child is born, the family rejoices but when a boy child is born, the reaction is more subdued ("another boy, hm. What shall we do with him???")

While I don't think the gender roles in Palenquera are ideal, I appreciate encountering yet one more surprise in how things are done.

Tonight I will start packing. Our flight leaves Cartagena at 11:24 am & although I have thoroughly enjoyed exploring the Old City, I am ready to leave the heat & humidity for a while.

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Colombia Cartagena: Day 7

It's been another long & busy day. We started work at the same time & in the same classroom at SENA, but it seems the staff must have started that badly underpowered air conditioner hours earlier because the room was actually almost cool when we first arrived. Gradually our students trickled in & we spent the next 6 hours delivering workshops, drinking coffee, & sweating. This is not a pattern one could keep up indefinitely.

Fortunately, however, the Soccer World Cup started this afternoon & Brian decided that since nobody would be able to focus on pedagogical workshops under such conditions, class would be dismissed at 2 pm so people could get to where they needed to be to watch the game. By 1:35 the classroom was empty.

The World Cup is incredibly popular here. They call it the 'Mundial' - the word means 'worldwide' but it is understood that it refers to world cup soccer. The popularity (bordering on frenzy) of the Mundial makes our Stanley cup finals look like an entertainment afterthought. It seems every other man is wearing a Mundial-related garment. There are Mundial posters, souvenirs, trinkets, ads, marginally-related menu items, etc. everywhere. This morning, each table in our hotel restaurant was decorated (?) with a strange fake-gold Mundial piggy bank though I have no idea who would put money in, or why.

The streets were pretty quiet in the Old City where I went walking after class. Outside many of the tiendas (little shops), a handful of men stood on the street, clustered round a TV set & watching the game. Younger men sat on the city wall in groups of 2 & 3, huddled close together so as to share a smartphone display of the game. I walked past a blind man sitting on a park bench, listening to the game on an ancient transistor radio.

As it turned out, Brazil won the game today so everybody here was happy. Apparently Colombia didn't have a chance at this level of the games but they all cheer for the nearest Latin American team. We didn't have time to celebrate too much: still 2 workshops to go plus some certificates to get ready.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Colombia Cartagena: Day 6

From time to time at the college when people hear that I am going (or have been) abroad for an international project, they say things like, 'lucky you! How'd you arrange that?' in a tone of voice that suggests I am about to go (or have been) on holiday. I explain to them that the opportunity was advertised & that I applied for it & was accepted; a fairly simple process open to all. And I also try to make it clear that this was not a HOLIDAY, that most days on international assignments are WORKING days, not holidays.

Like today, for example. Our work day began with a breakfast meeting by 7:30, in the taxi by 8 am. We started our day at a SENA training facility inside the Old City. This facility was in an amazing building constructed in the 16th century. It started out as a private home, but was later occupied as a convent & operated as such for many years (there are still many religious icons all over the place), & later converted to a Catholic school. The school went bankrupt & SENA acquired the facility. They run a little hotel of 14 rooms on the top floor as a hospitality training facility. Most of the rest of the building has been converted to classrooms.

We occupied one of the classrooms for most of the day. It was a small room with barely enough space for the 25 desks jammed into it. People sat elbow to elbow & knee to knee for the entire day. The windows were shuttered against the sun but with 20-something bodies in there we generated our own heat. It would have been warm at sub-zero temperatures I think but the ambient air was well over 30 & the humidity was probably close to 70 or 80 percent. At some point, someone brought in a small portable air conditioner which worked hard all day: towards the end of the day the pail, set up to catch condensation, reached the overflowing point & had to be carted away before it flooded the floor. Two ceiling fans spun feverishly the whole time: one of them had worn a hole in the ceiling tiles & jiggled at least an inch either way with every rotation. I'm glad I didn't have to sit underneath it as I'm not at all sure my health insurance would cover that kind of death.

The air was incredibly stifling. It was bad enough for me, sitting in a desk at the front & handing out papers from time to time & forwarding the slides on the powerpoint presentations. It was much more difficult for my colleague Brian who did the active teaching all day, an athletic event even in cool weather. We were all wiped by the end of the day.

We wound down for only a short time, then had a working supper, then worked afterwards getting things ready for tomorrow. It's 11 pm now & I still have a few things to do.

Not my idea of a holiday but it sure makes life interesting. And tomorrow will be easier.

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Colombia Cartagena: Day 5

It was another very full day of work, pretty much all the way from our breakfast meeting at 7:30 until after 10 pm, when I finally finished a roughed-out draft of the certificate that we'll be presenting to our workshop participants. There's not a lot to tell - work is work after all.

The nature of business work may be similar wherever you go but not all business meetings are created alike. The Colombian-style meeting is almost nothing like its counterpart in Canada. Imagine yourself in a building more than 100 years old, in a large room with ceilings almost as high as the room is wide. Air conditioners are running full blast & a couple of fans push the air even harder. There is no carpeting so every sound echoes.  Most of the meeting participants arrive within an hour of each other but there are exceptions. The day starts with an extended period of greeting each other (hugs, kisses & handshakes at the beginning of each day), selecting a place at or near the meeting table (which is usually too small to accommodate everybody), and hunting down an outlet to plug in the laptop. Coffee arrives in a carafe. There's a lot of visiting and It's hard to tell when the conversation finally morphs into the meeting proper.  

The meeting style is amazing. Everyone talks at once & if you want to add something, interruption is the rule. From time to time participants may appear to be typing with concentration but in the middle of that they will interrupt the meeting conversation to offer their opinion or argue a point. Cell phone conversations compete with the conversation in the room: in the middle of debating a choice of grammar in the project plan, for example, a participant will check an incoming text on her cellphone, distracted only a fraction of a second before continuing to make her point. Phones ring, people respond (even if they are the main speaker/presenter at the time) & it's no problem; the other participants immediately fill the vacuum with conversation. People come & go, getting coffee, going outside for a few minutes, moving to the other end of the room to talk with somebody else. I have no idea how they manage so many auditory channels at once. Imagine the confusion when you add a second language to the mix: Canadians talking with Canadians, Canadians talking with Colombians, Colombians with each other, the translator adding her two-way input, others making corrections or additions to the translator's input.

Really: it's amazing that anything gets done but by the end of the day it seems as much work has been completed than would have been done if we had met Canadian-style, arriving all on time (more or less) & moving through the agenda in a linear style with hands raised to take our turns. 

Monday, June 9, 2014

Colombia Cartagena: Day 4

Today was a very solid day of work. Those of us in our College of the Rockies team started at 7 am with a breakfast meeting in the hotel cafe. By 8 am we were all in the Old City filing into the SENA building, filling little paper cups with coffee & scrambling to find outlets to charge our laptops, like a business meeting most anywhere in the world.

There's really not much else to say. We worked until 12:30, took a break for lunch, then worked until almost 5 pm. Fortunately it was a successful day, with a great deal of time on task & a sense of real progress made. If you have ever been involved in a massive challenging project with an (over?) abundance of intelligent, passionate people you will appreciate the nuances.

To celebrate, we all went to drink beer together in a patio cafe near la Torre del Reloj (Clock Tower) at the edge of the Old City. We toasted & took endless photos of each other with cameras & cell phones while the afternoon slipped away into night.

It is intensely satisfying to be moving forward on this! But it is already 10 pm & I still have some prep work to do before tomorrow so this will be a short blog post. Hasta manana!

Sunday, June 8, 2014

Colombia Cartagena: Day 3

It was a hot sticky day with a bit of work.

We met up with our technical people, Hernan & Oseas, at breakfast & spent the morning catching up on their work & vision of how the project could continue. We talked on the rooftop patio until the heat became unbearable, at which point we decided to find a) a place where we could buy some cold beer, & b) something to eat with it. After lunch we were on our own so I set out to walk along the seawall & slowly trickle my way back through the Old City.

The seawall, exposed as it is to the wide open Caribbean, was beautiful but it's hard to beat the Old City for its richness of little snapshot events:
  • stepping in to view the beautiful old cathedral, watching a pigeon fly far above in the cuppola (does it have a nest in there??), a little feather fluttering down to the pews below
  • a young policeman, giving directions to a couple of tourists. Immediately after they leave he pulls a brush out of nowhere & shines his shoes
  • the wall surrounding the Old City has regularly-placed openings where sentinels once watched the harbour. Now they are places for young lovers to sit or stretch out together & neck
  • a taxi driver, pulling up slowly behind a sidewalk coffee vendor, leans towards the passenger window. He stretches his hand out with thumb and forefinger held about 5 cm apart, the sign to order an expresso, 500 pesos (about 30 cents).
But I think the holiday is over! We had a working supper with one of our project coordinators & tomorrow, early, we will begin the main part of the job we came for. I am hoping for a successful start to the work & an air-conditioned meeting room most of all.

Saturday, June 7, 2014

Colombia Cartagena: Day 2

Today was a True Holiday. With no formal meetings scheduled until tomorrow, the three of us in our little Canadian contingent spent the day like tourists. Left to our own devices, we each followed our own schedule until later in the morning, when we got together & arranged for a proper sightseeing trip with a taxi driver recommended by the hotel clerk. It was a good idea. We saw many historic locations & although I couldn't understand much of the Spanish, I was able to make out that the city is OLD. Many of the fortifications, churches, & other establishments pivotal to a colonizing population were built in the 1600's.

We spent some time wandering fascinated and lost inside the Old City. It is a magical place, enclosed in 9 km of walls, full of tiny shops strung together along narrow streets. The streets crisscross each other in an eclectic grid but they change their names with every block. We were looking for a couple of restaurants, possible dinner choices recommended by the hotel, but found it almost impossible to find an address. In the end we settled into a crepe restaurant & enjoyed another fantastic meal.

The food really is amazing. A food critic would go crazy here. It seems that every restaurant serves prize-winning food in incredible presentations. While eating our dinner we watched the restaurant staff prepare desserts on the counter across from us. The desserts of the house were constructed on a base of gelati, storybook creations with gelati of many different flavours arranged in artistic colour combinations & garnished with all sorts of fruits and nuts.

And have I mentioned the coffee??? I am not a coffee affectionado -- I prefer Tim Horton's to even Starbucks for heaven's sake -- but it's as if the coffee here has an extra dimension to it. It's not that it's strong: it's ... deeper somehow.

Friday, June 6, 2014

Colombia Cartagena: Day 1

We landed in Cartagena at 5:30 this evening, tired and relieved to be here. We recuperated a bit with cold beer & hot food & now I am winding down in the hotel room, reflecting on all the little clues that remind you, even after only a few minutes in a tropical country, that you are not in Kansas any more. Or (in our case), not in Canada. There's the temperature clue, of course. Cranbrook was cool when I left, Southern Ontario even cooler these past few days, & our brief stopover in Bogota was chilly enough for me to keep my jacket on the whole time. But as soon as I emerged from the airplane doorway on the tarmac in Cartagena the heat settled down like a weight & suddenly my little jacket felt unbearably heavy. By the time I got to the end of the disembarking stairway I was damp with sweat.

And tropical countries - in developing nations anyway - just smell differently. The air is not only warmer but richer & more full with sensory information. It seems to take longer to breathe it. Pavement, car exhaust, fruit, street food, & countless unidentifiable odours all add their data to the mix. The language, too, socks in like a thick blanket. For the first few minutes it's all just noise but it doesn't take long for individual words to stand out & take meaning & a little later phrases emerge from the soup of chaos. If this visit is like others I know it will be several days at least before the environment starts to make any kind of sense.

There's the sudden-ness of sunset. When we arrived at the hotel it was still day, late afternoon. I went into my room to unpack for 15 minutes & when I returned outside it was night. Just like that! But the streets get livelier as the night gets darker, and by the time we all strolled out to the Old City looking for a bite of supper the place was hopping with people, music, waiters hawking restaurant food, vendors selling baskets, and horses drawing tourists in carriages.

Tomorrow we have a day off! We are going to explore the Old City some more & maybe hire a taxi to show us the sights. Cartagena is a UN World Heritage Site & it would be criminal to come all this way & not see what makes it so special.

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Colombia Bogota: Day 7

We just finished flying over a patch of the Caribbean & we are now looking down at (I am guessing) the shoreline of Mexico. Along the edge the water is shallow &  intensely turquoise. In 2 hours, if all goes well, we should be landing in Houston.

We were up early this morning because we had to catch the cab to the airport no later than 6 am. I can see that my colleagues are both sleeping right now & I’m drifting in & out of sleep myself. So tired! It’s been an intense week for me & the 2 colleagues I’m travelling with were in Bogota a week before me.

It’s surprising just how much mental loading is added by working in more than one language. It’s somewhat harder for me, I think, with such a limited working ability in Spanish: I have to listen so carefully in order to collect short phrases & words I understand & then put them together (often incorrectly) to create a cohesive sentence or statement. By then, of course, the conversation has galloped far beyond.

It seems to be far less difficult for someone like Xavier, a member of the CEGEP St. Laurent team whose ability with languages is a bit of a legend among his peers. He speaks 5 (or is it 6?) different languages, fluently. The story goes that he was being assigned to a project in Mozembique &  so wanted to understand Portguese. So he studied it for a couple of months, several hours a day & by the time they landed in the country he could speak it so well, he was able to translate for others who had been learning it much longer. I’m going to try to employ a few of his tips for learning a new language: always carry a little notebook which is indexed alphabetically (like an address book) & write down any new words you learn. Carry a standard phrase book too & highlight words you think will be handy. And most important: read ALOUD in the target language. Read aloud a lot. As long as you have the pronunciation more or less right you will learn it a lot better from hearing it, even from yourself.

So now I am almost dozing in my seat on the airplane, listening to the mix of Spanish & English conversation going on around me, & thinking about when I might see Colombia again - hopefully with better Spanish.

Friday, February 21, 2014

Colombia Bogota: Day 6

To tell the truth it's hard to find things to write about this trip. We have been spending pretty much all day, every day (& sometimes the evening too) in meeting rooms struggling over Excel spreadsheets, PowerPoints, & big complex tables. Marking up pieces of paper, scrapping them halfway through, & starting again on another draft of the same document. Really, except for the intense racket of working in 3 languages, we could be anywhere.

And it's hard to make the work itself sound exciting. Curriculum development, project work has its own drama, intrigue & suspense but unless you're part of it, such aspects are difficult to convey. This project has been full of shifts in direction, new & revised data, backtracking & jumping forward, a bit of a Snakes & Ladders game. But here we are at the end of the inception mission & we do have a plan for the first year of the project & we do have a really solid relationship with our Colombian partners so in many ways it has been a success.

To celebrate, we went out for dinner with our counterparts from CEGEP St. Laurent. All 8 of us ended up at a restaurant called Andres DC. I have never seen anything like it. It is actually like a 3-storey department store except each & every department is a restaurant speciality. The menu alone is 66 pages long! We took our time ordering (what else can you do with a menu that's bigger than many mail order catalogues), drank beer, & watched a troop of Colombian dancers perform in an open space beside our table.

An extra bonus for me was being able to walk to & from the restaurant, about 2 km each way. We will be sitting all day tomorrow on flights so the walk is appreciated.

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Columbia Bogota: Day 5

After days of presentations, tours, lectures, etc. today was the day that we were finally able to knuckle down & get some work done towards our project implementation plan. Completing the project implementation plan is one of the main reasons why we're here in Colombia so getting down to work was very satisfying. Nevertheless, it was still a day somewhat like going to the dentist: you know you will feel better when it's done but it's still painful to undergo the process. It's the sort of day that reminds you why you are getting paid to do this, or at least having your expenses covered.

It is very hard to work on a complex process, completing a detailed document, in a team with a language barrier. Our little group of 7 included 4 Canadians (2 with good Spanish, 1 with so-so Spanish ability, & one neophyte - me), & 3 Colombians (whose English was about as bad as my Spanish). Unfortunately, this handicap means that the 2 linguistically-stronger members of our team get stuck with translating duties. So they are trying to listen to the rapid, sometimes-emotional discussion with one side of their brains, & trying to translate out of the other. It is equally difficult for those of us with monolinguistic ability: trying to mentally translate words & phrases while the conversation speeds past us. It becomes a treat to converse in just plain English.

Not much else to report. After we wrapped up our work on the implementation plan we had 45 minutes to kill before heading out for dinner so I went on a short walk, just straight down the street from the hotel. I walked one way (south?) for 15 minutes, & then 15 minutes back. It's amazing: Bogota is a big, busy city like just about any other big, busy city. I could have been in Vancouver or Toronto except for one storefront business identified as (something like) "Buscar a las Personas Desaparecidas" (search for disappeared persons). The half-century of violence is never far from the collective memory here.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Columbia, Bogota: Day 4

Today was a very solid working day. We had hoped we would get some time to work in our project groups, get some planning accomplished & some thoughts down on paper, but it didn't work out that way. Compassionately, I will spare you the blow-by-blow story of meetings & powerpoints & discussion of point-by-point complex tables.

So instead I will give you a step by step guide about how to visit the Canadian embassy, which is what we did in the afternoon. Now, it is quite likely that Canadian embassies are not exactly the same the world over so the knowledge I am sharing with you here may not be generally transferable. But if ever you find yourself in Bogota, with some reason or requirement to visit the embassy, you will be ready!

Here are the steps:

  1. Make an appointment. The embassy is not a casual drop-in sort of visit.
  2. Dress up. Most of the women in our group changed into a dress & changed casual shoes to heels. Most of the men wore a suit jacket, & several wore ties as well.
  3. Bring your passport! This cannot be stressed enough, it seems. We were each warned at least half a dozen times about this & amazingly we all succeeded in bringing it along the first time ;-)
  4. Once you arrive at the embassy you must hand your passport over to the fellows at the front desk. Once they have gathered all the passports of those in your group, you will be led to wait a little while they .... ? Probably look up your name in some big secure database.
  5. If your name is not redlined in the big secure database, after 5 minutes or so you will be called up to the counter. You will be required to look into a webcam 'orbit' still camera before you are handed back your passport along with a visitor's card on a lanyard.
  6. Once you have all been fitted out in this way, you will be led to the other side of the entrance area where your purse will be opened & checked. You are also checked for cameras & less friendly technology. You are told to turn your cell phone off.
  7. Now you are ready to pass through the turnstiles. Each person had to be told (but not you, dear reader, because now you know!) that you need to wave your visitor's card in front of a little sensor in front of the turnstile. That will make the little access light turn green & allow you in.
  8. Next you are guided to an elevator by a security guard, smiling in a friendly way all the time; nevertheless, he doesn't leave you out of his sight until he sees the elevator doors close.
  9. On your designated floor you get out & are met my someone from the embassy at a locked glass door (bullet proof glass?)
  10. She lets you in & leads you down to a meeting room where you are seated & served tea or coffee. In case you ever need to know: cafe con leche = coffee with (hot) milk; cafe tinto = black coffee; te = tea, & tea aromatica = herbal tea.  I recommend the coffee: Colombian coffee is truly the best I have had anywhere in the world.
  11. Be ready for an interesting & informative conversation. At this point in our meeting schedule we were half-expecting another powerpoint showcasing the superlative work of the Canadian embassy in Colombia but instead the 2 aides showed an impressive familiarity with our project plans & goals & offered some really useful advice for moving forward & locating additional future (& present) partners.
  12. Leave the embassy  absolutely no later than 5 pm. Leave at least 15 minutes earlier if you can. We pushed the meeting a bit past 5 (feeling badly about that now) & were tied up in rush hour traffic for almost an hour.
That's about it! I kind of wished there had a been a souvenir; that we'd got to keep some part of the vistor's badge (they were of course all collected & carefully counted - twice - before we left the room) or some sticker or a ballpoint pen... I did get the embassy aid's business card though.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Colombia Bogota: Day 3

Today was spent almost entirely in & around Sogamosa. Sogamosa is an interesting little city -- & not so little, either: Wikipedia says it has a population of over 100,000. Wikipedia also says that Sogamosa has great archeological significance since it was the location of a very important Temple of the Sun.

We were able to verify this just across the street from the hotel. While waiting for our bus this morning several of us decided to take a quick look at the plaza. As it turns out, the focal point of the plaza is a huge, dramatic sculpture of 4 naked women in various poses of prayer or supplication, all facing a large, elevated representation of the sun in highly iconic form. It was an interesting sculpture but perhaps the most interesting aspect was its position directly & immediately across the street from the cathedral. It is an interesting juxtaposition: surely this positioning, this contrast between "pagan" & Christian, was not designed by accident.

Another interesting contrast presented itself as the morning continued. A small group of our Canadian colleagues walked back from the plaza among beautiful palm trees, their fronds curving upwards like fireworks, children playing, the air cool & pleasant. One of our group commented that it seemed so nice: "maybe we should just stay in Sogamosa". Later, on the bus, one of our Colombian colleagues explained to us how Sogamosa was in a valley in a heavily industrialized location in Colombia & that is why it has the second most polluted air in all of Latin America (only Mexico City's air is worse).

We left Sogamosa through very twisty and narrow streets. Several times the fit was so tight that we could have easily touched buildings on either side of the bus had the windows been open. One street turn required that our driver perform a 20-point turn to make the 90-degree change in direction.

We spent the rest of the day touring the mine training centre operated by SENA, our partner organization. It is an incredible training centre - complete with a functioning mine for training purposes. But I have run out of time & energy for tonight. Another early start tomorrow, back in Bogota.

Monday, February 17, 2014

Colombia Bogota: Day 2

Today, the plan was for us to have meetings in the morning & then leave just after noon for an overnight field trip. We did indeed have meetings all morning -- a series of presentations by our Colombian host organization actually -- but for one reason or another they took longer than expected & it was after 4 pm before we finally got away. We all climbed aboard a bus & headed out of the city towards Sogamosa.

Sogamosa is along highway 55, about a 4 hour drive northeast from Bogota. The drive is a pleasant one not only because highway 55 is a relatively well-maintained throughfare but because the scenery is beautiful. For most of the trip we were winding our way between the Andes which are very high in this area & green all the way to the tops. They do not present such a solid wall of rock as the Rockies do: you could almost believe you were travelling through a series of large hills if you didn’t know you were at nearly 10,000 ft.

This being the tropics, night arrived shortly after 6 pm so the scenery was less obvious. We stopped somewhere on an extreme downhill grade where some little roadside cantinas were serving food. Apparently this is something of a tradition & I can see why the tradition is popular. The speciality is a pastry called arepas: small balls of dough (corn dough? doesn’t quite taste like wheat) stuffed with fresh cheese, patted down to the size & thickness of a hamburger, & gently fried on a grill. Tan deliciosa! They also serve big wedges of fresh cheese along with a sort of soup which looks like consomme but tastes more like a diluted fruit juice, mildly sweet. I had an arepa & tasted somebody else’s fresh cheese & soup.

We got into Sogamosa later than expected, almost 9 pm. By the time we found an open restaurant & got a bite to eat, it was already past my bedtime. Tomorrow is another early start.

Sunday, February 16, 2014

Colombia Bogota: Day 1

I'm sitting in my hotel room in Bogota. It is a nice room: small, clean, efficient, and modern. In spite of its attractions I am firmly facing the wall, trying to ignore the beautiful soft bed behind me. I really want to write something - just a little bit - but the bed is difficult to ignore. With less than 4 hours of sleep last night, a full day of travelling followed (almost immediately) by a 2-hour meeting & a delayed supper, I AM TIRED.

Bogota is a big city. From the air, it seems to completely fill a broad plain among the Andes in northwest Colombia, and at 2625 meters you can feel the altitude. We are almost on the equator here but the day's temperature seldom goes much beyond 20 & at night it can dip into the single digits. We had a rainshower, short & sharp while driving from the airport to the hotel, but tonight the sky is almost clear & the air is fresh. Like Canada in early fall.

Our 2-hour meeting was pretty intense. The 3 colleges who will be working in this area met with the ACCC (coordinating group) reps and we discussed project planning. Our 3 projects have considerable overlap in their goals and timings so we must work together from the beginning. The information available is very, very plentiful but it is not yet coordinated into something that fits into a cohesive plan. That cohesion will come! For me, the meeting was complicated a bit by the fact that conversation was conducted in 3 languages & sometimes it was hard to tell when the group had switched from one language to another.

Ok, I think I am going to give in to that bed now...

Colombia Bogota: Day 0

This last 24 hours has been a day of airports: Cranbrook, Calgary and Toronto. A brief sojourn in Toronto (but without leaving airport culture) at the Delta Airport Hotel. Now I am back at Pearson airport where I have almost 3 hours to kill.

Good thing I enjoy airports so much & (this may sound crazy) Pearson International is one of my favourites. It’s big, it’s global, and (compared to Cranbrook anyway) it’s kind of Canadian leading edge. New styles, colours, architecture. iPads at every seat in my part of the waiting area (...and yes, I realize that not everybody sees this as a step forward ;-) Unfamiliar new products & technology.

But a lot of the global feel comes from the marvellous mix of languages, & the way language is used. Walking past welcome manikins in - how many? 10? different languages. Standing in the queue for airport security, overhearing a mother scold her child in Korean while the man beside me talks into his bluetooth headpiece in Spanish “Escuchame, no quiero nada, entiendas...” An Estee Lauder poster ad, in English & Chinese (why those 2?), promoting the incredible benefits of their facial night serum. And it promises in fine print at the bottom “Effective for all ethnicities”. More accurate, I suppose, to admit only that it is equally effective for all ethnicities. And I love hearing all the announcements & warnings in both official languages although I realize that is very un-British Columbian of me.

We should be boarding the flight for Bogota any minute now. I think I can see my colleague-to-be, Anthony, in the crowd on the other side of the gate.

Friday, February 14, 2014

Pre-Colombian travel time

Of course I meant to get in here earlier, air the place out and generally re-acquaint myself with this blog. But here I am: with less than a day before take-off and I am only just re-discovering how to add a new post.

Another trip! This time our project is centred in Bogotà, Colombia, where we will be working with the organization SENA (Servicio Nacional de Aprendizaje = Colombia's National Training Service) on a project to develop training for artisanal gold miners. For the uninitiated, 'artisanal' miners are individuals, families and small groups who conduct very small-scale mining efforts. Many artisanal gold mining activities are marginally or downright illegal and for good reason since they can involve extensive use of mercury and other toxic chemicals, dangerous to human health and destructive to the environment. Not surprisingly, the Colombian government wants to change this. Artisanal gold mining can be done more safely without compromising productivity so that will be the focus of training. We Canadians won't be doing any direct training in the field -- that will be done by SENA trainers whose presence is not nearly so politically charged in sometimes-contested mining areas as that of Canadian nationals. We will be working at arms' length to train-the-trainers in learner analysis and curriculum development skills.

This trip marks the very beginning of the project: the 'inception mission' in which we meet our partners, sort out project details, and come up with a Project Implementation Plan. I have never been on an inception mission before so it will be different, attending meetings rather than delivering workshops all day and frantically developing or revising them every night in preparation for the following day's work.

Can you tell I'm excited??! Sure wish my Spanish was better...

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Tanzania 2011, Day 10

I'm writing this from Zurich airport, where I have a 7 hour layover. But they do not even publish the flight gates until 90 minutes before takeoff times so we are left to wander around in the rather large shopping are. Once you have browsed the endless expensive duty-free shops, there's not much else to do. At least it gives me the time & the impetus to write.

Yesterday (was it only yesterday?) was indeed a long day. We left Arusha by 7 & started driving for Dar es Salaam. Kanuth predicted about 8 hours for the trip & most of that was mercifully uneventful. We drove for a while alongside the base of Kilamanjaro -- or at least we were assured that the mountain truly was there even though camouflaged deeply in cloud. We drove east for an hour or so & then turned south, through country more lush than we had grown accustomed to in Dodoma or on the Maasai steppe. We drove through many communities, large & small, past thousands of schoolchildren, women carrying water on their heads, stalls of potato sellers, chickens, cows, goats, & sisal plantations. We stopped for gas (10 minutes), for a very quick lunch at a roadside place that caters to travellers, bus passengers etc. with a Tanzanian equivalent of take-out food (kuku choma & chips), & one more 10 minute stop to buy cashews. Other than that, all we did was drive. I think fatigue must have been catching up with me because I drifted in & out of sleep for most of the trip & my memory of people & places & landmarks is all mixed up with snippets of dreams.

Kanuth's travel time estimate would have been more or less correct if you count only the amount of time it takes to get to Dar's city limits. But once inside Dar, still 10 or 20 km (hard to tell exactly) from the city core, we slowed to a painful crawl. True, we were arriving at a bad time of day (3:30 or so, people starting to leave work) but Dar is always like this. There are very few traffic lights & movement seems to be maintained largely by roundabouts & very brave traffic cops who stand in the centre of the busiest intersections & control the flow. It is so much hotter in Dar, & very humid on top of that, so it was a real endurance test to sit, dripping sweat, breathing thick exhaust fumes, listening to horns honking, after a full day of getting there.

Eventually we got to the Southern Sun hotel & dropped Doug off. Then I hopped back into the car with Kanuth for the last stretch to the airport. Fortunately my flight wasn't scheduled to leave until 9:15 pm so it seemed we had lots of time. After all, it's only a couple of kilometers from the Southern Sun to the airport & we had made the trip in 15 minutes when we arrived last week. Sigh. Have you already heard enough about the reality of traffic in Dar??? Then I won't drag you through the excruciating details of the 2 hours that followed. By the time I entered the airport they were already doing the passport control for my flight. Wow, I reflected; Kanuth was wise to leave Arusha so early. Eight hours to travel the 600 or so km from Arusha to Dar: 4 hours to navigate 2 stops within the city itself. The mind boggles.

The rest was pretty uneventful, with one minor blip: just as we were all through security, waiting to board our flight, the power went out all across the airport. I suppose it was part of the country's electricity rationing program because it didn't seem entirely unexpected. Anyway, the entire airport went black for a minute or so & then the generators kicked in & we once more had (reduced) light. It delayed our flight by 25 minutes or so but otherwise, it was routine.

So here I sit in Zurich, far too tired & dopey to reflect much on the trip as a whole. We were in Tanzania for only 10 days with a work stint that seemed much too short. Maybe next time?

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Tanzania 2011, Day 9

I'm sitting in a very fancy hotel (well... 'fancy' relative to our previous accommodation) in Arusha, struggling with the internet connection. It seems to let me post blogs without an argument but when I try to check my personal email, it gives me the run-around: 'loading...' 'still loading...' & then finally 'there appears to be a problem with your internet connection. Please try loading the page again.' Nasty. So I shall work on my blog post & try email a little later. We honestly don't realize how fortunate we are with internet connectivity in North America.

Even if Tanzania is not blessed with easy access to technology, it is certainly blessed with natural wonders. This was our day to visit Ngorogoro crater. Our driver Kanuth picked us up at the hotel & we drove for perhaps half an hour to the conservation area gate. Ngorogoro is a hot spot for tourists & the government attempts to control access quite carefully. So it took 15 minutes or so to do the paperwork, another 15 minutes or so of climbing along a bumpy & dusty road, and then quite abruptly Kanuth pulled off to the side of the road, said 'Karibu (welcome) to Ngorogoro' & invited us to get out & look.

The look we got was worth the price of admission; was worth the cost of the whole weekend safari. We looked over the edge of the steep hill we were on down into the crater. It is easy to find out that it is 20 km across more or less with a floor area of 240 sq. km. But it is another thing entirely to SEE that, all in one gaze, from the rim. You see it just as it is: the collapsed floor of a huge dead volcano. The floor is really quite flat. From the rim it looks dry & dusty, even barren, but with a few broad alkaline lakes & some small treed patches.

Then we began our descent into the crater itself. The 'descending road' is a series of steep switchbacks & with every switch you can see a bit more. From about halfway down, we could make out groups of tiny black dots: herds of moving animals. A little further down we could make out single-pixel red dots as well: Maasai herders in their bright shukas, following their cattle. Maasai are the only tribe allowed to live at one end of the crater because (being eaters almost exclusively of milk & beef) they are the only ones who could be trusted not to kill the wildlife.

Once on the floor we followed the rough dirt roads back & forth across the crater. After our wildlife-rich day yesterday, I really didn't expect to see anything new but we did anyway: we saw a number of new types of deer/antelopes, lots of ostriches, hyenas, jackals, an entire pride of lions (one of them was even sleeping on the road right in front of us, close enough to pat if we had been crazy). There were a few elephants hanging out in the treed area & a large family of hippos in the lake, putting on a show for us when we stopped for lunch. We stopped at one point in the midst of a 'mini-migration' of gnus & zebras, thousands of animals surrounding us, moving.

It was, as they say, spectacular, & I just find it so exciting to know that there are places like this in the world.

Tomorrow we must be up early; before 6 even, if we are to reach Dar es Salaam with a bit of a cushion of time before I catch my flight. So off to bed.