During this slack time of late December 2013, as I plan my 2014 travels, I want to revisit (in memory), two small business trips I took in the late 90s to Central and South America. I went to install software upgrades and give training classes of that software in Spanish (which I speak OK, along with French) to a small community college in San Juan, Puerto Rico and a large publishing company with offices in Bogota, Colombia.
In making my reservations for San Juan, this advertisement caught my imagination:
Hotel El Convento – Small Luxury Hotels of the World.
A converted convent from 1645, located in old town where I like to stay when visiting cities more than a few hundred years old, I considered the expense, took into account that the company was paying, and decided, “Why not? My first small luxury hotel.”
The hotel, with all the rooms opening to a courtyard, was a delight. I learned that luxury hotel means your bed will have dozens of multicolored pillows piled on it during the day, and at night they will come and remove the pillows from the bed top and turn down the bed covers for you and leave you chocolate and fresh fruit. Well worth the money the company was spending to have me there!
In San Juan I spent a few days teaching an older school administrator / system administrator and two student assistants how to paint computer screens and reports using our software in a cement and plaster building in sad disrepair, with no air conditioning in any of the school rooms – only in the computer room so we held our training there. The biggest challenge for me was to use technical words that I rarely spoke in my around-the-house Mexican Spanish. But they understood me well enough for the trip to be a success.
As far as my trip to Bogota, Colombia, I have several strong memories:
When I first arrived at my motel, which was neither luxury nor comfortable (perhaps I had been yelled at by my boss for spending too much on the San Juan trip so I spent too little on the Bogota one), I noticed two security guards walking around the neighborhood with machine guns and dobermans – the kind of guards you would expect to see in the US protecting a military installation. But there was no military installation here, just a few small stores and a hotel and some homes. So I assumed then that security guards are typically armed this way in Bogota, which, at the time (and still is?) a cocaine/drug-lord connected place where kidnappings and petty crime were common. Too I remember the power failing in the neighborhood just as night fell – I remember the silence as window air conditioner breathed its last – so I sat in my sweltering room for hours that evening staring at nothing, afraid to leave my door open to catch a night breeze as I did not have a machine gun nor a doberman for protection.
The customer picked me up from the hotel the next morning, and took me to nice offices downtown. I spoke proudly with my Mexican Spanish that had served me well in Puerto Rico, as I started the training session, only to realize that of the eight people in the class, three were from Colombia, two were from Peru, one from Chile and two from Uruguay. All Spanish speaking countries but it was not that simple. Half of them had trouble with my Mexican accent, and all had trouble with my Mexican idioms like “Hijole!” (in general, it seems that South Americans look down on Mexicans, so that was in the mix as well) And too, when I asked them, in Spanish, if they were ready to play with the product, they said “No, queremos trabajar con el producto!” No they wanted to work with the product, not play with it! Idioms and accents were hurdles for me, as well as the simple fact that some Spanish words for things in Mexico are not the same in Colombia or Chile or Peru, as some English words for things are not the same in the US as they are in the UK (diapers vs nappies, car trunk vs car boot).
At lunch-time fried chicken was brought in. With each boxed serving you received no napkins but instead thin white rubber gloves which you were supposed to put on so you could eat the greasy chicken. So we all sat at the table with our white rubber gloves on eating the fried chicken. We talked about differences of food and eating in Colombia versus the US. One fellow – maybe he was pulling my leg – told me that in Colombia they did not use beef for hamburgers but ground-up worms. As I sat there eating fried chicken with my rubber gloves on, I thought, why not?
I stayed over the weekend in Colombia to walk the city – and found they had closed down an entire freeway for the weekly ciclovía. Here is how Wikipedia describes a ciclovía:
“Each Sunday and on holidays from 7 am until 2 pm certain main streets of Bogota and other municipalities are blocked off to cars for the exclusive use of runners, skaters, and bicyclists. Bogota’s weekly ciclovías are used by approximately 2 million people (30% of citizens) on over 120 km of car-free streets.”
So I walked down this closed freeway with thousands of families and individuals walking, skating and biking, with drink sellers and food sellers on the side of the road ready to quench our hunger and thirst. After two hours I walked over to an old car on the side of the road with its trunk open next to a makeshift food stand. The couple at the food stand were dressed more simply than the city folk, and moved at their own rhythm – my thought was that they had come down from the mountains to sell their homemade stuffed empanada pies. I found that I too felt my body rhythm change as I interacted with these mountain folk – even their eyes moved slowly! Their closeness to me somehow calmed me, seduced me to their slower way of moving, of talking, of observing. Of stretching a moment to last as long as you wished, as you tasted their wonderful empanadas.
These are the memories that stuck with me, from San Juan and from Bogota, Colombia – memories that I wanted to share.