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 and drove me to nice offices in downtown Bogota. 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, as I had trouble with their accents and the speed at which some of them spoke. And all had trouble with my Mexican idioms like “Hijole!” 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 we received no napkins but instead thin white rubber gloves to put on so we could eat the greasy chicken with our fingers. So we sat at the table with our white rubber gloves, discussing differences of food and eating in Colombia versus the US. One fellow – surely 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 rubber gloves, 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.
You see, each Sunday from 7 am until 2 certain main streets of Bogota are blocked off for the exclusive use of runners, skaters, and bicyclists. Bogota’s weekly ciclovías are used by approximately 2 million people (30% of the city’s population).
So I walked down this closed freeway in view of rugged green mountains with thousands of families and individuals strolling, skating and biking. Drink sellers and food stalls stood on the roadside ready to quench our hunger and our thirst. After a couple hours, my hunger steered me to an antique car on the side of the road next to a makeshift food stand. The odd, older couple manning the 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 empanadas. I felt my body rhythm change as I interacted with these mountain folk – even their eyes moved slowly, from me, to my money, to the empanadas! Their eyes moved, then their heads, then their hands. Slowly. Taking time as if it had no meaning. I imagined them, at home in the high mountains, moving at this speed, barely faster than the roots of the trees.
Their closeness to me, moving as they did, calmed me, seduced me to their slower way of moving, of talking, of inhabiting the world. Of stretching a moment to last as long as I wished. I took a bite of empanada, the woman’s wrinkled eyes registering my delight at the taste of it.
That shared moment was one reason I enjoy learning other languages, other cultures. To test my understanding of not words, but the meaning and people behind the words. Perhaps, even, in the right company, to stop the world.
These are the memories that stuck with me, from San Juan and from Bogota, Colombia – memories that I wanted to share.