Monday, March 10, 2014

Before the Amazon: Emeralds and Birthdays

I hope to have two blog posts for this week. The first about my time spent in Bogota, the second to catch people up on project news from my first week in the village.

And on to Bogota: Emeralds and Birthday party for 15 years!

My flight to Bogota was long, but uneventful. I had an eight hour layover (12 at night until 8 in the morning) at the Fort Lauderdale international airport. The airport is undergoing much, seeming slow-going, renovation. The options for resting comfortably were very limited. The seats were few and the ripped-up state of the airport led me to feel like I was already in Latin America. However, when I compare Fort Lauderdale to the newly remodeled El Dorado airport of Bogota, El Dorado is beautiful.

El Dorado International Airport, Bogota

After having walked around my section of the airports three times looking for a safe place to stretch out on the floor, I finally settled on the carpeted area by the baggage carousels. No flights arrived after 12, and the occasional maintenance people were fairly quiet.

Fort Lauderdale International Airport, Florida

Upon arriving in Bogota I had a six day wait until traveling to the Amazon. I used this time to visit friends, drop off and pick up things at my apartment (which I am currently renting out), having my teeth cleaned, and to buy emeralds to sell for the project. Two nights before leaving I attended the 15 year birthday party for my friend’s daughter.

Taxis in Bogota

In Bogota I was picked up at the airport by a friend. We had a quick lunch and then caught a taxi. It was not rush hour, but the traffic was still very heavy along our route. About five years ago I read a story in a Bogota newspaper about a traffic study done by a company from Japan (a place that also has many traffic problems). They said that the only way to eliminate all the congestion was to form two layer highways throughout all of the major routes of the city. This has not been done, and considering that they cannot maintain the roads that have now, will not be done in the foreseeable future. After a one hour drive around and through potholes we arrived at my friend’s house. One good thing about Colombian taxis, the price is low. The fare was $15 USD.

Toscana, Bogota, Colombia

My friend’s house is in a working class part of the city. Their road is unpaved. The houses are made of cement frame and block construction. She rents her house at a price of $200 a month. Utilities are about another $50 a month. It has two bedrooms, a small kitchen, a small bathroom, and a small combination living/dining room. Five people, a cat, and a dog live there. Their use of space is much different from the use of space of most North Americans I know.

Cutting up some fruit in the kitchen.

Motas (dustball) the family dog.

On Thursday I had my teeth cleaned. I went with my friend and her son, who needed to have a root canal, and eventually a dental crown. I, sometime in the future, need to have a crown replaced. The cost: for the cleaning, $30, root canal, $90, and a crown for a molar (porcelain over metal) $300. These are all performed by licensed Colombian dentists.

The dental clinic in La Guitana, Bogota, Colombia

On Saturday I went down to the center of town to the emerald district. I go to the areas that most tourists would not find, into the areas closer to where the jewelry is manufactured. In these places I can get the best prices. I then sell and raffle the emeralds to raise money for the Amazon project. I have bought from one man, who works in the street of the district, for the past seven years. He gives me the best prices on cut and uncut emeralds, without settings. I check everything I buy with an emerald filter to avoid fake stones. The emerald filter detects the presence of chromium in the emerald. Colombian emeralds gain their green color from the chromium. If the filter does not detect chromium (which shows as red through the filter) it is a fake. Fake emeralds, even in the costly stores that cell “certified” emeralds, are common. My advice, never buy an emerald from someone you don’t know unless you have a way to independently verify its authenticity.

Buying emerads from my street source

Lunch, each complete meal costs $3 USD

Gold and emeralds snake ring.  My favorite from this trip.

And the last thing before the Amazon was the QuinceaƱera. This is the 15th birthday celebration for girls. It is very important for young women and marks their passage to adulthood. This may be the single most expensive party of a Colombian woman’s life. When they told me the party would start at 9 pm and end at 10 am the next day, I thought they were joking. They were not.

Viviana in her 15th birthday dress.

Michael with a bottle of soda.

It looked better than it tasted!

The party had much ritual. A special dress is worn. The girl has her shoes changed from low to high heels. A special ring is given. The girl (now a woman) dances with 15 men sequentially during one song. She extinguishes 15 candles, one symbolizing each of her former birthdays, as well as other things that I don’t remember. All of this was celebrated with much dancing and drinking. It was fun, but I left at 5 am and went to another friend’s house where things were a bit less festive and much more conducive to sleeping. I heard later that the party lasted until 3 pm the next day, and included a walk in the park and a game of futbol!

The dancing in full-swing.

Lechona, the pig, after one two many drinks.

The next day, Monday, I struck off for the Amazon…

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