Bogota Bike Tour

Bogota Bike Tour

“Do I have legs in my teeth?” asked Magnolia.

It was a fair question. She had just eaten the hind quarters (or, more accurately, hind third) of an ant, a Colombian delicacy known as hormigas culones (or, ants with large behinds). It was a day full of discovery as Bogota Bike Tours took us all over the center of Colombia’s capital city.

Getting the bikes ready for the Bogota Bike Tour

Getting the bikes ready for the Bogota Bike Tour

HISTORY

The tour gave us a bit of modern Colombian history to help explain the city. One of the first stops on the tour was the site of the assassination of Jorge Eliecer Gaitán, a popular leftist leader who was killed in 1943. After his death, there were riots throughout Bogota, with streetcars burned (which was the end of the streetcars in Bogota). Later in the tour we visited Gaitán’s home, where he is buried standing up, so that his ideas may take root and spread again.

One of our last stops was at the Plaza Bolivar, where leftist militants took the supreme court hostage in 1985. The government, taking a tough stance of not negotiating with terrorists, sent in tanks which went in firing.  11 of the 12 justices were killed, along with most of the militants, and the building was destroyed. Interestingly, the current mayor of Bogota was a member of the militant group at the time. Many young people in our tour group stood with mouths agape when learning of all this complex recent history.

POLITICS

Mike explained that though Colombia is an overwhelmingly Catholic country, its politics lean to the left in many areas. Though same-sex marriage is not legal, same-sex partners have most of the rights of married couples in Colombia. Until recently, possession of “personal amounts” of drugs was perfectly legal. Prostitution is legal in Colombia, but limited to certain areas of town.

Mike took us through Bogotá’s red-light district, where the mid-day traffic was brisk, and the prostitutes were none to happy to see us cruising through the neighborhood. Mike had given us the heads-up before we headed this way, so that we could duck out or prepare the girls for what they would be seeing. Even with preparation, it was a little shocking to see the very young, scantily-clad women displaying their wares on the sidewalk.

From there we went to another site that would provide us with some lively family discussion later. We stopped by the Santa Ana Church, which was surrounded by abortion clinics. While abortion is illegal in Colombia except in cases of rape, incest, risk of life of the mother, or severe abnormality of the fetus, this neighborhood was home to quite a few clinics where illegal abortions could be obtained by anyone, anytime.

CULTURE

A fascinating and scenic stop on the tour was the Plaza de Toros, or bullfighting ring. When we arrived, we found young boys and men practicing their moves with several types of artificial bulls. They were happy to show us some moves. Bullfighting is a controversial sport, but quite popular in Colombia. The current mayor of Bogota outlawed bullfighting, and converted the ring to an ice skating rink last winter, but the bullfights will continue soon after public outcry.

Toreros-in-training at the Santamaria Bullring in Bogota

Toreros-in-training at the Santamaria Bullring in Bogota

Outside the ring there was a statue honoring a famous Colombian fighter. It was impossible not to notice how well-endowed both the bullfighter and the bull were portrayed. Mike told us that the suit worn by the toreros is known as the suit of lights, and that many people point to the torero’s privates and call them the batteries for the suit of lights. Hah.

The torero's suit of lights and its battery pack

The torero’s suit of lights and its battery pack

COFFEE

At another point on the tour we visited a café and coffee roasting operation for a coffee break and a bit of education. Did you know that 90% of the coffee grown in Colombia (and ALL of the high-quality Arabica coffee) is exported? And that 80% of the coffee consumed in Colombia is imported? The remainder is the lower-quality Robusto coffee grown in the country.

FRUITS

At the food market, Mike led us from stand to stand, cutting up strange fruits for us to try. Patilla, or dragon fruit, was utterly unlike the ones we tried in Thailand. The latter had no flavor at all, just a lovely deep magenta color, while the former had a nondescript yellowish skin and a subtly sweet flavor. Uchua, or orange gooseberry, was slightly tart and sweet and delicious. Ica, or cactus pear, which we had come across as tuna in Peru, was a little mushy and flavorless. Guanabana, or soursop, was a favorite with a perfect balance of tart and sweet. One of the oddest fruits was the tomate de arbol, or tree tomato, with a yellowish skin and a savory tomato flavor and firmer flesh than the vine-grown version. Mike told us that you can sometimes find tree tomatoes that have been crossed with mango and raspberry, which is going to be my goal for the rest of the week.

 

A fruit stand at the Paloquemao food market

A fruit stand at the Paloquemao food market

AND FAT-BOTTOM ANTS

Hormigas Culones

Hormigas Culones

Toward the end of our tour, Mike spotted a vendor selling hormigas culones, a delicacy from the Santander region of Colombia, where locals harvest the ants that emerge after heavy spring rains and roast them for snacking. Never one to pass up an opportunity to eat something that might be gross if it were not fried and salted, I grabbed one when offered, and, with just a single thought of “I hope this is crunchy and not gooey,” chomped the big ant butt. Unlike the crickets we had sampled in Thailand, these ants were not crispy, but had the consistency of a boiled peanut. They had a distinctive flavor – salty with a little tang – and I could see how one might enjoy this if one had grown up with it. For me, I probably don’t need to try another one.

Paige eats a big-ass ant

Paige samples the hormigas culones

 

OVERALL

The Bogota Bike Tour gave us a great overview of central Bogota, and we were amazed at how much ground we covered. For the most part, the terrain is flat, though there were a couple of tough hills, including the toughest one at the very end of the tour. But by then I was not ashamed to get off and push my bike up the hill. Mike was a great tour guide, and another man from the bike shop, Fabio, came along to help with any mechanical problems or flat tires. Though it was sometimes a little tricky riding down sidewalks through pedestrian traffic, and intersections were not always easy to navigate with a large group, we felt safe throughout the tour. I would have liked a bit of an introduction and review of traffic safety before setting out, but we all managed pretty well without.

Exploring Bogota on bikes

Exploring Bogota on bikes

Bogota Bike Tours is located at Carrera 3 between Calle 12 and 13 in the Candelaria neighborhood. Tours leave daily at 10:30 and usually also at 1:30. Children’s bikes and baby seats are available, but you should reserve in advance to be sure there are enough to go around.

 

Bogota Bike Tour

Bogota Bike Tour

“Do I have legs in my teeth?” asked Magnolia.

It was a fair question. She had just eaten the hind quarters (or, more accurately, hind third) of an ant, a Colombian delicacy known as hormigas culones (or, ants with large behinds). It was a day full of discovery as Bogota Bike Tours took us all over the center of Colombia’s capital city.

Getting the bikes ready for the Bogota Bike Tour

Getting the bikes ready for the Bogota Bike Tour

HISTORY

The tour gave us a bit of modern Colombian history to help explain the city. One of the first stops on the tour was the site of the assassination of Jorge Eliecer Gaitán, a popular leftist leader who was killed in 1943. After his death, there were riots throughout Bogota, with streetcars burned (which was the end of the streetcars in Bogota). Later in the tour we visited Gaitán’s home, where he is buried standing up, so that his ideas may take root and spread again.

One of our last stops was at the Plaza Bolivar, where leftist militants took the supreme court hostage in 1985. The government, taking a tough stance of not negotiating with terrorists, sent in tanks which went in firing.  11 of the 12 justices were killed, along with most of the militants, and the building was destroyed. Interestingly, the current mayor of Bogota was a member of the militant group at the time. Many young people in our tour group stood with mouths agape when learning of all this complex recent history.

POLITICS

Mike explained that though Colombia is an overwhelmingly Catholic country, its politics lean to the left in many areas. Though same-sex marriage is not legal, same-sex partners have most of the rights of married couples in Colombia. Until recently, possession of “personal amounts” of drugs was perfectly legal. Prostitution is legal in Colombia, but limited to certain areas of town.

Mike took us through Bogotá’s red-light district, where the mid-day traffic was brisk, and the prostitutes were none to happy to see us cruising through the neighborhood. Mike had given us the heads-up before we headed this way, so that we could duck out or prepare the girls for what they would be seeing. Even with preparation, it was a little shocking to see the very young, scantily-clad women displaying their wares on the sidewalk.

From there we went to another site that would provide us with some lively family discussion later. We stopped by the Santa Ana Church, which was surrounded by abortion clinics. While abortion is illegal in Colombia except in cases of rape, incest, risk of life of the mother, or severe abnormality of the fetus, this neighborhood was home to quite a few clinics where illegal abortions could be obtained by anyone, anytime.

CULTURE

A fascinating and scenic stop on the tour was the Plaza de Toros, or bullfighting ring. When we arrived, we found young boys and men practicing their moves with several types of artificial bulls. They were happy to show us some moves. Bullfighting is a controversial sport, but quite popular in Colombia. The current mayor of Bogota outlawed bullfighting, and converted the ring to an ice skating rink last winter, but the bullfights will continue soon after public outcry.

Toreros-in-training at the Santamaria Bullring in Bogota

Toreros-in-training at the Santamaria Bullring in Bogota

Outside the ring there was a statue honoring a famous Colombian fighter. It was impossible not to notice how well-endowed both the bullfighter and the bull were portrayed. Mike told us that the suit worn by the toreros is known as the suit of lights, and that many people point to the torero’s privates and call them the batteries for the suit of lights. Hah.

The torero's suit of lights and its battery pack

The torero’s suit of lights and its battery pack

COFFEE

At another point on the tour we visited a café and coffee roasting operation for a coffee break and a bit of education. Did you know that 90% of the coffee grown in Colombia (and ALL of the high-quality Arabica coffee) is exported? And that 80% of the coffee consumed in Colombia is imported? The remainder is the lower-quality Robusto coffee grown in the country.

FRUITS

At the food market, Mike led us from stand to stand, cutting up strange fruits for us to try. Patilla, or dragon fruit, was utterly unlike the ones we tried in Thailand. The latter had no flavor at all, just a lovely deep magenta color, while the former had a nondescript yellowish skin and a subtly sweet flavor. Uchua, or orange gooseberry, was slightly tart and sweet and delicious. Ica, or cactus pear, which we had come across as tuna in Peru, was a little mushy and flavorless. Guanabana, or soursop, was a favorite with a perfect balance of tart and sweet. One of the oddest fruits was the tomate de arbol, or tree tomato, with a yellowish skin and a savory tomato flavor and firmer flesh than the vine-grown version. Mike told us that you can sometimes find tree tomatoes that have been crossed with mango and raspberry, which is going to be my goal for the rest of the week.

 

A fruit stand at the Paloquemao food market

A fruit stand at the Paloquemao food market

AND FAT-BOTTOM ANTS

Hormigas Culones

Hormigas Culones

Toward the end of our tour, Mike spotted a vendor selling hormigas culones, a delicacy from the Santander region of Colombia, where locals harvest the ants that emerge after heavy spring rains and roast them for snacking. Never one to pass up an opportunity to eat something that might be gross if it were not fried and salted, I grabbed one when offered, and, with just a single thought of “I hope this is crunchy and not gooey,” chomped the big ant butt. Unlike the crickets we had sampled in Thailand, these ants were not crispy, but had the consistency of a boiled peanut. They had a distinctive flavor – salty with a little tang – and I could see how one might enjoy this if one had grown up with it. For me, I probably don’t need to try another one.

Paige eats a big-ass ant

Paige samples the hormigas culones

 

OVERALL

The Bogota Bike Tour gave us a great overview of central Bogota, and we were amazed at how much ground we covered. For the most part, the terrain is flat, though there were a couple of tough hills, including the toughest one at the very end of the tour. But by then I was not ashamed to get off and push my bike up the hill. Mike was a great tour guide, and another man from the bike shop, Fabio, came along to help with any mechanical problems or flat tires. Though it was sometimes a little tricky riding down sidewalks through pedestrian traffic, and intersections were not always easy to navigate with a large group, we felt safe throughout the tour. I would have liked a bit of an introduction and review of traffic safety before setting out, but we all managed pretty well without.

Exploring Bogota on bikes

Exploring Bogota on bikes

Bogota Bike Tours is located at Carrera 3 between Calle 12 and 13 in the Candelaria neighborhood. Tours leave daily at 10:30 and usually also at 1:30. Children’s bikes and baby seats are available, but you should reserve in advance to be sure there are enough to go around.

 

Learning to Fry: A vegetarian cooking class in Hoi An

Learning to Fry: A vegetarian cooking class in Hoi An

Oh, the joys of the chả giò.

Vietnam’s fried spring rolls have been on Calla’s mind for a while now. We’ve made the fresh version of spring rolls at home many times. In fact, they are something of a specialty of Calla’s. She even made them for Christmas dinner one year. But we’ve never even attempted the fried version. They just seemed out of our league.

I ought to be a pro at frying things, being a nice Southern girl and all. But I tend to get the oil too hot and burn things, or it’s not hot enough and it soaks up too much grease.

That’s what always amazes me about the chả giò here: they are always just right. First, there’s the crunch of the rice paper, just scooped out of its oily sizzle with barely a drip of grease released on first bite. Then the crisp/tender vegetables (for we always go vegetarian here) whose flavors mix so well mixed it is impossible to discern a single ingredient. And the dipping sauce – sometimes sweet, sometimes acidic and spicy – just begs for another dunk. Somehow there is always just the right amount of sauce for the rolls. This is science.

For our science lesson today, Calla and I decided to take a cooking class in Hoi An at our favorite restaurant, the unassuming Minh Hiên, on the closest thing the town has to a backpacker street, Tran Cao Van. My friend Hank (of Padlette fame) pointed it out to us on our first day here, and we’ve been back every day since. Their vegetarian menu is incredibly flavorful, light, and unbelievably cheap. And the fresh draft beers cost just 15 cents each. So we figured we ought to take advantage of Madame Hiên’s cooking class to learn to make some of our favorite dishes.

When we arrived at the appointed hour, our teacher and her assistant were setting up a kitchen area on the terrace of her house (for like many Vietnamese businesses, the owners live not above the shop but in the shop). They invited us to help chop and mix and ultimately, to fry, and despite our language gaps, I was able to write down a pretty close approximation of the recipes for the three dishes we chose.

Cooking Class in Hoi An

It’s not terribly common to find Vietnamese vegetarians, although there is a small segment of the Buddhist population who eat no meat. More often, when you see vegetarian items on a menu, it just means they do not include large chunks of meat; the sauces and accompaniments may well include animal products. But Minh Hiên is truly and completely vegetarian. Even the dipping sauce, nước chấm, which is normally made with fish sauce, here is made with lime juice.

Chả Giò – Fried Vietnamese Spring Rolls

 

INGREDIENTS

Taro root – peeled and shredded
Carrot – peeled and shredded
Onion – sliced very thin
Tree/Wood Ear Fungus/Mushroom – called Nam Meo in Vietnamese – sliced very thin
Oyster Mushroom
King Mushroom 
1/2 tsp crushed black pepper
1/2 tsp Maggi powdered mushroom stock
1/2 tsp 5-spice powder
Rice paper squares (5-6″)
 

Shred about 1/2 cup carrot and 1/2 cup taro onto a plate. Slice about 1/2 of a small white or yellow onion very thin. Smash 2 or 3 green onions then cut in 1 to 2 inch pieces. Slice the mushrooms into matchsticks. Add pepper, mushroom stock, and 5-spice powder. Mix together with chopsticks.

Put a heaping tablespoonful of the mixture in the corner of a rice paper square. Fold over that corner, and fold the right and left corners into the middle, rolling tightly to close.

Heat vegetable oil on high heat. Add the spring rolls and fry until golden brown. Turn and fry the other side.

Drain in a colander or on paper towels, and serve with dipping sauce.

Vegetarian nước chấm – Dipping Sauce

 

INGREDIENTS

Carrot
Water
Sugar
Salt
Chili
Garlic
Lemon or Lime
 
 

Boil some finely chopped carrot in a little bit of water. Mix 3/4 cup water (use the carrot water) and 1/4 cup sugar with 1 teaspoon of salt. Mince together one small chili and a couple of cloves of garlic and add to the mixture. Stir in 1 Tbs lemon juice. Serve in a small bowl for dipping.

Calla with her spring rolls, crispy pancakes, and fried tofu and cabbage.

Practicalities

Minh Hiên – Quán Chay – 50 Trân Cao Vân, Hoi An

Ask at the restaurant to schedule a cooking class. Allow a day or two for them to set it up.

Another nearby restaurant offering classes is the very popular Morning Glory near the river. These can be reserved online here.

Home cooking all over the map – the Spanish tortilla

Home cooking all over the map – the Spanish tortilla

It’s the first day with my Spanish Couchsurfing hosts outside of Madrid. This is our fourth country in 6 days, and we’re feeling every mile in our jetlagged and somewhat stinky bodies. I’d love to go straight to bed, but I know that this culture is known for late dinners, and I’m kind of excited about the Spanish home cooking we are about to experience. My host, Carmen, takes me through the steps. Recipe below.

Spanish home cooking - Slicing potatoes for the tortilla

Making the Spanish tortilla

Ingredients:

Olive Oil – about an inch in the pan, with an inch above it.
Potatoes – 1 for each person – yukon gold or other waxy potato – Idaho potatoes are too starchy
Onion – just a little bit for flavor – perhaps 1/2 a small onion for 8 people
Eggs – one or two for each person – we used 9 for 8 people
1/2 – 3/4 c. milk
Two pinches of salt
 

Heat the oil over medium-high heat.

Peel potatoes and slice into uniform small chunks.

Put the slices in the hot oil, let it cook for a while (35 – 40 minutes) add onion about midway through.  Turn them at least once. You could also add fish, peppers, or chorizo at this point.

Spanish home cooking - Frying potatoes for tortilla

Beat the eggs with milk and salt, remove potatoes with a slotted spoon, and let the potatoes soak in the mixture for 5 minutes.

Heat the oil in a nonstick pan on medium-high heat.  Add just enough of the mix to coat the bottom, with enough egg to cover the potatoes. When the bottom is firm enough that you can shake it in the pan, flip it.  You should hear a sizzle as you shake the pan. Flip the tortilla by sliding it onto a plate, and then turning the pan upside down on top of it. With a full body twist, invert the tortilla back into the pan to cook the other side. I’m sorry I don’t have a photo of this part of the process!

Tip: Run the plate under water for a second to keep the egg from sticking when you flip the tortilla.

When it’s solid and browned on both sides (listen for the sizzle), slide it onto a plate. Cool for a few minutes, then slice into wedges and serve.

Spanish Home Cooking - the Spanish Tortilla

 

 

 

Language Immersion Vacation “En Familia”

Language Immersion Vacation “En Familia”

Spanish class on the banks of Lake Atitlan

In the words of Italian filmmaker Federico Fellini, “A different language is a different vision of life.”  As I learned from the a local Mount Vernon-area family, a family immersion vacation is a great way to expose children to a different culture and lifestyle, receive excellent language instruction from native speakers, and discover a new part of the world. And it’s more affordable than you think.

Ken Murphy and Nancy Carolan spent their honeymoon in Ecuador. Before they had children, they both spent years traveling and working in Central and South America and developed a passion for Latin American culture. Last summer, they decided to take their two children, Wyatt, 9, and Nathalie, 11, for a month of total language and cultural immersion in San Pedro La Laguna on Lake Atitlan, Guatemala.

Lake Atitlan is a large volcanic lake in the Guatemalan highlands.  It is known to be one of the most beautiful lakes in the world. Its shores are dotted with Mayan villages. Nestled on the lake’s western shore, San Pedro La Laguna is a small town with a population of about 13,000.

After some research into a school that would best fit their needs, they settled on La Cooperativa, which came highly recommended by American language instructors whose own children had studied there. Nathalie and Wyatt had individual classes for three hours every afternoon. Classes were held in small huts and their instructors also took them out on excursions to shops around town to practice the language.

For a complete immersion experience, the family decided to stay with a host family close to the language school. They specifically requested a family with children (ages 11, 14, and 18). Their cousins lived next door and had a son Wyatt’s age, so there was no shortage of playmates.

Nathalie and Wyatt had the opportunity to spend a month at one of the world’s most beautiful lakes, to be totally immersed in the Spanish language and Guatemalan culture, and to attend daily private classes from native speakers. They can’t wait to go back.  The only downside? Ken and Nancy’s “secret” language (Spanish) is no longer a secret from the kids!

Practical information

Travelling to a developing country certainly has its challenges and it’s not for everybody. However, there are preparations you can make to make your trip a lot safer and easier, especially with children. Nancy has posted a nice piece with travel tips that are useful not only for Guatemala, but for family travel to other developing countries.

Airfare from Washington,D.C. to Guatemala City is generally around $300-$400 per person. Language classes for three hours a day and lodging plus three meals a day with a host family costs less than $300 a person for two weeks.

For advice and information about traveling to Guatemala, Ken and Nancy relied on www.lonelyplanet.com and www.bootsnall.com, both of which also have extensive sections about traveling with children, as well as language study.  For information about the Cooperative School, visit www.cooperativeschoolsanpedro.com