I first fell in love with Colombia 13 years ago. Shortly after I met my now husband, he took me on an intensely romantic tour of Bogotá and Cartagena, introduced me to his family and friends and most memorably, he took me on a private tour of his childhood cities and their rich and complex history. I was wined, dined, and in general treated like a total princess. As I now reflect upon this, I like to think my trip to Colombia was, in large part, why I agreed to marry him so soon after we met.
I was born in northern England, the daughter and granddaughter of immigrants with a penchant for travel. My father was born in Egypt and moved around a great deal during his young adult life. As a result, he wanted to educate me and my siblings about the world outside of Great Britain. We had some wonderful European holidays and, as soon as I was able to, I left home and began to travel as much as possible.
Consequently, I have lived in four countries, speak four languages, (although not fluently), have visited over 26 countries and live by the motto “You can’t have a narrow mind with a thick passport”. But there is something unique about Colombia: The best way I can describe it is that Colombia speaks to my soul. So when I found myself in Bogota again this summer, 13 years after my first trip, I wanted to figure out why this city moved me so much.
The main thing that has strikes me (and this happens in all levels of society) is the freedom from what I call the “American curse”. (Don’t get me wrong, I love America, it is the country I picked to call home). But after living here for many years it seems to me that most Americans don’t ever feel they have enough: Their job, house, cars, possessions never appear to quite satisfy them. On the other hand, in Europe and many parts of the world, people often choose a service profession that they cherish, do impeccably well and often work in this position happily, for their entire life. Working hard with a good employer who treats you well, earning a good living, raising a family and living a contented life . In America this is seldom the case. With a premium placed on education and overachievement, many people would only choose a service profession as a stepping stone to something” bigger and better” as they climb the social elevator of life. Everyone wants to live in the penthouse and they all bust their chops in order to get there. In this country, where everyone wants everything, the only (honest) way to get there is to WORK HARD and so we become a society that lives in order to work. I am not saying this is a bad thing as it often leads to success, but at what cost? The most obvious cost is of course stress. Stress, both physical and often financial in order to buy all of the “stuff” that everyone else has. The so called American dream. The “American Curse”
The more I travel the more I see that Americans have a harder life trying to keep up with the Joneses. It’s an epidemic of massive proportions and I too have often fallen under its spell. More is not always better, as so eloquently expressed in one of my favorite songs: “I miss the hungry years” by Neil Sedaka. I love to visit countries that really know how to live, and Colombia wrote the manual on it. A good proportion of people (and not just rich people, much of the middle class) in Bogota have a maid and/or cook. Some have drivers and housekeepers. Money is spent on food, clothes, travel and help. In my husband’s family the housekeepers and nannies they had as children still work with the family , so they are much more like a part of the family than just employees. People do not live beyond their means as much as you see in the US. Life becomes a lot more enjoyable. It is not all about fancy cars, large homes with unused rooms and every gadget on the planet, but more about family, friends and experiences.
I guess when you have perfect climate 365 days a year like Bogota, (since it is at 8,000 feet and near the Equator) you don’t have much to complain about.
Speaking about the weather………..
Colombia has multiple climactic zones, from tropical, to temperate, to mountain chill. As a result of this variety, fruits and vegetables of all kinds grow with reckless abandon. Its like living in the garden of eden! The entire country is basically “farm to table” so even me, with my bland British cooking, would find these God given delicacies hard to mess up, in any recipe. But, luckily, on this trip there was no cooking. (Well, at least not for me.)
To say that I have eaten my way though Bogota and Anapoima (a small resort town just outside of the city) would be an understatement of epic proportions. The Colombians, like many europeans, know how to live right, and eating is a large part of their daily enjoyment. On a side note, perhaps the most startling fact about their lifestyle is that there are practically no fat people in Colombia. I think Botero, that amazing Colombian painter, must have painted from pure imagination. It may be something in the water, but I think it is really the way of life. They sit and they eat. Let me say that again. The SIT and they EAT. Meals are seldom rushed: A meal is treated like a sacrament. With the amazing produce available in such abundance, this comes as no surprise. As written in “French Girls Don’t Get Fat”, Colombians have the same idea. A meal is a time to get together with family and friends and talk, drink and enjoy life. You make time for it and you don’t rush it. As I write this, I am hoping that my bathroom scale gets this concept when I return home.
For me the most astounding part of my trip was the naturally gluten free foods. I suffer from Celiac disease, an auto immune disease that prevents me from eating or digesting any gluten, a protein that is found in wheat, rye, oats and barley. I was diagnosed as a child and have lived with it for most of my life, but recently I have found myself constantly getting “glutened”, due to the cross contamination of foods made in many US processing plants. I am super sensitive to gluten and have to watch like everything that I eat like a hawk. I read all food labels and write to many manufacturers in order to make sure that the food I am eating is in fact gluten free. Sadly, over time, it has spoiled my love of eating out since I am basically at the mercy of the restaurant’s kitchen, to make sure the meal they serve to me comes out actually gluten free. It is a massive pain and a constant worry.
For a celiac or anyone who chooses to eat gluten free, Colombia is food heaven. Most of the starches come from corn, yucca or potatoes and less from wheat. In addition the food is grown naturally so it is fresh and without tons of additives, colors, fillers or preservatives, so it remains pure. If you are Celiac take a pen, I phone, voice recorder or memo book and write this down. Pan de Yucca. You will not be sorry, it is the best bread I have ever tasted. Pan de Yucca is a delicious mound of fluffy dough, baked hot in mini ovens all over the city so that you can buy it everywhere.
On our drive to Anapoima (which I highly recommend you do with a native driver if you want to keep your underwear clean and your sanity intact), we stopped by a roadside bakery to find this delicacy being served, from a small, primitive oven. It was well worth burning my mouth on the hot Pan de Yucca, since I failed to understand the Spanish expression for “wait”. Such taste texture and gluten free!
Another one of my favorite finds was the cheese-filled bread called, Pan de Queso, which is also easily purchased at most food places. Buñuelos (which would be my lost on a desert island food list), are donut-like balls of fried corn dough. But, unlike donuts, are not too sweet. Then there are Arepas, fluffy corn cakes covered with butter and cheese. And finally, Empanadas, which are small meat filled pies served with delicious Aji, a salsa type sauce. (Oh boy! I think I may need to avoid my bathroom scale for a while).
My favorite bakery is a place called Myriam Camhi in Bogotá which makes the most wonderful cakes and desserts. I almost died when I tasted the soufflé! It was so good it should be illegal. I met the owner Denise, and she offered me a large selection of gluten free, sinful delicacies. I was thrilled that our tour consisted of lots of walking, a common mode of transportation in and around the city.
Another brilliant local find is a delivery service called Rappi. (They even have an app for it). Rappi will bring you anything, anytime, so foods, drinks late night snacks and shopping is only a text message away. Everything is available in this surprisingly cosmopolitan city and there is always someone available for any service that you need, usually at a moments notice.
With Colombia being the botanical paradise that it is, you will often see in Bogotá are buildings whose exteriors are decorated with hundreds of tiny native living plants. With superbly timed weekly rainfall, Bogota has a natural sprinkler system over the entire city, so lavish greenery is in always in abundance.
For most of our trip, we hired a driver to take us wherever we wanted to go for less than the price of a taxi ride in the US. We once left our entire luggage collection in his van, while he waited for us as we dined nearby. The driver had an impeccably clean and well maintained vehicle, he wore a nice suit and was super polite and courteous. Colombian people aim to please. As we toured the museums we gave our driver money for lunch and he patiently waited for us.
Although I have driven in many parts of the world, on both sides of the road and mountain sides, I would not want to drive in Bogota and especially not on the road to Anapoima. It makes the 1965 cartoon Wacky races look like a part of real life. Surprisingly though, I did not see any car accidents during the entire trip. I think the heavy traffic often kept the speeds down on many of the roads and perhaps prevented speed being a factor in a potential collision.
I will be sad to say goodbye to Colombia and its 500 year old heritage, but thanks to the generosity of my husband, I now have another beautiful memory to take with me.
A part of Colombia’s history that doesn’t contain any calories and is most definitely 100% gluten free.
A gold and emerald necklace.
September 4, 2015