Pieces of home

Contents of care packageMy mum is coming to visit soon. Yay!

She was here just 6 months ago with Dad to celebrate her birthday (which I completely forgot to blog about), so it was very unexpected that she would make the long journey again so soon. She either loves Colombia, loves to travel or loves and misses me… Most likely her reasons are all of the above.

The great thing about having Mum visit is the second 23kg suitcase of goodies she can bring me. And of course the simple fact that I get to hug my mummy and laugh crazily about silly things with her; we’re two peas in a pod in that respect. The post in Colombia is notoriously unreliable and cannot be trusted, which means care packages and online shopping are out of the question, unless of course you like throwing your money to the gale-force wind. While my aunt sent a small parcel before Christmas that arrived two days after Christmas, the two parcels Mum sent in December haven’t. The government contracted post company 4/72 said it could take up to 6 months to arrive and they can’t do anything about finding it unless they have a registered mail code for a service which Australia Post doesn’t provide for Colombia. I have little hope that either will arrive, and believe that some Colombian is now wearing Chesty Bonds singlets meant for mi novio and watching my friends’ Aussie film Blinder (doubt there’ll be a Spanish option there). This situation makes me cranky just thinking about it, and I think Mum secretly has some ulterior motive to come and give the postal company here a good ear-bashing along the lines of how she managed to arrive in Colombia before her parcels.

So, the goodies!! Mum will be bringing more items from my wardrobe, that is, what she hasn’t already brought over. I just hope she can find my pink heels which are probably stored in some plastic crate in her container.

I also took the opportunity to do some online shopping and have it sent to Mum. I bought some Bonds underwear because that is a staple. Did you know that here in Colombia that don’t let you try on white bras?!?!!? I don’t get it, are my boobs supposed to be dirty?!?! Anyway, I also bought some new pajamas because I like a slouchy style that is difficult to find here in nice patterns and colours ie. not cutesy prints on white or a bedtime version of the legging. Speaking of leggings, I also bought a couple of pairs of them too since I haven’t had much luck with the leggings here. Two out of three pairs developed a mysterious illness called “Camille is too grande for these poorly made, imported from China, tight pants” and have split while trying to contain my backside. This wasn’t just a seam split, but a failure in the fabric that saw it disintegrate and leave a huge gaping hole directly under the buttocks while riding my bike one Ciclovia Sunday; hardly a modest look for a girl in her mid-thirties and truth-be-told it’s scared me off buying more leggings.

My shopping spree wasn’t just all about me and my penchant for Australian brands, I also bought the boys some clothes. A tee and hoodie for D and a couple of singlets for mi novio because he is obsessed with showing off his biceps and rarely finds formfitting singlets for males here and so spends most of our shopping outings drooling over women’s active-wear. If I don’t feed his need for tight muscle-flashing singlets I’m convinced he will one day buy a women’s tank top and work a bit more on his pecs just to fill it out at the front.

I also bought a really cute dinosaur print doona cover for D. As it’s a kids print, the biggest size was a double and I’m now worried that his doona is queen size. That may require another shopping trip to buy a new doona for the dino cover…

I think that was about all the online shopping, but as if I haven’t already spent enough money on things just for the sake of it, I’m still toying with the idea of buying an on-sale Charlie Brown dress as she is my favourite designer and makes such flattering clothes for my shape and has great prints. I’ve also been researching fleecy-lined leggings/footless tights. I asked for a pair of these last time Mum visited since my one and only pair have started to emulate the dodgy street-bought leggings, but think they were either out of season or unavailable in Target or Kmart. Actually any hosiery in general is good. Cool colours and designs of good, non-ballsy quality are hard to find, and if you find them, chances are the biggest size still won’t accommodate the legs of an average sized foreigner who towers over most Colombianas and will leave the crotch hanging about mid-thigh height.

As far as what I’m leaving it up to Mum to buy, Australian food is high on the wanted list. I’ve got a good stock of Vegemite and recently received a care package from a friend via her colleague’s parents who live in Bogotá which included Vegemite. Tim Tams are always in fashion (original flavour or the dark choc covered bites are the best). I also love, love, love Cherry Ripes and ask for Caramello Koalas which D loves (not sure if it’s because it’s chocolate or if he likes the koalas because they seem so Aussie to him). I usually also get Murray River Pink Salt, which if you are Australian you really should have in your house, not just for its great taste and cool colour but because it helps overcome an environmental issue and is one of the flagship brands coming out of my hometown. I also recently got pink salt from my friend so I think I have enough until the next visitor comes.

Other great Australian products I love are Lucas’ Papaw ointment for my lips, Thursday Plantation tea tree ointment for insect bites and, it’s a bit icky to say, feminine hygiene products. I have plenty of papaw and tea tree ointment, and can get by with OB tampons (even though they’re not as great or technologically advanced as my favourite brand back home) but I have been unable to find a good pantyliner here that is thin and doesn’t feel like photocopy paper, so I put in a request for those from Mum.

Living in another country makes you appreciate all the little everyday items from home, and due to their scarcity they become little luxuries. While I’m looking forward to Mum arriving with a suitcase of little luxuries and a taste of my homeland for us, I think she’s hanging out for the luxury of eating patacones, arepas, empanadas and mi novio‘s special arroz de coco.

What are your top three care package items from home? How do you get around unreliable mail services in Colombia?

Food find: Lula

While out and about doing our favourite thing on a Sunday (riding our bikes along the Ciclovia), hunger stopped me right in front of a cute little place I’d often admired but never stopped at. What captured my attention today was the sign out the front saying “Brunch 9 – 12”.

Brunch has long been a very special mealtime event for me. Seeing the English language word in a sea of Spanish made me nostalgic for the weekend brunches I would often have with friends and that I miss enormously. Brunch is a great opportunity to debrief from the previous night out, catch up with friends in a relaxed manner and of course to drink long and languorous coffees.

So I pulled the brake levers on my bike and told mi novio that we were going to have brunch. I think I also said, with a starry-eyed expression, that brunch is my favourite meal of the day and that before sampling any of the restaurant’s offerings I was already going to return with a colleague and also anyone else who comes to stay with us.

Lula is a bakery and coffeeshop with two dining areas, the front courtyard covered with an awning and with greenery all around, and the inside section with gorgeous wooden chairs with a vintage style oval pink and white fabric-covered back in one of those designs you usually see on fancy crockery.

We took the advice of the waiter, who upon asking if it was our first visit, suggested we start with the bread basket while we decided what to order. Out came a beautifully presented tray of assorted breads and croissants and four glass jars with wooden paddles stuck in the top. It looked divine. The smallest pot contained cubes of butter and the waiter explained the other three; a white chocolate and red berry cream, a peach, orange and almond marmalade, and a chunky chocolate and hazelnut spread. We set to work trying out everything from the fanciest bread basket I’ve ever seen. The chocolate and hazelnut spread was exactly like crushed up Ferrero Rochers. The white chocolate and red berry cream had that syrupy berry flavour mixed with the creaminess of the chocolate but my favourite was the runny marmalade which left the orange in the backseat and let the peach and almond flavours and textures dominate.

Our meals of baked eggs with bacon and asparagus and the Mexican styled fried eggs unfortunately didn’t live up to the high expectations the bread basket had set. My delicious and perfectly flavoured baked eggs could have been cooked a bit longer as the runny yolk only added to the thick creamy hollandaise soup they were served in, which was nigh on impossible to eat with a fork. Mi novio’s Mexican ranch style fried eggs lacked flavour and the presentation lacked flair.

As I think has only ever happened to me in Colombia, our lattes came out with the coffee topped with a dollop of froth in the cup, and the milk on the side in a teeny little jug for us to fill ourselves, and only reached three-quarters of the way up the cup.

Despite a few small disappointments with our meals and a sizeable bill for brunch, the bread basket trumped it all and we’ll definitely go back again; even if it’s just for the bread basket as that was the winner of the day.

LulaCalle 116 No. 15B-78, Bogota
www.lula.co

The chocolate-less Easter

Australians are the biggest consumers of chocolate at Easter. I read that somewhere (in an article on taste.com.au that is no longer there). Even if it´s not 100% true, Australians have to be in a top 5 consumers of chocolate at Easter. We´re nuts about the Easter Bunny and egg hunts and all sizes of eggs from the little ones to the super-dooper huge ones. Then there are bunnies, bilbys and mugs with eggs inside them. There are little chocolate chickens and there are chocolate carrots (for the Easter Bunny who still wants his carrot).

So here I am in Colombia on the other side of the world to the Easter chocolate frenzy. There is not a chocolate egg in sight. Not even a little marshmallow chicken. And there is definitely no Easter Bunny. When I learned that the Tooth Fairy here is called El Raton Perez, I asked about El Conejo de Pascua and was met with furrowed brows of confusion. Nope, here is it all about Jesus on the cross.

I kind of expected a low dosage of chocolate and Easter eggs as when I was in Latin America in 2004 there weren´t any of my traditional bunnies and eggs. However this article says Brazil has the second highest consumption in the world. When I was in Brazil for Easter 2004 I consoled my Easter egg fix with the Brazilian style of Easter egg. I can attest to the fact they are clear plastic egg shapes with normal chocolates and truffles inside hung from the ceiling rather than stacked on shelves.

I spent Easter 2011 in the United States and I was surprised by the lack of Easter eggs in the stores. Very surprised.

Chocolate, peanut, sultana and coconut filled and decorate eggs
These are the chocolate, peanut, sultana and coconut filled eggs D and I made and decorated

I´m keen to introduce my Aussie Easter traditions to my Colombian family and since having my Australian family ship an Easter Care Package faces the problems of unreliable (if existent) postal service and extreme (ie melting point) heat, I need to get DIY on the Easter Egg front.

I´ve thought about making my own chocolates. Not too hard right? Well it helps when you have the plastic moulds to make them in and my favourite baking supply store doesn´t stock an egg shaped mould.

The other day I read a tutorial for dyed eggshells filled with chocolate, fruit and nuts on Ali Does It Herself. A bit of traditional egg dying and decorating with the inside goodness of a solid chocolate egg. It was laborious but not too hard. Although Ali didn’t mention that piping the chocolate filling from a plastic ziplock requires hands of steel, or at the very least, oven mitts.  But, all the effort and burnt palms are worth it. Easter is saved. There is chocolate!

It´s a bit of a tangent to this post on Colombia´s lack of Easter eggs, but I came across an interesting article about where the ingredients come from to make them and it got me thinking. Imagine that your chocolate-a-day habit pays the daily wage of a cocoa worker and that the even more expensive Easter eggs and bunnies are at least two day´s wages. For the cocoa workers who barely earn enough to feed their families and have a roof for shelter, a chocolate bar is a complete luxury. Who has ever been haunted by the poverty of Charlie Bucket´s family in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and their sacrifices to buy Charlie a chocolate bar in hopes of a golden ticket? That poverty is the reality of cocoa workers in many places in the world (Oompa-Loompas have better work conditions and can eat all the cacao beans they like). From where I live, I can see that this type of poverty is the case for many Colombians too.

If you celebrate Easter, whether for religious or chocolate reasons, I wish you a very Happy Easter! Maybe like in other holidays celebrated throughout the year, we can also think about those who are less fortunate and perhaps donate the value of an Easter egg to a worthy cause.

A fiesta!

Singing happy birthday
All the kids gathered around to sing happy birthday to D

When asked what he would like for his ninth birthday, a present or a party, D chose a party.

Preparations began by choosing a theme, Ben10, and trying to find all the Ben10 party paraphernalia as cheaply as possible. I’m sure the invitations, plastic cups, cake plates, lolly bags, plastic tablecloth and cardboard neckties on elastic came from some rip-off company and so were cheaper because we weren’t paying for an officially licensed product. But then again, what do a bunch of nine year olds care about royalties.

I brought to the party planning table an Australian mentality: There will be games, there will be prizes, there will be fingerfood and there will be a cake worthy of inclusion in the Australian Women’s Weekly Birthday Cake recipe book. However without having been to a kiddie birthday in Colombia before, I didn’t really have anything to benchmark against. I mean, I could throw a great party by Australian standards, but how would this hold up in Colombia?

The day before the party I was busy making jelly cups. Unfortunately they don’t have Freddo Frogs here, so they weren’t to be frogs in ponds, but just plain old ‘gelatina’ in strawberry, grape and cherry flavours. I said to mi novio “I think 25 jelly cups is enough. I mean not all of the invited kids are going to come to the party.” Mi novio replied with:

“Things are different here, the kids bring along their brothers, sisters, cousins, neighbours, whoever. All they want to do is dance and eat cake/sweets/lollies.”

Sudden panic overcame me as I did the sums. 24 invited kids x 1 sibling + 1 parent + 1 more extra just to be safe = not enough food and drink.

The dinosaur cake
The dinosaur cake, a winner with young and old!

We had the birthday cake (an elaborate test of my cake decorating skills dinosaur based on this plan), 25 jelly cups, little deep fried pastries with cheese inside, 7 litres of neapolitan ice-cream, 28 cupcakes and some wafer biscuits. After some dithering as to what I could make in an oven with no visible temperature markers, I decided we also needed honey joys. I hoped to goodness this would feed the hordes, I couldn’t have all these people think I was a bad hostess.

I spent the morning of the party icing the dinosaur. I have to admit I’m pretty pleased at the outcome given working in a small kitchen with no real baking tools, 30 plus degree humidity and with no proven cake sculpting skills under my belt. It also helps when practically all Colombians buy their birthday cakes from a cake shop, so the dinosaur created multiple wow factors. Wow! It’s a dinosaur! Wow! You baked it yourself! Wow! It tastes great!

Mi novio spent the afternoon blowing up balloons with the help of D, his cousin and his friends in the street and la suegra spent the afternoon putting away her precious ornaments.

At four o’clock the hour of the party arrived. Yet no guests arrived. Half an hour later and the sole guest was one of D’s best buddies from two doors down. As five o’clock started to come around, the house started to fill with kids and relatives. Mi novio and I were busy in the kitchen pouring cups of soft drink and sending out platters of cakes and jelly cups. No sooner had I arrived back in the kitchen would a child come up and hand me their finished cup/plate/spoon, only to be followed by all the other party goers. Whilst their tidiness was to be admired on one hand, the other (busy hand) was wishing they would just leave it under their chair to be collected later so they could stop interrupting us!

In an attempt to get the party revved up, mi novio wanted to commence with the games. So we played musical chairs, and then while he dashed off to the supermarket for serviettes and apples, he told me to start dancing to liven up the party and get the kids dancing. I succeeded in getting the 3 year old nephew to dance, but all the other kids looked at me awkwardly. So I retreated to the kitchen to make my honey joys.

The tiny kitchen was overflowing with used cups and spoons, trays, ingredients for honey joys and 600ml blocks of ice. The music was throbbing at the typical Colombian ‘nobody needs to hear anyone talk’ level and my feet hurt. Was it time to cut the cake yet?

But no, we still had to play the other games. Despite never having played, or even seen it played in real life, I had decided an apple bob would be fun. Because it was raining outside we had the tub of water on a chair inside and each kid had a turn at pulling an apple out with their teeth. I had underestimated how popular this would be with the kids, even with 12 year old girls. They relished the challenge and it was insanely hilarious to see their heads bobbing about and their faces come out dripping wet! Note to self, this is a game we can play again.

Playing pass the parcel
The kids playing pass-the-parcel, they’d never played it before.

After pass-the-parcel where D started to sulk because the parcel never stopped for him to open a layer, we moved on to the cake and happy birthday. I should have remembered from last year that I would need to brush up my birthday singing in Spanish, however I overlooked this detail. The Spanish version of Happy Birthday they sing here seems different to that which I learned in Spanish classes. So I just smiled and murmured and took photos.

With the birthday cake dished out, the party started to grind to a halt, and mi novio and I could breathe a sigh of relief, pour ourselves a soft drink and eat a left over jelly cup. I had been petrified that a zillion kids would come, but there were only about 13. Most of D’s friends from school didn’t show up. I think if they did, it would have been chaos!

D went to bed happy, full of sugar and with lots of new clothes given to him by his guests.

And I went to bed thinking that at the next Colombian party we throw, we need to have ample drink and ice and just make sure we feed our guests as soon as they arrive. That, I think, is the key to a successful Colombian fiesta.

Call the fire brigade

I thought I was about to burn the house down last night in a baking incident gone wrong.

Of recent times, more often than not, I can be found wearing an apron by the oven. I’ve discovered the joys of baking. These joys include producing a successful baked product, the de-stressing that comes from constructing something with love and painstaking care and the accolades from those who are on the baked treat share list. My obsession with baking came to the point where a friend told me to back away from the oven and stop stalking it.

In a way that other girls are getting their vintage on pursuing grandmotherly crafts with considerable talent and success I’m getting my baker on. I’m trying new things that I’ve never made before, or things that I’ve been scared of attempting for fear of failure, and the results lie more on the success end of the measuring spoon.

Last night I faced up to the biggest possible failure when the element in my electric oven caught fire after the springform tin holding my cheesecake started oozing a buttery fat. I hadn’t noticed the smoky kitchen as I was in my room Facebooking or tweeting, or doing something similarly unimportant. It wasn’t until checking on it about 25 minutes into cook time that I discovered this and put a baking tray underneath the tin to catch the drips.

Two minutes later my eyes bulged with disbelief as the coil caught on fire. I watched it burn, as we all do around a campfire, entranced by the flames until I realised I needed to do something. I turned the oven off, but this didn’t abate the flames. I opened the oven door only to realise a moment later that the oxygen from outside the oven was fueling the flames.  I yelled in a panicked voice to my housemate to come quick “The oven is on fire! I don’t know what to do!”

The flames started burning with bright blue bases and didn’t seem to be going out. I started thinking about calling the fire brigade, but was so panicked I couldn’t remember where my phone was and I didn’t want to leave the kitchen to set fire while I wasn’t watching.

After a second panicked call to my housemate because I hadn’t heard her answer, she appeared dripping and in a towel as she’d been in the bath. She didn’t know what to do either but suggested we wait. I wasn’t game to open the oven door again and played a waiting game in front of the oven, every fibre of my being tingling with adrenaline and wishing I had a fire blanket handy.

After what seemed like far too long, the fire eventually burned out and I left the door closed to make sure it didn’t re-ignite.

Eventually I opened the oven door with caution and was greeted by a cloud of smoke. I opened the front and back doors and made sure the ceiling exhaust was on high to clear the smoke. I took out the half-baked cheesecake and did what I always do, I phoned home for advice. It turns out Mum has never set fire to her oven before, so there was no comfort there, but she told me to give it a clean out where all the butter had pooled on the floor of the oven and see if it still worked.

Once the oven had cooled down, I wiped it out with paper towel, amazed at how much liquid butter was in there, and then with a damp soapy sponge. Leaving the oven door open to keep a close eye on things, I turned the thermostat on to a low setting and watched the coil heat up and glow red. Wisps of smoke rose and when I heard some crackling, I quickly turned it off again. After a pause, I tried it again and this time there was no crackling, just smoking from the cleaning and remainder of the fat. I hadn’t broken the oven after all!

Eventually, it was all good to put the cheesecake back in there to cook. I was worried that it would be smoky or burnt or just inedible, but I was pleased to find that despite some small burnt crumbs, it was a perfectly delicious creation and that my friends loved it.

Like a brilliant phoenix rising from the flames, so did my chocolate cheesecake.

Chocolate cheesecake
The cheesecake survived!
Half-eaten cheesecake
... only to be devoured.

The Kansas City pavlova

Kansas City has reinvigorated my roadtrip. I was lonely, tired of my own company and bored. I had never planned on coming to Kansas City, but desperate for company, I took Hiker Buddy Brian up on the offer of his couch so I could have some good conversation and resocialise myself.

It was such a great decision to make as cruising around in Hiker Buddy Brian’s Mustang convertible, riding mechanical bulls, sharing meals, making new friends and having great conversations was exactly what I needed at this halfway point on my way east.

Whilst it is nice (and essential for me) to have time on your own to reflect and whatever, too much can drive you crazy. The alone time has made me appreciate my friendships so much more because without friends, my life would be interminably lonely. And I’m too much of an extrovert to cope well with long periods of solitude. I don’t think I quite thought through this solo roadtrip very well and certainly didn’t think I’d be doing it all on my own. I thought it would be easy to meet people going the same direction as me, although it turns out that if the people I met weren’t nutty, they were going west. I’ve discovered that travelling in America you need to throw out the travel manual you use in other countries or continents. It just doesn’t work the same way.

So I showed my new friends my appreciation for their company and the fun times they showed me by baking a pavlova, the first one in six weeks.

A night of firsts

On the yellow bus
Excited to be on the yellow school bus

Kansas City got really exciting tonight as I filled the evening with a number of firsts, starting with my first visit to Chipotle to pick up a burrito for dinner.

Chipotle is a chain of Subway-like Mexican that has taken America by storm. I’ve heard so many people ooh over it, but had never ventured in until Hiker Buddy Brian and I popped in for a quick bite before heading to another first, a professional soccer game.

We then drove to the game in Hiker Buddy Brian’s black Mustang convertible, my first ride in a convertible. That was quite exciting and I felt super cool as we drove at 70 miles an hour on the freeway with the wind blowing wisps of hair around my face and with me playing my fingers in the wind.

The brand new Sporting Kansas City soccer stadium is right next door to Kansas Speedway, so we ended up parking in the speedway parking lot fairly far away from the stadium. I started to get giggles of excitement as I saw those iconic yellow school buses in the lot and I predicted that they would shuttle us to the stadium. I could scarcely contain my excitement as that prediction came true and I was soon climbing aboard one with the awe and wonder of a small child. Whilst they cannot hold a candle to the school buses kids in Australia travel on, and are historic relics that somehow keep plying the bus routes with the bare minimum of fittings, I was completely enthralled in the experience and emerged hot and perspiring but jubilant.

According to Hiker Buddy Brian, scalping is de rigour and an accepted practice in America. As we didn’t have tickets for the game, which had already started, I was looking forward to that first experience too, but there were no scalpers and we had to do a lap around the stadium to get to the box office.

Watching Sporting Kansas City
Excited to be at my first professional soccer match

Inside, we found vacant seats close enough to our allocated seats down the end closest to the Sporting Kansas City supporters who were cheering loudly and bringing a crazy, festive atmosphere to the ground. I couldn’t help but smile and be in a good mood.

Shortly after sitting down, we saw Kansas City score the very first goal in the newly built stadium. They’d only played one previous game in the venue which was a draw at nil all.  Confetti burst out from behind the goals, the crowd jumped to their feet and cheered as loud as their voices would allow them. It was so much fun.

I bought a bag of peanuts in their shells at half time, because the cashier had a little sticker on front of the register saying “Would you like peanuts with that?”. I wasn’t sure what to do with the shells as it is a messy process and I’d never eaten them at a special event. Hiker Buddy Brian told me to throw them on the ground. My littering sensibilities struggled with this. I looked at him and said “Really?” and he was like “Yeah, of course, they come through and clean everything up afterwards.” I was still hesitant. If I didn’t throw the shells on the ground, it would be easier for them to clean up, but the only other place I could put them was back in the bag with the ones I still had to shell and eat. I tentatively tossed one on the ground under the seat in front of me and felt desperately naughty. I then countered with the argument “why would you want to throw them on the ground and make a mess at your feet”. But with little other choice and hankering for salty peanuts, I threw the shells on the ground, kicking them under the seat in front of me so as to avoid getting the shells and skins between my toes.

It was so much fun. A night of calculating firsts and then to top it all off, from the safety of the apartment, we watched an amazing thunderstorm sweep across the city with flashes of light, cracking lightning bolts and some claps of thunder that made you feel as if you’d been cuffed behind the ear.