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?

Settling in to Bogotá

I’ve spent the past few weeks settling into Bogotá, my new job and our apartment. After seven months living with la suegra, I’ve been busy creating a home with mi novio. The shopping and nesting has been aided somewhat by three long weekends in the space of a month.

Apartment hunting in Bogotá isn’t as straight-forward as I thought it would be, and we ran into one huge obstacle, the aseguradora. It seems the majority of apartments for rent send the applications off to an insurance company who scrutinise your income and debts and those of your guarantor (in Spanish it’s called a co-deudor). Your guarantor needs to not only own property, but have an income higher than your monthly rent as well. They also must be Colombian, or here in Colombia to sign the paperwork, a difficult requirement to meet if you are a foreigner. All this is just to RENT an apartment.

When our application for our favourite apartment failed because our co-deudor didn’t have one document they were asking for and we refused to pay a deposit of COP$9,000,000 (US$4,680) we had to start all over again and about COP$100,000 (US$52) poorer with the application processing fee of COP$80,000 and the zillions of phone calls that were made over it.

We were more than a little disheartened, but thankfully mi novio spent a day traipsing around the neighbourhood where we wanted to live and set up four inspections. We loved the first one. It was very similar to the previous favourite, but had three bedrooms plus a servant’s quarters (something that I’ve never seen in Australia except heritage properties) and was a little bit more expensive. We loved the apartment so much that we called the owner and managed to arrange a contract where in lieu of going through the aseguradora, we drew up a contract with the owner and agreed to pay one month in advance so we will always be a month ahead of our rent payments. We cancelled the rest of the appointments and started jumping around with joy.

Because we were dealing directly with the owner – who conveniently is a lawyer – we were able to move in three days later. Woohoo! No more hostel!

After the early morning handover with the owner, we hit the shops to start buying homewares. We happened upon a great bargain on a TV at 25% off the regular price, and although it wasn’t the highest priority, it found its way to the register along with a fridge, washing machine, crockery set and a few other bits and pieces. When I went to pay for everything with my Australian credit card it came back rejected. Uh-oh! It turns out my credit card had been blocked after withdrawing cash from the ATM (which I never do) and in three transactions in order to get the amount we needed to pay our landlord that morning. We then had to reprioritise our purchases as I couldn’t pay for all of them with my Australian debit card either and mi novio had nothing left in his account. So we took the TV home as that was on sale for one day only and I wasn’t prepared to lose the COP$300,000 discount.

Despite the stretched daily finances, we went to another store where we bought an inflatable couch that flips into a mattress so we had something to sleep on. Realising that we hardly had any cash, I went to the ATM to withdraw enough to get us back to the hostel and then a taxi with all our bags to the apartment. I had insufficient funds. Slightly preoccupied, we went back to our new apartment, complete with big screen TV, and counted every last coin to come to a grand total of COP$14,000 (US$7.30). We needed COP$3,000 for the bus to the hostel, and then we only had COP$9,000 for the taxi back, which was going to be a stretch. We were also starving because we had hardly eaten all day.

First night in our apartment with just the essentials.
First night in our apartment with just the essentials.

I thought mi novio had a few thousand pesos in his account so I said we should go to the supermarket to get some food. Unfortunately his card was rejected. So I tried my credit card again. No go. I then handed over my debit card praying the purchase of COP$12,000 would go through, and it did. We had similar pure luck in flagging down a taxi and negotiating with the driver to peg the fare at all we had, COP$9,000. So rather than celebrating our first night in our own place in a grand style, we sat on our inflatable couch/bed in front of the TV on the floor eating bread rolls and sharing a bottle of Coca-Cola.

The next two weeks were filled with the arrival of our furniture and belongings from Santa Marta, shopping for more homewares and four deliveries of white goods (although I should call them silver-goods since the fridge and washing machine aren’t white) and furniture. Delivery by delivery, our apartment transformed from a shell into a home.

I love the process of setting up home – must be my Taurean traits shining through – and this is the second time in two years that I’ve furnished a place pretty much from scratch. This apartment of our own has been such a long time coming that I’ve been reluctant to leave it at the weekend, which I’m sure has caused my housebound novio some frustrations. I’ve been baking and although the oven isn’t perfect (the temperature dial requires the use of pliers and the temperature range doesn’t have precision markings) it is holding up to my needs and placating mi novio somewhat with sweet treats.

The best part is that we live a short walk from my work so not only do I avoid the gridlocked commute,

I can come home for lunch. If that’s not luxury in Bogotá, I don’t know what is.

First random act of kindness in Bogota

It’s  been a big and exhausting week filled with adjusting to Bogotá’s altitude, wrapping up in warm clothes, being in the big city, finding my way on local buses, starting my new job and apartment hunting.

We spent a full day on Monday going to various inspections we had lined up and also traipsing around the general area we are looking to live in looking for Se Arriendo signs that indicate a vacant apartment. Renting an apartment in Bogotá is not easy because of all the requirements you need to meet, and I’m sure I’ll write a post about the house-hunting process sometime soon. We had a couple more inspections on Tuesday and Wednesday and currently have our application in for a fabulous apartment very close to my work. We have our fingers crossed everything goes through fine and that we can move in next week!

On Tuesday I started my new job and I already love it. It’s going to be interesting, challenging and I get to work with a great bunch of professionals in a bilingual office environment. I also have an office window that looks out over Bogotá with a most incredible view, so you can be sure I’ll be taking regular ‘rest your eyes and look into the distance away from the computer screen’ exercises.

Last night on the bus back to the hostel where I’m staying until we get an apartment I was on the receiving end of lovely piece of Bogotano kindness. Buses are notoriously jam-packed and if you end up standing in the aisle, you have to hold on with two hands firmly gripping the rails in a white knuckle embrace so as not to be flung around like a bowling ball as the driver brakes and swerves at high speeds. The girl standing next to me, who wasn’t tall enough to reach the ceiling rails, slipped into the newly vacated seat directly in front of her (but not before hovering over the seat for just a minute in a Bogotá idiosyncrasy I had read about on Banana Skin Flip Flops and Sarepa). I moved a step down the bus to where she had been standing and she obviously saw that my oversized shoulder bag was heavy, awkward and in serious danger of smacking her in the head, so she said “Te ayudo?” (can I help you?) motioning to take my bag for me. So I handed over my bag which she nursed on her knee until I got off. I had seen the exact same kindness the day before by a girl sitting next to me taking the unwieldy backpack of a guy standing in the aisle and resting it on her knee and the day before that when a man gave up his seat for a pregnant woman and she returned the favour by minding his bag for him.

This small gesture is surprising because it is where famous Colombian hospitality and Bogotano politeness meets an ingrained mistrust of others and wins. Mi novio keeps telling me to be careful on the buses because they have a reputation for thefts, and here I am handing over my bag with all my important papers and valuables to a perfect stranger to mind for me. I have seen and heard of many examples of Colombian’s mistrust in others, right up to not trusting family members, although I think that is mostly about not trusting anyone with your money. But I love that regardless, people are lovely and helpful and kind. It makes me love this city a little bit more.

This week has passed by in such a blur that I’ve had to pinch myself that yes, I am in Bogotá and yes, life is great.

The Photo Vault: Millewa Pioneer Village

 

Millewa Pioneer Village

Millewa Pioneer Village, Victoria, Australia, 2006

A journalist friend of mine had a story to file about an open day at the Millewa Pioneer Park in Meringur, a tiny town about an hour or so from Mildura, so she invited me along for the day. I was very involved in my community, and this is just one of the types of things that would fill up my weekends.

The Millewa Pioneer Village is a site where a collection of buildings and vintage farm implements, show what life as a farming pioneer in the olden days was like. There is a good collection of history and displays that while interesting, also show the decline in population that is is an important issue in rural Australia.

The population drain on rural and regional Australia isn´t just the young people being drawn to the bright lights of the cities for study and work, but is also a result of changing farm practices, technological advances in agriculture and economics. In order to make a living, farms are bigger than they were when the settlers arrived to farm their parcel of land. Over the years farms have been consolidated, and what was once a viable farm for a family and their grown children also working the farm, no longer provides a living for just one family. So as a result of the growing farm sizes to support a family, the population in these rural areas has declined to reflect this change.

It´s a difficult issue because services that were once available, also become unviable. But one of the beautiful things about rural communities is their spirit and their tenacity. The open day was a success and many people came out to support the day, not just locals, but people from Mildura and other small towns.

I miss my community. I miss being involved in activities and events that make my hometown a better place. I miss the friendships and acquaintances I have there and I miss bumping into people I know and having a little chat truly caring about what they are up to. I haven´t yet found a way of carving out my own community here in Santa Marta, and perhaps that is another factor making me feel rootless at the moment. But this photo, of the mallee scrub, with a gorgeous flowering gum and the iconic corrugated iron water tank makes me feel that my community will always be there, waiting for me to return.

The Photo Vault is where I will be sharing my favourite photos (and their stories) that deserve better than being lost in the depths of my iPhoto never to be shared.

Back in Colombia

We’d kept it a surprise. No one in Colombia knew we were coming back earlier. They were all awaiting our arrival on the 21st of October.

The decision to come back sooner came from an intersection of a few thoughts and feelings. Mi novio missed his family. He’d been away from them for 4 months and he was keen to see them again. The travels we were doing in Argentina and Chile just exacerbated his desire to go  get back on home soil. We also realised we were spending far more than we had budgeted. I had underestimated how expensive it was for two people to travel.

Unfortunately to change our flights was also super expensive. We virtually had to forfeit our flight and buy new ones. So we looked at travelling to Colombia by bus. Money can be a strong motivator and in a move away from my normal logic, mi novio convinced me that taking the bus was a sensible financial option and that it wouldn’t be the nightmare of my imagination.

After 11 days en route from Argentina, 4 border crossings and 7 nights sleeping in buses, we arrived to the tropical heat of Santa Marta.

Loading bags in Chile
Loading bags in Santiago. Even an excess baggage charge doesn’t compel people to travel lightly.

Laden with 2 suitcases, 2 large backpacks, 2 small backpacks and a carry-on bag we walked the narrow street to mi novio‘s house and opened the gate. From inside the house there the was a flurry of excitement and shouts as the realisation of our early arrival dawned.

Almost two weeks after arriving and with the flights we have booked set to fly tomorrow, I can look back and say it was a good decision to come back earlier than planned. What we’ve accomplished in this time here and the money we’ve saved are just two small benefits when compared alongside the reunion of family and the happiness I saw on his son and mother’s faces.

Although the 11 days of travel and 7 nights in buses faded into a distant memory as soon as we left the bus terminal in Santa Marta, it is an experience I am not keen to repeat and I still think we are slightly crazy for giving up the airfares that would have got us here in 8 hours.

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Are you also looking to do an international bus trip in South America?

Here’s some details of our trip to help you out.

Buenos Aires, Argentina to Santiago, Chile > approx 19 hours. Most companies offering this route stop in Mendoza. Cata Internacional has a daily direct bus. We took Pullman Bus which leaves Sundays and Wednesdays and was $450 Argentinian Pesos each (other companies quoted $500 pesos). This was probably the most attentive service we received on the buses. We were plied with coffee and soft drink, given a snack sack, dinner was provided in a restaurant and a ham and cheese sandwich provided for breakfast and there were good, new release movies shown. The seats weren’t as comfortable as some of the others but we were provided with a pillow and blanket. Our tickets said we could take 20kg of luggage each, but this was not weighed. Note: We went to Santiago to pick up luggage we’d stored and there are direct buses to Lima from Buenos Aires.

Cruz del Sur bus
Crossing the Chile/Peru border.

Santiago, Chile to Lima, Peru > approx 52 hours. There are a few companies (Cruz del Sur, Ormeno, Andesmar and more) that offer this service, although they all operate on different days. We went with Cruz del Sur and paid $40,000 Chilean Pesos each. We chose Cruz del Sur for the departure day and also because they provided service on board the bus and most meals and also for the baggage allowance of 30kg. The bus companies seemed to be stricter on overweight baggage than airlines, and we had to pay 800 Chilean pesos for each kilo overweight. I would definitely recommend Cruz del Sur as we received very good service from the dedicated waiter who always advised us 10 minutes before we were to stop and told us how long we were stopping for. He also kept the movies going back to back during the trip and showed a good variety of new-release films (ie not just action films!) and he was also helpful at putting on the English sub-titles when I asked. Blankets were provided. Cruz del Sur have a connecting service to Guayaquil, Ecuador if you are heading further north.

Onboard Ormeno
Enjoying the space on the bus after most passengers got off in Cali.

Lima, Peru to Bogota, Colombia > approx 76 hours. There weren’t as many operators as we had expected, and since Lima doesn’t have a central bus terminal, it’s even harder to find them. In the end we had to go with Ormeno despite having read bad reviews online and hearing that it is just a bus trip, there is no service included. We paid US$180 each (you can withdraw US dollars from ATMs in Lima and there is an ATM inside the terminal. This did not include any meals. The bus stops at various places for you get off, go to the toilet for number 2’s and eat. Two drivers completed the entire distance and they were drivers only. They didn’t advise anything about how long each stop was for and were rather surly when asked anything. The seats were the most comfortable of all the trip with a pillow top cushion. However there are no blankets or pillows provided for a journey of 3 nights (this bus also stops in Guayquil and Quito, Ecuador and Cali in Colombia and some days has an onwards service to Venezuela). We were also only allowed 20kg of stowed luggage and 6kg hand luggage. Each extra kilo was charged at US$1, however they were slightly less precise about the weighing process and didn’t charge us for the full overweight baggage we had. Ormeno definitely wasn’t as good as other companies and the movies were sporadic and seemingly of the one genre, but also it wasn’t completely horrible.

A couple of things happened while I was away

And I’m not referring to any of the local and family tidbits my mum shared with me while I was on the road.

Window signs
There's not really room for three of these LCD signs in this Ascot Vale shopfront.

There are two things I saw while in America that made me think to myself “Look at that. I’m glad we don’t have that in Australia!” It wasn’t banking related, or anything nearly as important as healthcare. But they were:

  1. Family stickers on cars that include all family members, pets and the kitchen sink
  2. Flashing LCD signs in store windows saying “Open”

Every time I saw one of these things I would have a slight inwards gloat that we wouldn’t be that cheesy back home.

So you can imagine my surprise, my disgust and my feeling of foolishness when those two things haven’t just taken America by storm but Australia too.

I think the first time I saw a car back home with a family sticker emblazoned on it, I actually said “Nooo” aloud in disbelief. I struggle comprehend why people feel the need to display their whole family, cartoon style, on their vehicles. I guess we’ve moved beyond “Baby on Board” signs and bumper stickers telling people to back off if they can read it. Do we blame Facebook for this? Are people wanting to extend beyond their online social network and instead post about themselves and their family in a moving billboard style? I’m not sure what to think, I can only shake my head.

I justified the flashing LCD open signs in the US when I realised that this would be helpful for people during a snowstorm. Like Laura Ingalls Wilder leaving a light in the window to help Pa find his way home in a blizzard in the Little House on the Prairie books. However that logic does not apply to Australia where there are really only a handful or two of towns above the snowline. Here these signs are just tacky attention grabbers from DIY marketers.

To remind myself that yes, I am really back in Australia, I have indulged in sausage rolls, meat pies, pavlovas, Vegemite and regularly catch the tram.

A parcel!

Arriving home after a day of sights and shopping with Movie Lass, I had the elation you get when a big box with your name on it is waiting for you.

Contents of care package
Yum!

My friend Cathy had posted a care package to me filled with all sorts of goodies from home. It was so lovely.

It included:

  • TV snacks
  • Uncle Toby’s muesli bars
  • Wagon Wheels
  • A tube of Vegemite
  • A pack of Saos
  • Wizz Fizz
  • Anzac biscuits
  • Vanilla essence
  • 2 packs of Chocolate Ripple biscuits
  • Recipe for chocolate ripple cake

Topping it off was a lovely card emblazoned with the Mae West quote

Too much of a good thing can be wonderful!

So now I can make a chocolate ripple cake (love, love, love) for our upcoming Easter lunch and have an Anzac bikkie or two on Anzac Day next week.

Thanks Cathy, you really brightened my day and I can’t wait to share these bits of home with my friends.

A tapestry of paddocks

Aerial view flying in to Mildura
Window seat view

Wow. Flying in to Mildura always gives me pit-of-the-stomach sentimentality. I love it.

The patchwork of horticulture in amongst sand dunes, scrub and lake beds with the snaking Murray river as the defining feature never fails to enthrall me as I look out the window of the Dash 8 aeroplane.

Family property
Home sweet home

I picked out my parents’ property, its layout is easy to spot from the air. The roof of Dad’s new shed glints like a shiny new coin, outshining the house and older sheds.

The current abundance of water is fascinating. In one place, shallow water pools at the bottom of the sandhills glisten as we fly over, the sun catching at different angles to give a shimmer that feels as though it needs to be accompanied by one of those rainmaker stick sound effects.

Not paling in comparison is the feeling I get when flying over Mildura. A combination of homely nostalgia, of safety, of easiness. I won’t be flying in to Mildura for a while now, so I soak up this feeling as it washes over me.

Holy moley, me oh my

This song, Home, is one of my favourites, and this is such a cute cover of it.

With over a million views on YouTube since posting on 31 December, it has gone viral and now has more than twice the number of views than the official video on TheMagneticZeros channel. I first saw  Jorge and Alexa’s version on a blog yesterday (which I’ve since forgotten) and then again when a friend added it to her Facebook feed.

The first time I ever heard this song was at the beginning of my friend Richard Gray’s (aka Ricky Hollywood) film Summer Coda at its Mildura premiere in October 2010. Sadly it isn’t on the film’s soundtrack (though there are many fab songs from Australian artists on there) but given that I’ve seen Summer Coda six times now, I will always associate this song with the film and the opening sequence that strikes a deep chord of nostalgia with me.

So I’m going to keep watching both of these versions on YouTube because Home takes me to a magical, carefree, beautiful and happy place. It makes my insides backflip like a gymnast and my heart radiate.

You can enjoy the full version of the song and film clip here:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3HNY0rx2fw4

Keep whistling.