Sunday, September 4, 2011

Latino Days

Yesterday, when the plane touched down on Kolkata’s NSC Bose Airport, I felt a huge smile split my face. Homecoming does that to me. And this time, I had returned from half the world away. Literally.

I was on a two week trip to Latin America. Chile and Colombia to be precise.

I was excited in the weeks leading up to the trip. But also very tired. It was an official trip and there was loads to be done in the days leading up to it. Late nights working. Whole nights working. Weekends. Early mornings. You name it and the chances were that I was working at that time. Add to that, the pressure of unseen clients, who were – surprise, surprise – very demanding. Even a few hours before we were to board our flight, my colleague and I were busy instructing the team who would be working at the office when we were gone. Phew.

Willy-nilly, we boarded the flight(s). And boy, was it a long trip. Forty eight hours, if you want a number. Including a twelve hour stopover in Sao Paolo. And no, we could not go out because that required a transit visa.

View of Andes from a plane
But the first sight of snow-covered Andes, as we approached Santiago, made me feel so glad. It was breath-taking. I have professed my love for the mountains in my previous posts. This sight took it to a new level. I had never seen the white peaks from the height of the sky. And there I was, having my jaw drop, eyes wide open and heart stopping with the sight of snowy mountains spread out like some feast for all hedonists below us. Awesome.

The first three days in Santiago were spent in a whirlwind of workshops, meeting, telecons and dinners / lunches with clients. But I still could savour the view of those mountains from my balcony. The darkness that still enveloped the city at 7.30 in the morning. The biting cold that penetrated the two layers of clothes. The wide, clean streets. The very European and chic feel of the city. The Spanish architecture in the older parts of the city. And of course, the chivalry of Latino men. Yes, they open the doors for you and would never precede you when leaving a room. (I don’t particularly need this but it does make a girl feel good, I swear). I also spotted a couple of Marutis (the cars, in case you are wondering) and made me realize that it is truly a global world.

But it was not all good. Finding vegetarian food feels like a quest for Holy Grail. It got a little easier, once we located the nearest Subway. And then there’s the language issue. Getting people to understand English is nearly always an exercise in frustration. And no, it’s not an accent issue. The Latinos generally do not know English. Spanish is the lingua franca. It is not that difficult a language to follow if you are reading it. The staccato speech, however, is a trial. And the place is expensive. A five minute ride in the cab would cost you a couple of thousand pesos or about hundred rupees. Compared to India, though people told us that it is cheaper compared to Brazil, Argentina etc. Especially the branded stuff. We, however, found that buying souvenirs was also exorbitant. I think, we were also limited by our ability to bargain, with language and our so obvious foreign appearances being the leading causes.

Colombia was another six hours flight away. Now, this was a country, I went to with a lot of pre-conceived notions. Drugs, lawlessness et al, fed by books and movies, led by Mr. Forsythe and company. Also, Wikitravel advised not walking alone at night, not hailing cabs on your own and locking the doors of the cabs, when sitting inside!
So, I was pleasantly surprised in Bogota. I am sure that those parts of Colombia exist. But the area that we were staying in and the places we went to were decidedly upmarket, with a distinct cosmopolitan feel to them.

Bogota was also cold but closer to Kolkata winters – chilly but pleasant. My hotel room was airy, spacious and cheery, with full-length windows dominating one wall. The food situation was also better, though French Fries would turn out to be our principal source of sustenance in these two weeks that we spent in Latin America.

Metal Sculpture of a Salt Miner, Zipaquira
We had a weekend at our disposal. We chose to visit Catedral de Sal de Zipaquirá on the first day. It came highly recommended by a Colombian we had met in Santiago. It is an underground Cathedral, built in a salt mine. It is some 200 metres below the surface of the earth and you walk the entire way in and out. It is quite awesome and you can taste salt on your tongue even as you speak. There is a salt waterfall – an entire wall covered with raw salt. We also took a tour of the miner’s route, which involved a five minute walk in a completely dark and narrow cave, with our headlamps turned off. And trust me, it feels like hours if you have to let you hands be your eyes.

But my favourite part was the wishing well. It was a small pool, with coins of various denominations glittering at its bottom. You could make a wish by turning your back to the well and throwing a coin (denomination and currency irrelevant) over your left shoulder with your right hand. I made a wish and threw the coin. And it hit the water. Not everyone’s did. So, I like to live in hope J

Anyway, what surprised me that this man-made wonder is barely thirty years old and not centuries, like I had originally believed. While I was still awed, I realized that it was a very clever piece of marketing that we could learn from back home. Same was the case with El Museo del Oro (the Gold Museuem). Beautiful prehistoric and tribal gold ornaments, weapons and other artefacts displayed artistically with cleverly designed videos, photographs, light and sound shows that reel you in. And entry is free. It is well-maintained, with no empty cases or missing descriptions. The thought of Indian Museum trying something similar crossed my mind several times.

Once, the weekend was over, we again spent most of our time working, though on the last day, we visited this delightful cafe called Crepes and Waffles. It turned out to be a chain of cafes, quite famous in Colombia. It had, much to our delight, quite a spread of vegetarian dishes, including one called Gandhi!

At the end of two weeks, though, we were ready to return home. And my heart soared higher and higher as we changed flights at Sao Paolo, Doha and then finally at Delhi. It was fitting that on the flight to Kolkata, I saw one of the most amazing visions. A huge white lion, sitting regally on the cottony clouds, with the morning sun, shining bright. A pity, I do not have a picture to share with you.

Quite a long post this has been. So, I will end it here. Although I will definitely do another one on the most common questions / comments that we heard. It was strange being a foreigner and being the object of some other people’s preconceived notions.

An experience to remember, to say the least. This travelling to places actually half a world, three continents and seven seas away.
Until next time. Ciao.


  1. You're so lucky to have had the opportunity to visit such an unusual place. Not many people from our part of the world get to travel to South America!

    Just curious - did you consider extending your trip to visit Machu Pichu and the Amazon? :)

    Being a vegetarian is a nightmare in any country other than India. Our common friend in Sydney suffers quite a bit b/c of his dietary preferences :)

    BTW, there's a wishing fountain in Rome as well. It's called Trevi Fountain.

  2. I have to agree...i don't know many people who can claim to have visited Latin America. Could not have possibly extended the trip - it was two weeks long in the first place :-) i know about Trevi fountain. It's just that the one in Colombia was the first that I ever made a wish at