Small things (Cositas)

We’re in Popayan right now, another college town, that’s also full of colonial buildings, and good snacks.  I’m so behind in writing about all the smaller towns we’ve visited. (We generally like smaller towns and cities, which is why we skipped Cali.) We’re staying in a hostel next to the Cathedral that’s a converted 100 year old mansion, overlooking the main square.

In fact as I’m writing this, I can hear singing (Mass) in the Cathedral next door. This balances out the (1) 2 nights in the Salento hostel across from the cemetary before this and (2) 2 nights in the Manizales hostel called Kumanday before that. I think Kumanday is an indigenous word, and probably not supposed to be pronounced “Come and die.”

I also wanted to write about the small things, everyday life and the quirks of travel in Colombia. (I know T is sick of hearing out this country, but we’re near the southern tip and will soon be in Ecuador!)

Dishwashing paste, not liquid:

Since we’re staying in hostels with kitchen facilities, the common courtesy/practice is to wash whatever cups and dishes you use after you’re done. Instead of a bottle of liquid dishwashing liquid, the stuff comes in a plastic tub (like a sour cream container) as a wet paste. You swipe some paste with your sponge and wash, it doesn’t foam up much, but has a slight scouring powder to it. I actually like it more than the dishwashing liquid at home. Although I haven’t used enough of it to gauge whether it softens my hands while I do the dishes like Palmolive. Although in this photo, it advertises the inclusion of aloe vera (presumably to soften your hands.)


Milk and yogurt and water in a bag:

Milk and yogurt can be purchased  in larger, family sized quantities in a plastic bag (you just snip the corner off, and pour.) There are plastic holders with a handle you can buy for your kitchen in which you place the bag of milk or yogurt for easy pouring. I guess a plastic bag is cheaper than a plastic jug or bottle or lidded tub, and might use slightly up slightly less resources. I remember in Bangkok in the mid 70’s, you could buy Thai-Danish Dairy Farm milk in a bag too (the type that had to be refrigerated, not the shelf-stable at room temperature type)

Presentation of cutlery:


When eating at a restaurant, there are no fork/spoons/knives at the place settings for the table. Rather, you order your food, and then the waiter will bring a little plastic tray (shaped rather like the reusable plastic hot dog holders back in the US) with the appropriate spoons, knives, forks, and napkins (and little packets of ketchup or salad dressing). I wonder if this custom started because most restaurants don’t have too much cutlery in stock, or if they are afraid customers will steal them if there are too many lying around. (Off tangent: My grandfather used to own a restaurant in Canton, with two innovations:  ivory chopsticks for the customers, who kept stealing them; and pretty, well-trained waitresses, who kept getting poached by other restaurants or by men to become their girlfriends, I can’t remember which. Grand-dad didn’t stay long in the restaurant business.)

Tailpipe pollution:

I’ve raved about the public transportation infrastructure, and even all the highway roads we’ve been on have been pretty good. But the smell of tailpipe fumes is pervasive, and it’s quite common to see belches of black smoke from all types of buses. (Mom, when you come, definitely bring your little nose/mouth mask).  Even when you’re sitting inside the bus with open windows, you can smell it. If you’re in a city with narrow streets, especially in the historical/colonial neighbourhoods, the fumes also smell a bit strong. Maybe after I’ve been here longer, I’ll get used to it again.


When we were hiking down the Rock (La Piedra) near Guatape, kids were doing wheelies with their motor scooters on the ramp up to the parking lot. (It reminded me of Biker riding his bike in the 4-level parking garage ramp of our grandmother’s apartment when we were kids.)   Like many other developing countries, motorcycles are really popular here, not only for getting around in the city but around in the countryside, and people use it for longer road trips (really like Che Guevara back in the Motorcycle Diaries.) (Motorcycle helmets often have the license plate number on them as well. We’ve met a few travellers travelling by motorcycle. Some of the more horrible bus rides have me fantasizing about travelling by motorcycle: more flexibility in schedule and destinations not well served by buses, and maybe les car-sickness for me in the windy roads of these mountainous areas.  Yes, motorcycles as an alternative to buses, although all my cycling friends would be horrified/scandalized and persuade me to get a Bike Friday instead. . .

Burnt toast fantasies:

The first and worst bus ride we were on (so far): 18 hours overnight in a luxury, air con bus with reclining seats . . . unfortunately we didn’t know what we were doing and didn’t request specific seats. We ended sitting next to the toilet at the back. At first it smelled like artificial air-freshener, which I find nauseating, and then as more people used the toilet, it smelled more, well, organic. Either way, it was bad. I started fantasizing about the smell of burnt toast. I thought about strategies to combat smells for the next such bus-ride. Maybe I would buy a box of baking soda, or pulverized charcoal.  (Unfortunately, Joe doesn’t like the smell of Tiger Balm, otherwise I would be sniffing it the whole ride long, other passengers be damned. Or else, I would simply sit a few seats away from him.)  It was enough to make me wish that smoking was permitted on the bus! The other torture for me was that we were seated over the rear axle, so it felt bumpier, and each curve of the road accentuated my car-sickness. Plus the bus had to detour to a longer, alternate route, on a minor road, I think there was some sort of strike going on; the trip normally was supposed to take 12 hours. The only way I made it without getting sick was to try and sleep, because every waking movement was nauseating.  That’s when I had to set the imagination of my nose to smell burnt toast.  And now I prefer smaller buses that have no toilets.

Pre-toasted toast


In Colombia (and perhaps other parts of Latin America, we shall see) you can buy bags of commercial brands of pre-toasted bread, called ‘tostada’. They’re square, white bread, rather thick, slightly smaller than Taiwanese toast, and dry and crunchy straight out of the bag. I like them now, although I found the concept a bit odd, at first. Maybe it’s because electric pop-up toasters aren’t very common/popular around here. I haven’t encountered one yet.

At one of the hostels we stayed at, there was toast provided for breakfast, and it was heated in a tonged/grill contraption over the gas stove, and was unevenly toasted. This was a couple of days before the awful bus ride, which was why the memory of slightly burnt toast was such a Proustian panacea.

Blenders and parts:

Back home it’s hard to buy spare parts for coffee makers and  blenders.  We have a French press, a nd whenever the glass beaker breaks, it’s a pain to get a replacement.  Likewise, many people probably own blenders, but don’t use them very much. Maybe once in a while, people make margaritas or smoothies. Here, blenders are ubiquitous: everyone drinks fruit juices which they make themselves at home, or buy on the streets and shops.  You can easily find replacement parts everywhere, the four-prong rotator, the lids, etc.  I’ve seen hawker vendors selling blender parts. I think that’s why the typical Colombian diet is actually balanced, because even if the meal has very little vegetables, and more starch and protein, most people consume a lot of fruit through juices. We met a Colombian who travelled to the US Midwest for a couple of weeks, and he was unhappy with/not used to the lack of fruits/fruit juices in America.

Hot water heater

“So I have to ask….have you had any encounters with those crazy Colombian electric showers?  I really think they’re unique to Colombia, as I’ve never encountered them anywhere else, but could be wrong.” Brad emailed me – he’d been to Cartagena before.   I will let you know after I go to a few more South American countries. But in general, there’s hot water at most of the hostels we’re staying at and Joe posted a picture on instagram.

The shower head-water heater in-one does plug into the electric socket that’s high up on the wall and the ceiling, which has made me slightly nervous about ‘will I get electrocuted?’  It’s overhead, so having a shower cap is handy. They also take some finesse to use, since there is limited heating capacity (which may lower risk of electrocution), the water only feels warm when you don’t turn on the water for too high a volume. Then the temperature is a bit variable, sometimes it feels like it runs out of hot water, and then reduces to almost no water before it’s heated up another batch of water to drizzle down on you. The minor inconveniences of travel. So far, we are keeping clean, at least!

Virgin Mary shrines at bus stations and airports


There’s always a little shrine to Virgin Mary (or Jesus) at bus stations, airports, and even on highways, where people can go pray, and light a candle for a safe journey. And/or maybe the bus drivers pray to her to protect them occupational hazards!  It reminds me of the spirit houses on every property in Thailand, but whereas the spirit house houses the guardian spirit of the property, and is tied to a fixed location; the Virgin Mary is the go-to gal when you are traveling between fixed locations and need someone to protect you in transit.

No rubber bands:

It’s very odd, but I don’t think I’ve encountered any rubber bands since I’ve been here. Adhesive tape and staples, yes.  Rubber bands, no.  I have yet to see rubber bands in the continent from which rubber originated, other than the ones I brought along with me from the US. It’s odd, because in Thailand, rubber bands are an integral part of the packaging of so many snacks and take-out foods one buys. Here, you can buy all sorts of snacks and take-out foods, but no rubber bands are involved with the packaging. Rubber bands are useful for (1) if you buy a packet of snacks, and want to secure the package after you open it, you use a rubber band; (2) having a rubber band around your wallet gives it a slight amount of friction that makes you more aware if someone is trying to pickpocket your wallet. This is Joe’s strategy, but the rubber bands keep breaking over time, and I’m running low on rubber bands for him. Small-time vendors seal bags of peanuts with the fold-over a metal ruler and heat with a candle method.

Police presence:

As tourists you welcome it, at home you’d be put off by it.  At the concert for the opening of the Feria de las Flores, which was on a closed off street, blocked off by mobile fences, everyone had to their ID checked, and was frisked.  The men had one set of entrances, to be frisked by male police officers. There were corresponding women police officers frisking before the women at the women’s entrance. It was rather ticklish.  The Policia Nacional also have a band (like USO?) that performed at the beginning concert, and was pretty well received.

The Policia Nacional have some positive PR domestically by running one of the most popular radio stations in the country, that plays popular music. (I don’t know if they have a lot of preachy/propaganda service announcements or not.)


Colombia is still grappling with eradication of cocaine production. As producers have moved to more remote areas to escape detection, they are also polluting pristine environments, as it take a lot of chemicals to process cocaine. So one way they are appealing to people not use cocaine is that in buying cocaine, you are helping those who are destroying the environment. I wonder how effective it is?

(***My niece the library blogger, and your brother: ADVISORY- You are recommended to not read the rest of this post! ***)

Busty mannequins


The mannequins we’ve seen in the smaller clothing stores seem to be built to different specifications than those in the US or Asia. They look like at least a D cup.

Love motels:


They exist mainly at obscure spots on highways in the outskirts of town, but mainly for unmarried couples who are dating, but each live at home with their families, so they need to find privacy elsewhere. (Having a motorcycle is helpful.)  I’m guessing they are less used for paid companionship.

Sex with minors:

I guess it’s a problem on a large scale. We’ve seen warning signs in both high-end and lower end hotels:  IMPORTANT LEGAL NOTICE: In accordance with the provisions of Article 17 of Act 679 of 2001, this agency warns tourists that the sexual abuse and/or exploitation of minors in Colombia is subject to criminal and administrative sanctions under existing law.

At one of the hostels we stayed at, we heard the owner ticking off an guest who’d brought in an overnight guest, not because an extra person stayed for free, but because of the ‘minor’ issue. I think the hostel guest had gone clubbing the night before and met someone on the dance floor and continued things to a logical conclusion. But a high proportion of Colombia’s population is young, and it’s hard to tell people’s ages here. (Sometimes I wonder how old people around here think we are!)


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