Archive | July, 2010

I Wish It Would Rain Coffee

26 Jul

I’m sorry I’ve been away for so long.  I’ve missed you.  Have you missed me?  I promise it was for a good reason.  I was off seeing more of this beautiful country.  And I brought you back pictures, oh yes I did.  Several hundred, to be precise, but 50% of them are so blurry they could be my living room carpet and you wouldn’t know the difference.  I hope you’ll think some of the others are pretty cool.

If you’ve ever had to write a college term paper and work the graveyard shift, then you’re probably familiar with this guy.  (Even though the site is in Spanish, click around to get a pretty realistic feel of the landscape and houses I’ll be talking about below.)

If you’re not yet old enough to have done one of those two things, you shouldn’t recognize this man and his donkey anyway, but I’ll tell you who it is.  It’s Juan Valdez, and of course, he’s the most famous face of Colombia’s most famous export: coffee.

We took a little trip to an area called the Eje Cafetero, the region where all the coffee is grown.  To get there, you have to head more or less south from Bogotá, down the mountains, up again over a crazy, two-lane stretch of super-high, super-curvy highway called La Línea, and down again to a city called Armenia.

Despite the dramatic heights of the mountains, the landscape on the journey makes you feel as if you’re a world away from the cool, woodland surroundings of Bogotá.  This is the Colombia you might recognize from a movie.  It’s not the impenetrable Amazon jungle, but it is definitely tropical.

Shampoo ginger looks like a honeycomb

Hanging heliconias

Red Anthuriums

Orchid in a tree

Something pretty

The flowers that a florist in the United States would charge you $50 for are growing here on the sides of highways like weeds: heliconias (birds of paradise), anthuriums, orchids, ginger blossoms, impatiens.

Two tropical yellow birds stop for a chat in a coffee bush.

And did I mention the birds?  Such vibrant blues, yellows and reds you think somebody’s left a cage open somewhere.  But, no, they just live here!

Banana (or plantain?) trees are planted all over the mountainsides

You really remember you’re in a “banana republic” when you see solid walls of banana orchards rising on the mountains around you.

These wax palms are short compared to a few we saw.

The national tree, the wax palm, dots the landscape, towering above the canopy to heights as tall as 230 feet!  That’s almost as tall as a football field is long!

A coffee bush is heavy with beans, but they won't be ripe until they've turned from green to red.

And of course, the rich, waxy dark green of the stout coffee bushes that cover vast swaths of the terrain…

A cloth draped over the shoulder, along with a cool straw hat are mainstays of men's dress in the Eje Cafetero.

With the change in weather comes a change in culture.  Gone are the wool suits and sweater vests, the bustling business people of the capital.  In their place, you see tank tops (for women) or (for men) shorts or pants tucked into boots, a cloth draped over one shoulder, and a hat that’s usually cream-colored with a black band.

Our hotel was built like the typical houses in the Eje Cafetero.

The wrap-around porches and their hammocks invite you to come sip a lemonade, chat a while, or take a long nap.

In the Eje Cafetero, the main business is farming and ranching.  You swap tall apartment buildings for sprawling white houses with wrap-around porches, laden—of course—with the most colorful and inviting hammocks; tile roofs; and wood-carved ceilings, window shutters and French doors in reds and purples and yellows.

A humble home perches between the highway and a mountain cliff.

In the case of more humble families, a home might be fenced in with bamboo and made of brick with a scrap-metal roof, out of which frequently wafts a little trail of smoke high up into the sky.  These overlook vast expanses of land that looks like a quilt of different greens.

Mustard Seed on a ride that demonstrates how the coffee gets washed

Bamboo, also called guadua, grows abundantly in the Eje Cafetero. The stalks are extremely tall and thick, perfect for making buildings, fences, tools, musical instruments and much more.

Mustard Seed and me at the beautiful Parque Nacional del Cafe

The two main things to do in the Eje Cafetero, besides laze around and take in the beautiful, relaxing countryside, are go to the Parque Nacional del Café (National Coffee Theme Park) and Panaca.  Parque Nacional del Café has beautiful, very clean grounds with bamboo forests, specimens of all the areas tropical plants, and coffee.  They offered an absolutely fabulous show that told the history of coffee in Colombia through folkloric dances (but sadly, they didn’t allow pictures).  It turns out the way the bush got to be so widespread was that a priest told people they should plant a coffee beans as penitence for their sins!

There was a show featuring a fairy tale about orchids performed by robotic, talking flowers.  Aside from that, there were a section for small kids that has rides representing the process of picking and washing coffee beans; paths presenting the indigenous peoples’ history, Colombia’s popular legends, and the children’s poems of Rafael Pombo; and plenty of rides.

Panaca is an agriculturally themed park that lets kids interact with farm animals and see how food products are made.  It looked interesting, but we chose to use our second day to do some of the lazing I mentioned before.

If you’d like to learn about the process of growing and harvesting coffee, see this nice photo essay or check out this video from the Discovery channel.

I have so many interesting photos just from the highway alone, but I think that’s another post unto itself.  And I want to tell you more about Bogotá soon because although in the States, we see mostly images of what is really small-town Colombia, the major cities of Bogotá, Medellín, Cali and others are really quite different from that, and in some ways, might seem very familiar to you.  I want to give you a balanced portrait.

I leave you with a link to this song, which was running through my head pretty much the whole trip, sung by the Venezuelan, Juan Luis Guerra.  It’s called Ojalá que llueva café, which translates to I Wish It Would Rain Coffee.  Musically, I like that version best, but kids might prefer this video, which has cartoon folkloric dancers and musicians and is set to a different rythymn.  I’ve translated some of the lyrics below because it just gives such a nice picture of all the crops that are typical of this area, and the music is very fun to dance to!  Learning songs was one of the main ways I became fluent in Spanish, so see if you can follow along.  Try to get the refrain stuck in your head.  It’s really a fun way to learn!

Ojalá que llueva café en el campo

I wish it would rain coffee on the fields
Que caiga un aguacero de yuca y té
That a deluge of of yucca and tea would fall

Del cielo una jarina de queso blanco
From the sky a sprinkling of white cheese

Y al sur una montaña de berro y miel
And to the south a mountain of watercress and honey

Ojalá que llueva café
I wish it would rain coffee

Ojalá que llueva café en el campo
I wish it would rain coffee on the fields

Peinar un alto cerro de trigo y mapuey
Furrow a high hill with wheat and ñame,

Bajar por la colina de arroz graneado
Come down a knoll of cooked rice,

Y continuar el arado con tu querer.
and continue the plowing with your love.

Ojalá el otoño en vez de hojas secas
I wish the autumn, instead of dried leaves,

Vista mi cosecha de petit-salé
Would dress my harvest with petit salé

Sembrar una llanura de batata y fresas
Would sow a plain with yam and strawberries

Ojalá que llueva café

I wish it would rain coffee

Pa’ que en el conuco no se sufra tanto, ay hombre

So that on the land* there wouldn’t be so much suffering

Ojalá que llueva café en el campo
I wish it would rain coffee on the fields

Pa’ que en Villa Vasquez oigan este canto
So that in Villa Vasquez they would hear this song

Ojalá que llueva café en el campo
I wish it would rain coffee on the fields

*A conuco is actually like an allotment of land that a farm worker lives on and works.


Planespotting on Independence Day

21 Jul

Colombia celebrated 200 years of independence from Spain today, and they did it with style.  A parade including more than 10,000 military and other participants was going on at Parque Simon Bolivar.  In the evening, a huge dance performance with fireworks took place on the government plaza.  Free concerts were given all over the country.  But probably most impressive were the flyovers by military jets, planes and helicopters over Bogotá.  This went on for more than 2 hours, and some of them, especially the formation of Black Hawk helicopters, flew just over the tops of the low-rise buildings.

This is what I get for sleeping late, but my mother-in-law said that earlier in the morning, helicopters had passed by with parachutists hanging from them, and they had shot out smoke in yellow, red and blue, the colors of the Colombian flag!

Later, while I was taking my walk around the park, I nearly stumbled several times as I gawked at what I saw overhead.  People all over the neighborhood craned out of balconies or stood on the roof to watch, and many homes displayed the flag all over the city.  This is a little bit of what we saw.

Black Hawk helicopters?

Airplane being escorted by fighter jets

Formation of military airplanes

Me seeing all this was like throwing pearls before swine, I’m sure, since I have no idea what most of these are, but according to this poster in a forum on airplanes, Tucanos, Hercules, Broncos, Kfir, B707, CN235 and others were part of the “air parade”.  (More photos included there.) If you’re able to identify any of these, leave a comment.

Go here, if you’d like to see photos of the military parade.

Late in the afternoon, just when we thought it was all over, three Mirage jets shot past the roof of the apartment and zoomed off at an unbelievable speed toward the eastern hills.  Amazing!  A once-in-a-lifetime experience.  Happy 2ooth birthday, Colombia!

Spanish Lesson: La granja

17 Jul

The other day, our family and friends took us to a really neat restaurant outside of Bogotá, on the savannah, called La Granja (GRAN-ha), which means The Farm. The food was typical Colombian stuff: meat, potatoes, arepas, chorizo.  It was all outdoors in various pavillions, with a mini-golf course in the center and lots of craft workshops for kids.  Perhaps best of all, there was a small menagerie.  Perfect for our first Spanish lesson, I thought!

Let’s start with some birds:

Pavo or pisco

This pavo isn’t likely to end up as Thanksgiving dinner, since Colombians don’t celebrate Thanksgiving.  At La Granja, I was also told these birds are called piscos in this area.

Un pavo real y un gallo

If the last guy was a just a regular, old pavo, this peacock is a pavo real (a royal turkey).  He’s got his gander up because this gallo has hopped into his pen.


This avestruz may be too heavy to fly, but I hear it can run very fast.  With that big beak, I’m sure it can defend itself well, too.  We admired it from a distance!

Una oveja blanca

Can you tell what this is?  It was trying to take a siesta, so it was hard to get a good picture.  It’s an oveja, a sheep!  La Granja had them in two colors.  This one’s color is blanca.

Una oveja negra

This oveja is negra, so you would say oveja negra, since the color of something always come after the word, in Spanish.  So then, how would you say “white sheep”?

Una vaca

Mustard Seed got a big kick out of this vaca.  Now you know how to tell what colors the vaca is.  Give it a try!

That’s right, blanca y negra!

Una cabra. What color is it?

This cabra had to be escorted back to his own pen, as he had escaped to go visit the lady cabras.

Un burro

This little burro is a hard worker, carrying loads for people and giving them rides.  When you say his name, be sure sure to roll your “rr”, kind of the way a cat sounds when it purrs.  The “u” in his name sounds like “oo” as in the word “coo”, not as in the word “book”!

Una llama

I guess it wouldn’t be a true South American farm without one of these, a llama.  In Spanish,  the letters “ll” make the sound “y”, so it sounds to an English speaker as if it should be spelled yama*.  Have you ever read the book Llamas in Pajamas?  I recommend it highly.  Fortunately, in Spanish the phrase still rhymes, because pajamas is piyamas, so it would be Llamas en piyamas!  I guess this llama forgot his!

Show What You Know

If you’d like to practice your new Spanish words, you can think up a story about these furry and feathery friends.  You can write it down or narrate it to your mom and dad and then draw some pictures to go with it.  As you make up your story, be sure to use the Spanish words for the animals!

This little song is another fun way to practice what you’ve learned.  It’s basically Old McDonald Had a Farm in Spanish.  The lyrics go like this:

En la granja de mi tío


Hay tres (3) vacas que hacen moo


Con la vaca aquí

La vaca allá

Un moo aquí

Un moo allá

Moo, moo, moo, moo

All the other verses are the same with their animals’ sounds.

Verse 2: tres (3) gatos

Verse 3: tres  (3) patos

Verse 4: tres (3) cabras

Verse 5: tres (3) perros

Mythology, Part I: Why

14 Jul

Soon, I’ll be posting some interesting information and hopefully an activity about the Indians that lived in Colombia before the arrival of the Spanish.  (Some Indians still live here today.)  But today’s post is a precursor to that containing some thoughts for parents to consider.

I’ve mentioned that while we’re here, I want Mustard Seed to learn about the ancient cultures of Colombia.  Maybe I was naïve, but I thought we’d just study what the dwellings looked like, some of the art, and a few of the “prettier” myths from one or two of the cultures, steering clear of any non-PG stuff.  But it’s been hard to find material that doesn’t include something that I think is scary, has a questionable moral, or is inappropriate for children (and I don’t think I’m puritanical by any stretch of the imagination).

This has led me to ask myself three questions.

  1. Is mythology an important part of learning about a culture, for a first-grader?
  2. And if so, how do you go about it from a Christian—and therefore, compassionate—perspective?
  3. Lastly, is it even possible to sidestep the uncomfortable topics by avoiding mythology and sticking to crops, art, homes, social systems, and lifestyles, or will the topic have to be addressed, since beliefs are interwoven into all of these?

I should note that while South American mythology brings up obvious concerns for a Christian, as do Hindu and Chinese mythology, even Greek and Roman mythology, which are sometimes looked on as “normal” or “harmless” (probably because of the roots of our own society and of Christianity in these traditions) they’ve got some pretty iffy stuff, too, when you really look at them.

So the whether/how-to question of mythology is not unique to “barbarian” cultures like the native Americans’ but really applies generally.  In a broader sense, the question is really about how we teach our kids, as Christians, to look at and respond to beliefs different from their own.

Oh, that is such a big, scary thing to tackle!  And I was hoping I could put it off a little while!

How do we teach our kids that what we believe, Christianity, is right, and that there are actions and systems of belief that are objectively wrong, yet also help them develop into the kind of people that do not alienate and feel themselves superior to people who are not Christians?  People who don’t evangelize by talking at others but who are able to really meet a non-believer where they are and address their stumbling blocks in ways that are not off-putting but lead to true heart change?

I humbly submit that heart change doesn’t often happen on a street corner, and it happens less often when a person feels arrogance, judgment and impatience from the person who’s trying to effect the change.  Especially after having read about the approach of the Spaniards in converting Indians (force), where Christianity was a superficial and totally outward, this seems true to me.  Those qualities are not what Christ was about anyway.

But Christ was about something, and compassionate as he was, he wasn’t wishy-washy about it either.  So, I must raise my daughter, as best I can, to be compassionate but clear, too.

Sooner or later, every Christian child, especially these days, will come up against this question, whether we’re around to talk about it with them or not.  Whether the scenario involves civilizations and beliefs of the past or peers with living beliefs that oppose their own, standing right in front of them.  It might feel like a watershed moment, or it might happen that little by little, his Christian beliefs get watered down in the face of a flood of other influences he doesn’t know what to do with. Or he may hold fast to Christianity, but fall in the trap of self-righteousness or have a life that is totally ineffectual as a witness to non-believers.

It’s a scary prospect to begin to tackle these questions, especially when I don’t feel I have all the answers myself, but completely sheltering has never been a viable solution.  Exposing kids to age-appropriate risk while educating them to protect them against that risk is the reasonable thing to do.

When Mustard Seed was two, I kept her away from the street.  I was straightforward with her that a car could hit her.  I let her know the danger was out there.  I have been teaching her over several years to look both ways as we cross the street holding hands.  I’m steeping her in street safety.  Nowadays, I sometimes let her cross our neighborhood street on her own as I watch.  One day, when she’s 25, she *might* be allowed to cross busy intersections with me three states away.

I can look at all the issues raised by the study of mythology as a threat, or I can look at studying mythology as a training ground, the intensity of which I’m able to control at this point. I must be careful not to let my little girl cross a freeway of sorts by giving her age-inappropriate material or to let her cross any spiritual street at all without the careful instructions that come in the form of teaching, discussing and reiterating to her the Bible and our Christian beliefs.  But I’d much rather be there to hold her hand than have her attempt to tackle these difficult questions one day without a guide and unbeknownst to me.

So to return to my three questions, I do think mythology is an important part of understanding a people, even for a first-grader.  It lets children see that humans have some universal needs and questions and see how near or far from the mark some human answers have been.  It lets them see the good, as well as (some of) the bad, carried out by humans, that needs to be remediated.  It can show a child the extent of God’s grace in the beautiful art, music, stories and accomplishments of people far and wide.

After looking into it, I think that with some cultures, it’s difficult to get away from some of the jarring beliefs and practices they had because they permeate even their art, their social customs, their clothing and their daily lives.  But I think it may be possible to temper how much of these a child is exposed to when, to be frank that we don’t condone certain practices or beliefs, and to frame issues in light of the answers and meaning that Christianity does provide.

Tomorrow I’ll talk more about some ideas on the “how” of studying mythology, and I promise to try to provide some concrete examples.  If you’ve faced questions about mythology in your homeschool, what conclusions have you come to?  How did/do you handle mythology?

Arepas con Chocolate (Recipe and Rhyme)

12 Jul

I’m beginning to see how this blog could devolve quickly into me showing you all the food I love from Colombia.  Colombians must be the inventors of comfort food.  As your self-appointed Colombian food ambassador, I would be remiss in my duties if I didn’t tell you about arepas (ah-Rĕ-pahs). Arepas are to Colombia what tortillas are to Mexico, what sourdough is to San Francisco.  Perfect for breakfast, dinner or onces (afternoon snack), arepas are made from cornmeal, sometimes mixed with shredded cheese, can be stuffed with chicken, beef…or, well, more cheese (hey, why not!), and, for best effect, slathered on top with butter and salt.

The cornmeal used to make arepas varies.  Sometimes it’s very white, which yields a plain and simple white arepa.  But if you ask me the best ones are made from choclo, a kind of corn grown in South America with a much larger, firm grain, a rougher skin and a more mildly sweet taste than the corn available in the United States.

The perfect thing to go along with arepas is hot chocolate (spelled the same in Spanish, but pronounced chō-cō-LAH-).  Some people even put a small slice of–you guessed it–cheese in the bottom of their cup of chocolate!

If you’d like to have a true Colombian-style onces, the best chocolate to use that you can find in the U.S. is the Abuelita brand.  It comes in round tablets.  You can follow the instructions on the package, or if you’re a real chocolate hound add extra to make it soupier.  I always start by melting the tablet in the pot and then add the milk.  Be sure to stir the milk very frequently so it won’t scorch.

For the arepas, you can do one of two things 1) Buy the choclo variety frozen from the Goya brand.  You can find them at Fiesta or possibly HEB, however these do not accurately represent the true glory of the choclo arepa, so if you ever have a chance to have a fresh one, do not pass it up.  2) You can follow the recipe below.

Basic Arepa Recipe

1 c of Doñarepa or P.A.N. brand white corn flour

1 1/4 c water

salt to taste

1 egg (optional, to soften the dough)

Mozzarella or Monterrey Jack cheese (to taste and to help stick the dough together)

Pam cooking spray or similar

Knead the ingredients together in a bowl.  The consistency of the dough should not be crumbly, but will not be liquid either.  Add the cheese last.  The cheese can be eyeballed or added to your taste, but it does help stick the cakes together.  Pat into cakes about 3″ in diameter and about 1/4″ thick.  Heat a stove-top griddle or 1-2 pans to medium high heat and spray the with the cooking spray.  Cook the arepas one one side until golden brown.  Then flip them and do the same for the other side.  You might want to cut one down the middle to test whether it’s cooked.


While you’re having your arepas, you can sing these simple rhymes.


Arepitas de mamá,

Arepitas from my mom,

Me los como para acá.

I’ll eat them over here.

Arepitas de papá,

Arepitas from my daddy,

Me los como para allá.

I’ll eat them over there.


This rhyme repeats over and over again.  It’s fun to make circular stirring motion as you chant it.

Bate, que bate,

Stir, stir

El chocolate.

The chocolate.

Getting the Lay of the Land

9 Jul

Colombia Viva

It turns out my mother-in-law has this wonderful book, called Colombia Viva, published by the national newspaper here, which covers the country’s geography and culture and has a spread on each of its states, in a format somewhat similar to an Eyewitness book.

We’ve been using this book as a springboard for digging in deeper to topics that catch our eye.  We’ve started out with some of the basics: the national flower (orchid), the colors of the flag (red, yellow and blue), the national bird (condor) and Colombia’s location (northernmost part of South America).

Mustard Seed poses proudly next to South America.

While geography fascinates me, it was a bit dry for Mustard Seed until we did this project today.  Originally, the idea was to make a salt dough map of South America, showing the Andes Mountains and the part of the continent that Colombia occupies.  Unfortunately, it was raining most of the day, so we couldn’t run out to get the supplies.  But we found some modeling clay among the Headmaster’s old art supplies and put it to work.

I used my drawing skillz to render something akin to the shape of South America.

First, I eyeballed the outline of South America and drew it on a piece of cardboard.  Then Mustard Seed covered it with yellow clay, trying to make it fairly even and used her fingernail to press the borders of Colombia into the clay.  Last, we made the Andes Mountains along the western coast out of green clay, noticing particularly how they branch out into three cordilleras almost right at the southern border of Colombia.

Obviously, we did not include all the land features of South America.  The main concepts I wanted to get across were Colombia’s location in South America, the name and location of the Andes Mountains, and the names  of the three cordilleras and what they are.  This project was very simple and would have been even faster to do with salt dough, since little hands need a very pliable medium.  At home you could paint the country or countries on, as well as the main rivers on the continent, and you could label the map features with toothpick labels.  Even if you did paint the mountains a different color, I would still them in relief with the salt dough, since that’s excellent for understanding the topography.

Now, would you like to see a little bit of the real Andes?

A view of the Andes Mountains.

It so happens that the Andes are the main factor in the weather of Colombia.  Colombia lies very near, but almost completely above the equator, so areas at sea level are very hot.  But areas high in the mountains, which includes much of the country, are cool because of the altitude.  That’s why wool poncho-like garments, called ruanas, are just as typically Colombian as guayaberas, the loose, light-colored, embroidered shirts worn on the hot Caribbean coast.

People usually think of jungle when they think of Colombia.  The Amazon jungle is actually at a much lower elevation than much of Colombia.  The vegetation of the Andes is also lush, but in a very different way.  Forests of pine and eucalyptus trees, slopes covered in yellow-flowered brush and roadsides lined with tiny pink foxgloves give way to the cloud-bathed páramo, where yucca-like, spiky plants with 20-foot stalks tower ghost-like and orchids sit in the crooks of tree branches.  The overall feel is much more woodland with a smattering of other-worldy, odd specimens and, here and there, delicate flowers you might expect to find near the Alps.

This photo doesn't do justice to the huge scale of this cliff, but it does show the thick curtain of neblina (fog) that hangs over the mountains.

If you’d like to see more images of the Andes and find out about its flora and fauna, I recommend the following sites:

Photos of the Colombian Andes

Plants, Animals and Climate of the Andes

More photos and info

Okay, so this one is not exclusively about the Andes, but it has some great photos of Colombia!

The Colombia Diaries

9 Jul

A man waits on a corner in the small mountain town of Choachí, Colombia.

It had been way too long since we visited family in the Headmaster’s native Colombia, so we packed our bags and have been here for a week. This couldn’t come at a better time for Mustard Seed on a number of levels, since she’s shown signs recently of really needing to connect to this part of her heritage. Now that we’re here, it’s wonderful to see how much she’s taking in, observing and asking all kinds of questions.

Since we’ll be studying the Incas, Aztecs and Mayas this year as part of Tapestry of Grace, I thought it would be great to get a jump start and study the native people of this area. I thought we’d also do a little lapbooking or notebooking about Colombia, generally.

Over the next few weeks, I’ll be blogging about Colombia and our “travel schooling” here. I plan to include posts geared toward helping kids (and you) learn about Colombia, including lots of interesting facts and photos and some short pictorial “Spanish lessons”. I’ll also share some of the projects that we’re doing, in case you’d like to do a study of Colombia at home with your kids.

I hope you enjoy it, and if there’s something you’d like to learn about, please leave your question in the comments. This being my sixth time here, that would really help me to look at this place with fresh eyes!