Cerro El Volador

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Camera: Canon PowerShot SX710 HS

Location: Medellin, Antioquia, Colombia

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Cultural Spotlight – Tejo

Most visitors and newcomers who arrive in Colombia may be surprised to find out that the national sport of the country is not ‘football’ as most people would guess given how popular the sport is around the country and due to the high quality of the national team shown in international competitions such as the FIFA World Cup. While Colombians may have the most passion for ‘the beautiful game’ of football, the national sport of Colombia is actually the game of ‘Tejo.’ This was actually an official decree made by the Congress of the Republic of Colombia back in 2000. While not as massively popular as football, Tejo is considered the second most widely played sport in the country and actually fields both teams and competitions in different cities.

Tejo is the oldest sport in Colombia and dates back over five hundred years and is said to have originated with the Musica indigenous tribe who speak the Chibcha language and were based in the northwestern part of Modern-day Colombia. Luckily, the game of Tejo hasn’t changed much since the Musica indigenous people first introduced it in the early 1500’s. However, it’s likely that they used a golden disc known as the ‘Zepguagoscua’, and the game of Tejo was known as ‘Turmeque’ back then and was played mainly by the indigenous peoples located in the modern regions of Cundinamarca and Boyacá.

The Spaniards who came to Colombia are known to have used wooden disks when they played the game and focused more on the accuracy of their throws than the distance of the throws, the latter which is more of a factor when playing the modern game today. From gold disks to wooden disks to stone disks to now using iron metal discs for playing, the game has evolved mainly in what material you’re using in order to get the furthest yet most accurate throws.

The main objective of Tejo hasn’t changed that much though in that you’re going to want to take the iron metal disc in your hand and underhand toss it about 15-20 meters so that you’ll hit the metal ring known as the ‘bocin’ as well as the ‘mechas’, which are triangular paper packets that are filled with gunpowder. You get the most points for hitting the bocin in the middle of the clay landing field but you can also receive from three to twelve points from hitting the different mechas and causing some loud explosions that are likely to earn you both some cheers and high fives.

While players should focus on the metal ring, you’ll also want to focus on hitting as many mechas as you can when you step up to throw the iron disk. When you hit the gunpowder packets, there is a loud bang like an actual gunshot and you may even see some white smoke emerge from the exploded triangular packets. Tejo is a pretty simple game to learn and only takes a couple of tries for you to get the hang of it. The iron disk only weights about two kilograms or so and if you get a good arch on the underhand throw, you’re likely to hit the clay field or even the mechas, bocin if you’re lucky. Tejo is a mix of skill and luck in my opinion but it’s quite exciting to play especially when you make some of those gunpowder packets explode for everybody to hear.

Both men and women are welcome to play Tejo and the only difference is that guys use the two kilogram iron disc and the ladies can choose to use a smaller, one kilogram iron disc if they would like to as well as being able to do the underhand throw from about fifteen meters away, which is a bit shorter than the regular distance of twenty meters or so. These rules aren’t mandatory for women so it is up to the individual lady what kind of distance or disc that she intends to use for Tejo.

Tejo is also a team game so you can play with up to five other people on the same time to face another team with the same amount of people. You’re often rooting each other on to hit the bocin or mechas in order to reach a certain amount of total points in order to win the match. There are numerous amounts of teams and competitions that are held all across Colombia and even in the neighboring countries of Venezuela, Panama, Peru, Ecuador, etc. Prize money is often involved in these competitions so certain Tejo players take this game very seriously if you’re playing for more than just bragging rights.

Tejo has become quite a popular sport with tourists and foreigners who come to Colombia and you can include me amongst those people. One of the aspects that Tejo that first time players find to be interesting is the ability to drink alcohol such as beer, rum, or aguardiente during a game. While this next statement can be disputed, it’s possible that you will get better throwing the Tejo at the clay field the more you drink although it depends on the individual player. It’s important to note that you can play Tejo completely stone cold sober and you would still have a lot of fun. Tejo is overall a social sport that should be enjoyed either amongst friends or between close-knit teams.

Unfortunately, it took me about ten months of living here in Colombia to finally play the sport of Tejo but it’s easy to say that I’m glad I finally did. While I wouldn’t play it competitively, it’s a sport that is a lot of fun and a great way to meet new people or locals in your city. The combination of throwing metal discs at gunpowder triangles while drinking a cold beer is a good one overall. Tejo has been apart of Colombian culture going back to over five centuries ago and it doesn’t seem to be going away anytime soon.

 

An Urban Transformation

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“The kids were cheering me on.”

I had the pleasure recently of visiting Comuna 13, a neighborhood in Medellin that has had a difficult history with gang violence and the illegal drug trade but which is showing signs of both progress and renewal. Due to the investments made by both the local and city government, Comuna 13 has become a hotbed for beautiful street art and graffiti murals, which has attracted many local artists to make a positive mark on this community. Many of these artists are from Medellin and grew up in the neighborhoods of Comuna 13. Rather than discuss the past of Comuna 13, I would rather talk about why this particular community is poised to have a brighter future.

Beyond just the new street art and the graffiti murals that you can find around Comuna 13 are the relatively new escalators that connect the San Javier metro station to the communities located in the hills surrounding this transportation hub. These escalators make it a lot easier for both students and workers to gain easier access to the rest of the Medellin metropolitan area and are an easy way to get from point A to point B. The escalators are free to use for all people including the tourists who come to visit this part of the city.

While the escalators are not so numerous, it is possible that more of them will be added to other parts of the city in the future if I were to haphazard a guess. Medellin can set an example to other urban cities on how to connect neighborhoods efficiently with the use of escalators, especially those with sloping hills and steep mountains within the city limits. For the elderly and children as well, these escalators can be quite useful in helping them get around the neighborhood without too much trouble.

If you don’t feel like taking the escalators, there are concrete staircases adjacent to the new escalators so you can choose which way you want to go up or go down. The escalators are weatherproof as well which is quite genius when you think about. On your way to the metro, the overhang, which is a bright, fluorescent orange color, will protect you fully from the elements such as rain, snow, hail, etc. It only takes about five to ten minutes to get from the top of the escalators to the bottom of the escalators so if you’re in a rush, you won’t have to go through too many escalators to get to your final destination.

The city government of Medellin and local police has done a great job in my opinion with regards to keeping this part of Comuna 13 safe and secure. I noticed during my visit that locals and volunteers are instrumental in helping to keep the area around the escalators clean and orderly. There are park benches and small parks nearby to encourage community get-togethers as well as the fact that there is a big slide where the local children can use to slide up and down to have some fun in the neighborhood. Being the kid at heart that I am, I partook in one of the slides because it is pretty enjoyable and you do go down at a pretty fast speed.

Beyond just the new escalators, the cool slides, and the park benches, there are also now a few library parks, which are free for members of the community to enjoy, explore, and learn. In addition to being places for education, the libraries are great meeting places for the community and can strengthen neighborhood ties. You can also hold cultural, recreational, and educational activities such as group English classes or a family birthday party. Books in these libraries are free to borrow and use.

Everyone can use them regardless of their age, educational level or social status. The mind is a terrible thing to waste and because of the twelve library parks in Comuna 13 and other parts of Medellin, city residents here have a real chance to learn new things and satisfy their curiosity. One particular volunteer group that I’m interested in learning about is called ‘Stairway to English’, which provides free English classes with native speakers to members of the Comuna 13 community.

My visit to Comuna 13 left quite an impact on me. I did go through an organized tour this time, which I do recommend to people visiting this webpage. It was really useful to learn about the history, background, and the progress being made for this part of Medellin. Medellin is quite a large city and it can be easy to get caught up in only staying within your own neighborhood and to not see other parts of the city. Personally, I do hope that other escalator projects in urban areas will become popular in Colombia and other parts of the world.

Human beings are increasingly becoming more urban with over 70% of the world’s population projected to be living in cities by mid-century. This puts the onus on local, city, and national governments to adapt to this reality and try to make life easier and better for the millions of people who call a city their home. Other cities should take note of the social progress being made in Comuna 13 and I can only hope that more and more residents of Medellin will be able to improve their lives in different ways because of urban projects like building library parks or constructing escalator routes.

If you’re in Medellin sometime and you’re curious to check out the positive urban transformation that is ongoing in Comuna 13 and other parts of the city, I would recommend using Comuna 13 Tours, which has a very knowledgeable, kind, and helpful staff members who are bilingual and want to share their city with foreigners out of the goodness in their heart. This is not an official endorsement and I don’t get paid or receive any benefits from mentioning this tour on my website.

I’m doing it because I really enjoyed the experience I had recently with them and I think other visitors who come to Medellin should do the same based off my positive experience using this tour group. Perhaps, most importantly of all, you’ll meet a few locals during your tour and you can see how hospitable, kind, and open they are in Comuna 13. My only advice is to be careful about your photo taking, and to be respectful of both the tour guide and the locals who are kind enough to take some time out of their day to share with you. I look forward to visiting Comuna 13 again someday and I hope to use that giant slide again too.

For more information: http://www.comuna13tours.com/

Cuisine Spotlight – Bandeja Paisa

For my first post in the new ‘Cuisine Spotlight’ series, I will be focusing on my favorite dish here in Colombia, which is known as the ‘Bandeja Paisa.’ Flavorful, unique, and made up of different food groups, ‘Bandeja Paisa’ is a conglomeration of the best of Colombian cuisine, and specifically of the Antioquia region. You can tell by its’ name that this popular food dish has its’ origins with the Paisas who are the inhabitants of Department of Antioquia. If you translated ‘Bandeja Paisa’ from Spanish to English, it would roughly mean ‘Paisa Platter.’

It’s a paisa platter because there are a number of different foods that make up this huge plate of food. There is a variety and amount of flavors and tastes that you can’t find in many other dishes here. While there are a number of ‘Bandejas’ or ‘Platters’, the ‘Bandeja Paisa’ is the most well known along with its’ ingredients. The ‘Bandeja Paisa’ usually includes red beans mixed with pork, white rice, ground meat, chicharron, fried egg, plantains, chorizo, arepas, blood sausage, avocado, and criollo sauce to top it all off. You have to eat ‘Bandeja Paisa’ on an empty stomach. Otherwise, you may not be able to finish half of the dish.

‘Bandeja Paisa’ is a lunchtime dish and should be enjoyed with a nice cold glass of fruit juice. In Colombian culture, lunch rather than dinner is the main meal of the day and is to be taken seriously. I would recommend to have your ‘Bandeja Paisa’ dish with other people around whether they be friends or family because chances are good that you won’t be able to finish it all on your own. It is likely that the ‘Bandeja Paisa’ dish was made for those people who worked the fields for farming and growing crops. They also could be herding cattle and collecting food for their families.

I would like to believe that they would look forward to having ‘Bandeja Paisa’ as their main meal of the day due to the arduous physical tasks that would be asked of them to complete from sunrise to mid-day. I’m sure millions of Colombians and foreigners here like myself have thought about settling down and having ‘Bandeja Paisa’ after a long day of work regardless of which profession we tie ourselves to. Once again, it’s worth noting that the simple pleasures like a big meal after a hard day of labor can make a world of difference in brightening our outlook for the rest of the day. Having something to look forward to like biting into a chorizo or sampling some avocado can make the work less tedious and the time pass by more quickly.

‘Bandeja Paisa’ is considered to be a mestizo dish meaning that it is a unique mixture of both American and European ingredients and foods. The different indigenous peoples who have inhabited Antioquia and Colombia in general have left their influence on dishes like this one along with the Spanish colonists who adapted the ‘Bandeja Paisa’ to their own tastes and preferences. Interestingly enough, there is also some African influence along with that of British and French colonialists. The best thing about the ‘Bandeja Paisa’ is that you can adapt it to fit your dietary needs. If you don’t like having so much meat, you can switch in a salad or a vegetable. While the original food options are preferred, I’ve noticed that there are a number of variations to the ‘Bandeja Paisa’ and that Antioquians are flexible with its’ presentation.

The people of Antioquia have such a fond love for ‘Bandeja Paisa’ that they tried to get the national government in Bogota to make it the national dish of Colombia. While there has been no movement on having this become official, ‘Bandeja Paisa’ is held in high regard in terms of representing Colombian cuisine and is advertised by many restaurants and tourist agencies alike. Similar to the popular ‘Sancocho’ favored by Costenos on the Atlantic coast and the delicious ‘Ajiaco’ soup that Bogotanos covet, the Paisas of Antioquia regard ‘Bandeja Paisa’ as the national dish of Colombia even though its’ overall popularity is limited to the department itself.

While ‘Bandeja Paisa’ is not an everyday kind of food, it is a delicious and unique plate of food that is a large part of the cuisine here in Antioquia. It is an excellent choice when it comes to filling yourself up after a long day of work. It is very affordable, has all different food groups represented and it will earn respect from the locals by trying it out. My last recommendation if you are going to try to eat the whole ‘Bandeja Paisa’ is to order some lemonade, water, or fruit juice because it will help a lot with the digestion process and prevent you from getting a nasty stomachache. Buen provecho!