Dear Family,

Mauricio took me straight from the airport to the hotel. The air was quite warm, but there was no traffic around, which I found a little surprising because it was only around midnight. I asked about the traffic, Mauricio said it would be much worse during the day.

The hotel was very quiet, there were security guards and the staff at the front desk. They dealt with my check in, and after I forgot my passport at the front desk they sent that up with me. That was a little strange, because I’d just been thinking when I handed my passport over that it was funny how you always trust it to the hotel staff. I think I’d been expecting them to photocopy it, or do whatever it is they do with it in Italy. But they just had looked at it and given it back.

My room is on the 7th floor, the hotel is a concrete structure painted white, and the rooms are set around two large atriums (atria?) that run the height of the hotel, they are divided by the lifts. I am at one end of the atriums, with a room almost on the corner. The side of the hotel is completely open to the air. They do that a lot here because the temperature is so steady that they don’t need to worry much about heating or cooling. Every day it seems to rise, maybe to a maximum of 30 degrees, but often it is more comfortable. There are lots of restaurants and bars with no walls. The only weather you have to worry about is the rain that comes daily at between 16:00 and 17:00. It rains very hard when it rains, but it stops after about an hour, or less. It’s also a little windy when it rains, but after it’s done the air is much cooler and the ground is soon dry.

Mauricio had arranged for the school to start the next day at 8:30 am. He arranged to pick me up at a quarter to 8, and after he tipped the bell boy for me he drove home. My room is nice and large with a view over the city, but it has sill net curtains, which I forget to open. Maybe it’s important to keep them closed to keep the sun out. When we were coming in to land at Panama, I touched the blind that covers the window of the plane, it was so hot it almost burnt my fingers. The sun can be very strong near the equator, although I don’t think it sets or rises on my room.

The summer school was located at the Botanical gardens of the University, on the outskirts of the city. We were allowed in through a gate by a guard, and the first thing I noticed was a big yellow American-style school bus, with the name of the university on the front: Universidad Tecnologica de Pereira. It was parked by the nursing sheds, where they prepare the plants for the gardens. A lot of the buildings there are made out of a very large type of bamboo called Guadua, they even have a big footbridge made from it. The Guadua forests are quite characteristic of the area, and the Botanical garden turned out to consist of a large Guadua forest, and a Andean forest, separated by a footpath, with a small swamp at the bottom. Just beside the car park is a small Hummingbird sanctuary. They’ve planted flowers there that the humming birds like and they also had sugar-water stands made from plastic that the humming birds could drink from. I thought this was cheating a bit. Why would they go around fertilizing the flowers when they can just sit down and drink some sugar water? Maybe the nectar tastes better.

Our lectures were in a hut built from Guadua just outside the Botanical forest. There were 40 seats in the lecture theatre, and always around 40 students. The students were very good, they arrived early and always payed attention. They didn’t ask too many questions, which we thought was because they were nervous about their English. But they were very enthusiastic about the school. Every day we had coffee provided in the morning and snacks at least twice in the breaks. I can’t remember all the different types of snacks, but they were usually savoury, and I remember at least once we had Empanadas. They make them differently here from the way that Daniela makes the Argentinian ones. They are deep fried, they seem to like deep frying a lot in Colombia. Secretly I preferred Daniela’s, but the food was still good.

The traffic didn’t seem as bad as Mauricio had indicated, and everything seemed quite well organized. But after a time I realized that all may have been because I can’t help but compare things to Naples. And the traffic is definitely better, and things are better organized. The town is much more modern than Naples, and of course there is no sea. There are lots of hills all around and some of the roads, particularly the side streets are very steep. There are some taller buildings, but as you move away from the University and the hotel part of the town the buildings look smaller and closely packed together. I’ve seen some areas that look like they are more of a shanty-town style. But I’ve not been close enough to see. The streets are less busy than Naples, and I think they drive slightly better. But, they are more dangerous behind the wheel, because unlike in Naples, where if they see you they will slow down or stop, here if they see you they drive on anyway. There aren’t many mopeds, more motorbikes. The police always come on motorbikes, and there are always two of them on the same bike, which is probably very efficient, but looks a big silly. One night we were in a bar (called BARcelona … they like European football here a lot) having a drink with Marcella and Mauricio when Marcella pointed out there was a man with a gun standing behind a 4x4. We weren’t totally sure it was a gun, because it was dark, but he was holding it like it was. Soon the uniformed police arrived (two of them on a motorbike — the scrambler type of bike) and then they started questioning another man. They have the same type of people who ‘look after’ your car when you park it, like in Naples. Mauricio asked him what happened and he said the man they were questioning was being accused of using forged notes. The man with the gun was an undercover policeman.

For the first day we had lunch at an Argentinian steak house. I was worried about how expensive everything was, because it looked liked the prices were in dollars. But it turns out they use the dollar sign for the peso (I probably should have know that) so all the prices were 2000 times less than they looked … actually I only thought things were twice as expensive as they were because I was ignoring three zeros when I was looking at them. Like in Europe they use the . to mark the thousands, so I just kept thinking it was odd that they were giving the prices to 3 decimal places (in dollars), I read $39.000 as 39 dollars, whereas really it was 39,000 pesos, which is about 19 dollars (so Mauricio tells me). When I realized all this about a day later, I understood that the restaurant was quite cheap: a large high quality Argentinian steak for 19 dollars. For the other days Mauricio took me and some of his friends, and students who were attending the school, to a special restaurant where they serve local food. A different local dish every day. Mauricio and I always had the local dish which was always very filling. It normally consists of a large piece of meat, a soup, rice, beans and maize. Often you put the rice, beans and meat into the soup and eat if from there. Then you also have a lovely fresh ripe avocado (which you don’t put in the soup). The main difference between the dishes was the meat. On the first day it was a large lump of stewed beef that had been boiled in the stew, like the ragu in Naples, this is called Sancocho. On the third day it was slices of pork with the skin still on that had been deep fried. One translation of it calls it ‘bacon’. But you have to think of very thick bacon, that’s not been cured and has been deep fried. Then it’s cut into chunks whilst still attached to the skin. You pick the chunks off and drop them in the soup. The skin that’s attached is like crackling, only not crunchy enough that I wanted to eat it, although some people apparently do. On Saturday we went to a special place on the mountain and ate in an open air inn, of the style that the Coffee Growers used to use. Then I had a special dish (Bandeja) which involved Black pudding (with rice in), minced meat, Chorizo, egg, rice and beans. That was very good. The beans here are particularly good. They also have special bananas for eating with your main course, like in Uganda. There they are called matooke, here they are plantains.

I thought that the cars would be a bit more like American cars than European ones, but in fact people drive quite small cars. Chevrolet is popular, but only the very small ones, I’ve seen cars that you don’t find much in Europe or the US. The taxi drivers mainly seem to have Hyundais. Very small ones too. Mauricio says that this is because the petrol is cheap. He says they drive around slowly until they pick up a passenger. Then they fly around like angry bees trying to deliver their passenger as quickly as possible to get the money. He says he doesn’t like taking them, so I’m avoiding them too. The buses are mostly orange, and have a sloping front. They are small for buses, smaller than English ones, but bigger than the smallest Italian onces. They also drive quite fast, and sometimes put out a lot of smoke. In fact, I think there can’t be very good emission laws because a lot of the trucks put out a lot of smoke.

On Friday night, after we’d finished the school, Mauricio showed me a place I could try and run to, called La Florida: only I didn’t know they were spelling it like that because they pronounce it Floreeda, which I’m guessing is the correct pronunciation of Florida, because it was named by the Spanish! It’s about 12 kilometers from my hotel but it’s very much in the countryside, there is a lot of forest nearby. I ran out there on Sunday morning, leaving at 5 am, so I had the sun rising over the hills and the forests. The sun comes up at 6 and sets at 6 every day. I ran to La Florida, and then up into the hills on an unpaved track, until I was 18 kilometers from Pereira. It was very beautiful up there, there is real Andean rain forest and very few people. I went through a small village called La Suiza (which is Spanish for Switzerland) and it only had two houses. A lot of the trees have many other plants growing on them. And a lot of those plants are recognisable as common house plants in England. I guess it makes sense because they like a lot of water (which they get every day) they don’t mind about the lack of light (they are often in the shade) but they like it warm (they live on the equator). I had to run quite quickly back to La Florida though, because at 10 am we were due to go around the Botanical gardens. I ate banana and papaya as I waited for the bus: 1200 pesos for 1/2 a papaya and two bananas. All from a little man with a trolley and an umbrella. The bus was quite slow going back in because there were so many mountain bikers cycling out from Pereira. I had to rush to shower and be down stairs in time to meet Mauricio for going to the botanical gardens.

Love

Neil