August 24--??, 2004
Bucaramanga is a large, modern city, with very historic roots. In a day's excursion from Giron we got a good feel for the city, saw the history museum (Casa de Bolivar) and the colonial Casa de Cultura as well as having an excellent lunch and getting Jan's hair cut.
A Latin American haircut doesn't quite measure up to a Chinese haircut in that it doesn't include any head or back massage, but it can be cheaper if you forgo the shampoo and therefore also the blow-drying. Since we spend on average a month in every country, Jan has sampled the hair-cutting skills of just about every one. At a dollar, Colombia wins hands down on price, but she still misses those head massages.
Latin America seems to have a big problem with street vendors. The informal economy sometimes seems bigger than the formal one when every sidwalk is lined with indiviudals selling everything from hats to reading glasses, CD's to magazines, and everything in-between. Bucaramanga was the first town in Colombia where we encountered these vendors. At the time, we didn't really think about the effect we were having buying from this man, but later, in Bogota, we got to think about it quite a lot as just about every square inch of sidewalk in certain parts of the city are covered with them.
Unlike in Thailand, where the street vendors usually only come out at night and seem to be fairly well regulated, in Bogota they are the scourge of regular merchants, are reputed to be involved in money-laundering or at least to be controlled by some kind of mafia, and of course don't pay taxes. What should one do in a country where the unemployment rate is in the 20% range and the underemployment rate also high? We don't have any answer. But we have been told that the problem in Bogota has worsened under the current mayor. Still, we have seen advertisements in the papers urging people not to buy from street vendors and we have heard that some shops have gone out of business because their customers don't want to run the gauntlet of vendors and we have seen street vendors running at the approach of some official or other.
In Panama we were always very glad to see the Tourist Police around in their distinctive uniforms and usually riding bikes. We were stopped by them several times on the streets of the old center of Panama City, the Casco Antiguo, and given gentle advice about where and where not to wander. Colombia's tourist police is not so visible on the streets, but are often found at tourist sites serving as guides as well as guards depending on the size and importance of the site.
This man gave us a very nice tour of the Casa de Cultura, which we came across by accident. We saw a nice-looking courtyard and couldn't resist peeking in. When we realized where we were and had accepted the offer of a tour, our guide helped us practice Spanish and got in some English practice himself, and then introduced us to the rest of his team where we collectively bemoaned the security situation that kept so many tourists away. We learned that the members of this team came from all over Colombia and were assured that such is often the case. We also gathered that it is an elite kind of service requiring very good people skills and of course language skills as well.
In Tunja we met tourist policement in two of the city's sites. First in a monastery of Saint Thomas and then in one of the lovely churches decorated so profusely in carved and gilded wood that it reminds one of a wedding cake. Both gave us excellent guided tours.
Bucaramanga didn't have nearly so many colonial style houses as Giron, but here and there you could spot one or two like this one. The Casa de Bolivar was one, of course, as was the Casa de la Cultura. It's sad that the urge to modernize so often means the loss of such a heritage.
This was one of two old churches that we walked by and admired from the outside. Had we happened by during mass we might have been able to step inside, but unfortunately all was locked up tight this day. The strong locks are probably to protect the treasures within from thieves. So different from Mexico where churches were open almost all day and into the evening even when there was no service going on.
The Cathedral was the exception that proved the rule. When we arrived in front of it soon after getting off the bus it was open to Bucaramangans on their way to work wanting to stop in and offer up a prayer or two. It was a pleasant building, relatively modern, and very large with rather lovely stained glass windows.