Transportation and Traffic (and Noise)
When you reach a certain age you gain the right to speak your mind. You also have a free pass to avoid the rigors and inconveniences of public transportation. I planned to have a car for the entire stay — it was my splash-out to make things as much like home as possible so I could enjoy the travel rather than spend all my time figuring out how to get from place to place, which can be a real pain in the patoot.
Well … just goes to show how little you find out until you get on the ground and see for yourself. I knew before I got here things were dodgy with parking, but I had no idea just how dodgy. Pereira is a city built for a bygone age. The streets are narrow, buildings have no parking space, it’s all designed for donkeys and carts hauling produce and bags of coffee around. So finding parking is not only yeoman’s work, it usually requires divine intervention. Fortunately I didn’t do the car rental thing right away, the few red flags I saw thrown up in the travel literature made me hesitate and OH BOY am I glad I did. The vacation rental apartment I have is on one of the busiest streets in the city. There’s no parking for blocks and blocks around. The landlord suggested I chat up the parking attendant at a nearby bank — you know, slip him some cash and he’ll fix you up. That sort of thing. The day I moved in I walked over to the bank and found five parking places with five cars in them and motorbikes crammed in on each side of every car. I needed no more than a second to determine that I would rather slit my wrists than deal with that mess. So my reality-adjusted plan is to rent a car for the day I’m leaving town and return it to the agency on the day I get back. Voila! No parking problem! The element of spontaneity I had hoped to engage is, of course, squarely out the window, but it beats having to deal with the parking issue.
Driving in Pereira is kind of like one of the Fast and Furious movies. The road system looks like it was designed by Salvador Dali. People drive like they’re on their way to the hospital with a woman whose contractions are FAR too close together for comfort. It’s not for the faint-hearted. To this pandemonium is added the fact that nearly all streets in the city are one way. If you’re native you have a clear sense of how the pattern works. If you’re a newbie from out of town you’re on your own, babes. And the devil takes the hindmost (which might mean your rear bumper).
A native Pereiran would probably counter, “well, it works, that’s the main thing.” So does doing the dishes with Tide if you’re in a pinch while camping. But it’s not how life should be on a daily basis. There’s a reason God made dish detergent and two-way streets. So my opinion about Pereira’s traffic is: things could be done better with a little planning — wash my American mouth out with soap (Ivory is OK but not Tide, pretty please!).
Another important point for those coming from the States is the general decibel level. Traffic is not regulated so all kinds of vehicles go through the streets at all hours of the day and night. If you’ve just finished that chapter of the novel you’re reading and are ready to drift off, don’t be surprised if a fully loaded truck goes by your building at 11:30PM and uses its airbrakes to stop at the light one block away. Yes, Bridget, I speak from experience. I’m still alive to tell the tale but check back with me at the end of my two months’ stay and see how things are going. There may be one or more casualties before we reach the end of the story.
There’s no changing any of this, of course — there’s as little chance of that as there is a chance of redeeming it in any way. It’s up to you as the tourist to do as the locals do. It’s all Business As Usual to them. Sometimes the work of adaptation can take the ginger out of you, but there’s only one option: rearrange your circumstances if you can’t hack the current ones. If you’re in an Airbnb rental that’s easier said than done. So dial up that adjustment knob and get used to things. Better luck next time if you end up on a thoroughfare that makes sitting on your balcony feel like standing in the middle of the Jersey Turnpike during rush hour.
If you’re not the driving type, you’ll be pleased to know that taxis are good in Pereira. They use meters and there’s no haggling over how much it costs to get from Point A to Point B. During rush hour you may well find yourself waiting a good while before you can find an empty one to flag down, but there’s also a taxi app called Tappsi Easy that will help out (but only if you speak Spanish). I’ve used taxis since my arrival here and have never had a problem. It’s a relief to leave the driving to somebody else in Pereira’s traffic, so give yourself a break and let the taximan do it. Trips across town are a couple bucks at most so it’s cheap and cheerful into the bargain.
Householding and Grocery Shopping
If you go the Airbnb route as I’ve done and find an apartment rather than a hotel as your accommodation you’ll end up being domestic since that’s part of the gig. Shopping is good in Pereira, it’s the commercial hub of the Coffee Triangle. There are plenty of malls and shops all over the place. Some of them will follow a pattern Americans are familiar with, like Dollar City and Exito (one of the main supermarket chains), others follow the European model of small shops handling only one thing. Prices are good by American standards, even in the chain supermarkets.
The great delight for me as an apartment dweller responsible for getting my own grub together is what’s called a “galeria” here, essentially a public market for fruits and vegetables. As one might expect from a country in the top five biodiverse nations in the world, fruits and vegetables are abundant. To American eyes they look like technicolor versions of the standard items and they’re incredibly cheap into the bargain. One of my major gripes with the Philippines was the poor selection of vegetables in a country that can grow stuff 365 days a year. My produce dreams have come true here in Colombia. The first time I went to the public market I nearly started to hyperventilate. Everything a cook could ask for and then some, at prices you’ll never see in a million years in Safeway. Avocados the size of small melons, mangos of several different sizes and flavors, huge heads of snow-white cauliflower for a pittance. Yeehaw. The first meal I made at home was a huge chef’s salad with a huge fruit salad for dessert. I can get beets, carrots, green beans, celery, all the regulars in addition to yucca, plantains and a few others I’ve yet to identify. Fruits come in an enormous variety since they grow in different ecosystems, some tropical, some at higher elevations where cool-weather crops grow well. In addition to bananas, strawberries, apples and the like you’ll find things that look like they were designed as props for a horror film but taste divine. I’ll be some weeks trying it all and figuring out how to use it in the kitchen.
Restaurant fare, however, is quite another matter. The other day the guide took me to one of his favorite places featuring dishes from Tolima Department, to the south of Risaralda Department of which Pereira is the capital. “Authentic Tolimense Lechona” — roast suckling pig, Tolima’s claim to fame. I ordered the most classic thing on the menu and what came out of the kitchen looked like the dog’s dinner with a taste about as exciting as a visit to the dentist. There was plenty of it, that much I’ll give them, but I found nothing else to recommend either what I had or what the guide chose, a Tolimense tamale — a huge thing stuffed with what looked very much like what I had on my own plate.
Two days later we went to a restaurant featuring typical dishes from the Eastern Plains region (Llanos Orientales), which is Colombia’s answer to Texas barbecue or what you’d expect from an Argentinian churrasquería. The barbecue was great — not as inventive as the Texan version, to be sure, and there were no special barbeque sauces whose secrets people would kill to protect, but it was quite tasty. A visit to a Mexican restaurant the following day led to bitterly dashed hopes. No Mexican would have recognized the burrito I got, despite it being wrapped in a flour tortilla. The salsas provided were pathetic — a bit of salty guacamole that resembled the real deal only in color, something that looked and tasted like ketchup with a bit of cayenne thrown in, and pico de gallo that bore absolutely no resemblance to the Real McCoy. Dagnabbit. I knew before I got here that Colombian food was gonna bore my socks off — and sure enough, BINGO! I had hoped to take refuge at a good Mexican restaurant once in a while just to wake my taste buds from their Sleeping Beauty slumber. No such luck. Maleficent’s thorn hedge has encircled the entire city and put everybody’s tastebuds to sleep, apparently. There are hot peppers available in the public market, however, so you can bring in Prince Charming for that crucial kiss yourself if you’re handy in the kitchen. Otherwise, prepare to be underwhelmed and have your tastebuds in a continual doze. There’s a reason things are like that — Colombia was, after all, colonized by Spain. If you do a bit of homework about traditional Spanish cuisine, it all becomes crystal clear. Starts with B, rhymes with “warring.” 🙂