A Small Town in Colombia

I’m in a small town in central Colombia, just north of Bogota, Villa de Leyva. It’s just the sort of place dreams are made of; white colonial homes with red tiled roofs, the largest central plaza in Colombia, no cathedrals (the small parish church on the plaza seems just the right proportion), and cobblestone streets. I’ve been here a week and a half and have met a number of people, so when I walk down the streets and to the market, I am greeted and sometimes sit down for a chat or a beer.

Photo Credit: Joanne Bretzer

The charm isn’t just in the physical beauty, but mostly in the people I’ve met here. Last night I sat out on the town square with a Colombian man  who has spent most of his last 30 years in Europe, mucking about doing interesting things. He is back with a desire in staying in this town, though he is from Bogota.The people I’ve met seem quite thoughtful and aware, and environmentally tuned in. A number of Europeans have settled here, making things like wine, beer, sausages, pasta, and such. You can even go gluten free if need be- there is a niche for that at the organic foods market on Thursdays and Saturdays.

Photo Credit: Joanne Bretzer

It is 2 to 3 hours from Bogota, so flights to the States are relatively cheap and often. Also there is the big city, Bogota, with museums and culture when so desired.

It could be an interesting place to settle, but there is a strong interest in developing mass tourism, which of course will bring the end to its charms, and probably to its charming local citizens. I’ve seen it too many before, especially Miami Beach and Saigon.

The other big stumbling block for me is that though it is cheap now, once it becomes a bigger tourist magnet, the cost of living will go up. It goes up now on weekends when the cashed up people from Bogota arrive. The peso is very cheap to the dollar at the moment, but even a year ago it was 2/3 of what it is now. If it goes back, the cost of living increases by that amount.

The climate is perfect in terms of temperature, but there is a water shortage, so bad that the expensive hotels cannot use their pools. But maybe the positive side of that is lack of water may curtail development to some degree.

Anyway, that is the report for the moment. I’m heading to Bogota on Monday for a few days of museums and cathedrals, and then I’ll be heading west to coffee country and more little colonial towns.
Photo Credit: Joanne Bretzer
Photo Credit: Joanne Bretzer
Photo Credit: Joanne Bretzer
Photo Credit: Joanne Bretzer


Recycled Book Challenge

Mliae has started a year-long challenge to read recycled books. What a great idea to get people to read books they may otherwise miss. Despite all of the publishing challenges these days, according to this article in Geek Wire,the number of titles published by traditional means annually has continued to increase. An avid reader with favorite authors will tend to work to keep up with new works. But what of all those books that have gone before? What about the library full of books, and the recycled books available in dusty used book stores? We are a consumer based society always looking for the new. I appreciate this challenge for promoting a different attitude about reading.

Independent and used bookstores struggle these days. Go hunt the archives full of fragrant yellowed pages. Or a garage sale. Or, like me, the exchange libraries at hostels. Reading old used books opens up new horizons. An author long dead can bring depth and history to an idea we think is new and revolutionary.


I found Balthazar, by Lawrence Durrell on a bookshelf in the hostel where I am staying in a small town in Colombia. I haven’t finished reading it  yet, but I’m struck with the insight and sensitivity the author brings to the ideas of diverse sexual appetites and longings. Limited by contemporary values, an author 50 years ago needed to be nuanced about their approach to “sensitive topics.” The language used can feel occasionally arch, but there is a subtlety and tenderness with an approach that is less direct. Durrell claimed “three literary Uncles—his publisher T.S. Eliot, the poet George Seferis, and Henry Miller. He found a copy of Tropic of Cancer that had been left behind in a public lavatory. He said the book shook him “from stem to stern.” He became lifelong friends with Henry Miller and Anaïs Nin.[14]      These influences show, and remind me to revisit Miller and Nin.

Now it is off to find a cafe and enjoy Balthazar.DSC01702.JPG


We usually have way too many. Big menus are supposed to make a restaurant seem significant, while in fact it feels overwhelming, and we know no one chef can cook that many things for a room full of people at any given time. And how can all the ingredients be fresh? The same with supermarkets– so many choices, and, in fact, most of it is not good or good for us. The same principle can be applied to many things. So many choices, and so little guidance in how to choose. Well, no, that is wrong. There is just too much guidance and no way to sort that out either.

One thing you don’t want to do when you travel is carry a lot of books. So this is solved the the electronic “reader”, but then you have the preponderance of choices, and, to my mind, a very mediocre medium. I finally have a lot of time to read, but I only brought a couple of books with me on my travels. Those are finished.

But the solution is really quite easy if you are traveling in hostels. Almost all I have been in have a library/book exchange. And it turns out these mostly young travelers carry some heavy reading with them. At this point I am hoping against electronic readers, because you don’t leave that behind or exchange it for something you haven’t yet read.

My host stocking the new bookshelf in the hostel library      Photo Credit: Joanne Bretzer

The library at the last hostel I stayed in had a small but select bunch of books. I looked at the titles and wondered about the people who had left them. I looked around. Most of the occupants were in their 20’s, yet here was Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaids Tale alongside Roverto Bolano’s By Night in Chile. There was little of little consequence. I traded in my finished Islands Beneath the Sea, Isabel Allende, and will leave Bolano at the next stop. The flow of books through hostels keeps such literature alive on the road, like an underground railroad of reading.

This links back to choice by the fact that in hostels there is generally little-30 to 50 or so books in several different languages. If you hunger to read, eat what you are given. Choose from the small selection, and be grateful for the quality of reader who preceded you along the road. I find myself overwhelmed by bookstores, as much as I love them, unless I have gone there with a list.

To carry the food metaphor a bit further, we often eat the same sort of stuff out of habit or acquired taste. Given the huge menu, we will gravitate to that which we know. Given a few choice options, we may have to wander into new territory. From the shelf in my current hostel I have chosen Lawrence Durrell’s Balthazar. Written in 1958. Yellowed pages with the aroma of air and time. It is part of a 4 book series. 3 of the 4 are here. I’m trying to figure out how to get my eyes on the 4th.


Reading this book is like discovering artichokes for the first time. A level of resistance has to be surmounted. Layers must be peeled. And digestion is challenged. The book is old. It must be quaint. Who heard of the author? The first few pages drown me in a sea of unfamiliar and poetic language and usage:

I had to set myself the task of trying to recover them [the characters] in words, reinstate them in memory, allot to each his and her position in my time. Selfishly. And with that writing complete, I felt I had turned a key upon the doll’s house of our actions. Indeed, I saw my lovers and friends no longer as living people but as coloured transfers of the mind; inhabiting my papers now, no longer the city, like tapestry figures. It was difficult to concede to them any more common reality than to the words I had used about them. What has recalled me to myself?

It turns out that this is a book not just about a group of people in Alexandria, Egypt, at a particular point in time, but it is also a book about writing, and epistemology:

“We live” writes Pursewarden somewhere, “lives based upon selected fictions. Our view of reality is conditioned by our position in space and time–not by our personalities as we like to think. Thus every interpretation of reality is based upon a unique position. Two paces east or west and the whole picture is changed.” Something of this order. . . .

And as for human characters, whether real or invented, there are no such animals. Each psyche is really an anthill of opposing predispositions. Personality as something with fixed attributes is an illusion–but a necessary illusion if we are to love!

Built on allusions, assumptions and asides, the book proceeds to tell the tales of the author, a group of characters of suspect desires and proclivities, and the instability of it all. Also it is set in an Alexandria that will never exist again, and only even then existed in the imaginings of its disparate residents.

I am not far into the book, and I only have a few days to read it and perhaps one more. I hate to break up the set, but I may have to take one of them with me on the road. The reading of them will etch my experience of the parts of Colombia I am traveling through at the time, warping the people I meet with the weight of the characters in the books. And vice versa. It will be my Colombia colored by my experiences and my state of mind as I travel, and that shaped in part by what I am reading.

What a gift of chance and limited choices! The author has other works, but what are the odds of me finding them? I’ll find new readings along the way, and my psyche will acquire some more oppositional predispositions.


Hosteling, Markets and Cooking

Many years ago, when I first traveled to Mexico, I went to the market in Cuernavaca and was overwhelmed with the desire to have a place to cook. A tiny cucina would do, a hot plate and a mini fridge. I wanted to round up a basket full of those glorious fragrant vegetables and herbs, and quesos and meats. What I would do with a handful of avocados and some cilantro, and bright red chilies that turn your fingers into lethal, scorching weapons. Limons! Mangos! But I was staying in a hotel. Small and cheap, with the bathroom down the hall, but a hotel.

cuernavaca market
Borrowed from: https://livelovemexico.wordpress.com/category/ccidd/

Later, when I was living in Korea and traveling in Southeast Asia, I had the same desire when I visited markets. For what I could afford on my traveling budget, I would eat better if I could cook, not always, but sometimes. There is no knocking the street food in Asia, but sometimes I was so provoked by the wet markets that I deeply yearned for a kitchen.

From Trip Advisor

This post was going to be about hosteling in general, but I can see that my passion for cooking has sidetracked it to one of the main reasons I’m a hostel convert. Not only can I cook, I can sometimes share.

DSC01145 (1)
Photo Joanne Bretzer


This is an homage as much to markets as it is to hostels. Indigenous markets are essential to the communities they serve and the small producers. The market here in Villa de Leyva, where I am staying now, brings growers from all over on Saturday. They sell and cook and visit with each other. Catch up on gossip. Trade. On Thursday and Saturday there is an organic market, which is an important outlet for struggling organic farmers, and a wonderful service to us who are looking for fresh, organic produce, cheeses and other products.

Photo Credit: Joanne Bretzer
Photo Credit: Joanne Bretzer
Photo Credit: Joanne Bretzer



Photo Credit: Joanne Bretzer
Photo Credit: Joanne Bretzer
Photo Credit: Joanne Bretzer
Photo Credit: Joanne Bretzer
Photo Credit: Joanne Bretzer


By  frequenting markets and having a place to play with new foods, you are experiencing a different level of travel. Food is an essential and integral part of a culture. Having it cooked in a restaurant is an level of abstraction. I have been to two markets here in Villa de Leyva, and on the secon.d on I was recognized and was recognizing people, and stopping for a chat or two while shopping. I met the director of the local library and ran into fellow travelers. The fellow travelers were having the sort of experience I used to have, wishing for a kitchen.

Markets and Hostel Cooking

Photo Credit: Joanne Bretzer

(I posted this on my retirement blog, but it maybe is better suited to this, my travel and life blog, though there is a lot of overlap between the two).

I left Santander yesterday and came to Villa de Leyva, which is small mountain town a couple, or few, hours north on Bogota. My good fortune landed me in Hostel Tinva for about 4 days. This is one hostel experience, where the place is small, with 6 0r 7 beds, and the family is about often enough that you feel at home. The hostel is around the corner from the main town plaza, and the aroma of coffee, pastries and chocolate waft up the stairs.

This morning I made it up early to go to the Thursday morning organic produce market. Lonely Planet reports on two markets, Saturday and Thursday, but fails to locate them on the map. Nor anything like an address. Just “3 blocks SE of the main square.” Which is not set on a N/S axis, so SE is a bit hard to determine. I went looking. Nobody seemed to have any idea what I wanted.

Finally I managed to convince a ‘splainin’ sort of dude of which market I was searching. He had the answer always 4 words before I could get to the full explanation in Spanish. He finally listened enough to get the drift and point me in the right direction.  I then set out to find about 10 stalls of beautiful fresh produce and locally made products, including pastas, honeys, oils and crafted beer.

I set about selecting fresh red bell peppers, tomatoes, thyme, mangoes, onion, garlic, limes, avocados, hand made raviolis and locally crafted beer.

Photo Credit: Joanne Bretzer

In the hostel this afternoon I’ll cook up the works, well almost all of it, for my dinner. But first, it is time for a siesta. Then I’ll cook.

Yes, well, a good siesta it was, and now to work. I have the little kitchen to myself. And it is little, but it has what is needed. More or less. The key to cooking in hostels is adaptability. The kitchens will vary widely, and you just have to adjust and be grateful. This little kitchen makes up for it’s size with a splendid view and airiness.

Photo Credit: Joanne Bretzer

After washing the veges in the sink, I put on a large pot of water for the tomatoes, and then for the pasta.


You won’t have your expensive German blades while you travel in hostels, so just rough cut things as well as you can. I start with the garlic, onion and red bell pepper. While the water for the tomatoes starts to boil, I start sauteing the garlic, onions and peppers.  I’m using butter this time because I don’t carry around a bottle of olive oil with me when I travel, and small amounts of butter can be bought locally. Be sure to add some salt.


Don’t add the tomatoes to the water till it starts to boil. The tomatoes are not going be cooked in the boiling water. The trick is to get the skins to loosen so you can easily peel them yourself. As soon as you see the skin break, remove them from the water and put them in cold water to cool off. Of course, you may not find a bowl handy to put them in, but improvise. You can see where the skins have split.


The tomatoes will then easily slip from their skins.


It’s a good idea, but not necessary, to squeeze the tomatoes gently to remove the water and most of the seeds. While you are doing this, pay attention to the onion mixture and don’t let it brown or scorch.

Then coarsely chop the tomatoes and add them to the onion mix in the fry pan. As this point the onion mixture should be soft but not browned. You will have to pay attention to the heat level on the various stoves in hostels. Don’t scorch the mixture or over-cook it. I like the veges separate and slightly al dente. I am adding some fresh thyme that I got at the market.


After you have removed the tomatoes from the water, get the water boiling again. Yes, the same water. I am in a town in a country that is having a drought. There is no need to either waste the water nor the energy to heat it from cold again. Pretend you are camping!


When the water boils, salt it generously and add the pasta.

The sauce is to taste for me, and I will just add another generous dollop of butter.

Boil the pasta. It is very high altitude where I am now, and I am not so happy with the cooking of the pasta. Water boils fast at high altitudes, and pasta cooks slower than at sea-level. The raviolis have some water in them because they have cooked so long. I’ll be learning more about that I suspect.

The pasta is ready, and I just have to heat the sauce again for a moment, and it will be dinner. Oh! And I just remembered some local goat cheese I have in the refrigerator to top it off.


The sauce tastes super fresh, and the butter and goat cheese give it some breadth and body. The pasta will be better next time, but this time it is just fine!

When you are traveling in hostels, there are often people around to share with, so cook plenty. Tonight, however, it is just me and a glass of wine. Salut!




The Beauty of Timeless Travel

I’ve traveled a bit in my life, but always with a set time frame. I have no grounds to complain, hell, sometimes I would have a 3 month break to wander SE Asia, or Mexico. But there was aa expiry date for my travels, and work to return to.

This year is different. I can stop at places as long as I like, and get on a bus to most anywhere. My only limitation is money. Yes, well, that isn’t a small limitation, for sure, but it only limits how I travel, not for how long. Buses and hostels, short term rentals, cooking for myself, mostly, and having photos and and the occasional trinket for souvenirs. I can do these things. I really must.

Such timeless horizons arrive a the point in my life when there is one very looming horizon. I find this coincidence curious. I know that there is a time when travel will end, I just don’t know when or how that will happen. So my travels are not aimless, or so timeless as I would like to imagine. I have a clear trajectory- arriving at a place where I want to plant my flag, or at least my bougainvilleas.

But for now I can get on a bus heading higher into the Andes and imagine that one of the small towns I land in will grab me by the ankles and keep me for a while. What remarkable opportunity. I am sincerely grateful to have my little pension, and so much time. Maybe in a year, who really knows, I will know where to settle and plant my kitchen garden, and teach the nietos and nietas a bit of English. I do have some plans for my peregrinations, after all.


Or maybe I’ll meet some people doing inspiring things.


cobb house
Cobb House  Explorations into Permaculture