We talked a bit in the last post about traveling in the world of Covid. In Europe it’s reasonably easy. Leaving Europe to head to South America is a little more difficult. Forms and more forms. Tests and oops the results don’t arrive so its another test. Luckily Sylvia is really good at that stuff. There is that question in one’s mind, “what happens if I test positive for covid in Colombia?” All one can do is deal with it if it happens. Will lose isolation spot in NZ but go back to France after a negative test.
Friday 18 February 2022
Sylvia arrived home from work early so we could make it to the Montpellier Airport for our 7.45pm flight to Paris. Just making the flight with seconds to spare we made it to Paris, where a taxi awaited us. Part way to the hotel Sylvia gets a second call from another taxi driver who is waiting for us at the airport – we still don’t know how that happened. Arriving at the Renaissance Hotel in the Marais area of Paris we settled in for the night.
Saturday 19 February 2022
We woke to a blue sky with views over the chimneys to the Sacré Cœur church. Heading down to breakfast we observed that the hotel had been recently done up in the 1970’s style. We were here, well thats not quite true, Sylvia was, to check out some Royal Canin Pop-up stores, which have been set up to research the market in relation to cats and dogs. A short walk from the hotel passing the the Place de la Republique we arrived at the A la Découverte de Royal Canin pop-up store.
One of the team was there to greet us and took us on a tour through the store. Just inside the entrance there is an area where people can take selfies and have them sent to them. There is a wall where people can write notes . Next there is an interactive screen one can stroke and the fur on the screen moves, dates come up which one can click on and the history of Royal Canin comes up.
Friendly staff greeted people as they came in; some bring their cats to get photographed by an onsite photographer. Her lovely dog had to be held away from the studio door while the cat pics were underway. People can also choose a personalised carry bag. There is an interactive programme which helps people chose the right cat or dog to suit both their personality and living environment.
As we wandered back past the memorial a protest had sparked up in support of the Tigre region in Ethiopia.
We jumped on to the metro which took us under the Seine River to the St Germain area where we enjoyed lunch and some people watching before wandering down to the Royal Canin L’Atelier Félin.
We were welcomed to the shop by a couple of the team members. This shop specialises in cats and in the back is an area where people can meet with a specialist to discuss cat behaviour and nutrition. There are also some interactive screens and a friendly bunch of staff ready to offer advice to customers on what to feed their cats. Royal Canin specialise in specific food to suit your pet’s lifestyle, breed, age and, with a veterinarian recommendation, specific conditions that they may suffer from. Downstairs there is a large range of product available.
From there we strolled back to the hotel, crossing the Seine River and passing the Saint-Eustache church, enjoying the attractive streets of Paris.
Sunday 20 February 2022.
The drive to the airport was fast with little traffic until we got to the vicinity of the terminal where cars came to a standstill; our driver kept driving up the outside lane then cutting in to the traffic probably knocking 20 minutes off our journey. It quickly became obvious we wern’t the only people leaving the country. Heading through the priority queues and striking one of the best counter guys ever, we were soon in the lounge meeting up with Sylvia’s team members Sarah, Sophie and Mathieu, who were accompanying Sylvia on the market visit.
Landing in the concrete jungle of Sao Paulo we were picked up in a couple SUV’s and headed northeast along really good, up-to-5-lane motorways. Three hours later we arrived at the Marklin Hotel in Sao Carlos around 10pm local time.
Monday 21 February 2022
We met for breakfast at 7am with a number of the Royal Canin leaders who had driven up from São Paulo last night. Sylvia and the team headed off to the Royal Canin factory in the nearby town of Descalvado. I took a stroll around the local streets. Like most South American cities there must be some really good barbed-wire salesmen here, with most walls around houses topped with barbed-wire. The streets were tidy and well-kept with good footpaths and well maintained berms.
I followed a large stormwater drain down to an intersection with a large statue of Jesus (quite common in this part of the world). There are also a few blocks of high rise apartments dotted around the city, with its population of 250,000.
At noon Plinio, a very enthusiastic manager from Royal Canin, picked me up and drove me around the rest of the city pointing out large condominium areas on the edge of town all fenced and with manned gates.
From there we drove through the local farmland to the town of Descalvado where the Royal Canin factory is. The area is full of lush farmland growing corn, coffee, grasses for stock and sugar cane. Interestingly there are four pet food factories in the town. They were originally set up here as there was an abundant supply of protein such as chicken, pork etc., and corn, however the government has started subsidising the growing of sugar cane for the manufacture of bio-fuel. Most local farmers have switched to the cane as, with the subsidies, there is more money in it. Hence the ingredients have to be sourced from much further away now pushing up the cost of production.
Arriving at the factory Sylvia and her team were still on the factory tour. I sat in the staffroom and chatted to a couple of friendly people. Sylvia and the team arrived and a few speeches were made before we headed off on the drive back to Sao Paulo, this time in a bullet-proof car. After checking into the Raddison Hotel around 8:30pm we turned in for an early night.
Tuesday 22 February 2022.
After breakfast Sylvia headed off for a day visiting stores and veterinary clinics. I headed off on foot to explore a little of this concrete jungle. With 12.4 million people crammed into 1521 km2 the central city is full of multi-storey tower blocks, many over 20-storeys high. Lots of old buildings are being knocked down and new apartments blocks going up. The city is 465 years old and the largest in Brazil and in the southern hemisphere. Heading southwest I came to the Parque Ibirapuera, a large, well-kept park with a couple of lakes and lots of pathways, trees and many stalls getting set up for the day’s trading. I was surprised at the number of people out exercising or just strolling. There are a number of museums and pavillions in the park – all closed as I was a bit early, or closed for Covid.
Next to the park is a large monument “Obelisk of Sao Paulo”, 72 meters high; construction began in 1947 and was completed in 1970. It is dedicated to the victims of the Constitutionalist Revolution of 1932. The monument itself is fenced off however underneath there is a large chamber with lots of names on the walls and several chapels.
I strolled back through another park where I saw a homeless man hauling his kit, tent included, up into a tree. From there I wandered the streets discovering another park in the middle of town, fenced and with phone and power wires strung up like cobwebs. The streets were busy crammed with cars and pedestrians.
Wednesday 23 February 2022: Travel starts to get a bit more challenging…
After breakfast we headed to the airport for our flight to Bogota via Panama. Arriving at check in the nice lady behind the counter asked for our Covid vaccine certificate and our yellow fever certificate. We all looked at her a bit surprised. Luckily I had my yellow fever certificate with me in a satchel I carry with all I might need one day – stuff like a spare Passport, hard copies of vaccination certificates etc. Sylvia had left hers in France and Sophie had never had the jab. The firm’s travel agent had dropped the ball on this one and not advised them of the requirement of having the vaccine at least 10-days before traveling out of Brazil to Columbia. After many phone calls and checking all over the terminal for a vaccination place it became apparent that there was no way Sylvia and Sophie could make the flight. I had to go on my own as my flight to NZ was booked out of Bogota.
I boarded the plane feeling sad for Sylvia, Sophie and the Royal Canin team in Columbia who had been looking forward to the boss’s visit for some time.
Arriving in Bogota late in the evening I was met by Tomas (the Royal Canin country manager) and his driver, who I figured out very quickly from the bulge in his jacket, was packing a gun. We headed to the car park, our driver bringing up the rear, and mounted a Toyota SUV with bullet-proof windows and armour in the doors etc. Recently one of the managers, moving with his family to Bogota, arrived at the airport with his family. The family and most of the baggage left in a bullet-proof car while he went in a taxi with the rest of the baggage. On the journey, while stopped at the lights, two blokes walked up and smashed the window to the taxi, held a gun to the manager’s head and took all his valuables, computer, passport etc. There have been lots of people here held up at knife point at ATM’s and phones snatched out of peoples hands etc. Crime has risen in Bogota with a large number of young refugees coming from Venezuela.
Arriving at the Four Seasons I was checked into a very nice suite, booked obviously for Sylvia. Tomas joined me for a drink and, being originally from Argentina, a chat about rugby.
Thursday 24 February 2022
While enjoying a good breakfast at the hotel I received a message from Mauricio, who was to be my driver for the next few days. He was waiting in the car park downstairs. Soon we were on the road and heading through the slow and dense traffic. Our first stop was the Bataro Museum. This was a mixture of some rather different art, a section about the drug wars, an area on currency over the years and a few other bits and pieces, none of which I really understood as it was all in Spanish. I did however manage to set off an alarm when stepping back too close to a painting when taking a photo.
Next sop was the military museum where I struck a really friendly bunch of people, working out I only spoke english a young soldier was called down from the next floor to take me on a tour. Rodrigos had spent time clearing mines dotted around the country left over from the FARC; about 25% of these still remain. He guided us through the museum with items in relation to various conflicts dating back to the independence war with the Spanish in the early 1800s, and many conflicts that have followed including wars with Ecuador, Peru, Panama and a number of revolutions. There have also been operations against pirates and still ongoing guerrilla war which seems to be igniting again with the FARC. A treaty was signed with them in 2016, which is represented by a gold AK-47 with a spade on the bottom of it displayed in the museum. I had been forwarded a security briefing that a confrontation with the FARC had taken place that morning some 500km north east of Bogotá where 23 terrosits were killed so it looks like it’s not over. Columbia also took part in World War II and in the Korean War and there were good displays and equipment used in these conflicts and also a good history of the Army, Navy and Air force. All the staff are very friendly and two soldiers based outside guarding the place with their Czechoslovakian made AKs were keen to have their photo taken with me.
Next we strolled down the street past the presidential palace and round the back to the police museum. This had a good section on Pablo Escobar, including a poster with the 100 million Peso reward offered at the time of his capture. Not sure if anyone got paid out. There were areas on crime detection, bomb disposal and other bits of history.
We strolled back across the Plaza de Bolivar and past the Cathedral Primada de Colombia. Lots of traders and stall holders were set up around here selling both food and general merchandise.
Next stop was at the bottom of the hill which has Monseratt on top. We brought a ticket for the steep cable railway carriage which hauled us to the top.
Dismounting the car we headed up the many steps to the church as the rain closed in, the views over the city fast disappearing. After a quick look at the church we headed back down the steps to a large restaurant to enjoy a local lunch. On leaving the restaurant I had a few problems paying as their eftpos machine was not getting a signal, and to make matters worse I had no locals in my wallet; luckily it sorted its self so I avoided the embarrassment ment of having to ask Mauricio to pay.
We mounted the car and headed back down the hill, passing the upcoming car on the way.
Next we headed to the gold museum; with its large vault doors this place was simply amazing. All the gold objects had been dug up from various Inca and Mayan tombs, some dating back thousands of years. It can only be described by the few pictures I took as i don’t have the words to describe it. The leaders, kings or rulers from those times really left us a legacy from the burial rituals that took place in their belief in the afterlife. I left thinking that from our time now there will be nothing left on earth when we move on to give those 1000 years in the future any inclination is to how we have lived in the past few hundred years. I don’t think any of our leaders today or the wealthy people amongst us will leave behind them a legacy such as left by these great rulers of the time. There was a shop on the ground floor where one could purchase gold plated copies of some of the jewellery worn back in those times.
Arriving back at the hotel I enjoyed an excellent massage at their spa, administered by a masseuse who was incredibly strong in relation to her size.
That evening I enjoyed a dinner with the Royal Canin Colombia leadership team, which had been organised for them to socialise with Sylvia and Sophie. They are a great group of people all dedicated to making a better life for cats and dogs.
Friday 25 February 2022
Mauricio was waiting bright and early, our first stop being a testing centre to get yet another covid test. The first place did not do the tests for travel however the next stop was successful with the aid of the camera on google translate to get the form sorted. The staff were really friendly and with no one waiting we were soon on the road out of town.
Heading to the Salt mine at Zipaquira, 45km from Bogota, I have never seen so many busses all on a seperate road alongside the highway; they were at times nose to tail almost like a train. Long bus stations are alongside the bus road catering for thousands of people. One would think with all those buses there would be little traffic. That was not the case – it took us 2.5 hours to make the journey. Even as we entered the toll road with its fully digital gates the traffic only reduced a little.
Arriving at the mine site we bought a couple of tickets and headed down the drift into the mine. Like many mines the main tunnel had tunnels off to each side where they had pulled out huge quantities of salt. A lot of these have been turned into catholic type shrines with crosses and various coloured lighting in them looking very effective. The main tunnel wound its way down into a big area which had round columns, churches, shops and even an Egyptian area with gold painted statues and a story about the Egyptian leaders etc. There was also a spa and lots of coffee and souvenir shops.
Finally we ended up at the salt mining experience. At a counter we were given a hat with a light on it and headed off into some small tunnels with no lights and a rope to guide us through the small tunnels to get the full experience of what it was like to be a miner in the old days. Popping out into larger tunnels every now and again and being able to look down in to the halls below it was an interesting experience.
Finally we arrived at the salt face and were given a pick and told to get some salt, it didn’t exactly fall of the walls and it took a fair few swings to get a good hand full of salt.
We wandered down to the end of the tunnel and hopped on a little train and were taken out of the line on a lower drift and back up to the main site.
After some lunch and a drive through the local town we headed back to Bogota.
On arrival at the hotel I thought it would be a good idea to check in for tomorrow’s flight to Guatemala then Los Angeles. We had booked the flights back on the Opodo app: WARNING DO NOT USE! It had come through in French. I did the check in to see I had a seat in economy after paying for business class. I rang the UK number which would not take the booking number and cut me off. I then tried that horrible chat bot thing. An hour or so of that I got to talk to a human, well it told me it was. It must have been infected by a bot because after telling me to ring a Belarus and then a Swiss, and finally an English number none of which worked I basically got nowhere.
Later that evening Tomas and his wife Josefina picked me up and we headed out to a very nice Japanese restaurant for a very enjoyable evening.
Saturday 26 February 2022
I woke at 0500 and decided I had better see if the check in for my flight to Guatemala had gone through. It had so I decided to check in for the next leg to LAX. It wouldn’t let me check in so I had a closer look to find that they had put me on the flight to LAX the next day meaning I would miss the LAX to NZ flight and the quarantine date. Not wanting to try the bot again I just booked another fare for today. Arriving at the airport nice and early Mauricio escorted me around, gun still on hip. Arriving at the Avianca Airlines counter the staff were very helpful and got me a business seat sorted to Guatemala. The next one they said I would have to sort there. I said goodby to Mauricio and boarded the flight.
I sat down and checked my phone to see there was an email from Avianca to say they had cancelled my next booking due to suspicious activity. Arriving at Guatemala I spent some time at the counter sorting that out and just managed a seat down the back as the flight was full.
Arriving in LAX I headed to immigration and struck quite a friendly chap at the counter – well he was until he flicked my passport open at a page with a visa to Turkmenistan on it. Instantly he was my friend no more. After some minutes of questions on why and what I travel for and a look at our blog site he said I cant get the system to work for you – wait over there. He closed up his booth and disappeared returning 20 to 30 minutes later with a Chinese woman. “Come with me”. She led me into a room with a long stainless steel bench. After some minutes of questions holding her clip board close to her chest so I couldn’t see what she was writing down. I said “excuse me I don’t mean to be impolite but if i don’t get going I will miss my flight to NZ and have to stay here till the 13 of March as I will miss my quarantine spot. She said “we wouldn’t want that”, got my passport stamped and sent me on my way. I checked in at Fiji airlines and the lady on the counter said you had better hurry as the gate is 30 minutes away. I headed through security and entered the tunnel that now goes right under the airport to the gate on the other side, my name being called as I was 150m from the gate. The plane was a brand new Airbus 350-900 with a really comfortable business class lay out, very attentive and enthusiastic staff who didn’t disappear and hide after the meal was served like most cabin crew do these days.
Arriving in Fiji I was watching a movie and never even felt the plane land. After 5 hours in the lounge at Nadi I boarded the A320-200 for the flight to Auckland, along with 8 others!!! 4 in business class and 5 in economy class and a few crew down the back doing some study.
As i write this I am in my last day of quarantine and will hopefully be out and free tomorrow unless someone in the government changes their mind.