Category Archives: Colombia

Reconciling the Sweetness of the Colombian People with Their Violent History

As I traveled through Colombia over the last three months, I remained ignorant of Colombian history. Specifically, the history of violence. Of course I knew there were guerrillas here, and they lurked somewhere in the corners of the country. But the publicity campaign to reassure the rest of the world that it is now safe to travel in Colombia worked for me. A Brazilian friend from Rio convinced me Colombia was the place to visit now. And once I arrived, it was all to too easy to appreciate the beautiful blue-green scenery of the Colombian coffee zone mountains, the stunning hot springs framed by waterfalls in Santa Rosa, the fresh juice stands in the streets and the new fruits I found here like lulo, and the intoxicating worlds of salsa and tango in Cali.

I noticed a lot of military in the streets, but I never felt fear of violence. Colombia felt a lot safer than Brazil. Colombians whom I would meet on buses and would help me through my various travails (like being sick on a bus, or without a place to stay for the night) would tell me there are buenos and malos (good people and bad people) in their country, but there are far more buenos than malos. I hadn’t met any malos so I didn’t really know what they were talking about. In fact, for me, the country seemed overwhelmingly full of buenos, people who are sweet and eager to help.

The distinguishing characteristic of Colombians, for me, have been super amable (nice) people. When they say goodbye, they say, “Que le vaya bien” (“that you go well”) and “cuidate” (take care of yourself). Colombians always say hello and how are you. It is common to be affectionate with strangers, and call them “mi amor” (my love) or “mami” (honey). People are exceedingly generous. (Though they can be savage in line at the corner store, not waiting their turn! There is a disorder in Colombian culture that can be infuriating. The concept of a line sometimes does not seem to exist.)

In some ways, Colombians felt too nice to me. I aspired to be Brazilian because I appreciated Brazilian wildness of spirit and charisma and their strong national identity, the music, dance, appreciation of the moment. Although Colombia also offers many of those qualities, I didn’t feel the same attraction to be “Colombian.” Colombians seem insecure. They always want to know how their country appears to you. “Como te aparece Colombia?” After decades of violence, and the resulting stigmatization of the country, it is understandable that Colombians are curious about what foreigners think. Generally I don’t ask people what they think of San Francisco when they visit. I assume they will be impressed.

Colombians are nicer to foreigners than they are to each other. They want to be friends with the rest of the world after being cut off for so long.

What I find the strangest of all is how such a nice people could also have been capable of so much violence. The violence in Colombia has diminished considerably over the last ten years as the former president Uribe cracked down on the two remaining guerrilla groups and paramilitary groups. It really is much safer now. Until recently Colombians did not travel on buses, and they left their homes in fear of being kidnapped. I met a couple in Barichara who left their home for that reason.

I had the perception that the drugs and narco-trafficking and guerrilla groups came first and then came the violence. But the violence in Colombia precedes narco-trafficking and guerrillas. The history of Colombia, while democratic, has been characterized by widespread violence. For example, when the populist leader Jorge Eliécer Gaitán was assisinated in 1948, violence erupted in Bogota and throughout the country. Liberals and Conservatives fought in the streets, and more than 300,000 people died in the late 40s and 50s.

Once the drug economy and narco-trafficking grew, the endemic violence in Colombia grew as well. According to this Latin American Review published by Harvard´s Center For Latin American Studies, ´´more than 50,000 died in the Drug Wars of the 1980s and in the escalating guerrilla warfare of the 1990s.´´ The author continues, ´´it is difficult to escape the conclusion that Colombias history is one of the most violent in the hemisphere, with organized killing existing at chronically high levels, punctuated with episodes of high intensity murderousness, for nearly two centuries.´´ Only the Sudan had more displaced families, people who had left their homes for fear of being kidnapped.

At a certain time, the military gave rewards to soldiers for killing guerrillas. So the military kidnapped men from the countryside and dressed them up as guerrillas and killed them. These were called the falso positivos. It is this kind of cold bloodedness which is hard to square with the incredibly sweet Colombians who I met along my travels. The person I know best in Colombia, William, told me he could never understand the capacity for violence in Colombia.

We went to see the Sin Tetas No Hay Paraiso one evening. A telenovela and book that has now been turned into a movie (and is a telenovela in many Spanish-speaking countries), this slick movie tells the story of a 14-year-old girl who prostitutes herself to drug dealers in order to get the money for breast implants–and the easy life she things large breasts will provide. The movies is splattered with violence: botched breast implant surgery, random killings, and overall loss of respect for human life. I sat in the cinema at the end of the movie feeling shell-shocked. William wasn’t fazed. For him, the movie was an accurate depiction of life as it is.

So how can such sweet people also be so violent in their history? Are the buenos just really bueno, and the malos really malo? Is this a country of passionate extremes and I am lucky to have come at a time when the malos are on the run? I am still perplexed by the combination in the Colombian character. If anyone has any clues, do tell.

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My Tango Show in Cali

Tango has become one of those subjects where I have way too much to say. Tango consumed the last six weeks of my life in Cali. I have been so fully engaged with learning tango, and thinking through its various resonances and pleasures, that I wasn´t able to stop and write about it because the story of my tango learning experience kept evolving.

Now I have left Cali (sniff, sniff) and I am hanging out in Bogota for a few days before flying to Boston, so I will at the very least post this video. And soon will come the flood of writing, along with photos and videos documenting the steep learning curve of learning tango! (I am still at the beginning of that curve, I would say.) Tango is going to be a lifelong love.

Below is a short show that I did with one of my teachers, Oscar, to show off everything I learned in six weeks. Actually I only worked with Oscar for my last ten days. He was the showy teacher, the one who taught me lots of wild, sensual moves. He is a pure performer. My other teachers were more focused on technique or on feeling. Our show included two improvised dances: a traditional tango, and a Tango Nuevo (new tango, which relaxes the rules to allow the dancers to let loose with a lot more performative moves).

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Why I Always Celebrate My Birthday–And You Should Too (Yours, I Mean)

One of my stylish dance partners at the tango club, La Matraca, on my birthday eve

I just celebrated my birthday in Cali, Colombia with more than 24 hours of celebration.

Many people around my age prefer to de-emphasize or ignore their birthdays rather than call attention to getting older. It is easy to be filled with anxiety about a new chronological age. I won’t even get into the reasons why: We all know them.

As Mae West famously said, getting older is not for sissies. As I get older, I feel like it’s even more important to make a big deal out of the day that I was born to counteract all the negativity around age. I’m a believer in the extended birthday celebration. Why only one day? My friends Sonya and Liz, twins, and I share the same birthday. One year, when they turned 30, we celebrated for a whole week with four separate celebrations, including a piano concert at 7:30 am at a Turkish cafe on our actual birthday before work.

As I get older, I am more and more committed to being happy on my birthday and creating a great experience. I remember turning 29 in Hawaii. I was on a weeklong vacation with my dear friend Ali, who is six years younger than me. I moped about turning 29, how I hadn’t published a book yet, found the love of my life, whatever. Ali was very annoyed with me. I can’t believe that I wasted that birthday in Hawaii whining about nothingness when I could have been appreciating the moment, or created an experience that I would have loved. In this respect, I am starting to believe that people really do get happier as they get older. You learn how to live.

I’m really committed to never lying about my age, and instead being proud of all my experience. I think of my friend Ira in Rio for inspiration here. We celebrated her 40th birthday together with her toting around childlike candles for 4-0 the whole weekend, and she kept saying how happy she was to have made it to age 40. She was so joyful in her gratitude. She didn’t always believe she would survive (and we’re not talking about someone with a fatal disease) til age 40. I never heard an American woman talk about being grateful for making it to 40.

A Colombian friend Yeimmi gave me a great idea for how to answer the frequent question, How old are you? Her aunt Olga (her role model in life, who runs a cleaning business in Florida and sounds like a very feisty, smart woman) taught her how to joke and answer with a smile, “20 with x years of experience.” That way you get to be forever young with layers of sexy wisdom and maturity.

For the last five years I have been celebrating with Liz and Sonya. Part of me would have loved to have been in San Francisco to celebrate with them. But I also wanted this birthday to reflect the spirit of this year’s adventure. Even if it absolutely sucked and I was totally alone in some random shitty hotel, I wanted the chance to see what would happen. I wanted that sense of risk. The feeling of being suspended in air for my birthday in keeping with the rest of 2010. Life is more memorable when you change things up.

So I decided to stay in Cali, though, which has become home over the last three weeks anyway. This hostel is the coziest places where I have stayed and I have become close with several people here. I am having one of the times of my life losing (and finding) myself in Cali’s dance culture, learning Caleno-style salsa and tango. (More to come on these in future blog posts.)

My birthday eve was Sunday night at La Matraca, a magically nostalgic tango (and salsa) club in a dodgy neighborhood that my Belgian friend Griet and I discovered three weeks ago. We have become regulars, fancying ourself “Las Reinas de La Matraca” (The Queens of La Matraca). There are many other Reinas — graceful tango dancers in their 40s, 50s, and 60s who are an absorbing joy to watch.

My birthday eve at La Matraca included four fantastic things:

An out-of-this-world performance by a 74-year-old woman who might be a lunatic but is also a singing and dancing genius. Watch this:

Dancing in a circle with a group of women and men in their 60s and 70s. In my opinion, exuberant dancing in a circle holding hands is one version of heaven.

My first tango in public. Doing tango in public had the barrier-breaking quality of hanggliding or bungee jumping. Survival! I just stared at my tango dancer’s upper left chest the whole time, which is where the woman is supposed to look.

Thanks to my Colombian friend William, I got to live my dream of a birthday dance. In my travels in Brazil, I noticed this tradition at a capoeira class and at a weekly afternoon “baile” dance at the Carioca Cultura Center. A circle forms and the focus is totally on the birthday girl or boy for her or his spin on the dance floor with one partner after another. It’s a euphoric thing to watch, the happiness of the person moving from one partner to the next. I always thought that was a great fusion of birthdays and the dance culture in South America, and I was thrilled to live that moment myself. I really have no idea what this dance is. It’s not paso doble or fox or . . . ? But I played along. Here’s my birthday dance. Unfortunately YouTube doesn’t have a rotate feature so it’s sideways: rotate your head.

Oscar and Griet leaping into an icy cold natural pool below a waterfall on the birthday hike

On my actual birthday, a new friend and ecology student Oscar led me and my Belgian friends Wouter and Griet on a slippery hike along a river to a spectacular and icy cold waterfall with a natural pool below it. Back at the hostel, Griet and two others at he hostel cooked a tall stack of crepes for a communal birthday dinner. I felt so touched that people whom I met just three weeks ago took the time to create a birthday dinner. And finally in the 24-hour birthday marathon, we went salsa dancing at Las Brisas, where we danced with our salsa teacher and saw salsa world champions from the school Swing Latino perform their superhumanly fast footwork.

Not bad for 28 hours in a country where I knew no one before arriving six weeks ago. This was really a magical birthday and I’m grateful that I took the risk of celebrating while traveling. Now I am resting. Whew! I really have no idea what the next year will bring. But after all, I’m only 20 (with 17 years of experience). I’m not supposed to know yet.

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Charming Peculiarities of Colombian Spanish

Spanish and Portuguese are so close and yet so different that it’s quite trippy to transition between the two, and before I arrived in Colombia I had the sensation of a head popping like a cartoon character when I tried to speak Spanish. Does not compute!

Happily, after a month in Colombia my Spanish is dusted off and working just fine, and is probably stronger now for all the cognates that I know from Portuguese. And I must say that I adored it when Colombians asked me if I was Brazilian because of my accent. (I’ve always felt a desire to be “Brazilian” in some odd way, after getting to know all the lovely people who became my friends there.)

Colombia has its own charms, including many charming everyday expressions, some of which initially befuddled me, and now all of which charm in the extreme. I get the impression that these are Colombianisms, but if any of these expressions are common in other hispanohablante countries, please let me know in the comments.

“A la orden.” When I first arrived in Colombia, bleary-eyed from more than 24 hours of air travel from Rio, I took a walk around the colorful streets of Santa Marta, a Caribbean hub of a town near some of Colombia’s most beautiful beaches in Parque Nacional Tayrona. The streets were bleached with sun and heat and dotted with fresh lemonade stands. And everywhere I walked, people hawking electronics, shoes, hats called out “A la orden.”

Later in Taganga, a little fishing village, every interaction with a street vendor began and ended with “A la orden.” I had no clue what these three words meant. Was I supposed to say “A la orden” in return? None of the gringo tourists knew. I asked a street vendor who sold me an arepa, a Colombian soft grilled pancakey taco (quite delicious), what “a la orden” meant. She told me “OK.” I believed her. Later I learned that was not exactly right.

According to Google Translate, “a la orden” literally means “to order,” but a more accurate translation is “at your service.” It’s been amusing to spend time in a country where people are calling out all the time that they are at your beck and call. The “a la orden” thing seems like a societal tic, like people can’t control themselves from saying it constantly.

Is the service really that great in Colombia? It’s OK. I don’t think it’s quite at American standards. For example, a clerk at a corner store won’t initiate contact here, you have to push a bit to pay. In general, they are not totally attentive in the way that American might expect service to be. But the service is probably better than Brazil’s, and what’s more, it is often delivered “con mucho gusto.”

“Con mucho gusto.” Let’s say that you give me a delicious fruit, say maracuya, or passion fruit. And I thank you, saying “gracias.” Instead of saying “de nada” in response Colombians say “con mucho gusto.” That could be translated in French as “avec plaisir,” or in English as “with pleasure.”

It is a pleasure in itself to have people acknowledge their service or gifts with “con mucho gusto.” It makes you realize how weak “You’re welcome” is as a response to “thank you.” “Con mucho gusto” feels like a real affirmation of life! I loved making this coffee for you, or giving you this dance class. I offer it to you with mucho gusto!

People also say “mucho gusto” when they meet new people. It’s used to indicate, “pleasure to meet you,” the equivalent of the French “enchante” or Portuguese “prazer.”

Listo! One of the most interesting things about absorbing a new everyday language is learning how to say OK, and to replace the natural American-English instinct to say “OK” in agreement. Colombians and Brazilians say “OK” to some extent but it’s not the most natural way of indicating agreement.

Listo is really a fantastic word. Literally it means ready, as in, I am lista to go out to the salsateca tonight in Cali. But it also means “OK.” If we negotiate a price and I agree, I can say “listo!” Used with a question mark at the end it is the all-purpose way to ask if someone understands something, or if there is agreement. “Listo?” “Listo!”

“Listo” reminds me a little bit of “ta” in Portuguese. “Ta” is a shorter version of “esta,” a conjugation of the verb to be. It’s a way to say OK, or yes. If you ask me to stop and wait for you while you take a picture on a hike, I can say “ta!” It’s so staccato and simple and cute–I loved the process of replacing “OK” with “ta!”

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Deciding to Enjoy Life

The dreamy streets of Barichara

On my final afternoon in Barichara, a tiny, beautiful, impossibly tranquil Colombian mountain town I have now decided is heaven, I dropped in to a sweet bakery and coffee shop for a rainy-day cappuccino. A Colombian woman, around 50, asked if she could park her bags and herself at my table. Of course. For me, meeting locals is really the whole point of traveling.

My new friend Shoya is a painter and also rents rooms to tourists. She would like to organize artistic tours of Barichara to show visitors the artistic side of the city: sculptors’ studios and the beautiful interiors of Barichara homes. My Brazilian friends Roma and Iracema and I stayed in a couple’s home, sort of an informal bed and breakfast worthy of being written up in Conde Nast Traveler, that only cost $17 a night. The interiors are indeed stunning. The ceilings are about twenty feet high and have exposed driftwood beams, the floors are large cobblestones, and every windowsill and bookshelf was adorned with a piece of unexpected art. My shower consisted of water that shoots over a piece of rock, creating the sensation of taking a shower out in nature.

A hammock in my home away from home in Barichara


Shoya and I talked about writing, sculpture and painting, and how to avoid suffering during the creative process, when the answer to a problem is not yet clear. It sounded like she had spent enough time in solitude painting. While she loves painting, the solitude is not always fun or easy. So she wants to spice up her life doing other things she enjoys.

Somehow conversation turned to San Francisco’s cable cars and the enjoyment of life. She asked me about the cable cars, and I said, yes, they are great but they are for tourists. Why, she said. I explained they don’t help me get where I need to go. And that in twelve years of living in San Francisco I never even took a cable car.

In my thirteenth year, I decided that I wanted to take a cable car. I wanted to enjoy life and somehow taking a cable car–doing a touristy thing in my own town–became symbolic of enjoying life. I told her I wanted to “disfrutar la vida,.” I finally took a cable car ride with my best friends Jenny, Liz, Sonya, and Adam, and Jenny and Adam’s son Kai as part of a scavenger hunt we organized for Jenny’s birthday. None of us had ever gone on a cable car before. The ride was magic.

My new Colombian sculptor friend immediately latched on to this phrase, “disfrutar la vida,” and become quite animated.

It’s not so hard to enjoy life, she said. You don’t have to buy a ticket to Paris. You just have to decide you want to enjoy life and make small dreams come true. Her friend has a dream that their friends will gather and cook five sauces to try with bread. That’s not so hard, she told me. so we are doing it, Wednesday. She had gone to visit a friend’s beautiful finca, or coffee farm, nearby, on that day, which she told me was “muy rico.”

In many ways, I think that’s what this trip for me has been about—proving to myself that life is first and foremost to enjoy. That it’s not about work first, or even worse yet, suffering. Work has been the way that I have proven to the world that I am valid. I couldn’t imagine an identity without some kind of output validating my existence, a very American way of seeing.

For the longest time, I have moved around with the belief that life is hard. Somehow this became an unexamined belief for me, that anything worth publishing or releasing to the world would require a lot of sweat and frustration, and that in order to enjoy the positive sides of a trip, for example, I would spend an equal amount of time in agony deciding the the best place to go. Every pleasure required a pain.

To make enjoying your life the center seemed hedonistic to me in previous incarnations of myself. I worked in a consumptive way on my books or magazine or Internet startup. I would meet people in San Francisco who had travelled extensively. I didn’t even get that there was a world of pleasure out there that I was missing.

Now that I have been traveling for most of 2010, my life has been focused on pleasure and learning and exploration. Not that traveling has been all fun. It hasn’t been. It’s been grueling at times, and confusing much of the time, but the whole experience has been so rich—denser in learning, new experiences, interesting conversations than staying in one place ever was.

A new Swiss friend (who is half Portuguese) told me about a Portuguese expression about “walking through life like a donkey.” Walking through life like a donkey means that you are blind to everything around you, focused only on work, chores, maybe the gym. You don’t seek out new fun, food or learning.

My life pre-traveling had some overtones of walking through life like a donkey. Cooking the same foods, going to the same bars, listening to the same pop song. I don’t want to be overly dramatic and say that I lived the most donkey-like life in the world, because I didn’t. My life was interesting and filled with some adventures. But come Saturday, I rarely planned some fantastic outing like the ones I am regularly going on now while I am traveling. I often was content to stay home and listen to public radio and do my laundry. I didn’t pursue a sport that I genuinely loved. I didn’t cook myself great meals to enjoy life.

When I go back I don’t want to walk through life like a donkey anymore. Or, as another traveler helped me articulate, I don’t want to go back. I want to go forward. I want to consciously decide to enjoy life every day when I wake up in the morning. I know that bringing the traveling spirit home may be biggest challenge of all, continuing to infuse life with newness and joy, and not get lost in my everyday habits. But I don’t want to predict that it will be hard. I want to expect that deciding to enjoy life at home too is possible.

Magical paper art at an Atelier de Papel in Barichara


I bought a beautiful piece of art at a paper atelier in Barichara, which they made for me so that I could carry a smaller size in my backpack. It’s a piece of driftwood with hundreds of tiny circles of colored artesenal papers floating on strings with beads on the end, paper they make at the atelier. It’s totally my aesthetic and when I saw it I was just transfixed. I am starting to imagine a new home where I can enjoy beauty on a daily basis with new art (not just the stuff I collected for ten years and didn’t even see anymore.) And where I can cook new recipes and listen to new music. Have friends over to eat and play games and watch movies and be silly. Sing Brazilian songs to myself. And plan future travels with a minimum of deliberation and agony.

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