Tag Archives: travel

Looking for Joy, Finding It in Tango

My first teacher Mauricio corrects my hips Tango feels like the passion I have been looking for a long time. It makes me happy. I don’t even need to be dancing. Watching others dance can be equally blissful. It’s the transportingly beautiful music, and most of all, the utter concentration and mindfulness that tango requires. If I am dancing, and my mind wanders just for a minute, my dance falters in a way that it is much more obvious than if my mind wanders while dancing salsa. I love the way that tango captures all of my attention. Even when I am watching others, I find myself completely focused watching them.

I have to admit that sometimes in my pre-tango life (funny how I could already say that, the pre-tango life. . . ) I felt a certain kind of despair. I would look at other people who have passions like ceramics or snow-shoeing that they really love. They get lost in the moment doing them, they know that they are going to enjoy a day if they spend it doing ceramics or snow-shoeing. I just couldn’t think of any one passion in my life where I would fairly reliably find joy.

How many Saturday afternoons did I spend shopping with a friend? Buying a new shirt might be sort of fun but it’s an expensive (and also cheap) form of joy. I’m not sure finding a great dress on sale qualifies as joy, more a thrill. Yoga, not really. I enjoy it for its emotional and physical benefits. Tennis is occasionally fun, but I can’t say that I care enough to work on my serve. Languages, yes, I love learning languages and that comes relatively easy for me. Writing is a need and it makes my life, mind and spirit infinitely richer. But I can’t say that writing consistently brings me joy. It also has brought me angst. So where is the joy in my life? That zone in my life where I lose track of time and become one with whatever I am doing, that gives me energy and uplift? I felt really sad when I didn’t know.

I was on the search for something that would give me joy at home this year while traveling. Traveling, I would say, is a joy. I get to be the amateur (for the love of it) sociologist that I naturally am, observing other cultures. But for most of this year, I felt like I was trying out a lot of things that I didn’t love enough to commit to, like scuba diving and surfing. I did a week of surfing lessons in Jericoacoara, Brazil. I enjoyed understanding the velocity of a wave and how one might try to ride it, but I wasn’t a natural and I thought, I just don’t care enough to spend a month of my life battling waves. I enjoyed watching surfers, especially the women, but just couldn’t imagine getting there myself. Ditto with capoeira: I like it, but would I ever get that good at it? I wondered, when am I ever going to find anything that I love enough to commit to it?

Patience. I think I finally found it. There were times when I really thought I was going to quit tango and give up, because the basics of the dance like the walk and the posture weren’t coming to me. But I stuck with it and found the right teachers and over time I gradually improved. There were also “big bang” improvements when suddenly the dance clicked. I am at the beginning of a lifelong learning curve, but over time I am loving tango more and more. The music. The dance. The blissful mindfulness of dancing and watching other people dance. And the people I have met through tango. I have learned some really important things by sticking with tango, even for just two months in Cali.

Now that I have finally found something that I actually love enough to commit to, I can see that it makes a big different to find the right fit. Maybe this is how people feel when they finally meet a lifelong mate. They realize that they were just trying too hard with all those others who weren’t the right fit. Now I can see that tango is a fit for me in a way that a lot of other things—most things, in fact—are just not.

For example, kitesurfing. While I was traveling I met tons of women who brimmed with energy and enthusiasm when they talked about kitesurfing, They talked about the adrenaline and I love adrenaline rushes, so I thought, I’m going to try this! Well, I did. I just couldn’t quite see it. It’s possible that I quit my lessons after one day because the water was way too cold at Lago Calima near Cali. But I kept thinking, for the cost of one hour of kitesurfing lessons I could do four hours of tango lessons!

Tango is a way better fit for me than kitessurfing. Tango is about connection and I enjoy feeling connection with others because I am such an interior person. Kitesurfing is totally solo and feels a little lonely to me. I am already lost in my own thoughts. Tango is a language, a communication between two people, and I enjoy languages. Tango has an endless depth to it in terms of styles and moves, and the depth of emotion expressed, both light and dark, and I like depth. Kitesurfing must have a lot of depth too but I just don’t care to learn it. Kitesurfing involves a lot of equipment and I hate dealing with equipment, it would be a chore to me to set up and take apart the kite every time. All you need for tango are proper dancing shoes and music. I love that.

Tango has really shown me that I have to find a lot of joy and bliss in an activity in order to want to pursue it. And that I feel a degree of passion for tango that I never felt for yoga, tennis, capoeira, or improv theater. (Though I am thinking improv theater might fall in the category of “if I had stuck with it longer, I might love it more, so I am going to try it again once I am settled somewhere.)

It brings me a feeling of peace to realize that there is at least one thing out there that I love enough to really commit to and learn deeply. In some way, understanding the qualities that bring my joy in tango helps me to understand how to bring more joy into my life with other things too. I’ve realized that my joy really comes through collective forms of music and dance–singing and dancing with other people. I am very much at the beginning with tango. It’s even possible this will be a passing fancy, though I hope not. Tango can be a lifelong love, and people usually get better as they get older. That is an exciting thought.

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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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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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