Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Carnaval de Barranquilla Part Two: the things you can get away with being a Gringa

The fantastic thing about the Carnaval in Barranquilla is there are not many foreign tourists; it is very much a Colombian festival. Colombia in general, does not have the amount of foreign tourists other South American countries have, such as Argentina, Brazil and Peru. Its reputation of drugs, guns and guerrillas still precedes it. Although Colombia has completely changed in the last ten years and is climbing up the rankings of best places in the world to visit. This is due to a positive progressive government and inventive tourism marketing. There are several commercials and Ads. Showing everything Colombia has to offer with the slogan “The Only Risk Is Wanting To Stay.”
I think this slogan is what my parents fear the most with my track record. On several occasions they have received calls from various countries where I have notified them I am not coming home and that I will be staying. They know how much I have always loved Colombia as well.
More and more people are coming to see the hidden jewel of South America but still for Carnaval most flock to Brazil. Because of this and the fact that Barranquilla is not a touristic destination at all but more of a normal working city, the people are not used to tourists. Colombians are amazing open and friendly people and they proved even more so during Carnaval.
The first day is one of the biggest with the battle of Flowers. As you stand on the sidelines watching the parade go by you find yourself in a spray form and flour war with the crowd. I arrived a bit late with the group I was with so it was a bit hard to find a good viewing spot. Eventually we found one in front of the Military school. Within five minutes I was talking to a Colombian guy and his family, I got to stand on one of their chairs to view the parade and they were feeding me beers. It soon became a running joke with my couch surfing friends that within five minutes of arriving somewhere I had new friends and after seven minutes I had a free drink in my hand.
The one guy worked for the Military school and knew all the Military guys guarding the line. With these connections I was allowed inside the barrier and was dancing along with the elaborately dressed dancers in the line. A kid on the side doused me in spray form from head to toe so I thought the best way to get rid of it would be to wiggle against a military solider guarding the line. I thought he would be a bit mad but he actually seemed to enjoy it....a bit too much.

Later on in the evening my group was deciding where to go, where to eat, where to party. The party was everywhere though, every street in the centre was crowded with people dancing and drinking. On every corner was a make shift bar with people dancing salsa or Vallenato between the tables. I was getting tired of people discussing what to do and not doing it so when I saw a pickup truck on the side of the street with two huge speakers in it bumping out reggeaton and a guy up in the back dancing I hopped up and joined him. Colombians started taking photos of me, the group I was with was wondering what the heck I was doing and one of the English guys who was tired of the bickering over what to do declared, “ We are leaving these twats, but taking her with us.”

I convinced the three English guys to come to the Daddy Yankee concert with me, which I wasn’t going to miss. We bought our tickets on the street off of a beautiful Colombian girl and ended up staying with her and her friends the entire night.
The music started around 8:00pm but Daddy Yankee and the other headlining acts did not start until 1:00am. We were quite far from the stage which was in the centre of the stadium but the party was all around us in the bleachers. I was a bit drunk by this time after several beers and shots of aguardiente. I had the crowd wrapped around my finger. I said watch this to one of the English guys and stood up facing the crowd threw my arms up and the air and starting dancing, the whole section went nuts and cheered me on. It turned into a bit of a game for me turning around every so often to make them scream.
When Daddy Yankee came on the whole stadium went wild I was in a massive group hug with all my new Colombian girlfriends revelling in the excitement. I was the lone Gringa in the sea of screaming Colombians.

Carnaval de Barranquilla Part one:

As I was travelling through South America it seemed everyone else was on a mission to get to Rio for Carnaval. As per usual I like to be different than the crowd; I was on a mission to get to Barranquilla for Colombia’s Carnaval. My original plan was to arrive in Lima have one month in Peru jump into Bolivia for a week or so in that time, spend one month in Ecuador then take one month to get to Barranquilla from the bottom of Colombia. My flight left Canada November 13th and Carnaval was supposed to start February 13th so it should have worked out perfectly. I hate schedules and time limits though, when I like a place I will stay until I get the urge to leave, so my plan did not work out. I did not leave Peru until mid January. I rushed through Ecuador and thought I gave myself a good amount of time in Colombia before the party was to kick off but then I got pleasantly delayed in Bogota. Luckily Colombia has some fantastic offers on cheap flights. I booked a great deal with Avianca to Cartegena where I spent a few days then got on a bus Friday February 12 with a bunch of locals to Barranquilla.
There were massive lines in the bus station with people set to party wearing Carnaval t-shirts. I got on the bus with a Colombian kid around 18 years old and that started the festivities. He had a bottle of aguardiente with him and we did shots the whole way to Barranquilla.

I don’t remember when I first heard of the Carnaval in Barranquilla, perhaps somewhere in my obsessive Colombia research. This Carnaval became the basis around which my trip was planned. I was set to a Barranquilla beacon. Why go to Rio when that is where everyone else is going? Rio just seemed more and more commercial to me the more I heard about it. I wanted to party with the locals and be amongst the crowd. I’m sure one day I will go to Rio but Barranquilla lured me.

I couch surfed with a Colombian guy from Barranquilla in Panama City last year who told me more about the Carnaval. We had planned to meet up and go to it together with his friends. It would have been fantastic but his company sent him to Cuba so at the last minute I had to find somewhere else to stay. There are no hostels in Barranquilla, it isn’t on the backpackers map so the options were a last minute couch surfing request or a hotel. I went with the first option sending out a plea for someone to go to Carnaval with me. A got a response from a really nice Guatemalan guy who lives in Barranquilla with his German girlfriend. He said they have four people staying in his place sleeping on the floor but where there are four people there can be five, so I was welcome to come. Everything seemed to work out in the end and I was beyond excited for Carnaval de Barranquilla.

Monday, March 22, 2010

PRIMERO DE MAYO Bogota, Colombia

In my opinion there are different types of travelling. You have what I like to call surface travelling where you go to a country see the touristic attractions, stay in either hotels or hostels learn a little about the country but you have minimal contact with the local people. You just meet other travellers. You just experience a sight and not a place. The other kind of travel which I prefer is where you get under the skin of the country and really see how it ticks. It’s easier if you know the local language to be able to have this experience but there are other ways you can get behind the scenes for example couch surfing(www.couchsurfing.org).Couch surfing is a site where you can stay with someone in their house from another country. It’s free to join and it’s a great cultural exchange.

I love being in a place and seeing or experiencing something a normal tourist wouldn’t experience. I had one such opportunity when I was in Bogota staying with my friend. I went with him to the birthday party of one of his very good friend’s. The party kicked off during the day where the whole group went house back riding. We met up with them later at a place up on the hillside in Bogota called El Timbor. It was a restaurant and bar that seemed more like a ranch. We sat on logs around a huge bonfire, eating a basket of meat with salsa music warming up the cool Bogota night.

We were having a lot of fun dancing and drinking around the fire when one of the guys, the ring leader of the group, came up with the proposal to go to Primero de Mayo to party. I had no idea what he was talking about and was up for anything as I always am. Apparently it’s quite a rough area of Bogota, where the working class party. It’s a whole district of bars where the clubs are open until 6:00am, there is no cover and the drinks are cheap. Some of the group was very hesitant as they are all from an area of Bogota that is well off and Primero de Mayo was a lot seedier back in the day. We had a rented van for the night so we didn’t need to worry about a shady cab driver and there was a large group of us so it was the best opportunity to check this party out.

There were about 12 of us that piled in the van and braced ourselves for what laid ahead. We got dropped off around the corner from the main drag and when we walked around the scene rushed up and smacked us on the faces. I felt like I was on Khao San Road in Bangkok, it was complete madness and wonderful. People flooded the streets, girls in mini skirts were selling meat on sticks with the condiments strapped to their waists on a belt. People were trying to get you into their club while music blared out of another. The entrance of one had girls with long legs and very small catholic school girl uniforms. I was enjoying the chaoticness of it all. A smile lit up my face, this is it, this is Colombia. My Colombian friends were being a bit cautious, afraid someone would discover they were from the wrong part of town and start something, I on the other hand am used to this kind of scene in other countries and was two seconds away from climbing up on the bar and letting loose my best reggeaton moves.

After a bottle of Aguardiente (Colombia's national anise alcohol) and taking it all in everyone relaxed and the party really began. The best thing about the area is the opportunity to cub hop. There are no cover charges so you can go from club to club until the late hours of the morning. Colombians really know how to party but the working class of the country puts the rest to shame.

I was teased a bit in high school about my dancing. A motivational speaker came to our school to talk about some issues about being a teenager and high school life. They always have some sort of moral message which I have no idea what it was about. What I do remember was him making fun of the way high school girls’ dance and afterwards several people from my class came up to me and said they thought of me when he was speaking. Well I have found where I fit in and that is on a table dancing reggaeton to Daddy Yankee.

For those of you who aren’t in the know this is reggaeton:

It was another night I did not want to end in Colombia and I got that real authentic experience that most other touritcs do not get.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Love in The Time Of Travel

What was the longest time you have waited to go on a date? In the novel, Love in The Time of Cholera by Colombian writer Gabriel García Márquez, Florentino Ariza waited 52 years, 9 months and 4 days for his love Fermina Daza. I waited just 7 years.

When I finished college I took a job in Toronto and commuted into the city on a bus 45 minutes away. I would normally read books and keep to myself. One day I noticed an attractive guy across the aisle reading a Spanish English book, but at the time I was too shy to say anything. As fate would have it though a woman with a small child got on the bus with nowhere to sit, so attractive guy from across the aisle gave up his seat and sat next to me. I was thrilled to find out he was Colombian. We chatted the whole way to downtown. I found out he was studying law and lives in Bogota and at the end we exchanged e-mails. This was seven years ago before facebook so we had minimal contact. I dreamed of going to Colombia one day so every so often, perhaps twice a year I would write an e-mail just to say hello and that I still wanted to go to Colombia. An e-mail so he wouldn’t forget the girl on the bus. Secretly I had a bit of a crush on him the whole time which made Colombia even more enticing to me.

When I moved to Mexico I sent him a message that I was studying Spanish and should be in Colombia soon. He replied in Spanish stating I needed to practice. That was two years ago. I finally made it to Colombia this year and I was set to meet up with my friend in Bogota. I understood he had a girlfriend so I was just going to spend the weekend say hello and get to know the city. I almost stayed in a hostel because he had a wedding to go to so he couldn’t really hang out. I went to his house anyway in a very nice neighborhood in Bogota. I was a mess from an eleven hour bus ride from Armenia. I arrived early in the morning and it turned out the wedding wasn’t until 7:00pm so we had the day together. We immediately got on really well and he was just as attractive as before but I was able to really get to know the boy from the bus. Half way through the day he told me he wanted me to go to the wedding with him. I was thrilled at the idea, what girl doesn’t dream of going to a wedding in a foreign country? I had to suppress my excitement though because it seemed unlikely a bride would let another guest to come on the day of her wedding. Also I had nothing to wear and thirdly, where was this guy’s girlfriend?
At first the bride said no, fair enough I thought and hid my disappointment. Fifteen minutes later she called back saying she rearranged the seating plan so I could come. Suddenly my Colombian friend was on his phone calling all the girls he knows looking for a dress and shoes with no luck we decided to rent. We found a boutique where I was in dress heaven; I had the run of the floor length gowns. I felt like I was in the movie Pretty Woman, with the women catering to me. The first one I tried on in a deep red fit amazing and made me look very elegant. My chest didn’t quite fit into what is expected of a Colombian girl’s who are known to love silicone.
The last dress I tried on was “The one,” a black and white halter, almost too sexy for a wedding, with strappy heals and a handsome date to match.
I also got to go to a salon and get my hair done, which made us late for the ceremony.
The setting was incredibly romantic in a small very old church with candles and flowers everywhere. The bride looked absolutely stunning. I am not normally a sucker for weddings but it was so beautiful, it made me wish I had someone special in my life.

Now the thing about Colombians is that they are born dancing to the rhythm of salsa beats, it’s in their blood. A wedding is the best place to showcase your dance moves. Mine were lacking to say the least. To avoid embarrassment my date and I snuck off to the bar of the country club for some quick impromptu dance lessons. It was hard though I was very close to him and kept on having to avert my eyes as looking into his eyes made me very nervous. I was starting to think maybe he doesn’t have a girlfriend after all. I later found out they had in fact broken up three months before.
We rejoined the wedding party where champagne was flowing. We were entertained by a live Mariachi band then salsa. The dinner was outstanding, a seafood starter, then sorbet followed by duck then dessert. A magical hand kept on appearing out of nowhere to refill my glass of wine. Once the wine was over trays of whiskey and water came out delivered by waiters synchronized like ocean waves flowing through the dining hall.
The salsa band returned and it was time to put my new skills to the test. I wasn’t too bad but was hindered by the torture traps attached to my feet otherwise known as high heels.
While dancing I was faced with another of my nervous moments when my date caught my eyes, I failed to look away and was taken by surprise when he kissed me. Apparently I wasn’t the only one with the crush seven years ago.
The party and dancing continued until 6:00am. It was by far the most incredible wedding I have ever been to, especially during the Hora de loca. Crazy Carnavalesque clowns came out dancing to music and everyone got to put on costumes of over sized glasses, wigs, clown noses and hats.
I didn’t want the night to end but the stage coach was going to turn into a pumpkin, my dress back into my tatty traveler clothes and my Prince Charming back to his real life.

Saturday, March 6, 2010

Back to the future in Salento, Colombia

After being uninspired in Cali, I headed off in search of my authentic Colombian experience. I was still waiting for that Oh my god I am actually in Colombia moment. Cali is a great city and world renowned for Salsa. The best dancers in the world come from the sweltering city. Although I arrived in Cali on a Monday and wasn’t able to stay until the weekend to experience some of the best Rumbas (parties) Colombia has to offer. Following advice I received from travellers I met in Pasto I jumped on a bus to Armenia then transferred to Salento. I had left the heat of Cali for the fresh coffee region climate. I arrived at night and was told to go to Casona Lili. It was a bit late at night and the town was shut down. I found Casona Lili on the main street off of the square and wandered up the stairs of the old Colonial house. I was greeted by a super friendly woman who works in the hostel; she immediately offered me coffee and a fantastic private room with a double bed. Soon I was having dinner with an Argentinean guy, an Irish guy, a polish man and the lady that greeted me when I arrived. We sat at a wooden table in the dining room of the hostel which was more like a house. I immediately felt at home.

The strangest thing happened when I woke up in the morning. I went to sleep in 2010 and woke up 100 years in the past. It looked like I was in an old western movie but splashed with bright colours. It was the most bizarre scene as I walked down the street where there were men in ponchos, traditional hats, rubber boats and riding horses. There weren’t really any bars in this town but saloons, where in the evening men played cards and billiards. Where and when was I? If I was asking for an authentic Colombian experience this was it. I explored the small town then decided to check out the coffee finca of Don Elias, which was a 40 minute walk on a dirt road past town. I meandered down the road on my own taking in the views but was a bit weary as I was still new to Colombia and was unsure about the safety. A car slowed down beside me and stopped I was hesitant at first but was surprised to hear a woman ask me if I wanted a lift in a Canadian accent. They were going to the Finca as well and as I chatted with them on the way I discovered they are actually from a city 45 minutes away from my hometown. They were a couple in their 40’s, the woman a retired teacher and the man an account who works from his computer. They have been living in Colombia for 6 months mostly in Bogota. He works two hours in the morning makes a Canadian days wage then they explore this wonderful country the rest of the time. I love meeting other people who have alternative lifestyles and break free outside of society’s norm.

We toured the coffee finca of Don Elias together who could have been Juan Valdez himself, the man was ancient. I smiled to myself as he strapped on his coffee picking basket to his waist and staggered along the path showing of the different types of beans and plants. There were so many different types of fruits and plants in one small area, avocados, oranges, mandarins, limes, mangos, Arabic and Colombian coffee beans. It was a small family run finca, very old school. Don Elias washed, shelled and dried the beans himself. He even roasted them in a pot on an old wood stove as chickens ran passed.

If Salento and the coffee fincas are in some mythical place in the past then the Cocora Valley nearby is a mythical land in a fantasy. It’s reached by jeeps that leave the town square. You arrive in a sea of green, flowing green hills, mountains and forests but the strangest thing of this place is the Cera palms, the national tree of Colombia that towers to the heights of 50 meters, being the tallest palm in the world. I felt like I was on my way to Oz with these out of place palms towering over me. While eating my bread with cafequipa and following the brown dirt road I thought to myself, “Oh my god, I’m in Colombia!”

Wednesday, March 3, 2010


I am very behind in this blog at the moment I have so much to write about Colombia but I really have the need to express something else at this moment.
In the last few months I have been living a wonderful life and seeing some fantastic things. I really believe in taking in every moment and really enjoying life, being happy and not stressing. Many people think I should settle down and be more serious. So many people work so hard to build a future for them which is great. It’s nice to know you will be well off and not have to worry when you are older. Although what happens if you don’t get old? You work every day saving up, investing, putting in those extra hours in the office, missing opportunities. All this to earn respect, to move up in the company, to create an empire, to build a future, to be able to enjoy retirement, to make sure your children have a future and opportunities. You wait to travel when you’re older, you say one day when I have built something for myself I will go there, I will do that.

What if you die tomorrow? What if you go to the hospital with the flu and three days later you die of Leukemia? Am I being harsh or dramatic? No because this is what happened today to my cousin’s fiancé. He was 25, and they have a baby of 7 months. They were supposed to get married in June. I had bought a nice purple dress in Bogota for the wedding. It’s shocking and something you think only happens in movies but it’s very real. Tragedy has struck many times already in 2010. Very good friends of my parent’s son died this past January in a snow mobile accident at the age of 22. As well just the other day one of my best friends from home sent me a message saying her Dad passed from a heart attack. There was the tragedy in Haiti and now Chile. After all of this I am very reflective and a bit sad. I worry about my grandparents who are elderly and I love dearly. Its hard when you are so far away and can’t say goodbye.

Currently I have no career, I do not have a boyfriend, I am not married and I do not have kids. I do not have an apartment. My house is my backpack. I travel where I want and for how long I want. My future is unknown, but so is yours.
Please tell the important people in your life you love them every day. Do not hold grudges; say you’re sorry even though it wasn’t your fault. Love with all your heart and love like you have never been hurt. Work like you don’t need money. Sing to the radio as loud as you can even if you can’t sing at all. Dance like you do when no one is watching. Let your inner child out and have fun. Make every moment of your life a sublime experience. Do not wait for tomorrow. No one can assure you that you will see tomorrow's sunrise. Life is now, right now, there is no waiting.

Life is a gift don't wait to open it, savour it now.
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