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The Fantasy: Life Abroad, Part I

To my friends who have jokingly plus sincerely expressed jealousy at the idea of my new life abroad: Yes, yes and yes! (My nickname in Spanish, plus an extra Sí!). My first few weeks in the Andean valley city of Medellín fulfill every fantasy you can possibly imagine. My life is all sexy salsa dancing late into the night; it’s riding fast on the winding roads leading up and down the streets of Medellín on attractive men’s motorcycles, hair whipping long and free behind me; it’s trekking through the cloud forests above the city with parrots perched on my shoulders, large exotic beetles buzzing all around; it’s spending supreme quality time mejorando my Spanish via constant communications with strong, yummy Colombian men who wear cut off shorts and floral tanks; my life is—

If this is a game of two truths and a lie, you’ve received ALL lies, my friends.

I haven’t succeeded even once to get out salsa dancing, much less ridden on any attractive man’s motorcycle. But that’s all right, because I have an even better arrangement. I’m learning gritty Medellín slang along with the valley’s musical Paisa accent from my delightfully sarcastic, comedic flatmate, Camilo; and Camilo’s boyfriend, a professional salsa dancer named Pablo, will next week Monday embark on the epic task of teaching me how to dance. To top it off: Camilo wears the snazziest floral tanks and cut off shorts, so…I didn’t in fact tell all lies, my friend. There will be salsa dancing (at decent hours! in my own home!) and yummy floral-tank touting men.

To be honest, I’ve been so busy teaching cute kiddos from China and Taiwan at the crack of dawn every morning of the week I can’t even remember what salsa dancing is, only that it starts at 10:00pm, the time by which I must be asleep if I am to survive four hours conducting English-speaking puppetry via Internet in those wee hours. The process of converting myself into an early morning English teaching wizard has been a challenge–it’s LOUD in a boisterous, cheery way here in Colombia, and for a light sleeper such as myself, getting solid sleep sometimes feels like a stroke of luck. The salsa and reggaeton music people liberally enjoy is played from large speakers everywhere, and often wafts through the open-air concepts of our apartments. The sound of revving motorcyles and humming helicopters and airplanes echoes against concrete walls. Add in the rain resounding like firecrackers on plastic roofs, and you’ve got an urban style orchestral symphony that takes some getting used to, and has left me a bit bleary-eyed.

But I’m adjusting, and with the assistance of French press coffee, I plough through the mornings and days. Frankly I’ve become attached to my fledgling routine which comprises the following somewhat flexible activity blocks: [Teach in the Wee Hours] [Write Novel] [Gym] [Almuerzo] [Spanish Study] [Saxophone] [Teach Again or Spanish Class or Friends or English Hour] [Book and Bed]. There you have it, the Minnesota Gringa’s life abroad in a nutshell.

Lots of props (plus coffee) needed for teaching online.

After I teach, I head out for fresh air and lunch. In Colombia, all restaurant cafés serve healthy, cheap lunches every day. This is pleasantly true of all the cafés around my neighborhood. Almuerzo consists of a grilled meat, freshly steamed rice, a light green salad, freshly squeezed fruit juice, and a creamed vegetable soup.

To the café I bring books, my laptop, and work on slogging through Pedro Páramo, a god-awfully-tricky piece of gorgeous literature written by the acclaimed Mexican writer, Juan Rulfo.

A typical almuerzo.

To those of you that fluently write and speak and even work in a second language, I applaud you. Although I generally have no day-to-day problems understanding and using the language, the deepening of my Spanish knowledge into a more academic and professional level is a very slow-going process. I recall from my days studying how to teach English that developing an academic sense of a second language can take years of deliberate study. Thus I’m slogging forward, deliberately. My goal is straightforward: freelance translation work.

It’s a labor made easier with the help and encouragement of my friend and Spanish tutor Óscar, with whom I studied last year. We meet Mondays and Thursdays for an hour at my second home in Medellín, a bookstore café called Exlibris. He consistently and skillfully elucidates the intricacies of Spanish grammar, often circling back to the dreaded Subjunctive Mood with which I still struggle, and smooths out my pieces of writing and translation pieces while I wildly take notes and drink a Tres Cordilleras beer. On Thursdays we top off Spanish class with a game of chess, which I always lose (I’m getting better, though, so watch out, future matchmates!).

Exlibris, in Carlos E. Restrepo (neighborhood).

On Tuesdays, I’ve started an English coffee hour. It’s relaxed, no prep, just me hanging out meeting new people and speaking English. Interestingly, I’ve been meeting a Colombian student of German to study and speak in German, not English. So perhaps I should call it the Whatever-Language-We-Want Coffee Hour.

And, glory in the heavens, I’ve started playing saxophone with a musician named Diego, who I met at a friend’s house. He’s from and studied in Cali, which is well-known for its musical scene. He is a traveling troubadour in the truest sense, having spent years exploring different parts of South America, from the Amazon to Buenos Aires, learning and playing music. He’s also a composer, mainly doing work for documentaries and sometimes commercials. He is very good at teaching improv, and very patient—which is partly due to his background teaching K-12 music for a few years. Even still he gives me arpeggio exercises and throws musical theory at me every week, which I find obnoxious only because I’m out of practice, and it’s hard. But I’m diggin’ it, and I’m learning some chill slang from him to boot. Right now we’re working on bossa nova tunes, with the idea that I will accompany him on guitar at some point in some of the bars and cafés around the city.

Diego and I before playing for a friend’s going-away party.

Let’s see…what else is different? A fruit vendor from whom I buy my bananos and bananitos comes by every morning promoting his wares via singsong shouts to which dogs howl, a charming occurrence. There’s also a shopping cart that rolls by with a loud speaker, advertising tamales ricos y calienticos. I bought one of these tamales the other day and I confess it was both hot and delicious, just as advertised. A corn-based dish slow-cooked in plantain leaves, the meat falls apart when you lift it with your fork.

A glimpse of Medellín.

Carrying on…for the first time in my life I have a personal trainer at a stellar local gym called Bodytech. Victor, a nice guy who apparently didn’t realize I spoke Spanish until a week ago, came with the gym membership. The result: I’ve never lifted so many weights in my life; and yet, after six weeks, nothing seems to be changing, which I blame on my genes. A muscle on my arm or my thigh? Naught to be seen. Also at the gym: a lovely long-haired woman taking proud selfies of her beautiful chiseled buttocks, which were hard not to admire. They do a lot of plastic surgery here for those kinds of posterior curves, but I’m pretty certain hers is endowed and she does a ton of squats. And more baffling: cinched corsets, bright magenta pink in color, on women doing cardio workouts, a sight I can’t look at for too long without feeling suffocated.

Avenida Colombia, and Bodytech, my gym for a few months.
Very few colonial buildings are left in Medellín. I found this one in the very lively downtown sector, or centro, of Medellín .
Giant plants abound in the concrete jungle of Medellín .

I have a wonderfully gregarious friend named Najet, a French journalist based here in Medellín, who I spend most of my free time with (she’s also my flatmate). She always has to work, so I have a buddy to sit in coffee shops with. Which as most of you know, is my preferred life. Coffee shops, books, writing.

At my friend Daniela’s house, La Casa Morada, on the mountainside overlooking Medellín.
Notice the lovely flowering guayacan tree in background.

My friend Najet and I are thinking about visiting Leticia in November. If the Amazon is still standing, that is. We joked that, but not really. To answer the question some of you posed regarding Amazon fires: yes, the Amazon is burning, and burning more than ever before, and it’s Bolsonero and his lax policies on logging and deforestation that is causing it. So far the fires haven’t reached Colombia. The president, Ivan Duque, went to Leticia, which is located on the Amazon river, and filmed a short video saying something like: We will do everything we can to preserve the Amazon in Colombia. Who knows what that means; I know there’s plenty of illegal logging, etc. in the Amazon here too. Overall it certainly isn’t looking great. A plant biologist who attends my English/Whatever Language Coffee Hour told me she cried for a day straight when she found out about the extent of the fires. How do I feel? I have to admit–a bit calloused in the area of the environment. It’s hard to live and proceed with daily tasks when you think too deeply, too often about the Amazon burning, and everything else going wrong with our environment (or the world, for that matter).

Enjoying an evening of literature at the Annual Book Fair at the Botanical Gardens in Medellín.

As for other news—yes, I did read one morning that Iván Márquez, the leader of a dissident faction of FARC—the once-guerrilla group turned political party—has decided to take up arms again here in Colombia. What does that mean? I think most Colombians don’t really know at this point. Some remain positive regarding the peace treaty that’s being upheld by many former members who are now part of a political party. Others are skeptical. Most others are tired of it all, and also recognize that Colombia has a long history with this sort of military versus guerilla conflict, and that it might not dissolve completely anytime soon. At least for now and perhaps for the indefinite near future, none of this activity will affect me and others living a middle- to upper-class life in Medellín. The possibility of low-income teens getting sucked into fighting again, and violence breaking out in rural areas and poorer neighborhoods is likely.  

Talking about black cats and horror stories.

And let’s see…what else? I’m slowly thinking about fiction writing again, and have a few thousand words down for a new novel. It’s a start, right?

Speaking of fiction, I did a reading of Edgar Allan Poe last week Sunday for a literary salon hosted by my friends John and Najet. It was truly a lovely affair, with around thirty people packed into John’s cozy, wood trimmed barber shop. A retired literature professor came to provide commentary on the fragments I chose (The Raven, Ulalume, The Black Cat, etc.). The professor and I discussed the fact that in Spanish there isn’t the concept of unreliable narrator, a term coined by an American writer in the 1960s. I was fascinated by this cross-language discrepancy, given the concept is such an important one for psychological thrillers and works of literature such as Lolita by Nabakov. Of course, I find many of the same sorts of discrepancies the other way around: complex ideas encapuslated by one word or verb which cannot be translated well into English. These sorts of intriguing linguistic crevasses keep me pondering at night.

That’s all for now.

Yours sincerely, fresh from Medellín,

Cici Woolf

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La Soledad, and Traveling Society

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El Poblado in Medellín, otherwise known as the tourist district.

One evening as my new friend Max and I were climbing the steep hill lined with lush plants to our student apartment, I asked him what he liked to read. He mentioned feeling both “social and lonely” while traveling, and for this reason, preferred reading spiritual texts while abroad. I was astonished that this laid-back, good-looking Californian man just beginning the prime of his life felt this way. My response: “Me too. But isn’t that life? Social and lonely?”

Leading up to this discussion, Max had asked me whether I liked traveling solo. I said, absolutely yes. To travel alone is like jumping on a boat and sailing; you get to stop as often as you like, at whatever island or port city, and spend however long you want there, with whomever you meet, often marvelous people you wish you could stay with for a longer time. Traveling alone drives you to go out and meet people, to form webs of community where none existed before, and for me this is nearly always a rewarding experience.

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We foreigners trying to learn salsa through observation. Son Havana, Medellín

Nevertheless finding yourself alone is alarming at times and comes unexpectedly: an evening out becomes an evening in with cerveza and a book when you realize you forgot where you were meeting a new friend, and that friend doesn’t respond to your Whatsapp messages. [The new friend, E— from S—–, is stressed because she lost her cell on the metro to ladrones, her mind being a bit out of sorts after having spent the afternoon with a handsome Australian from her hostel.]

But being alone, in a state of solitude, is not the same as loneliness. 

Solitude, at least for me, is usually a pleasing experience. There’s ecstasy in being alone, of sailing solo, of having complete freedom in every sense of the word; you go where you want to go, you meet who you want to meet; you change your itinerary at your whim. For those of us who have felt tied down, perhaps by family obligations, illness, or a relationship which ultimately led us to an inner dissolution of spirit; by financial constraints which keep you in a job that is equally dissolving; or by self-entombment, the incarceration by our own beliefs that we don’t deserve to be free, to be content, to seek what is best for us. If we are lucky enough to break free for a time we will find ourselves in a bubble of ecstasy, living life between the company of constant traveling society and a great solitude. At least, that’s how we feel, those of us afflicted with Wanderlust. Unless solitude flips into a state of loneliness, which is bound to happen from time to time.

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Traveling Society: Yasmin, Karine, Katrin, Hongda, and Chris.

When I asked my teacher Óscar  what he thought of loneliness, he looked up from his notes and said, as if it was the most obvious thing in the world: “La soledad es la consciencia de la carencia del lenguaje.” [My rough translation: Loneliness is the awareness that language is imperfect.] I smiled at this concise description, knowing it was only the tip of an iceberg. Óscar is a brilliant man; one who has with scientific precision examined ideas, situations, and events from every possible vantage point and is prepared to give you a fully prepared opinion.

His answer, unpacked: loneliness stems from the difficult in fully sharing oneself with another human being, since all forms of language are ultimately inadequate, always a substitution for what lies underneath. His example: If you say, “I feel lonely” and I say, “I feel lonely, too”, are we feeling the same feeling? Not likely. Our feelings of loneliness have differing histories.

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Sandra, one of my teachers at Total Spanish, and I discuss our obsession for books, writing and cats. (El Gato, above, approves this message).

For those of us afflicted with Wanderlust, states of pleasant solitude and aching loneliness come and go. It’s part of the journey. For us, hostels and language schools are Heaven-sent. Total Spanish is a Spanish language school (see website here) in Medellín which provides a place of kindred minds, the perfect way to join a community for a short period of time.

At Total Spanish I’ve had the privilege to take four hours of private language class with several teachers, who happily discuss to my heart’s content whatever topics come up (while drilling me on grammar, including the subjunctive tense). I find with one teacher, Julianna, a fellow aficionado of psychology and self-growth, a bright woman possessing impressive knowledge of her country, language, and relationships.

Sandra, another teacher, and I find ourselves deep in conversations having to do with women, el machismo, and feminism. Being specific in our attraction toward men, we also wonder how we can find men with “el cerebro muy sexy”. As we are both brainy women ourselves, it’s not always easy encountering men who can live up to our cerebral powers. Shortly after our lunch, my eyes don’t shift away when I notice an elderly Colombian couple silently holding hands in an elevator; their at the moment word-less bond a prehistoric comfort I can only dream of at this point in my life.

To accept the occasional presence of loneliness is a necessity; and perhaps the community at large so strictly prohibits feelings deemed “negative” that I don’t have enough practice with feeling lonely—when loneliness hits, so does the desire to flee from it, to other countries, to new people, to books.

In the end, loneliness, like certain depressive moods, can activate one to action: after three weeks here in Medellín, after spending time making new friends, I can’t really say I feel lonely. I feel surrounded by a wonderful community of writers, teachers, and like-minded travelers. Traveling, in my opinion, offers a distinctive way of viewing life experiences. Being lonely is a universal experience, no matter where we are in life.

Cheers, my new friends. I hope to see you all again someday~

 

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El Punto de No Retorno

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A stream running through El Poblado, the tourist district of Medellín

Just two years ago, shortly after returning from a vacation to Costa Rica with my ex-husband, I slid into a precisely defined depression–one characterized by an awareness of lost intellect. Why? I could not speak nor understand the Spanish spoken around me, a language I adored and had studied in high school and college.

I’ll never forget how that mental disease spread through me after returning home, the days spent driving in the gray dawn of Minnesota winter wondering what I was doing with my life, feeling as if a metal ball and chain had been fastened to my head and neck.

Depression, mind you, is activated for different reasons. This particular variety–as soon as its lethargic grip lessened–was the kind that snaps you to attention, calls you to take action because you’ve realized you’ve lost something precious, something you once believed was threaded into the material of your spirit. I’d taken a wrong turn somewhere, and I knew it in my gut. Losing my Spanish was simply the tip of an iceberg gone under.

Fortunately, here in lovely Medellín, a city of Eternal Spring, embraced by lush green mountains and filled with brooks and green, my Spanish teacher Oscar assured me that my Spanish was coming back in tsunami fashion. “I believe you reached a Point of No Return while you were studying Spanish in college,” he explained calmly, while drawing an abstruse web of all possible verb tenses on the board. Needless to say, I felt a flush of gratitude toward him for reassuring me that something I’d worked so hard at was not lost.

I can’t help but think there are many things in life that reach The Point of No Return, and even if we thought we’d lost a thing precious to us, it might still be there, hidden, waiting for our return. Perhaps a talent we once nurtured and put aside for whatever reason, a friendship long let loose, a dream we boxed away believing that one day–after everything else was taken care of, worked out of course–there would time for birthing it.

After enjoying a honeymoon period of idealism in most situations, I tend to swing toward realism. When considering a concept such as The Point of No Returnit’s hard not to also observe the shadowy side of ourselves, especially in regards to those parts of us that take a wrong path and never turn round.

I had ample chance to consider this while taking the Pablo Escobar tour on my first day in Medellín, a city considered politically conservative and unfortunately, demonstrative of the great wealth disparity in Colombia. I went with a Danish couple from my hostel, led by Manny (see his website here), who grew up just across the street from Comuna 13 in Medellín. Comuna 13 is a neighborhood known for its violent history, whose impoverished inhabitants were, in the past, caught waiting to exhale between one gang confrontation and another.

Manny spoke frankly of his experience growing up in the 80s under Pablo Escobar’s reign, and how proud he was of the people of this city and the progress it has made in reducing violent crimes. Standing in front of the house and roof on which Escobar was captured and killed (Manny claims it was a suicide), he told us that one day he and his friend were biking home with a pistol, and seeing the police, believed they were going to get in trouble for possessing a weapon. When they noticed helicopters in the sky they realized the army was also involved, and it was not them the military were after–it was Escobar.

While the city has become a relatively safe and economically stable city in recent years due to peace pacts made between paramilitary groups and drug trafficking gangs, some, such as my teacher Oscar, claim it may not last.

Pablo Escobar’s helicopter landing pad at La Catedral, overlooking the city.

Questions swirl in my head as I cogitate the story of Escobar’s life and his descent into power-induced madness–a Colombian-style Hitler, according to Manny. When did Pablo Escobar reach his Point of No Return? When did he decide it was fine to kill the way he killed, to manipulate through plata o plomo, while continuing to be gentle and caressing toward his family? How do our brains become what they become, creating in us successful project managers who enjoy salsa dancing on the weekends, impoverished and ill artists wishing only to have more time to create, and murderous psychopaths worth billions?

And finally: Is there a way to control our paths, our neural chemistry and genetics (or perhaps, more correctly, our epigenetics), so that we can become the best we can be, without dampening our sense of empathy for others? So that our Points of No Return indicate lives of satisfaction and community, rather than unhappiness and madness?

Thank you Manny, for the excellent city tour, and for sharing your story.