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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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The Plunge: Cali’s Music Festival, and an 11-Hour Bus Ride through the Andes

Sometimes it’s best to just take the plunge and not worry about what you’re getting into. Less than twelve hours after arriving in Bogotá, the capital of Colombia, I grabbed my backpack and headed out with two sharp Fulbright English teachers to the bus station and boarded the supremely air-conditioned Bolivariano bus for an eleven-hour ride to Cali, Colombia, for a musical festival.

Bringing a plastic bag in case you forget your Dramamine is recommended when bussing through the Andes. Likewise, try not to be jealous when you notice, after you’ve just lost your dinner into a plastic bag at Hour #9 around Hairpin Curve #26 that your literary traveling companions are contentedly reading their books, and not gripping the seat in front of them.

Sickness aside, el paisaje (countryside) of Colombia is absolutely stunning, and it was hard not to take video after video of the hazy afternoon sun setting over clouded green mountaintops. The middle-aged pediatrician who sat next to me happily talked about his country, his life as a pediatrician, and showed me the details for the music festival on his cell phone, lending another pleasant facet to the long ride.

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I ended up saying farewell to the English teachers after arriving, and the next day explored a bit of central Cali with a new friend from the Netherlands, who like me, was seeking—perhaps subconsciously—the roots and shape of our self-identity through new experiences. We spoke extensively of our home cultures, our upbringing, and mused over our obsession for extended travel. For both of us, there had been a sense of not belonging, and feeling like an outsider in our communities. My inkling is that this sense of Not Belonging has something to do with developing self-identity; once a person has this, there is a security that allows one to root into their home places. Our discussion kept reminding of Alice Merton’s song, “No Roots”. There is complexity in the desire to travel, and there is complexity in the desire to be rooted and stay in a place.

After lunch we made our way to the Festival de Música del Pacífico Petronio Álvarez, a five day affair attended by around fifteen thousand people. An enthusiastic 17-year-old Colombian I stood next to during the concert explained how this was one of the best festivals all year in Colombia, and he heartily hoped I was enjoying it. (Which I was, mightily). Africans brought as slaves to the coastal areas of Colombia in past centuries developed their own culture and musical styles that have become an integral and beloved part of Colombian culture. The festival is a competition of musical groups from the Pacific, all of which delve into the traditional rhythms and musical themes of that culture.

While I tried to my best to dance in rhythm to the addicting, heavy percussive beats that mesmerize the entire body, at times I stood still and let myself absorb the stunning nature of the festival; a celebration of human beings, a smattering of Americans, like me, and Europeans, like my friend from the Netherlands; of thousands of Colombians of Spanish descent, Colombians of indigenous descent, Colombians of African descent, all partaking in music, food, and dance, all celebrating the unique cultural expressions that have developed over time in this most surprising and diverse country.

On my long bus ride to Medellín the following day, I couldn’t help but think back on the conclusion my friend and I briefly surveyed over that savory bowl of Colombian fish soup. For those of us who, for whatever reason, felt we didn’t fit in, that our traits, our curiosities, our intense personalities were at odds with our prevailing culture, traveling offers a place for us to seek others like us, who mirror ourselves and offer understanding and an intellectual haven of sorts, and gives us a glimpse into the ways in which other cultures proclaim their identities in proud fashion.

Traveling moreover offers a space to get us outside of our deeply rutted brains, to offer a radical way to understand who we are while also forging relationships with people and places that will always be dear to us.

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Stay tuned for the next week’s post on the (controversial) Pablo Escobar tour, lovely Medellín coffee shops, and Spanish school.