In my three months of living here so far, I feel like I have settled in very well and am learning many things about the Colombian character and life style. I have made some truly delightful friends both native and Gringo (discovering that Manizales is quite a hot spot for foreign English Language teachers like me), and my Spanish is slowly improving, especially in my knowledge of Paisa swear words, much to the delight and giggles of my Colombian mates as we sat lounging in the natural hot springs under the stars last night.
If I thought I loved dancing back at home, then I have discovered a whole new level of enjoyment when it comes to dancing here in Colombia. I don´t think there is better feeling in the world than being twirled around by a good salsa dancer, especially if they are taller than you(!), because if they know what they are doing, then they make you look and feel great when you dance! The ranges of different types of music here are staggering. My goal by the end of my time here is to be able to distinguish which genre is playing, whether it be the ubiquitous sounds of the accordion of vallenato, the sultry tones of bachata which make you powerless to resist a hip and shoulder pop, or the emotive crooning of ranchero which is the music of despecho (heart-ache) and to which it is not appropriate to dance but rather to sit down, belt out the lyrics with your friends as loudly as you can whilst downing yet another shot of aguadiente in between breaths. Recently, I asked some students what they know about culture in the U.K. and one of their answers was "the people dance separately". This really hit me as a difference between our cultures that I hadn´t consciously realised before. Whilst there are of course times when British people dance together as a couple, it is certainly not the norm, whereas here in Colombia, there is hardly a song that goes by without someone sweeping someone else out of their seat and into their arms to try out their dance floor skills. Physical human contact plays a very important role in mental health and stress relief. Perhaps the dancing culture here is one of the reasons why Colombia, despite being one of the most unequal countries in the world, is one of the happiest?
A couple of months ago I decided to take a weekend trip to the famous town of Salento. It was only a few hours away on a bus but to my discomfort I discovered that I had the worst seat, one that had been jammed between the driver and the front passenger. I had to put my legs on either side of the gear stick and the driver had to reach over my leg to change gears. Welcome to Colombia! Since there was nothing to be done about it, I distracted myself by looking around the bus and noticed just how much religious iconography there was everywhere, the gear stick itself even had Jesus´ face painted on to it! There are also frequent shrines to the Virgin Mary on all the main roads at which the driver never failed to cross himself as we passed. When I arrived in Salento, I was so excited to be in one of the top Colombian destinations for backpackers and I hurried off to find my hostel which was over a little yellow bridge on the edge of town. I made friends with some other British and Canadian people and after a beer or eight we headed out into the warm night to try a local game, Tejo. After a night of drinking shots of rum chased down by coca cola, dancing salsa in a salsateca on the main square, followed by a late night singing session with some locals and a guitar on a wooded path leading out of town, I collapsed into bed to get some much needed rest before a hike the next day. The Valle de Cocora is a huge nature reserve which is famed for being the home of Colombia´s national tree, the Wax Palm, which can grow as high as 60 metres! We got there by a 30 minute ride in a Willy Jeep which blared out loud salsa music as we crossed rocky brooks and grazing horses. We hiked around the park, and thanks to someone´s ridiculous idea (mine) we ended up taking a never-ending, zig-zagging, uphill route for about an hour and a half. Despite my pathetic cries of "No puedo más!" we continued and I swear I did all my yearly exercise in that one afternoon.
I am kept quite busy by my work which involves preparing fun (hopefully!) speaking activities and pronunciation games for the students at the university. I am in charge of leading a conversation club twice a week which I really enjoy as I can choose the topic so we talk about all sorts of things such as vegetarianism, feminism and environmental protection. We do however have to stick to not-too controversial topics so I have avoided broaching the subject of Colombian politics as it really is a hugely divisive issue here. I attended a massive pro-peace march in which it seemed like every school child in Manizales was present urging the adult population to vote ´sí´ in what was the upcoming referendum about whether to accept the peace deal made between the government and the FARC. The atmosphere was electric and positive with the hope that Colombia was soon going to emerge from "the dark". At my university, they had an event where they released white balloons, unveiled a sculpture of a dove and there was even a rendition of John Lennon´s Imagine, such was the certainty of the people accepting the deal. Amongst the majority of my Colombian friends that I have spoken to about it, they were strongly in favour of ´yes´, as were the parts of the country that have been hardest hit by the 52-year armed conflict. A long a violent war that has led to there being more displaced people in Colombia than in Syria! As we now know, it wasn´t to be. There was such a sense of disappointment when the plebiscite resulted in a rejection of the deal that President Santos had worked so hard to secure. It seems that according to my friends, many people have been duped into believing lies spread about by leader of the ´no´ campaign, Uribe, who uses fear-mongering to steer the thoughts of people in the direction that he wants, and unfortunately, it worked. It doesn´t sound unlike politics in Britain does it?! There is currently an encampment for peace in Bogotá´s main square where hundreds of protesters are refusing to leave until a peace agreement and a ceasefire is achieved. I wish the movement luck and success.
Last weekend I took a much anticipated trip to Antioquia to visit Pablo Escobar´s famous former estate known as Hacienda Napoles. It is a HUGE piece of farm land not far from the Magdalena River to which he imported wild animals from Africa, some of which still remain today, to form his own personal zoo. Since his death, the land was seized by the state, but was neglected which resulted in a number of escaping wild hippos that have still not been caught to this day! The government realised its error and the site is now run as a safari experience complete with water park and campsite facilities. They even converted the bullring into an ethnographic museum paying tribute to the entire continent of Africa, which I must say impressed me very much. Carmenza´s husband told me that Escobar obtained the land from an old farmer who it had belonged to for years. Escobar dumped a bag of God knows how many American dollars in front of him and said "I want to buy your farm. That should be enough to compensate you." The farmer replied "Oh, Don Pablo! What a shame, I´m sorry, but it´s not for sale, it´s my home." To which Escobar replied "You can either take the money or you can take a bullet. Either way, this Hacienda now belongs to me." I visited the site of Escobar´s home which has now collapsed but the foundations remain along with the swimming pool, tennis courts, and even the runway for his private jets. I also took a good look at all his old classic cars and jet skis, which were burnt out and rusted but you can still make out the bullet holes in the framework. These cars are displayed as a warning to people that no matter how much money or power you gain illegally, in the end the law will catch up with you and all your material wealth will turn to rust and ruin.
I made the six-hour drive there and back with Carmenza, one of the English teachers and her family. We drove up over mountains and then down into tierra caliente, the hot country, passing beautiful little pueblos and eating the most delicious ribs I´ve had for a long time! It was great practicing my Spanish and seeing Colombia from the comfort of a car instead of a bumpy bus! Needless to say the scenery was stunning with little fruit stalls lining the road offering Colombia´s finest melons, avocados and some fruit I´ve never seen before.
On our last morning, after a night of drinking and dancing with the motorcycle crew that had joined us, I found myself feeling terrible, but not from a hangover, rather I had eaten a dodgy empanada from a street stall and don´t think it sat with me very well! After worrying that I´d never be able to get out of bed again, Carmenza came to the rescue with some pills and a lucozade. And thank goodness or I would have missed the best experience I have had here to date! We went on a rafting trip along the incredibly beautiful Río Claro and all my senses were ignited by the majesty of the nature that surrounded us. There is something profoundly peaceful and therapeutic about being on a river and as we splashed about underneath a magnificent cave like cliff and jumped off of a tree branch into the rapids, I thought time and time again "I am so lucky to be here!" Then to top it all off, I hitched a ride on the back of one of the motorbikes and we flew back to the hotel so fast and I was so scared but what an adrenaline rush it was! After that, my face seemed to be permanently fixed into a grinning, half-closed eye smile of equal fear and thrill for almost the entire journey home. But instead of leaving you with that hilarious image, I will instead paint over it with this one. On the journey home as the sky turned from orange to pink, to mauve, and finally light grey, Carmenza´s little daughter looked out the window and marvelled out loud at the bright orb of sunset momentarily losing its brilliance with every flash of lightning. She was, however, mistaken, and had been pointing to the east. It wasn´t the sunset at all, but the brightest and most brilliant rising full moon.