Friday, November 28, 2008

My Favorite Dutchie

Airports are strange places. A cauldron of emotions. Departures, arrivals, a melting pot of hopes and fears. I accompanied Soraya to catch her flight in Bogota and in noticing the farewells around us, I felt those exact same things. Before we left Medellin for Bogota, Soraya found it "strange to start missing a place while you're still there," an eerie premonition of how I predict to feel in a few days. But I've learned to enjoy the moments as they happen, to cherish the days she came back to Medellin. She had returned to visit me and another good friend, Luis.

A spiritual healer through the art of cuisine, Luis is probably the most passionate human being I've ever had the pleasure of meeting. He calls me "Samurai", not necessarily because of my Asian descent, but because he tells me I live by a code of discipline to accomplish what is needed, and oddly enough, he has been the only other person to hear of the book "Hagakure: The Book of the Samurai". Before I left he said he wasn't sad. He just said to both of us, "Go do what you're supposed to do".

Soraya and I had this thing where every time we saw each other or went our separate ways for just the day, we'd hug like it was the first or the last time we'd see each other. Our last hug at the airport lasted several seconds, with me lifting her in the air, giving a kiss on the cheek and whispering well-wishes into her ear.

It reminded me of my farewell to Gloria in Nicaragua. I wanted to grasp onto the final moments, maybe have just a few more seconds to share something between us, a casual comment, a deep aphorism. It didn't matter, just as long as it was something. Only this time I didn't want to take her essence. I only wanted her to find what "she's supposed to do" and maybe one day I'll have the foolish luck of seeing her again.

I guess you could say I've learned to cope with separation, letting go of the precious people, places and things you come to love. Sometimes it's simply a "see you later." Other times its a goodbye for good. Either way, I suppose what's important is that it is what it's meant to be.

Thursday, November 27, 2008


It's difficult to be aware of "Statey" holidays while being outside of the country. I didn't even realize it was Thanksgiving til I haphazardly called my parents and they immediately greeted with an enthusiastic "Happy Thanksgiving!", which was soon followed by my realization that I was sitting alone in an apartment in Bogota, eating wiener and cheese quesadillas that I made on a George Foreman grill.

Oh well. I was never much into celebrating the colonization of Native people anyways.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Just Like Any Other

Travelers say there's something special about Medellín. Something that keeps you here. The people, the climate, the environment. You'll never want to leave.

While I was saying goodbye to some friends at a local beauty salon, I noticed a new barber. He had braids and a very clean cut, so I thought it'd be nice to get myself lined up. Actually, it was more like he noticed me as he immediately approached me and introduced himself. Maybe he could sense we shared a similar style, spoke a similar English dialect, but for whatever reason, I'm glad I met him.

His name was George, or "Bori" as they called him for his upbringing in Puerto Rico. Cutting hair since 13, he lived all over the US, from San Diego, California to Jamaica Queens, New York. He was deported to Medellín after serving four years in prison. He had spent nearly his whole life in the States.

It reminded me of a guy I met in Livingston, Guatemala who caught my attention for speaking English with a New York accent. Arriving without a bit of Spanish, he also was deported to Guatemala two years ago, because apparently he was an "illegal alien", despite the fact he lived all 23 years of his life in New York. "The system doesn't give a fuck about you if you're black" he says. That seems to be true in every country I've been to thusfar.

I asked "Bori" if he liked living in Colombia. "Fuck no," he told me. Apparently three of his friends were gunned down within the last week inside his neighborhood. "It ain't that different from where I'm from but I spent my whole life in the States. That's what I know," he said. It was strange for me to hear that since I'm constantly surrounded by travelers trying to find excuses to stay. I told this to George and he said, "Well shit, if you got money, this place is paradise." I guess Medellín isn't that different afterall.

(Me, Alejandro and George, a.k.a "Bori")

Monday, November 24, 2008

Making Peace

Being in Medellín has allowed me to understand my time in Cartagena. It's difficult to arrive at a fair conclusion if you only have a myopic view of your surroundings, but it wasn't until I became defensive when one traveler snobbishly said to me, "Oh, you'll only need 3 days in Cartagena. It's shit", did I realize that I loved the coast. For all the trickery, anger, and sweltering heat, it still became a part of me.

In some ways I even preferred the coast to Medellín. In some ways it was just realer. People here in Medellín are friendly, but almost as if they force it onto you, like they need to prove something, so much, it no longer is about how they treat other people, but about what people think about them. Sure, the coast is known for its bluntness, but I've always preferred honesty to superficiality.

But when I went back to Cartagena, one thing that warmed me was to see the festivals. Not necessarily for the colors or the vibrancy of the well-tailored costumes, but of the people. It was nice to see everyone happy for a change. Nice to see everyone just forget about all that bullshit and party. It was a nice break, but eventually reality comes back.

After being in cities like Bogotá and Medellín, I'm beginning to understand maybe why Cartagenans are so angry. I don't think I've ever been to a place where the class divide was so drastic, so in your face, and in such close vicinity. I would probably be angry as well if I woke up everyday to flooded dirt streets and rotted wood walls, only to take a bus for half an hour and see the same luxurious high rises you'd find in Beverly Hills. Having to ask "why" without receiving an acceptable response would piss me off too.

I guess you could say I learned to make peace with Cartagena. Not with every street vendor that ripped me off, tour guide that lied to my face or even the kid that robbed me. But I think I learned to make peace within myself, because in the end, that's all we can really do.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Lost in Translation

Jose was his name, or as I always knew him, "mi entrenador" (my trainer). With probably the heaviest coastal accent I've ever heard, most days I never understood the instructions he barked at me while I worked the heavy bag and combinations on the pads were always wrong until I just learned to follow where he positioned the mitts. I didn't even know his name until someone else told me.

He said the boxing federation gave him 2.000 pesos a day for his 2-hour long bus transit, but the rest of his income was dependent on fighters' earnings. His most recent fighter earned a purse of 300.000 pesos. With the standard 10% going to the trainer, that left him 30.000 pesos to split, leaving about $7.50 USD for 3 months worth of work.

He was by far the most dedicated coach I ever met. The only one to show up on Saturdays. From 8AM to 6PM he was at the gym, even ate lunch in the gym and sat around helping whoever needed it; well after all the other paid trainers left to their homes.

We never really spoke until I returned, never really had any sort of casual or deep conversation, but there was always something there. Surprisingly, he was the most excited to see me when I returned to Cartagena, the only one to defend me when one boxer tried to stiff me for some money he owed. He looked after me, always scolded me when I carelessly left valuable items unattended. Maybe because he stuck by that cardinal code of the Sweet Science, that a trainer, always takes care of their fighters.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Too Many Slushies

For the first time I feel good traveling in a hostel, I feel somewhat normal. For the past week I've honestly been partying everyday in Medellín, sleeping an average of 4 hours and realizing that dancing is one of my life passions.

Josh and I are complete opposites yet he's one of the best people I've ever met. One of the only travelers I've gotten along with, perhaps a commonality in our own respective oddness. Josh hardly spoke a word of Spanish but he told me, "The best tool you have to communicate is your smile."

I've had some of the most profound conversations with my friend Soraya. Both of us are trying to figure out who we are and who we want to be. In some ways I've learned who I am by the type of people I interact with and likewise, the ones I choose not to. She doesn't like negative people and I tried my best to hide my pessimism, but also, I think I'm learning to leave it. I can't judge people's behavior, well, at least not intially. Plus, I still really want to be her friend.

I came back to Cartagena to see how my friends were doing. I ended up taking out two of the boxers during the Queen of Cartagena festival. Naturally, I paid for everything, as most days, the fighters can't even afford bus fare to the gym. It was then it really hit me how much of a privilege partying was. It hurt to have friends you really liked but couldn't see due to financial restrictions. I had a blast that night and the six previous nights in Medellín, but it wasn't free. These things cost money. The things travelers seek and do are luxuries. But I can't blame them for enjoying it. Hell, I do as much as anyone else would. I just wish people would acknowledge it more often.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Please Note

That the country spelled with two O's.

Friday, November 7, 2008

Lesson Learned

It took me 24 years and 7 months to learn this. A little bit overdue but hey, better late than never right?

Sunday, November 2, 2008

Still Confused

One of the hardest things I've found is how I constantly have to eat my own words. "Sit down and talk with people, share a few laughs, dance a few songs, hug each other." Yeah right. Do that in Cartagena and you'll be relieved of whatever valuables you have in your pockets. Things here have turned me cold, but at the same time a bit wiser. Although sometimes I feel too cold, a tainted perception, a loss of compassion.

They tell me, "don't ever give money, if you give something, give food. And if you give food, rip it in half so they can't resell it for money". One kid, a clear drug addict, walks around shirtless, shoeless and has some optical deficiancy where he can't open one eye. He always asks for food, money, something for me to give him. At this point, I've been numb to these requests, even if they really need it. I just ignore them, sometimes I even get angry.

The last time I adamently said "no", he started talking to me afterwards and asked whether I was in the movie "You Got Served". According to him, I favored one of the dancers. I told him I used to bboy. With a sudden excitement he recalled how he always wanted to learn, in fact he was still trying, but with a somber, almost apologetic tone, explained that he just couldn't, find time to practice.

After a few seconds of what seemed like a silent comprehension of the distance between his dreams and his reality, he said to me, "Pero bueno. Que bueno que puedes practicar. Eso es una cosa buena" (But good. How great that you can practice. That is a good thing). Then before he walked away, he patted me on the back, smiled and gave me a thumbs up. Maybe he wasn't such a bad guy afterall.