Totally Inexplicable Things Colombians Love: #6. Colombia’s Got Talent!

Yeah, yeah, talent shows are popular everywhere. The whole continent of Europe is freaking out right now about the awesomely tacky Eurovision Song Contest, the vastly more popular British version of ‘X Factor’ has survived for a baffling eight seasons and apparently 132 million people actually gave a shit about the most recent finale of ‘American Idol.’ (who the hell are you people, exactly?)

But maybe with the exception of Eurovision (which doesn’t really count anyways, since it’s an annual international event rather than just your average TV show. Also, it is a delight), these kinds of shows are not universal. That’s what knowing your audience is all about: you’ve got your middle-America housewives or whoever those 132 million people are; the nation of teenaged dancers and their moms who drool over every step on ‘So You Think You Can Dance’; and of course my former roommates and I, who religiously watched ‘The Voice’ based entirely on the fabulosity of Christina Aguilera’s wardrobe and how much we love Beverly McClellan (seriously. The lady is an American treasure). The point is, to each his own, right?

Well, maybe when it comes to preferred types of empanadas, but not regarding the monolith of entertainment that is ‘Colombia Tiene Talento‘ (obviously, ‘Colombia’s Got Talent’). I am legitimately convinced that everyone in the country, from my first-graders to Supreme Court justices, watches this show. It is inescapable in the way that soccer matches are in most Latin American countries (and sometimes here, depending on the teams). It seems to be on every single night of the week, apparently on every single channel. Everyone talks about it. And this goes beyond water-cooler chat: you’re just expected to know who they’re talking about when they mention “that girl who sang the opera song” or “those brothers who are acrobats.” I’m a little skeptical that a country the size of Colombia actually has enough talent to keep the show viable like this, but I guess everyone does define talent differently.

I personally don’t have much use at all for reality competitions, with the notable exceptions of the aforementioned ‘Voice’ (some rad ladies and essentially an excuse to stare at Adam Levine for two hours), ‘Top Chef’ (straight-up food porn and the occasional Bourdain snark) and the barely-controlled madness that is the judging panel of ‘America’s Best Dance Crew,’ but if I stay here long enough, I may just have to start pretending to care about some little 10-year-old from Caldas and her spot-on J. Lo impression.

Or, worse, I might actually start caring. Get the intervention banner ready for me, just in case.

 

Other Totally Inexplicable Things Colombians Love:

#7. Horrifying Jeans

#8. Malls

#9. Wearing Heels Everywhere, All The Time

#10. ’80s Rock/Hair Metal Bands

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Día del Idioma: A Little Bit of Culture, and a Lot of Kids in Costumes

People here are really into holidays. As in, we celebrate something pretty much every week — holidays I never even knew existed in a formal sense, like Teacher’s Day, Children’s Day, International Water Day, and so on. Basically every holiday is an excuse for us to have an iza bandera (this translates more or less to “flag-raising” but is essentially a school-wide assembly. There is no actual raising of any flags) and for all the kids and teachers to miss class for an hour or two. I typically use it as an opportunity to tan my arms in the courtyard and whisper threatening things at 10th-graders who are hitting each other instead of paying attention.

However, some holidays merit even more than just an assembly with various patriotic songs and people talking. When they get serious about celebrations here, they go all out. A recent example at school — probably the best one so far — was Día del Idioma (Language Day, more or less). Día del Idioma is celebrated throughout the Spanish-speaking world as a day to recognize the global importance of the Spanish language, and has been a national holiday here in Colombia since 1938. It officially falls on April 23rd, as an homage to “Don Quixote” author Miguel de Cervantes, one of the most important writers in the history of Spanish literature, who died on that day in 1616. Even though the holiday has an official date, all of the schools where we volunteers are working seemed to celebrate it on different days. Ours was April 25th, and boy, was it a party.

Día del Idioma, although it seems like it should just be people talking about how awesome Spanish is all day (which would’ve been fine with me, too), turned out to be really more of a celebration of Colombian culture in general, or at least that’s how it played out here. Classes were suspended for essentially the entire day, since the festivities took up almost six hours. Every classroom was decorated according to some kind of theme — a different geographic region of the country, different kinds of food, different cultural myths, literature, and so on. Pretty much anything that contributes to culture had its own space, and some of the students from that class did a presentation on their specific topic. The rest of the students rotated around the school in groups, acting as the audience for the presentations.

It was pretty cute watching the students take a turn teaching each other, and we teachers got to more or less take a back seat for the day and just hang out with the kids and see the results of all their hard work. This was especially nice for the Spanish teachers, who had been driving themselves pretty much crazy with preparations during the week before Día del Idioma — I was legitimately concerned about the relative sanity of a few of them.

In the end, though, everything seemed to go fairly smoothly. The kids had a great time, all of the classrooms looked great, it miraculously didn’t rain for the whole six hours — plus, I got some great pictures.

Totally Inexplicable Things Colombians Love: #7. Horrifying Jeans

Okay, so I’m a bit biased in this regard, since I’m kind of a jeans purist. My ideal denim is dark, doesn’t make me look like a child trying to wear her mother’s too-long pants, and doesn’t have any weird shit on the pockets. They’re pants, not a decoration — or so I thought until I came to Colombia. Here, jeans look less like serviceable, utilitarian pants than an overactive jewelry or tattoo designer’s rhinestone dreamscape.

Now, I’m not saying that Colombians have cornered the market on inadvisable jeans. I’ve seen a lot of poor denim choices in my life. I’ve been to Europe. I’ve walked past bebe stores. I lived through the ’90s, for god’s sake. But the “styles” here really go above and beyond normal tackiness. Looking for acid-washed, light blue jeans ripped in like five places? Trying to bring back the bad old days with whiskered creases on the unflattering part of your thighs? How about pants with pockets so bedazzled it probably hurts to sit down? Or, better yet, let’s just make most women’s jeans without any back pockets at all, because being able to put shit in your pockets ISN’T THE MAIN POINT of these pants and really the best reason for the existence of jeans. It is almost impossible to locate a pair of normal, non-floral, non-sparkly, 5-pocket pants in this country — in fact, the only places I’ve been able to find them are international chains like Zara or Bershka, which is kind of cheating.

Now normally we ladies are the ones who have to suffer the indignities of unreasonable denim designs, but here they are equal-opportunity offenders. In fact, I think the worst jeans I’ve seen may have been men’s. They do, at least, have pockets, but they apparently have taken all the pockets that were supposed to go on the back of the women’s designs and stuck them on the men’s in the strangest possible locations: near the knees, in front, stacked on top of the back pockets that are already there. Men’s jeans here add zippers in the oddest places, like they wanted to be those zip-off cargo pants that turn into shorts but lost the courage at the last moment and decided just to zip about four inches diagonally across the thigh for no apparent reason. I don’t think I know a single person who’s ever bemoaned the lack of a conveniently-placed thigh pocket on his or her pants, but clearly I haven’t spent enough time here. And let’s not forget those trousers clearly influenced by the Ed Hardy School of Design, with multicolored birds of prey, weird tattoo-style lettering and yes, even the occasional bedazzlement.

Usually I’m glad that I’m a poor volunteer primarily because it prevents me from constant shopping and the subsequent constant debt. Even if I had all the money in the world, though, it wouldn’t convince me to buy a pair of jeans at most stores here. My broke ass has been proudly sparkle-free for 23 1/2 years now, and I fully intend to keep it that way, thank you very much.

Other Totally Inexplicable Things Colombians Love:

#8. Malls

#9. Wearing Heels Everywhere, All The Time

#10. ’80s Rock/Hair Metal Bands

Something Old, Something New…

We have a four-day weekend starting tomorrow, and I’m heading off to the hot southwestern city of Cali tonight to attend my first ever Colombian wedding on Sunday! I’m intensely excited about it, and I’m sure I’ll be reporting back next week with all sorts of fun details about the marital festivities here. Cali is also renowned as the salsa capital of Colombia, which is more than a little intimidating, since everyone knows weddings = dancing. I guess I’ll come back either as a marginally competent dancer, or having embarrassed myself terribly in front of a lot of Colombians in fancy clothes. Either way, there should be some good stories! See y’all on Monday night!

Car Bombs and the Incredible Power of Solidarity

So, today, May 15th (screw all of you with Daylight Savings hours, it’s still Tuesday here), was Día del Profesor here in Colombia — and, if I’m not mistaken, in many other countries as well. Here in Bogotá, though, the celebration was rather overshadowed by the unofficial Día de Car Bombs.

I’m not talking about offensively-named drinks, nor am I trying to make light of what is a really serious situation. There really were car bombs today. Plural. Fortunately, only one of them actually went off, but one is more than bad enough.

But let’s start at the beginning. Today marked the beginning of the official operation of the new free-trade agreement between Colombia and the U.S. I won’t even pretend that I paid enough attention in economics class to explain anything about it, but we’re all adults here, so I think we’re at least familiar with the basic idea of a free-trade agreement, in that it removes a significant number of tariffs and import/export taxes on goods between countries, thereby freeing up the possibility of a lot more movement of goods and basically screwing over most producers who aren’t giant evil corporations. In this case, a majority of U.S.-produced agricultural products (including most fruits and veggies, plus more soy and horrible genetically-engineered beef, yay!) will now come into Colombia tariff-free. This, for the people who failed Econ for Dummies (hey, I barely scraped by), means that these products will now be way cheaper in Colombian markets, making competition almost impossible for Colombia’s nearly 2 million small farmers, most of whom already live in serious rural poverty.

Of course, it’s GREAT for the U.S. economy — especially my least favorite state, Florida, which, as the closest point in the continental U.S., looks to benefit a hell of a lot from all that new movement of goods and will undoubtedly use that money to build more goddamn high-rise beachfront hotels or golf courses or something else equally awful. President Santos has sworn that it will create more than 300,000 new jobs for the Colombian economy, but Oxfam, who tend to know their stuff, predicted last year that the FTA (or TLC, as it’s rather amusingly called here) could cause those 1.8 million farmers to potentially lose more than half of their incomes, as well as negatively affecting their communities and undermining anti-FARC efforts made in poorer regions. So, yay free trade! Imposing U.S. demands and crappy products on countries across the world! Ruining the lives of small farmers so Monsanto can just move right in! Yay, destructive globalization!

Anyways, we won’t go into my feelings about free trade any further. Suffice it to say, there are some people in Colombia who agree with me about the potential issues presented by these kinds of treaties. However, the difference between me and these people is that I don’t go around expressing my feelings by blowing things — and people — up.

This morning, most of us awoke to the news that the police had discovered a car with an explosive device outside the police headquarters in the centro, near La Candelaria, in the early hours of the morning. Luckily, they discovered it in time to safely defuse it, and they apparently already caught some guy who was at least somewhat responsible. So, whew. Danger averted, right?

Not really. A little past 11 a.m., a bomb detonated in the middle of the busy intersection of Calle 74 and Avenida Caracas, one of the main carreras running north-south through the city and a primary hub and route for the public TransMilenio bus system. In fact, Calle 74 is right between Calles 72 and 76, which are both major interchange stations on the TransMilenio routes. There was obviously a ton of confusion at first about what had happened — Twitter, bless its robot heart, was, as usual in these kinds of situations, both incredibly useful and totally misdirecting. I initially found out about it from Twitter, where people were reporting a bus had blown up. There were five wounded, then ten, then 19, then two dead, and so on. All of this turned out to not quite be the truth, but as the day went on, we got closer.

We’re still piecing the whole thing together, but as it looks now, what happened was this: Whoever the attackers were (the government refuses to say anything official, but everyone is pretty sure it was the FARC), they were clearly targeting Fernando Londoño, a former justice minister under the previous Uribe administration. Why he was targeted isn’t really clear to me (or, apparently, anyone so far), but the people responsible pulled up next to his car on a motorcycle, attached the bomb to the door of his car, then zoomed away. And then it exploded.

As it happened, when the bomb detonated, Londoño’s car was right next to one of the thousands of public busetas that criss-cross all over the city, so the bus and all of its passengers were caught in the explosion as well. As of right now, the official tally is three dead (Londoño’s driver, a police bodyguard and an unidentified third person), and almost 40 injured, most of them passengers from the bus.

People here were, understandably, really shaken by the whole thing. The news began to spread around my school at about noon, and most of the teachers instantly grabbed for their phones, calling their loved ones to make sure everyone was safe. It was definitely a strange, unsettling day, but I want to try to make sure to point out the positive message here, because there is one.

Even though the image of Colombia may still be, to most outsiders, something along these lines, with random car bombs and assassination attempts happening on a daily basis, that couldn’t be farther from the truth. Yes, this was an important reminder of the reality of life in this country, that there remains an ongoing civil conflict from which all the tall buildings in Bogotá can’t shield us, and that to ignore this truth is both foolish and dangerous. But the fact that people were so shocked, so horrified, so quick to take to any and all means of communication to denounce today’s violence and express their solidarity for one another and for their country, says so much about how far this city and these people have come. This is not the Bogotá of ten or twenty years ago, where such events might not have come as a surprise. In today’s Bogotá, these things do not happen. And when they horrifyingly, shockingly do, as they did today, the whole city reaches out to one another and finds not fear, but strength.

As soon as news of the attack spread across social media, “74 con Caracas” and “londoño” shot to the top of Bogotá’s trending topics on Twitter. But what I found more interesting is that the next most popular tag across the city was “#NoAlTerrorismo” (“No To Terrorism”). As in, this shall not pass. As in, we won’t allow it. People here are shaken, but they aren’t scared. This is their city — they love this place, they’re proud of it, and they’re not going to let anyone take that away from them. And you can’t make that spirit disappear, no matter how strong your bombs might be. Some things can’t be destroyed.

The 10 Weirdest Search Terms That Have Led People to My Blog

One of the great joys of having a blog is looking at the search terms that lead people to said blog. This is partly just because of that nosy desire we all have to see the weird crap that other people Google when they think nobody is looking, but it’s also pretty hilarious to see what searches Google thinks are relevant to my life and/or dubious expertise. Many of them make some sort of sense — people are looking for information about Colombia, or travel, or peanut butter, or delicious micheladas. A surprising number of people are highly interested in Jet chocolate (although at least one searcher thinks it tastes bad). These are the normal ones.

But I can promise you, they are not all normal. I don’t want to keep the fun details to myself, so here, for the world’s enjoyment, are the weirdest search terms that have led people to stumble upon my humble blog, in order from strange to extremely strange (and these are just from the last 90 days! We can keep going forever!). Hope none of you lovely folks are reading this right now — but if you are, hey, thanks for stopping by! Hope I can help!

  1. “i’m not one for goodbyes” — this is what I get for writing blog posts that start like a bad emo song. My bad.
  2. “feliz cumpleanos boo” — this sounds like the world’s worst Chris Brown song
  3. “cupcake trends 2012” — new trend: EVERYONE JUST CALM THE FUCK DOWN ABOUT THE CUPCAKES. Sex and the City ended like five years ago. Jesus.
  4. “how can i talk about myself” — get a blog!
  5. “ryan gosling eating pizza” — actually, I don’t know why we aren’t ALL googling this, all the time. I’m happy that somehow Google sees fit to connect me to the Baby Goose. First the internet, then real life! That’s how these things work, right?
  6. “things colombian women like” — um, oh gosh, why don’t you try asking A PERSON INSTEAD OF THE INTERNET?
  7. “geography of peanut butter” — THREE PEOPLE searched for this! We should probably be friends. I feel like we’d have a lot in common, even though I don’t really understand the question.
  8. “farewell to a difficult boss who is leaving” — I can only assume this is related to my post about cake.
  9. “peanut butter sandwich of inequality” — is there something they didn’t teach me in history class?
  10. and, my very favorite: “does wearing heels guarantee getting fucked” — I’m not even going to TOUCH this one. Apparently the great Search Engine Gods think I know the answer, though. Methinks I need to go revise my SEO terms. Or consider a career change.

Honorable mention goes to: “can you wear heels everywhere,” “ten personal questions,” the name of one of the other volunteers on my program and “where to buy fresh fruit smoothies fast food cumming ga.” Hope you figured that one out, hungry Georgia resident! And stop stalking the other people on my program, Internet creepers.

We’ll check back in a few months from now to see if you people have managed to get any weirder. Good luck beating #10, though.

Feliz día de mama!

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It’s Mothers’ Day here in Colombia, and as you might imagine in a country that loves sentimentality and flowers as much as they do here, it is MADNESS. The malls and shopping centers have been packed all weekend, and I’m genuinely concerned about the sanity of the people working at my local flower stand.

I’m going to Skype with my own biological mother later, but these flowers are for Cristina, my host mother here. Because host moms are moms, too, you know!

Food Friday: Arequipe, or Whatever You Call It Where You Live

If you’ve visited pretty much any country in South America, you’re probably already familiar with arequipe, or at least with one of its cousins. It goes by many names: arequipe here in Colombia, dulce de leche in Argentina, manjar in Ecuador, and something in Mexico that I won’t write here because it’s a dirty word in Argentine Spanish and I don’t want to offend my former host family. Google it yourself.

evidence of my non-love for the 'quipe

Not all arequipe is created alike. Some comes in a plastic container from a roadside stand somewhere west of Bogotá….

Whatever you want to call it, arequipe is a sugary treat made from heated, caramelized milk and, obviously, a lot of sugar. Like many of the dulces here, I often find it overwhelmingly sweet — a little bit goes a long way. Conventional wisdom has it that Americans have a serious (and seriously problematic) sweet tooth, so maybe I’m just an abnormality, but to me it seems that people here eat way more sweets than at home, and  dulces here have a hell of a lot of sugar. Lunch at my school always comes with some kind of candy, and everyone from kids to adults walk around snacking on sugary confections. You’d never see an adult in the U.S. walking around with a lollipop, but here, it’s pretty common.

but really, I'd probably eat dirt if it were covered with chocolate

…some comes slathered in chocolate and baked into a cake…

But I’m getting ahead of myself. We’re talking about arequipe. Colombians put arequipe on/in EVERYTHING — cakes, pastries, croissants, cookies, you name it. There are arequipe-flavored lollipops, ice cream, chocolate bars and cappuccinos. And that’s if they even bother pairing it with something — half the time, people will just eat it right out of the container with a spoon, like a sugarier version of me with a jar of peanut butter.

GET AT ME, arequipe con cafe

…and some is coffee-flavored and further evidence of the brilliance of the Colombian people.

I have to admit, I still haven’t totally adjusted to the national obsession with arequipe. Don’t get me wrong — I love my sweets, but I prefer my sugar fix to arrive in the form of chocolate or possibly frappes (I believe those of you who aren’t from the Northeast call them milkshakes. Colombians call them batidos). I didn’t really love dulce de leche while I lived in Argentina (unless it arrived inside alfajores, which I could happily eat every day for the rest of my life, or at least until they gave me diabetes), and apparently my taste buds haven’t changed significantly in the last three years.

who am I kidding? I totally want to shove my face in it

You know what? At least I’m bothering to put it on cookies instead of just shoving my face in it. Small victories, people!

As with every rule, of course, there’s one exception: last week I discovered, lurking in my second-closest supermarket, arequipe con café. Yeah, that’s right, kids: it’s coffee-flavored arequipe. Because the only thing that can make a bowl of sugar better is caffeine. Friends and family, expect me to return to the U.S. with about ten jars of this stuff.

Still, while this product was obviously designed specifically with me as its target consumer, I’m not yet a full-fledged arequipe convert. Sure, it’s tasty in small doses, or as a topping, or when flavored with my biggest food vice after chocolate, but for the foreseeable future, I think I’m going to reserve my spooning-empty-calories-directly-from-the-jar impulses for Nutella.

“THIS Song Again?!” The Inescapable Travel Soundtrack

One thing I’ve noticed through the course of my travels is how closely places are tied, in my memory, to music. Of course, most of us have strong associations with all kind of songs — Radiohead’s “House of Cards” will always bring me back to a transcendent moment at Bonnaroo in the summer of 2006, while Blackstreet’s “No Diggity” reminds me instantly of an ex-boyfriend (yeah, I know. The weird thing is, I hear it more often than you’d think). But there’s something about traveling, about going out to clubs and hearing the same song three times in one night, for a month straight, that creates these indelible impressions. Almost every place I’ve visited has at least one song associated with it — some have more, and some memories are stronger than others, but they’re all there, and I don’t see them disappearing anytime soon.

I certainly won’t bore the Internet by enumerating the entire list (there are plenty of other blogs that will be more than happy to do so), but there are a few particular tunes that are permanently stamped on my memory, and I think it’s fun to see which songs — some deep and meaningful, others stupid and mindless — stay through years of experience.

When I was sixteen, I visited one of my best friends at her home in the Dominican Republic. It was the first time I’d ever been out of the country on my own, my first time in the Caribbean, my first time trying rum, all kinds of firsts. Like most sixteen-year-olds, music was vitally important to my life experiences, and it became even more so when I was there. I think we tend to be especially open to the impact of music when we’re already trying to absorb everything else happening around us, and that was certainly the case for me. I still remember with perfect clarity sitting in the back of a pickup truck with about ten other teenagers, driving through the dark streets of Santo Domingo and yelling the lyrics to the Foo Fighters’ “Everlong,” and having it just mean so much in that moment. To this day, I still can’t hear that song without thinking of warm night air and that boy I totally had a crush on.

And then there’s Wisin y Yandel’s “Rakata” — one of my first introductions to the much-maligned but secretly widely-enjoyed genre of reggaeton. People in Latin America have such strong opinions about reggaeton: it’s fun, it’s lower-class, it’s crude, it’s hilarious, it’s offensive, it isn’t real dancing, and so on. While most or all of these may be accurate in various situations, the truth of the matter is, when you get anyone drunk, they LOVE reggaeton — or at least they’re perfectly happy to dance to it and keep their class-based opinions to themselves. Maybe its because I don’t have an official place in the Latin American social structure, or because I can’t dance to complicated beats, or because I secretly love songs with really absurdly dirty lyrics, but I kind of enjoy reggaeton. Not all the time, mind you, but when I’m in the mood to dance, or I’m feeling really good about my outfit that day, why not jam to a little Don Omar in my headphones?

It may all have started with that Wisin y Yandel song, though. That song was absolutely inescapable for the two weeks I was in the DR — blasting out of car windows, playing in bars, tumbling from the top floors of apartment buildings. My favorite memory, though, is my friends’ four-year-old brother inventing his own dance routine to this song, and showing it off to everyone. I don’t remember the specifics of the dance, but I do remember that it was adorable, and probably more coordinated than I could manage today. They start them early on the islands.

If anyone else was in Argentina during the first half of 2009, you probably remember this song. Good lord, this fucking song. I’ll admit that I’m sometimes prone to exaggeration, but I am dead serious when I say that there were about three months when it was IMPOSSIBLE to go to a single bar or club in the city without hearing this song at least once. I think my record for one night was five times. The only reason I didn’t want to cut my ears off — like I would if it were, say, another goddamn dubstep track — is because it’s actually sort of sweet and really catchy, in a Spanish “Call Me Maybe” kind of way. I probably walked around singing it to myself for about two weeks straight. Even when I listen to it now, I still feel like I’m strolling through Palermo snacking on an alfajor.

But travel music doesn’t only apply in other countries. On the contrary, I think some of my strongest musical travel associations were born in a car somewhere in the U.S. Road trips are, I suppose, the ultimate scenario for creating these kinds of musical memories — trapped in a car with another person/s who you may or may not like, surrounded by snack wrappers and GoogleMaps printouts, you have few places to seek solace other than music. And while most of us don’t repeat the same song five times over the course of our trip (unless all the iPods are dead and we’re stuck with the one Peter Frampton cd someone’s dad left in the car five years ago or, god forbid, the radio), there are still certain moments that stand out, like driving through foggy Tennessee dawn with Phish turned down low so everyone else in the van could sleep, blasting the Allman Brothers immediately upon crossing the Mason-Dixon line, cueing up the Dropkick Murphys to greet us at the Massachusetts border, or my roommate and I speeding across Indiana singing Britney Spears at the top of our lungs because it’s the only way to survive crossing that state with our sanity intact.

The jury is still out on what my Colombia songs are going to be — after all, I still have seven months left here, and there’s no way to know what music will inspire memories until I’m in a place where they’ll be memories, rather than my current reality. Still, I’ve had “Tu Sin Mi” bouncing around in my head since March, when I heard it twice a day while vacationing on a long weekend with some friends, and I don’t see it going away anytime soon. And now it’s probably in your brain, too. Misery, company, etc. You’re welcome!

I’m not self-absorbed or deluded enough to imagine that I’m the only one with songs that take me back to special places I’ve been, though. Anyone else have some meaningful or amusing travel songs that will forever remind them of that ridiculous weekend in Beijing, or the time they got lost trying to get to Rome? Please share — I’d love to hear about some other musical voyages!