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!

“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!


If there was any further question about why I’m happy here, Colombia is ALL OVER this mental_floss listicle of “11 Fabulous Libraries in South America.” Disregarding their weird geographic decision to pretend that Costa Rica is part of South America, it’s a pretty cool list, and it’s exciting to see Colombia occupying so much space on it. So far, I’ve only made it to #8, Virgilio Barco, which is in Parque Simón Bolívar here in Bogotá, but I’ve got seven months to make it to all the others. In the meantime, how amazing does #1 look? It’s like Brazilian Hogwarts!

Totally Inexplicable Things Colombians Love: #8. Malls

If you’ve never been to Colombia, you might be forgiven for thinking that Americans have cornered the market on global mall-worship. After all, we’re responsible for the Mall of America, the very phrase “strip mall” and the international scourge that is Hollister. Yeah, we’re pretty good at malls in the good old U.S. of A, but I promise you, we’ve got nothing on Colombia.

Malls here are not a few stores tacked on to a massive Target or Macy’s. No, malls here are insane piles of 50 stores all selling the exact same style of shirts, more pizza and ice cream places than one could ever hope to conquer and a critical mass of shoes. As if the stores themselves weren’t enough, the larger malls are also packed with stands where vendors hawk everything from obleas (sweet flat crepe-like pastries that can be filled with various condiments) to baseball caps. There are malls specifically devoted to the sale of electronics, housewares or shoes, and others housing superstores like Carrefour (sort of like the foreign version of K-mart) and Home Center (Colombian Home Depot, obviously).

But malls aren’t just for shopping — they’re centers of social life, too. Most of the major malls have movie theaters — always on the top floor for some mysterious reason, possibly related to popcorn and/or gravity — and many include gyms, pools, karaoke bars and even small amusement parks for children. Colombians don’t just go to the mall to shop — they go for the experience, and when they do, they bring the whoooooole family. One of my friends here tried to go to a nearby mall to run some errands, and her host family refused to let her go alone, because apparently, to quote my awesome great-grandmother, some things are just not done.

In all honesty, spending more than two hours in an enclosed space full of stores and people who walk so slowly it seems to defy physics is pretty close to my personal idea of hell, but apparently this is not a sentiment shared by most Colombians. If I ever want to assimilate, I’d better start learning to enjoy eating ice cream surrounded by bright lights and teenage couples making out on benches because they can’t do it at home. On the bright side, though, at least I dont have to deal with Wal-Mart. Yet.

Other Totally Inexplicable Things Colombians Love:

#9. Wearing Heels Everywhere, All The Time

#10. ’80s Rock/Hair Metal Bands

Totally Inexplicable Things Colombians Love: #9. Wearing Heels Everywhere, All The Time

Despite the fact that, yes, I own at least 20 pairs of them, I firmly believe that heels are some sort of sadistic device invented by men back in the day when they were brainstorming ways to prevent ladies from fleeing their manors, carriages and other dignified, claustrophobic locales (for the record, the same goes for hoop skirts, corsets and foot-binding. Except that only one of these things is still popular). I accept wearing heels in exactly three situations: 1. For job interviews/other important looking-like-an-adult moments; 2. For fancy parties and/or theater events; and 3. That one time every month or so that I feel like getting way too dressed up, going out dancing and getting drunk enough that I don’t notice how much my feet hurt.

This is just one of the myriad reasons why I would be a terrible Colombian. Women here wear heels everywhere. To work, to commute, to the hair salon, to the fucking grocery store — if a place exists in Colombia, I guarantee you that there is at least one woman there wearing heels. I seriously can’t explain this phenomenon, since I can personally think of few better ways to torture oneself than insisting on wearing heels everywhere. However, many people in Bogotá do tend to dress more formally than what I’m used to, and they definitely pull out the stops when they dress up to go out, especially in the nicer parts of town. Still, it doesn’t explain the woman I saw this morning, wearing heels to walk her dog.

The upside of this seemingly masochistic custom is that Bogotá is like paradise for anyone with a shoe shopping problem habit. Since everyone wears heels constantly, and the weather is here is so destructive toward footwear that it almost seems deliberate, I can only assume the women of Bogotá constantly need to replace their shoes. And luckily for them (and for future me, when I someday get over my fear of falling out of high heels), there are shoes sold all over the place, from tiny neighborhood shops to bright neon-lit mall stores. There are whole neighborhoods known for having good shoe shopping, and they even have Payless! Score!

Some of my friends here have told me they primarily wear heels to be taller, which I guess is the best explanation I’ve heard so far, since Colombian women generally tend to be fairly short. As an exactly average-height American woman, statistically speaking, being “tall” is not a normal experience for me, but I’m told at least once a week here that I’m tall (to which I usually respond that no, I’m normal, it’s just that everyone else is short. Which is so considerate. Ten assimilation points for me!). Although this is still weird for me, it does mean I can get away with not wearing heels most of the time, since the corollary to most Colombian women being shorter than American women is that many Colombian men are also shorter than American women. Heels would only exacerbate the situation, so I use that as my excuse.

I will say I’m definitely a bit of a weirdo at school for wearing my boots every day — because I am a logical person who refuses to wear heels when I have a twenty-minute walk each way back and forth to school. Besides, who am I trying to impress? My ninth-graders? Pretty sure I stopped trying to impress ninth-graders when I was halfway through ninth grade. Still, it’s amazing how much social pressure, or not even pressure so much as overwhelming social norms, can influence a person. At least twice in the last week, I’ve actually considered wearing heels to work, for no other reason than the fact that everyone else does it. Luckily, both times I’ve come to my senses and remembered that the only thing worse than walking home in rain every afternoon is walking home in rain in shoes that might betray me at any moment.

But check back in with me in a few months. It’s possible this place will work its magic on me and convert me into some strange being capable of walking in heels without falling on my ass. The Catholics do believe in miracles, after all.


Other Totally Inexplicable Things Colombians Love:

#10. ’80s Rock/Hair Metal Bands

Totally Inexplicable Things Colombians Love: #10. ’80s Rock/Hair Metal Bands

To be fair, this isn’t exclusive to Colombia. I noticed it when I was in Argentina, too, but I’m here now, and it’s amusing and widespread enough to merit a mention.

People here just love bad (and some good) ’80s music. Don’t get me wrong — I am a huge proponent of a large portion of ’80s music. I’ve watched the Breakfast Club more times than anyone without a recurring case of mono should, I have been known to dance around my room singing The Cure, and last week when my co-workers peer pressured me into doing karaoke with them, what did I sing? That’s right: “Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go.” I have no doubt that I would’ve been awesome at the ’80s, and I have a healthy amount of respect slightly embarrassing love for synth-based pop tunes. However. I draw the line at hair metal.

this axl looks better than the real-life one

Welcome to the (Colombian) jungle.

My students — my sixteen-year-old students — listen to Bon Jovi, AC/DC and Iron Maiden. People wear these band t-shirts, unironically (heaven forbid!). The favorite band of my best friend at school is Guns N’ Roses. This is admittedly part of what makes her so awesome, but let’s be serious here: I don’t even know if Guns N’ Roses (whatever the current iteration may be) like themselves anymore. My bus driver the other day sure likes them, though — he had a GNR logo painted on the roof of the driver’s section of the bus.

Personally, I think it’s kind of great, since the ’80s are a chronically-underappreciated era in gloriously terrible music, but I can’t help laughing when one of my 8th-graders tells me how much he loves “Livin’ on a Prayer.” Just wait ’til you finally catch up with the ’90s, I want to tell him. There’s no way you’re ready for what EMF can throw at you.

(seriously, though, it’s worth your 4:00 to watch that video. It is rather, dare I say, unbelievable?)

What Do You Mean, ‘You People’?

A major part of the experience of living in (or even visiting) another country is the opportunity to see how other people live: what they eat, how they travel to work, how they form and maintain friendships, how they feel about PDAs, and so on. This has, overall, a hugely positive effect for the majority of people. It challenges us to step outside our own habits and expectations, encourages us to examine the norms and practices we may take for granted as “normal” and forces us to define our own values and the truths we choose to hold constant, no matter where in the world we may be.

in case you desperately need it while welding a roof?

No, this is totally the best possible place to leave your hat.

It can also be really, really hilarious.

Let me preface this by saying yes, I’m well aware of the idea of cultural relativism, being conscious about not making value judgments about the practices of others, etc. I know. I know. But just because I observe things and try not be too judgmental about them doesn’t mean I can’t find them incredibly amusing. Because let’s be serious, there are some things they do in other countries that are just weird to us Americans. I have no doubt that there are plenty of things Americans do or like that people in other countries find utterly baffling, too (The NFL? Standing outside stores for like 48 hours to buy limited-edition pairs of sneakers? Putting ranch dressing on everything?), but as an American, I’m rather unable to speak to that side of things.

maybe it's just a really short project?

"Under construction"/"End of work." This would be slightly more logical if the signs were not within about ten feet of each other. Which one am I supposed to believe?

However, as an American in Bogotá, I am in an expert position to observe the things that rolos (the term for denizens of Bogotá) seem to love that are totally mystifying to a foreigner, and I think some of them are worth sharing, even just for the humor. So over the next few weeks I’m going to work my way through some kind of list of my Top 10 Things Colombians Rather Inexplicably Love. The last thing I want, though, is for this to seem in any way mean-spirited or critical. Let me state for the record that I love Bogotá, I love Colombia and I love the people I’ve met here so far. This isn’t meant to make fun of anyone, except perhaps myself for being so weirded out by some things, or humanity in general for its habit of following bizarre trends. Still, just to keep things fair and balanced, I’ve decided to follow this list up with another one, of the Top 10 Totally Awesome Things Colombians Love (And Which We Could Do With More Of In the U.S., If We’re Being Honest). So keep an eye out for these as they come!

“Take Your Rosaries Out of My Ovaries!”


New post up at La Vida Idealist! Some more thoughts on Día de la Mujer and the overall state of women’s rights here in Colombia — definitely better-researched and a little more legit than what I wrote here. Please read it if you have a moment/care about half the world’s population.