Big City Diversity

I have said a few times about Houston that I love the diversity here. 

(Side note: I make a real effort to identify the things I like about Houston. So far the running list of things I love: 

  1. My aunt who lives here (and bonus: her neighbor friends!) 
  2. Great bird watching. (Houston is smack in the middle of the migration path so the bird diversity in fall and spring is spectacular – it is one of the best spots in the US for bird watchers.)
  3. Discovering the parks (like the Arboretum and Brazos Bend)! 
  4. The beach is just an hour away. (Even if it’s not the most beautiful beach you’ve ever seen, it is still refreshing to the soul).
  5. From here it is only a 3-hour drive to visit my parents and hometown friends.

And…

  1. The diversity of people that live here

That’s about it. But after a day of 104-degree F heat index, I am extremely impressed with my ability to be so positive about H-town!)

So, back to my point… I do love the diversity of people (and birds) here. 

I don’t think racial diversity was something I really noticed as much… until I experienced being the minority in a less diverse place. Standing out all the time, every time, even when you least expect it was new for me when I served in the Peace Corps. Even after 3 years, the assumptions people made about me based on my different appearance sometimes caught me off guard.*

When I traveled from my Peace Corps site and suddenly found myself immersed in greater racial diversity I was surprised to observe that I felt more at ease, more comfortable. (Maybe I felt I could blend in more? Maybe there was an assumption that people used to seeing a lot of people that looked different from them would be more open-minded?)

However, even in “diverse cities”, there is still segregation. (See title photo.) In someone’s daily life they may rarely have meaningful encounters with people of different ethnicities, races, socio-economic status, sexual orientation, gender identity, or different political ideals. As humans we naturally tend to seek people similar to us and so we naturally end up with somewhat segregated neighborhoods, friend circles, cultural events, and even micro economies. It can actually take effort to step out of our “bubble”.

My experience in Houston has been a little of both – I have seen a very segregated diversity (like a restaurant with all white clientele and the only people of color were employees), but I have also experienced deeper diversity in some places – like at the grocery store, when visiting the arboretum and other parks, at Miller Outdoor Theater’s summer concerts, and at some popular, low-key restaurants.

But the “winner-takes-all” diversity experience (so far?) was during my surgery at a major hospital.**

The guy who checked me in was a young, white man, and the cashier woman who took (a large chunk of) my money was a friendly Latina woman who joked around with me. She left me in the hands of a lovely Mexican woman who tested me to see if my Spanish was fluent and taught me to say anesthesiologist in Spanish. (Wow – but she didn’t teach me to spell it – thanks to Word for helping with that.) 

I then met my nurse, a young, white American female who somehow managed to be friendly and humorous despite being at the end of her long shift after having been called in last night. She handed me off to the young, black American woman nurse, who then left me to the east African women (one older and one younger than me) who made sure I saw all the right doctors before heading into surgery.

Meanwhile, my surgeon showed up – a young Persian woman who grew up in Iran but has lived in Houston since she was 17. And then finally my anesthesiology team came in – two Asian men: a young, witty and mildly cocky MD and an older the nurse. 

When I awoke from the surgery, a kind, no-nonsense, older woman came and helped me use the restroom as I struggled to balance while the anesthesia was still wearing off and I had a surgical shoe on my freshly operated foot. (I was too groggy to notice or remember much else about her, as I was focusing on not toppling over.)

The discharge nurse was a young south Indian man who plays cricket. He feels right at home in Houston’s heat and humidity, which isn’t so different from his hometown.

I never would have guessed that just going into an outpatient surgery I would have the opportunity to travel around the world! Or at least get such a great peek into Houston’s diversity. I really would like to throw a party for my whole hospital medical team. First to thank them for being so great, but really to hear more about their varied experiences and backgrounds…THAT would be a trip around the world.

Until I figure out how to make that happen, I am so glad I had the surprise opportunity to peek into this melting pot and so thankful for the friendly exchanges and mini-conversations we had, not to mention the excellent care they each gave me! 

How can/did you step out of your bubble today? (Without going to the hospital, please.)

 

Famous Footnotes

*Being a racial minority and being white is still a different experience than being a racial minority and being darker skinned. The assumptions people made about me were different than those made about my dark-skinned friends. For example, it was often assumed that I had more money, wealth, or resources or was more knowledgeable about certain things. On the other hand, there were also assumptions that I didn’t speak the language, that I was less knowledgeable, and that I was gullible… all depending on the person’s biases and experiences.

**Don’t worry, it was a minor surgery.

**I couldn’t attend Pride due to my surgery so I missed out on what I’m sure is the real “winner-takes-all” diversity experience in Houston. Next year.

***Photo is from https://bestneighborhood.org/race-in-houston-tx/

The Heart of “La Ruta 40” – Part I: Salta

My journey on “La Ruta 40” has been a unique adventure that I will never forget and that is impossible to describe in detail unless I write a book (which I might.) What really marked my journey, even more than the amazing landscapes, were the people I met along the way.

It was an unforgettable experience of connecting and sharing with so many different people, and just being overwhelmed by the generosity of people. In some ways, this has been the heart of my journey – where I’ve really had the opportunity to do what I came to do – connect with people and share experiences, getting a glimpse into the lives and hearts of people here.

In the next few posts, I’ll try to share some of those encounters (as well as the landscapes behind the conversations).

Part I – Salta
Salta is a city in northern Argentina, just south of Jujuy. In Spanish, “salta” means jump. So I did.

And in so doing, I met a French traveler, Thierry, and we became travel buddies for the day.

We explored the city parks together, tasted some ham and cheese empanadas, and people-watched, as the parks were full of people enjoying the beautiful weekend day.

In Salta, I stayed with Facundo, or “Facu” (a common name here). From the moment we met, we had some incredible conversations, so much so that we chatted into the night even though we were both running on very little sleep. But this is why I couchsurf – it’s a chance to meet someone from a different city, a different country, a different reality, and share experiences.

Facu is a super sharp guy around my age, studying biology because, he explained, that any job he got would require him to work a lot of hours and probably still not pay great, so he’d rather study something he really loves so that he can at least be doing something he’s passionate about. He’s a realist. He said I left him feeling more inspired and empowered that he could have a positive impact on the world. Which was incredibly flattering and in turn made me feel inspired!

In the grocery store line, I met the nicest woman. You know how the grocery lines can be pretty savagely competitive – everyone wants to be first in line and find the shortest line, especially when the wait is long. Well, this woman went out of her way to try to find the shortest line for me since I only had 2 items. (And I wasn’t even in a hurry, she was just being incredibly thoughtful.) We started chatting and it turns out that she’s an accountant that works in a government agency looking at the economic side of the “triple bottom line” (economics-environment-social impacts) for projects – coincidentally, my line of work and my passion!

On my way out of Salta, I met Valentina who is my age, and a lawyer from Buenos Aires. She had quit her job and before moving to the next one, was taking a vacation with her partner (who was from Paraguay and was traveling through South America). They had been to Patagonia together and invited me to join them exploring a beautiful part of “La Ruta 40” as they headed to Califate, a tiny town in the wine region.

They also spoke English so we ended up speaking a mix of English and Spanish, conversing the whole way and stopping to see a few of the most interesting spots – Garganta del Diablo and El Anfiteatro (which happened to be filled with tourists at this time of year*).

When I told Valentina about my Peace Corps work in Peru with water systems, she told me that she has been doing a volunteer project for eight years, working with a small community called Arbol Blanco in the province of Santiago de Estero. With an NGO from Buenos Aires, they work to empower the youth and help them take advantage of educational opportunities that could give them more professional options as they become adults.

We completely geeked out about sustainable community development work, really connecting with some of the similar experiences we’ve had. Similar to my experience working with Engineers Without Borders, she has witnessed the importance of being a long-term community partner and facilitator – focusing on cultural exchange and helping the community achieve its own stated goals, (rather than trying to do short-term projects based on funder priorities, which have a high failure rate). As we parted ways, I was excited to have met another kind and kindred spirit, (and also excited about the possibility of lending a hand if they needed any WASH (Water And Sanitation & Hygiene) expertise).

As if I hadn’t met enough wonderful people, I finally met Gabriela who went out of her way to drive me to meet up with my friends. A fellow lover of the night sky, she pointed out the observatory nearby and we made plans to go if we ever crossed paths again in the future. As we went our separate ways, I didn’t hear from her again, until one day, a month later when Argentina enforced the mandatory isolation measures, she messaged me to check in and offered me a place to stay if I should need it.

The beginnings of my journey along “La Ruta 40” were renewing my faith in the good of humanity and showing me the power of human connection and cultural exchange.** I was excited to see what lie ahead and only hoped that I hadn’t used up all my good luck.

 

Famous Footnotes

*This was during Carnaval season, which happens while school is out and is when the majority of people take vacations in Argentina.

**”Se que hay mucha mas gente buena que mala. Pasa que los malos hacen mas ruido.” – Dany Reimer
(“I’m certain there are more good people in this world than bad. The thing is that the bad ones make more noise.”) – Dany Reimer (Police officer in one of the toughest areas of Buenos Aires)

On the Road (Santa Maria)

From San Pedro de Atacama to the Patagonia in Argentina, I have been traveling the road of generosity and cultural exchange. In the US, the South is known for its hospitality, and I was lucky enough to have experienced it many times living there. But in my first weeks in Argentina, the culture of generosity that I’ve experienced has outdone even Southern Hospitality.

From hosts who offer me a place to stay (Couchsurfing), kind souls who offer me rides along the way, families who invite me into their homes or along on their vacations, and people who invite me to hang out with their friends and to show me around, the openness and willingness to share, to not only invite me in but to make me feel at home, has been a constant here in northern Argentina.

And it comes at a time in my journey when I most needed it. In northern Chile I almost had my bag stolen so I’ve been a little on edge and extra cautious. After 5 months of traveling I have also started to experience those feelings of loneliness, missing people, and most surprisingly, missing stability, structure, and routine.

So having people be so welcoming and concerned not only about my physical well being but also making sure I feel welcome, included, and at home, has meant the world to me. Interestingly, I don’t get the feeling that people are going out of their way to do it; rather, it seems a very natural part of the culture.

Similar to my last post about Chumbicha, I will continue to share some of my experiences with some the people I’ve met. Today, here’s a little tid-bit from a day in the pueblo of Santa Maria.

A few nights ago, I found myself sitting around a kitchen table eating homemade pizza at 1am in a small town (Santa Maria), chatting with four locals and an Argentine-American couple that I met in Jujuy. It was everything I had hoped for in my travels – a chance to make friends and get a glimpse of not only big cities or tourist hot spots, but also to chat with people from different smaller, less-known-to-tourists towns.

So here I found myself in the middle of a cousin reunion – the friend from Jujuy was visiting his parent’s home after being away for years and all the cousins were catching up. The amazing thing was that I had just met everyone there and yet I felt at home, like just another cousin or a close friend of the cousin.

In fact, we had just met a few days earlier at a birthday party that my couchsurfing host had invited me to tag along to, giving me the opportunity to meet his (really awesome) friends. The next thing you know, we are both in this small town of Santa María, and I’m staying with his family and girlfriend in the family house and hanging out with his cousins.

For me, it was really cool to meet some people who live in a smaller town and hear a little about their experiences and also the contrasting perspectives about life in small town Argentina, the health care system (free for all but not good in the rural areas), education (free universities), crime (not much-drug use was the biggest problem), and even immigration.

For example, I learned that there is ONE black person in Santa Maria. He is from Senegal and everyone knows his name. We just happened to see a black guy in the bus terminal when I was leaving, and we thought, “Hey, that must be Bubba!” (I forgot his real name but it was something like that.) And then we heard someone call his name and sure enough it was “Bubba”.

Everyone at the table had attended university because university is free for everyone. Among the locals was a teacher, an agronomist, a store owner, and and one that works as a kind of notary public or justice of the peace type work (we don’t have the equivalent in the US). They explained that the town didn’t really have problems with security but there were problems with drug use. They were also really interested to hear about me and my travels and it was really nice to share my experiences with them.

It was also really interesting to hear different perspectives on how politics impacts their lives and their situations. One perspective was that the socialist government policies were the driving force for the economic strengths of the country, like a variety of products produced in-country, as well as access to health care and education. Meanwhile, another perspective seemed to blame the socialist policies for problems such as population growth and drug use.

Santa Maria was indeed a very calm and quiet town. Maybe it was because the majority of the people were celebrating Carnaval one town over, Amaicha. (We drove through Amaicha and saw people walking around covered in paint, singing gleefully, and already/still drinking at 5pm. They really enjoy Carnaval in the north!) But I understand that Santa Maria is actually usually fairly quite. When I first arrived to the park and was waiting to meet up with my friends, I started chatting with a random couple in the park and they offered me a tea.

Later, with my friends we walked around and bought a few local products. First was a block of carob paste (“patay”) from a local – the area is full of carob trees, so there are many different carob products available.

I was also introduced to “tortillas” which in Argentina are a nan-type bread (that also comes in sweet or savory).

tortilla normal (savory)
tortilla dulce (sweet)

And we ate “humitas”, which are a type of tamale that come in either savory or sweet flavors. (Not to be confused with humitas in Peru which are only the sweet corn tamales.)

In the garden in the back of the family house where we stayed, there were grape vines, and it happened to be the season for grapes. (All through my journeys through the north, I had access to fresh grapes from the vine!)

 

In less than 24 hours I was so lucky to get a taste of this great little town and not just peek into the lives of some of the locals, but actually feel a part of it.

 

Famous footnotes:

If I had had more time (or if I ever go back to the area), I would definitely visit the museum at the town entrance and the nearby Quilmes Ruins.

In the garden in the back of the house, were grape vines, and it happened to be the season for grapes. (All through my journeys through the north, I had access to fresh grapes from the vine!)

 

Small Town Argentina

In the morning, the sun was shining brightly and Argentina cumbia was coming from the radio. I prepared my breakfast and went outside to sit and chat with the 87-year-old man, “Carlos viejo” who lived there. (His son was also Carlos so in jest he said he was “old Carlos” and the other was “young Carlos”.)

While the sun was strong and made you feel like you were being toasted and all the water sucked out of your body, under the shade it was quite cool and there was a nice breeze. We sat under a “natural roof” created by a vine-like tree that created a roof out of thick layer of foliage that wrapped itself along a wire matrix.

From the moment I met him, I realized that Carlos Viejo was a kind, friendly, and witty man, even if he moved slowly and was a little hard of hearing. He had lived in the town his whole life and had served in the town’s police force for 27 years. Now he had arthritis in his hip and knee and spent his days sitting on the front porch, reading the paper, greeting people who passed by and chatting with his son and the woman who comes to cook and help take care of the house – and today with me. There was probably an equal measure of conversation and comfortable silence – a slow, easy rhythm that seemed to be characteristic of this small town in Argentina. (I’m so glad I learned how to adapt to this slow rhythm, to practice the “art of sitting”, in my Peace Corps service – something that would have been impossible for me four years ago.)

The caretaker came back from running errands and said, “here’s your change,” placing five little candies on the table. She continued by saying that since the 5 mil peso bill doesn’t have value anymore, the store is giving candies instead of bills. At first I thought it was a joke referring to the inflation in Argentina, which has accelerated in the last year (not nearly as bad as Venezuela, but still a marked devaluation.) Later, when Carlos Viejo passed me the newspaper he had finished reading, I learned they were discontinuing circulation of the 5 mil peso bill, and since many people don’t have the 5 mil coin yet, the stores were offering candies as change instead.

Later, Carlos invited me to eat lunch with them – a delicious fish empanada, a second course of chicken soup, and fruits (peaches, grapes, apples) for dessert. In Peru, lunch is usually served with soup first and then a main dish (segundo), but here they served the main dish first and later the soup.

I looked over at the television and realized that the program airing was the Argentina version of “The Price is Right” – El Precio Justo. Given the inflation in Argentina, I thought it was a kind of ironic show to have, painfully reminding everyone how much prices have increased in such a short time. The show is really similar to the American Price is Right – I recognized the same games and rules, and even the big wheel to spin! The host is a trans woman with a sense of humor, and the show seemed to be quite inclusive given the diversity of the participants.

While this small town (Chumbicha) is not on the typical tourist route, it does receive visitors from Buenos Aires, Uruguay, and Brasil. Many passing through for work or traveling through Argentina on motorcycle to see the country. I had arrived in this small town last night, by pure chance. (And a unique sense of adventure I have developed in the last few weeks.)

I had been on a bus to Catamarca – a city that was a few hours out of the way to where I wanted to go (but it had been the best bus option available from the small town where I had been previously.)

Then the bus had suddenly stopped for a few minutes because the copilot was sick. I looked at the map and saw that we were at a small town, and we happened to be at a spot on the highway just before it headed off out of the way from where I wanted to go. The bus wasn’t going to arrive to Catamarca until around 10:30 or 11pm, and I was still going to have to look for a place to stay, so I decided it would be more convenient, safer, and cheaper to stay in this small town if it seemed safe.

I got off the bus and asked a local about the town and asked if there were hospedajes (inns). I got a really good vibe and she called a friend and said he had room in his inn and could even pick me up to take me there. So I said “chau” to the bus driver and headed off to explore a small town in the middle of Argentina, slightly off the beaten path – exactly what I really wanted to do during my journey.

And that’s how arrived in Chumbicha, home of the mandarin and the annual Mandarin Festival in May. The town that all the locals described as “tranquilo…too tranquilo”, or safe and quiet…to the point of being boring.

I arrived that first night at the inn, it was an older house with extra rooms that they rented out. It reminded me of the old country house where my great uncle had lived in south Texas. It had all that you needed, but basic, older models with a feel of about 40 years ago. And it was the same house that Carlos Viejo had grown up in – and was still living in now.

As soon as I arrived, I asked about the town and a friendly young man –  working there (Gonzalo) pointed me to the center of town (3 blocks over) where I could find convenience stores and restaurants and the plaza. An older man sitting on the porch (Carlos Viejo) asked me if I wanted to sit and chat, and I promised I would when I returned (which I did), and I headed out to explore the little town and buy some food for dinner and breakfast.

A few blocks into town I heard what sounded like a sporting event and found women playing volleyball. I started chatting with a woman who was watching and she explained that it was a tournament and this was the championship game. She explained that she wasn’t playing because she played soccer. However, there weren’t many women around the area that played soccer so she trained with the men in the town and played on a regional travel team (someone I could relate to!)

Women’s volleyball tournament

It was 10:30pm, and the stores were just starting to close so I ran across the street to buy some fruits. Even in small towns like this, things stay open late, and it is not uncommon to stay up late into the night chatting. But during the day, from 1pm to 5pm everything closes for siesta, when people go home to eat lunch and often take a nap. It gets extremely hot during the day here, so it makes a lot of sense to have that break. The the work day continues from 5pm to 9pm usually.

In the evenings after 7-8pm when it finally cools off, you see families sitting on their porch drinking mate (loose leaf tea that is drunk through a metal straw), walking, biking, or rollerblading through the street, or hanging out in the park in the middle of town. When you greet them, they often respond “chau” or “adios” instead of the “hola” or “buenas tardes” that I’m used to.**

Later that night I was getting ready for bed, and Gonzalo* said that someone was outside asking for me. I went outside and there was the soccer woman I had met earlier and two other women on motorcycles. They had come to tell me about the times that they buses come through, and we ended up chatting for more than an hour out front. I had only been there for 3 hours and I already felt like I had friends!

The next night, my new friends invited me out for a drink. They were bummed that the one club (“boliche”) in town had just a fire a few days ago so they couldn’t take me there. Instead, they put a lot of effort into finding friends that could come out to hang out with us to show me a good time in Chumbicha. They were also trying  to find out something about “the game” (I was clueless what was going on). We ended up at an ice cream shop and shared a drink (soda) while we played “the game” – a giant version of Jenga!

Later (at around 1:30pm), they gave me a tour of the city on their motorcycles, and I showed them some constellations in the night sky (after a few minutes of convincing them that it wasn’t scary to find a dark spot without lights so we could see the stars, and another few minutes trying to find a dark spot because the town is really well lit and every street has street lights.) Like we were 15 years old, they taught me all the bad words and taboo expressions in Argentina Spanish, and I felt a sense of innocence in them, even though they were my age. (Small town sheltered life?)

One thing everyone agreed on was that the town was full of good people, there was no crime (though there was drug use), everybody helped each other out, and everyone knew everyone else’s business. I definitely felt a great vibe, I felt like everyone I met was a good person that wanted to help out and there was a sense of trust among everyone. Even if it was “too tranquilo” to the point of being boring, I loved it! And it was just what I was looking for – a safe and quiet spot, with Giant Jenga and buena gente (good peeps).

 

Famous Footnotes

*Chatting with Gonzalo later, I learned that he was from the capital (Buenos Aires) and had come to Chumbicha a few years ago. He said he had been kind of immature and “lost”, and working with the Carloses, they had taught him to do things like house maintenance and taking care of the old man, and they had also made him realize that he needed to be more responsible and be a better father for his little kid.

**In the small town in El Salvador where I worked they had used the same greetings of “chau” and “adios” when someone was passing by, which at first was strange to me since they are typically reserved for “good by”/”see you later” in most parts.

Jujuy & Carnaval – First Impressions of Argentina

After a long (9-hour) drive, I arrived in Jujuy, Argentina, without local currency nor a local phone chip (so unable to contact the person I would be staying with). While I wasn’t too worried – (I’m getting used to navigating without those basic things we take for granted like money and cell phone service – for a short amount of time) – those moments are still somewhat humbling and uncertain.

Yet I felt like I was greeted in Jujuy by a welcoming committee!

First was David from the grocery store. I asked him about phone cards, money exchange, wifi, how to get around the city, and not only was he super friendly and helpful, he made me feel really welcome and we ended up chatting for 15-20 minutes about life in general.

My first experience in Argentina was a warm welcome from David from the grocery store

Then there was Pablo from the internet store. He lent me wifi for free, told me about his favorite things to do in the city and we exchanged travel stories and ended up chatting for nearly an hour!

A serendipitous trip to the internet store led me to another welcoming and fun soul who made me feel right at home (and gave me free wifi). (Don’t judge my appearance – I had been traveling through the desert for 9 hours!)

Then I arrived at the house where I was couchsurfing, and my host invited me to the dinner he had cooked, introduced me to his cat, the washing machine (it’s a real treat to have access to a washing machine when traveling!), and made me feel right at home. Over the course of my stay there, we ended up becoming friends – he even invited me to a birthday party where I made friends with his friends, and even vacationed later with some of his friends! (Unfortunately, we forgot to take a photo together.)

I crossed this beautiful city park to arrive at the house where I would stay.

Given the friendliness of everyone I met, I was surprised to hear that a famous tv personality from Buenos Aires visited Jujuy and noted that the locals complained a lot. A friend I met from Jujuy agreed that it was a fair stereotype. (As a traveler passing through, I didn’t experience any complaining while I was there, and actually had nothing but wonderful experiences with all the locals I met!) To be fair, “Porteños” from Buenos Aires also have a reputation among other Argentines to be snobby and less friendly, and so the stereotyping across regions continues, just like we do for east-coasters and west-coasters, New Yorkers, and southerners in the US.

To be clear, I am in San Salvador de Jujuy – the capital of the province of Jujuy. For those who live in other parts of the province, the city is usually called “San Salvador” to distinguish it from the rest of the province, whereas by outsiders, it is often referred to as Jujuy.

San Salvador de Jujuy is a pretty big small city, with wide roads and a fair share of traffic. It is clean and seems well organized, with nice parks, good infrastructure, good public transportation, and I was surprised how many people had personal vehicles.

My first impression was that Argentina is a bit more well-off than Bolivia and Peru, especially because a local informed me that the province of Jujuy is one of the poorer provinces of Argentina. To me it seemed a bit more put-together than similar cities in other parts of South America, though it also has a clear wealth gap, with neighborhoods of what seem like makeshift houses, where people are just making ends meet, according to one local.

Argentina has a history of an economy that fluctuates drastically, and they are in a period of inflation, with the currency devaluing monthly. At the bank, I learn that it’s very difficult if a foreigner wants to sell Argentine pesos, and they only permit it one day per month.

One friend I met is earning half of what he earned three years ago, but the cost of living hasn’t changed. For him, he can still get by, but he points out that there are a lot of people who struggle to get by because of it. Throughout his life the economy has been in drastic fluctuation – growing at insane rates, like 8%, with everyone doing really well economically, then inflation getting out of hand and things falling like they are now. While it’s not ideal, he kind of casually said. “We just have to wait a few years for the economy to improve again. And the cycle continues.”*

I was planning to run some errands in the early afternoon, and luckily my friend stopped me. Siesta is a thing here,** and most places close at 1pm and don’t open again until 5 or 6 pm. Restaurants typically don’t open again until 7:30 or 8. When things do open again, downtown “el centro” is a bustling place, people hurrying from one shop to another, people passing out flyers, reading your blood pressure for a small donation to the Red Cross, and even a huge protest with a marching band (protesting a raise in some type of tax) passed by when I was walking around downtown.

Most of the locals and transplants (the majority of people I met were actually transplants) agreed that the best thing about Jujuy was the outdoors. The city is surrounded by forested hills, has some great parks, and it’s fairly easy to go out and immerse yourself in beautiful nature for a day trip, for the weekend, or anytime.

There are a ton of great hikes and also many sites to see in the towns outside of the city, the most famous being Purmamarca, Tilcara, and Quebrada de Humahuaca. In addition to being home to great hikes and outdoors activities, these towns are also the heart of Carnaval.

I just so happened to arrive in Jujuy during its annual Carnaval, which is similar to Louisiana’s Mardi Gras or Rio’s Carnaval, but with its own unique flavor. It was both a blessing and a curse to be there at this time; on one hand, I had the opportunity to get a taste of Carnaval, but on the other hand I wasn’t able to take advantage of the beautiful hikes and outdoors activities because of traffic and logistics.

I was told that the best places to experience Carnaval are “in the north”, in Tilcara or Quebrada de Humahuaca, (though Pumamarca, and many other small towns throughout the province of Jujuy and nearby provinces have insane celebrations too)…BUT, then I heard horror stories of the traffic and that there wouldn’t be a place to stay.*** In the end, I opted to participate in a celebration in the city put on by the local government, which I would call “Carnaval Light”, though it did have a live performance by the regionally famous Carnaval band “Los Tekis”.

While each town does it a little differently, the main aspects of Carnaval are the “desentierro” and “entierro” of “el diablo”. That’s the unearthing of the devil to kick off the festival, and the burying of the devil to end the festival a few days later. The idea is that after unearthing the devil, people are free to do whatever they want that would normally be considered immoral (what happens in carnaval stays in carnaval), and then once the devil is buried again at the end of carnaval, life goes back to normal.

Each town has their own unique way to exhume the devil, but it usually involves a bunch of people dressed in devil costumes appearing from some special spot. This “desentierro” is the main event and that is why traffic is so bad as crowds of people try to arrive to witness the desentierro.

Before, after, and during the desentierro, people drink (especially box wine, often mixed with any number of other drinks – soda or alcoholic), people paint themselves and throw paint on everyone else, people throw powder and flour on each other, and spray cans of foam at anyone passing by.

Luckily, my friend had warned me not to wear any nice clothes. If you enter clean, you don’t stay clean for long. Random strangers do you the favor of painting you or spraying you with foam, like a little sibling trying to annoy an older sibling. (It would normally be a situation that would lead to a fist fight, but it’s expected at Carnaval and people who don’t like to be randomly attacked by foam in the face or paint thrown at them don’t go.)

All the while, the music is playing and people dance and drink and party all day and all night long, some for multiple days. I enjoyed Carnaval “light” for a few hours Saturday night, and when I arrived in a small town in the south (Amaicha) two days later their celebrations were still in full swing.)

Soon after arriving (still clean), with the Basil of Carnaval
About an hour after arriving (still very mild paint and foam coverage – and no flour still)

The atmosphere in Jujuy in general and also during Carnaval was super friendly. I met multiple people who offered to help me in one way or another – a group of women my age invited me into their group to dance and hang out at the event, a group of older women offered me basil to put behind my ear, which is supposedly a thing you do during carnaval (right ear if you’re married, left ear if you’re single), and a family of three offered me a place to stay in their home if I ever visited Santiago de Estero in the next province over.

Carnaval friends
They hooked me up with basil so I could be legit
I gifted my hat to the woman and she invited me to stay at her house if I ever visited her city.

My first impressions of northern Argentina have been highlighted by the friendliness and generosity of the people; I don’t think I’ve ever been in an environment where I felt such generosity everywhere I went!

 

Famous Footnotes
*Just one perspective on the economy from one person of upper middle class.

**Siesta is not unique to Jujuy, as it seems to be the norm for all the places I’ve been in northern Argentina so far. It is so hot at mid-day in some places, that it makes a lot of sense to be at home resting.

***For future reference: If you want a place to stay in one of the towns in “the north” during Carnaval, you either need to know someone that lives there or reserve a year to 6 months in advance.

Another option is to arrive early the morning of the desentierro and then not sleep the night – just party all through the night and catch a car early in the morning back to Jujuy (I shared a car south to Salta the next day with some people who had done this.)
You would need to leave the city before noon, otherwise you might not make it before the “desentierro.” The normally 2-hour drive often takes up to 6-8 hours the days of Carnaval desentierro.

Colombian Things

I fell in love with Colombia – with the warm, friendly people, the neat and colorful little towns, and with the diversity of landscapes, climates and cultures. Across the country, in every place I stayed, I quickly felt at home.

(Podrías leer este publicación en español haciendo click aquí.)

The friendly and hospitable people and incredible diversity of landscapes wasn’t exactly new for me, because I have found it in abundance in every country in South America.

But each country has something special and its own unique flavor. Each country has those unique things that make it different from its neighbors, like an accent, certain words or phrases, customs, or trends. Colombia has its fair share, and I’m sure I only picked up on not even 10% of them, but here I’ll share a few that I noticed that made Colombia unique from the other South American countries I’ve visited. With these, you can start practicing so you can blend in as if you were from there!

In the streets…

Being a cyclist, I was fascinated by the number of people that ride bikes – both for daily commute and for exercise! I loved that in three of the cities that I visited, they opened “ciclovia” on Sunday mornings, where they closed of major streets to vehicle traffic, for cyclists, runners, or families that wanted to enjoy the morning walking in the fresh air.

Another two-wheeled novelty… I found that I could get around easily thanks to motorcycle taxis! I’m not talking about moto-taxis or “tuk-tuks” where they put a type of carriage for you to sit on the back of a motorcycle. Rather, you can flag down a motorcycle, just like you would a taxi, hop on the back, and get where you were going quickly and easily. (A few even insisted they had no problem taking me and my huge hiking backpack – and they really did carry me and my backpack just fine. Though I only rode with my big backpack in smaller cities at lower speeds!)

They even have an app like Uber or Lyft, called “Picap” where you can call the motorcycle taxi to come get you. (Everyone uses these apps (Uber, Beat, Picap), even though they are technically illegal.)

You can also see Chiva buses in many cities in Colombia. You’ll recognize them when you’re walking down the street and you suddenly hear the party coming down the road towards you. That’s right, they’re party buses that either go through the street picking people up (you can just hop on!) or some are contracted and you can rent the whole bus for your party.

I loved that there were a ton of outdoor parks, green spaces, and public parks throughout the cities I visited. There was usually outdoor exercise equipment, basketball and football (soccer) courts, playgrounds, and trails to walk or run. Especially in a big city like Bogota, it made it a lot more welcoming and livable, in my opinion.

I noticed graffiti art adding color to most cities, mostly with clear neighborhood or political themes (though also a few instances of gang-like tagging.)

Finally, I loved that there were water fountains in the airport, a sign that the country had advanced in providing potable water to taps for people. It turned out to be true that most of the places I visited did have potable water delivered to their taps!

There were also many different phrases, words and expressions that I noticed were different from the other countries I visited. One example was that after saying “thank you” for something, the common response not the “no problem” that I was used to, but rather “with pleasure”, which made one feel much more welcome. For more examples, read the Spanish version of this blog entry.

Finally, I was lucky enough to be in Colombia on December 7th when they celebrate “la noche de las velitas” or the night of candles. This is when families gather on their front porch or in the street outside their house to light candles. Each candle represents good wishes for a special person in their life. In Bogotá, many families or groups of friends gathered in public parks to sit in a circle and light their candles. It was a really lovely atmosphere where one felt a sense of community with others from the neighborhood, while enjoying a special moment with friends and family closest to you.

 

Trocitos Colombianos

(You can read this in English here.)

Me enamoré de Colombia, con su gente cálida, sus pueblos coloridos y ordenados y su diversidad de paisajes, climas y culturas. En varios lugares a través del país me sentí en casa y me acostumbré rápido al sitio nuevo y su gente.

En muchos sentidos, la gente acogedor y amable y la increíble diversidad geográfica no me fue nuevo, ya que son placeres que una encuentra en todos los países de Sudamérica. Cada país tiene su encanto y su sazón único.

Además, cada país tiene sus características únicas que lo distingue de los otros, que sea un dejo, palabras únicas, costumbres o tendencias. Colombia tiene suyos y seguro que yo solo capté ni siquiera un 10 por ciento de ellos, pero aquí te dejo un trocito de observaciones y diferencias que me sobresalieron de Colombia. Con esto, puedes comenzar a asimilarte al idioma y costumbres colombianos para que parezcas de allí al llegar.

Empezando en la calle…

Siendo una ciclista, me fasciné con la cantidad de gente que vi andando en bicicleta a diario. Además, en tres de las ciudades que conocí hacen “ciclovia” los domingos en la mañana (y posiblemente lo hacen en otras ciudades también). Tuve la suerte de estar en Bogotá, Medellín y Manizales cuando cerraron varias calles principales para los ciclistas, corredores, patinadores y familias que salen para caminar juntos para divertirse en el aire libre.

Otra novedad de dos llantas, es que en todos lados pude movilizarme fácilmente con taxi de moto linear. (No hablo de la moto taxi que tiene asiento con techo atrás del conductor, sino la motocicleta linear sola. Mi mochila grande de mochilera no los intimidó y con ella también nos llevaron varias motos lineares taxistas! Incluso, igual como se usa Uber o Beat para un taxi de auto, se puede contractar una moto linear taxista con el aplicativo “Picap” en varias ciudades. (Se usan los aplicativos de taxi a pesar de que son ilegales en Colombia.)

En todos lados también verás los Chiva Bus. Los reconocerás cuando escuchas la fiesta pasando por tu lado en la calle. Son buses que tocan la música, sirven bebidas alcohólicas y pasan por las calles de la ciudad. Hay unos en que podrías abordar en cualquier momento y otros podrías contractar para realizar tu fiesta con familia y amigos mientras que vayan pasando por la ciudad.

En varias ciudades vi una cantidad de parques, espacios verdes y espacios públicos en el aire libre, con equipos para hacer ejercicios, con canchas de futbol y básquet, pistas para caminar y correr y columpios para niños.

En todas partes observé el arte de grafiti que suele ser arte público con temas comunitarios, históricos o políticos (aunque también había instancias de lo que parecía de pertenecer a pandillas).

Además me impresionó que había bebederos – fuentes de agua potable – en el aeropuerto. Varias ciudades han logrado de abastecer agua potable a sus poblaciones y yo podía tomar agua del caño (“del grifo”, “de la llave”) sin preocupación.

 

Hablando de diferentes palabras y expresiones, me encontré con unas pequeñas diferencias del castellano peruano con que ya tengo costumbre.

Dos de mis favoritas son unas frases cotidianas que tienen un poquito más de calidez y que me hizo sentir bienvenida. Cuando dije “gracias!”, no solo fue “de nada” que alguien me sirvió o me ayudó, sino “con mucho gusto”! No solo se me despidieron con “chau,” sino “que este bien!”

Al contrario a la calidez que me sentí por escuchar siempre que me ayudaban “con gusto” y me deseaban “que este bien”, me sentí rara al escuchar “que pena” cuando alguien se me chocó conmigo en la calle o cuando algo se cayó de mis manos sin querer. En estas situaciones, tengo costumbre de escuchar “lo siento”, “disculpa”, o “perdón”. En mi experiencia previa, “qué pena” se usa para expresar sarcasmo, para darme la culpa a mi o cuando una persona culpable no acepta culpabilidad. Pero no suele ser así in Colombia, sino es costumbre decir “que pena” en lugar de “lo siento” cuando algo mal pasa sin querer, aunque sea una falla pequeña de alguien. Mi ejemplo favorito es cuando mis amigos pidieron unas bebidas en el restaurante y el mesero se equivocó. Al explicarlo que no eran las bebidas que habían pedido, les respondió, “que pena”.

Asimismo, en Colombia no solo te piden que “te colabores” con el sorteo del colegio, la pollada o para ayudar a la persona en la calle. También te piden que “colabores” cuando quieren que sigas las normativas de la empresa o las normas sociales. En una lancha en el rio amazonas nos regó el capitán, “Colabórenme y pónganse el chaleco de seguridad, por favor”.

En la mayoría de los países Latinoamérica que conozco, “tomamos fotitos” y “llegamos en un ratito”, pero en Colombia y Venezuela, “tomamos foticos” y “llegamos en un ratico”.

En Colombia, se dice a su amigo o conocido “marica”… “Oye marica! Vienes? Vamos a la playa! Salimos en un ratico!”

Una frase que es útil en el negocio, desde el principio hasta al final, es el clásico: “A la orden”. “A la orden!” te gritan los vendedores para llamar atención a sus productos. Incluso al cerrar la venta, les dices “gracias” y te responden “a la orden,” (siempre están a tu servicio).

Tengo que clarificar tambien, que hay unas palabras y frases que se usa en Colombia y Venezuela y unas que se usa en Venezuela que han llegado a Colombia debido a la llegado de muchos inmigrantes refugiados. La verdad es que a veces yo no me fije en cuales son de Venezuela originalmente; sigo aprendiendo.

Me hace recordar de las arepas, que encuentras en Colombia y en Venezuela, pero son diferentes en cada país. A mi me gustó mucho la version Venezolana.  Mi amiga venezolana en Bogotá me enseño que se puede preparar arepas con casi cualquiera combinación de comida (si lo sabes bien).

De comida colombiana, me gustó mucho la sopa “ajiaco” y el postre “obleas”.

Al final, les cuento que tuve la suerte de estar en Colombia el 7 de diciembre cuando celebran “la noche de las velitas” (o “el día de las velitas”). En la tarde, con toda la familia prenden velas en la barrera o patio fuera de la casa. Cada vela representa buenos deseos para una persona querida.

En Bogotá, familias y amigos se reunieron en parques y espacios públicos para prender las velas con sus queridos, en compañía de vecinos de la zona. Fue un ambiente muy bonito en donde uno siente en comunidad y rodeada por la buena vibra de los buenos deseos.

Ciudad Perdida

If there was one thing I wanted to see in Colombia, (besides my good friends Adam and Adrienne), it was la Ciudad Perdida (“the lost city”). To describe the impact and significance of this archaeological site, many call it the Machu Picchu of Colombia. But unlike Machu Picchu, the only way to arrive to la Ciudad Perdida is a multi-day (4-7 days) hike through the hot, humid jungle of the Sierra Nevada, Colombia.

Translated as “The Lost City”, it was found overgrown by the jungle and being looted for precious stones (like most archeological sites in the world). In the 1970s, the Colombian government and archeologists were able to protect it and begin “recovering” it, (cutting the jungle back). This revealed the historic city – neighborhoods (terraces where houses once stood and walking paths that connected the at least 500 houses of the city) and ceremonial areas overlooking the surrounding mountainside.

In the 1980’s it was opened for visitors, and now you can access this unique site by trekking through the jungle with one of the 7 authorized tour companies. (And you can ONLY access it by trekking with one of these authorized companies). During the trek, you pass through two national park reserves (parques nacionales naturales), which are protected areas.

Since all the companies by law have to charge the same price, I chose to go with Wiwa Tours, which hires guides from the four native communities whose ancestors founded Ciudad Perdida and who still live there and in the surrounding lands, still practicing many of their traditional customs.

Our guide, Juan Daza, in Ciudad Perdida, explains a traditional process of making pots

Our guide explained that the site of Ciudad Perdida was home to the Tayrona (also “Tairuna” or “Teyuna”) culture, the ancestral culture of the four present-day, distinct but connected communities of the Sierra Nevada – the Arhuaco, Kogui, Wiwa, and Kankuamo. Each has their own language, customs and leaders, but they share this sacred site.

Ciudad Perdida was as interesting and mystical as Machu Picchu was for me, though in different ways. One of the most fascinating aspects was its connection to the present – the “mamo” and “saga”, or male and female community leaders from one of the four communities still lives on the grounds of Ciudad Perdida.

Mamo’s or Saga’s house in Ciudad Perdida

The communities still live in and around the surrounding lands and are involved in management of the tourism that comes through, receiving some of the financial benefits from it.* Each September, the four communities still gather at the sacred site of Ciudad Perdida to perform ceremonies (and clean the site of any bad juju that tourists might have brought to the sacred site in their visit). (Yes, I said “juju”. Don’t hate.)

The vistas are also breath-taking. The site is on a high point in the hills, surrounded by 180 degrees of beautiful green mountains and valleys, and even a waterfall cascading down a mountain in the distance.

To arrive at this amazing site, we hiked for about a day and a half up and down through the hills of the jungle, crossing streams and the river. The jungle humidity kept me drenched in sweat the entire day, every day of hiking, and we got rained on twice – which was actually quiet refreshing! (Having done my research I knew to prepare my bag as light as possible and to water-proof it to be able to hike in the rain and cross rivers, and still have dry clothes to wear in the night and the next days.)**

I was surprised to find that these tours and their accommodations are actually a pretty well-functioning machine – they get hundreds of tourists to and from Ciudad Perdida every day of the year! First, the accommodations were surprising. There were well-equipped camp sites along the way, prepared to accommodate multiple groups at a time, some seeming to accommodate up to a hundred through-hikers each day. They had bunk beds with mosquito nets, showers, and flush toilets in every camp where we stayed. There was also a huge kitchen area where the different guide companies prepared meals for their groups – and the meals were delicious and nutritious! Since they provided all the lodging and meals, we only had to carry clothes and a few basic personal items.**

I was impressed by how they’ve scaled up a multi-day trek through the jungle, making it accessible for a wide range of ages and fitness types (there was an 80-year-old man in one of the groups) and also making it accessible for a lot of people at once. On the other hand, I might have been slightly disappointed that the crowds and accommodations did make it less exotic, mystical, and hard-core. But I was also happy to have a shower and delicious meal each night and to meet people from all over the world.

Our group had 19 people from Europe, Colombia, Chile and me, two tour guides (one Wiwa, one Kogui), and an English translator (Venezuelan).

This was actually one of the first guided hikes that I’ve done in South America where there was a good percentage of locals on the tour – nearly half of the group were Colombians, with a group of 3 Chilean women (a few years older than me), and the rest Europeans.

Almost as if to prove our worthiness, the morning of the third day we had to cross a rushing river and then climb a few hundred meters to arrive at the Ciudad Perdida.

There, we learned about some of the current and ancient customs of the Tayrona culture and the current-day communities. Interestingly, there is still disagreement between some archeologists and the current-day communities about the meaning of some of the ruins and artifacts.

One of my favorites of the artifacts were the maps etched in stone – always with the 2 snow-capped peaks of the Sierra Nevada as a reference. (These two peaks of the Sierra Nevada are very important in the culture and show up in many artifacts, artwork, and architecture of the Tayrona culture.)

“You are here”

While a little more “touristy” and expensive than I typically go for, I wouldn’t have missed this grand adventure. An incredible mix of history, culture, adventure, nature, and incredible landscapes, it embodied what I am seeking in my travels – an opportunity to invest in cultural and natural conservation, while learning and experiencing a great adventure!

 

Bonus Content

A peek into some traditions of the modern-day indigenous communities of the Sierra Nevada:

Throughout the 4-day hike, our guides constantly chewed coca leaves and carried a gourd-like thing, always “painting” it with a stick.

Note the bulge in the cheek where he chews his coca leaf, and the gourd and stick he is always wielding.

Finally, after arriving to the Ciudad Perdida, our guides (one Wiwa and one Kogui) explained that gourd for them was a kind of journal or a work of art. They chew the coca leaf and then spit it into the gourd “popora” where they mix it with crushed seashells. They then paint the outside of the popora with this mixture of calcium, coca leaf, and saliva, building up layers of a coating on the outside of the gourd. This coating carries all their thoughts, hopes and ponderings, and so functions as a kind of journal for them.

A tradition that probably dates back centuries before the Spanish arrived (according to archeological evidence of poporas), when men become of age, they go through a ceremony to become official members of the community, and this includes receiving their first “poporo”. When it reaches a certain size, they take it to the mamo (leader) for consultation and then receive another to start on.

The women have a similar tradition in which they weave circular bags using the fibers of the fique plant. (The fique plant is the same plant used to make the coffee sacks I mentioned in a previous blog about a coffee farm in Salento.) The bag contains all of their thoughts and stories and ponderings while making the bag, so that when the gift the bag to someone, they are also gifting them all of their thoughts during the creation of the bag. The circular design is to keep the positive energy in the bag because the energy “runs into the corners and escapes”. This circular style of bag is typically referred to as a “mochila”, or backpack, and is actually fashionable all through Colombia, used by men and women alike throughout the country.

The coca leaf is, and has been, an important part of the indigenous cultures of South America for centuries. One of the most interesting uses I saw was in the greeting. When one person (male) of the Tayrona culture greets another person, each offers the other a handful of coca leaves.

Exchanging coca leaves

Footnotes

*A person that grows up in an indigenous community in the “modern age” inevitably experiences an identity conflict. The person has to reconcile adapting to the modern world without losing key aspects of their cultural identity. That means defining what parts of each world define them – which customs from each culture (traditional and modern) they will adhere to and maintain in their daily life. With the “modern” culture dominating in cultural and economic power, many traditional customs are abandoned in order to be able to survive or to gain more opportunities in the modern world. In my opinion, the “cultural tourism” aspect of visiting Ciudad Perdida was a way to invest in promoting cultural conservation of these traditions. By sharing their traditions with us, the guides were able to keep their cultural memories alive, and they could be inspired to do so both by the interest we have in learning as well as the financial incentive – the fact that they can earn a living through keeping their culture alive.

**Packing for Ciudad Perdida, I recommend: quick-dry towel, flip flops for the evenings, newspapers to stuff in shoes so they will dry at night, carabiners to hang things from your backpack to dry during the day, water-proof backpack cover, multiple plastic bags to store everything you want to keep dry and to line the inside of your backpack, a ziplock to keep your phone dry, just enough shampoo and soap, 1L water bottle, money to buy gatorade or snacks along the way.

 

 

 

 

Cali es Cali

Maybe it’s called Cali because the people are so warm, “cálida” in Spanish. Or maybe it’s because the weather is “cálida”. Whatever the reason, “Cali es Cali… y lo demás es loma”. Cali’s slogan, taken from a famous salsa song (Cali Pachanguero), highlights that Cali is special – a little different from the rest. (The slogan reminds me of “Keep Austin Weird”.)

Its literal translation doesn’t translate well, but it would be something like “Cali is Cali and the rest are hills,” alluding to its physical geography and culture alike. Cali is geographically flat and warm compared to the surrounding hills and mountains (and also compared the other major Colombian cities), and it also claims a more relaxed, easy-going atmosphere.

Cali is most famously known for being the salsa capital of Colombia, and there’s even a genre of salsa specifically from Cali: Salsa Caleña. I was lucky enough to get to experience salsa at its max in Cali because I was there during the “Feria de Cali” – a weeklong festival of salsa and more, celebrating the culture of Cali, that takes place every year, December 25-30.

The festival kicked off with “Salsódromo”, a carnival-type parade on Christmas day, with groups of dancers performing 5-10 minute routines (mostly salsa) every few minutes as they advanced along the parade route. The music was booming and the dancers were incredible. Two friends of friends that live in Cali had actually made it through the selection process and performed in the parade. (They reported that their feet were completely torn up after so many hours of dancing on the street!)

Since I didn’t have tickets*, I walked along the parade route looking for a place to view it. I waded my way through crowds of people – vendors selling drinks and food, music blasting from shops along the side of the street, people dancing, drinking, and spraying foam from cans into the air (sometimes at each other). Everyone was really partying it up in the street! But I was confused because, I was on the parade route, but this wasn’t the parade. (Even if it was a great party!)

As I continued wading through the crowds, I finally found a vehicle overpass that crossed over the parade route, offering a view from above. Despite the fact that vehicle traffic continued to use the overpass (creeping along at 5 mph), pedestrians were filling the overpass to catch a view of the parade passing below.

I found a space between people and got a pretty great view of the parade.* Around me was a young couple in their early twenties, a 30-something couple with a bored 13-year-old that had resorted to sitting in one of the islands in the middle of the road hoping his parents would decide to leave soon, and a guy who had traveled from Medellin to enjoy the festival.

After a few hours I got tired of standing in one spot, and watching so much dancing made me want to dance! Though it was 10pm, I didn’t have to walk far to find a street cart selling some good food, and in a few more blocks I wandered upon salsa music coming from a club.

The music was popping and I was so ready to dance! But when I got inside, nobody was dancing. There were two different groups of 5 friends drinking and chatting, and I had just walked in, solo. Everyone there was Afro-Colombian, and as white foreigner. I might have looked a little out of place. (Maybe it was a good taste of how a black person feels walking into a club full of white people?)

It was only about 10:30pm, so I knew that it was early in club time and that people would eventually dance. But I wasn’t going to drink, so I couldn’t buy time by ordering a drink. I wasn’t going to just walk out because I had just walked in and I really liked the music. But I also wasn’t about to start dancing salsa alone in the middle of the club. So I approached one of the groups and asked if they were going to dance. The woman saved me from my awkwardness and told her guy friend to dance with me.

Later they invited me to sit at the table with them and every few songs, the guys in the group took turns dancing with me (or rather, teaching me to dance since I was pretty terrible). It was really fun to watch them cut a rug (yes, I threw in that Texas expression). I could tell that they had grown up on salsa, and it just ran through their veins. They sang along, clapped out beats, and danced when a song inspired them (all in a very cool and composed manner – this was the cool crowd, not the goofy or nerdy crowd that I tend to run in.)

It turned out to be a really fun night and was pretty indicative of my experience in Cali – everyone generally minds their own business, working but also taking time to enjoy life in their own way. But every time that I reached out to someone – started a conversation, asked to dance with someone – they were open, warm, and friendly, letting me into their world to enjoy life with them for a minute.

During the “Art and Salsa” free walking tour, our local guide pointed out a statue of a local woman, Jovita. The legend is that this woman believed that she was a queen, and would walk the streets of Cali greeting people as such. The wealthy women of Cali gifted her nice clothing, and though poor, she walked the streets dressed like a queen and even receiving famous visitors to the city. After her death, the city constructed a statue, memorializing her (and making a statement about the city’s culture of acceptance and treatment of people that are different from the majority.)

I left Cali feeling full of good energy, warmth, and joy. Maybe it was all the music, maybe it was all the dancing, maybe the sunshine and warm weather, or maybe it was the warmth of the people that made me feel like I was in a city full of friends. I hadn’t planned on visiting Cali in the first place,** and  now I could only convince myself to leave by promising that I would be back one day soon.

 

Famous Footnotes:
*Two different taxi drivers commented to me that the parade used to go through the entire city and everyone in the city could come out into the street to watch – it was literally a city-wide event. Those were the “good ol’ days”. Now the parades takes place only on one street, across 18 blocks, where they sell seats in temporary stadium seating that is constructed along the street. (Access is blocked off behind the stadium seating, and this is where I had found myself walking through the huge street party.)

Since there are limited places where one can view the parade for free and a ton of people wanting to see the parade, it can be tricky to find a good spot. That’s why there were people climbing the vehicle overpass to get a view of the parade, and it explains the rogue street party formed on the other side of the parade.

**Cali is third largest city in Colombia, and, like Medellin (the 2nd largest city in Colombia), I had planned to skip it because I tend to prefer the smaller towns to cities. But also like Medellin, Cali proved to be a warm and inviting city, and I can’t believe I almost missed it! Thanks to Adam and Adrienne for getting me to those wonderful cities and exploring them with me!

**Salsa is the star of the Feria de Cali festival but it is not the only show. There is music from the pacific coast, (where there is a predominantly black population), which has strong percussion beats. And for those who aren’t into salsa much, like one Caleña that I met, there are bars that play other types of music predominantly, like reguetón, with just a little salsa or bachata sprinkled in every now and then. Then there’s the option to just sit outside the liquor store and chat and drink all night, like I saw groups of people doing throughout the city as well!

New Year in Ecuador

Sometimes it helps to close the door on the past so that we can start fresh and fully immerse ourselves in the future. Or at least that’s the idea behind the New Years Eve (NYE) tradition in Ecuador (and many other Latin American countries).

Welcoming the new year is done by first burning the “año viejo” or old year – a symbol of burning away all the bad that happened in the previous year, and also scaring away the bad so it won’t come in the new year.

“Año viejo” is often represented by life-size dolls or dummies, often dressed in old clothes or adorned with symbols of bad things from the year before.

“Año Viejo” being sold on Dec. 31 in the streets of Cuenca, Ecuador

In some cases, “año viejo” is dressed as people, political figures, or even family members, in an attempt to burn the bad they caused the previous year.

The president of Ecuador and various figures representing major events that took place in Ecuador during the past year

It is a moment to combine art and self expression with hopes for better future. Some people go to great lengths and create entire displays. For example, this one depicts the 12-day strikes (“huelgas”) and protests that occurred in Ecuador in October of 2019, spurred by the government’s announcement that they would eliminate fuel subsidies.

In most cases, people create their own smaller, personal dolls or creations with items of personal significance and burn them bonfire-style in the street outside their house just before midnight. Sometimes a creative person will create a humorous testament, recounting things that happened to their friends or family members before lighting “año viejo” on fire.

From the “año viejo” tradition, grew the “viuda” (widow) tradition, which explained why I saw a bunch of guys dressed in drag when I crossed the border into Ecuador.

One of the first things I saw crossing the border into Ecuador, Dec. 30

As a humorous take on the tradition, some men dress as widows mourning the loss of their husband/boyfriend (themselves) who would be “burned” as part of the “año viejo” tradition.* They dress in drag and often ask for coins in the streets, usually while goofing off and having a good time.

Dancing with the “viudas”

Walking through the street after midnight, all the neighbors had fires smoldering in the streets, many playing music and celebrating with family members. I joined a couple of people dancing outside and made some new friends – an extended family that owned the restaurant where they were dancing, and lived in the same building.

I am happy to have started my new year off dancing and meeting new people, leaving behind fears, inhibitions, and self-consciousness smoldering in the past.

Famous Footnotes:

*If you didn’t follow the “viuda” tradition it’s because it is kind of confusing and takes some imagination. The men are assuming their partner will burn a figure of them (because they were the cause of problems during the previous year), so the men, pretending that they are actually dead from this symbolic burning and have therefore left their partners widowed, then dress as their partners and beg for coins in the streets.

**One source said the “año viejo” tradition came from the colonial times when many people died from yellow fever and their clothes would be burned at the end of the year for sanitary and spiritual purposes, to ward off the disease.

**https://culturacolectiva.com/historia/tradiciones-de-ano-nuevo-en-ecuador