Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Always Talk to Strangers

Always Talk to Strangers

Now I am back in Barranquilla after a few weeks rest in Panama. While I was gone I seriously considered quitting my job. When my flight landed in Barranquilla at midnight, I was welcomed back by an ad for breast enhancement and a cab driver telling me the other cab driver was going to rob me. In the cab, we drove through some of the dire and scary parts of the city. I felt a certain abhorrence for Barranquilla and its urban shortcomings, and thought that I really ought to leave. I was, however, quite pleased to return to my beautiful, immense, and clean apartment again after several weeks of staying in hotels.

Back at school I talked to my principal, who I really appreciate, about quitting. I told her that I was thinking about volunteering somewhere for the rest of the school year, but that I didn’t have anything set up yet. She and I looked at the calendar together. To start, Carnavales happen in mid-February. Barranquilla is supposedly, after Rio, the best place for Carnaval in South America. I have been looking forward to it as the cultural event of the year. There are so many other fun and interesting events pending, that it seemed a shame if I’d miss them. Even though perhaps this school isn't the best fit for me, the bottom line is that I’m a responsible person. I don’t think I’d feel right about quitting in middle of the school year. It would cause a lot of headaches for everyone, and in the end my students would be the ones who would suffer. It just didn’t seem right.

Since I’m staying, I’ve chosen to try to focus on the positive and have more fun.

First of all, let’s remember the climate: it is hot and sunny here almost everyday. Then there are las frutas – maracuya, lulo, corozo, mmm. I don’t think I’d be able to enjoy these as readily in other places. Next, I need to get out and enjoy more of what Barranquilla has to offer and meet some people. I realized upon returning that the people who know me here consist mainly of my colleagues, the people who work in my apartment building, grocery store, and gym. It is about time for some new faces.

My first weekend back Kären, Dave, and I decided to go to a jazz bar that I’d read about in my guidebook called La Cueva. Gabriel García Márquez and his literary Grupo de Barranquilla used to spend some time there. It was pretty empty when we went and seemed more like a place to get dinner than go out for music, so we headed over to Yema Jazz. This is a place we went with a Colombian friend our first month in Barranquilla. It’s very hard to find because there is no sign outside, and it’s like walking into someone’s apartment building. It’s the secret jazz club. After walking downstairs, it is a cool jazz bar that usually has live music, but not the night we went.

In my solo travels I usually talk to anyone and everyone. I decided that upon returning to Barranquilla I should try to talk to and meet people the way I do when I travel. Explaining this idea to Dave and Kären, they reluctantly agreed to go over and meet a table of Colombians, but only after I came up with the idea of our lead in conversation question: "Can you tell me something about Carnavales?"

It was a table of six men and women, and one man named Juan Carlos was thrilled to tell us everything we wanted to know about Carnavales. We ended up joining their table for a drink there, and then moving on to another much louder dance bar. Despite ringing ears and partially losing my voice trying to talk with people, I thoroughly enjoyed staying out dancing until 3:00 am. It was time to leave when the salsa, meregue, and reggatón turned into even louder techno.

As per my typical self, even if I stay out late, I have a tendency to wake up with the light. I knew I needed to get some work for school also. Exiting the elevator at around 9:15 Sunday morning, I was accosted by salsa music blaring away. A dance class was taking place in the court outside my apartment. I thought I might join after returning from the store. At the grocery store a man I always see, who reminds me of a Colomian Pee Wee Herman, noticed I’d been gone a while and had questions for me. It’s nice to be recognized with a smile. Returning home the salsa class had just ended, but I met some women, including a lively 61 year-old woman, who live in my building. I enjoy knowing and being able to say hello to my neighbors. It’s also not so bad to grade papers in a bikini by the pool in the middle of January with a temperature of 91 degrees Fahrenheit.

Later that evening, Kären and were called by Jose David and Juan Carlos, two of the men we’d danced with the night before. They wanted to take us out for ice-cream. We ended up going on a double date with them to an American style diner and got chocolate malts. I felt like I was on the Barranquilla version of ‘Happy Days’. It felt like1960, not 2010. This innocence was rather refreshing.

Do I love Barranquilla? Well, no. Did I realize that I needed to change some of the way I perceive it and the ways I live here to make it better? Yes, I did. For 2010 in Colombia the motto is: Always Talk to Strangers.

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