the great thing about smells is they transport you to a completely different time and place in your life. like how sniffing a textbook takes you back to middle school. like when i get home from a visit to my parents house and open my suitcase; their aroma wafts out from all my clothes. ziggy and i breath it in deeply. or how burning garbage always reminds me of my childhood in colombia. i smile every time i smell it. i’m not sure what else can carry me back to this place. since i’m generally emotionally blocked, i hope i’m forced into it often. as my time here is winding down and i’m gearing up, i force myself to think about what i will miss most. this is my own cognitive behavioral therapy to help thaw my cold heart.
the noise and the ease of street life. even when i went home for christmas, the quiet threw me off. there was no honking, yelling, laughing, dog fights, cat fights, kids screaming, merchants pedalling goods, or, worst of all, music. people tend to live outside here and it makes a world of difference. it fosters communal exchanges and community.
it will take me a bit to adjust to the fact i cannot walk out my door and stroll a couple of blocks to find coffee, avocados, photocopies, public phone, whatever; i cannot walk to san andrecito, the little street that has everything, describe what i’m looking for and have someone excitedly run off to find it; i cannot sit on the beach and start yelling “coca cola!” “agua!” “arepa!” and have someone sell it to me. i will have to go back to the overly structured and regimented way of selling and purchasing goods and services. which just leads to colder and more boundaried interactions. there’s no haggling, there are no jokes about prices or the quality of what’s being sold. there’s just a price tag and a register. those big box stores just box us all in.
i will miss the little old man on carrera quatro sitting on a chair with his weight scale and a handmade sign that says, “control de peso.” he’s not selling a weight loss product. you just weigh yourself. the man’s a genius.
i will miss catching and getting off a bus wherever i please. buses with names like “dios esta conmigo,” “the thrasher,” or “cannabis.” buses where you usually have to ask the driver to turn the music down. i will miss the ride to rodadero where people get on just before we enter the hills and there are generally no stops, to sing songs for money. everyone applauds; community and laughter. i will miss the drivers who let them get on for free.
once two little boys with lollipops in their mouths stopped the bus and asked the driver if they could get on for half the price.
“entonces, porque no tienen el dinero?” el conductor asks. questioning the boys’ lack of funds.
“pues, yo tengo, pero el no.” only one of them has enough.
“aja, y porque dejaste que tu amigo compre ese bon bon? no me pareces muy buen amigo.” he questions the thought process behind their candy purchase. the whole bus laughs and the boys get on. the driver takes off like a maniac, music blasting. an old man gets on, rifles through his pockets, and only produces half the fair. he tells the driver he should get off because he can’t pay. the driver asks for whatever money he has saying, “no te preocupes, esos pesos no me van hacer a mi mas pobre ni a ti mas rico.” we all agree. he takes off again. an older lady asks to get off but the driver doesn’t hear her over the music. we all whistle and yell for him to stop, “parada, señor!!!” she curtly informs him she wanted to get off like two blocks before.
“anda! perdoname señora! me perdonas? oye, me perdonas?” he asks for her forgiveness.
“pues, si no estuvieras tan embalao no hubiera pasado!” she castigates him for being so coked up and gets off.
“no me perdono.” he seems genuinely sad. and we all laugh. together. with the smell of burning garbage all around us.
“puedo ordenar tostadas?”
“un jugo de naranja y cafe con leche.”
“me puedes dar menos hielo?”
“puedo pedir un sanduche con jamon y queso, pero sin el pan y jamon?”
each of the above sentences should be said with a sing songy cadence at the end. the speakers are argentines. argentinians? lo que sea. my high season nemesi.
they occupy my hammocks, they fill the tv room, they hang out of their half thong bikinis (which i don’t mind so much), and they fill my brain with ridiculous menu questions and requests. they are the worst kind of tourist: helpless, wasteful, clueless, and entitled. they are not alone, but they are their own breed.
throughout the fall in santa marta locals and business folk would talk about “la temporada,” high season, like it was the second coming. so many things would supposedly happen during this time; aguardiente and spanish gold would flow through the streets like poo water. it finally came and went. it didn’t seem to make anyone any richer or poorer.
the transformation this city undertook was a sight to see, though. wintertime brought with it la brisa loca; a blustering wind that swept up skirts and blew away the beautiful thunderclouds that gathered over the sierras with the promise of refreshing rain and nightly lightning storms. it also carried with it actual tourists. dready backapckers were replaced by pale skinned folks in funny hats and sensible sandals, and the whirlwind began. new bars and restaurants popped up everywhere (and by everywhere i mean there were three), old establishments created new menus with higher prices, cabbies padded their going rates, as did lancha and moto dudes, and the beaches swelled to capacity. samarios live for this time of year, dreaming of all the opportunity and pesos. if you don’t make money during temporada, you likely won’t survive the rest of the year.
this being a working class town, most bars, clubs, and restaurants are only open on weekends because locals don’t frequent them often enough and when they do, they don’t spend enough to make it worth anyone’s while. it’s cheaper to buy a bottle of aguardiente or some beer and hang in a tienda, a plaza, or the beach. if you ask a costeño, “where can we go dancing?” they’ll smirk and say, “pues… aqui.” and so, nightclubs are wholly unnecessary and primarily for extranjero use.
i usually wouldn’t walk around by myself after 9pm as the streets are vacant and you become lone prey. but during high season, everywhere is lit up with fairly ridiculous carribean christmas decorations -which included bird of paradise flowers and tuscans- and folks spending their temporada winnings. people are also forced out into the streets because the wind and the increase in electrical usage causes more regular power outages, or painfully slow fans. painfully. slow.
and just as quickly la brisa settles, the tacky decorations go away, and everyone’s pockets are just as empty. pero ya casi llega carnaval…
“una fila por favor,” the lady requested a straight line. we all kind of shuffled our feet and basically remained where we were. i laughed to myself and thought, “this is as good a line as you’re gonna get.”
to my friend, i smiled and said, “una fila colombiana.”
the man in front of me turned, “y como son las filas europeanas?” what’s a european line like?*
i smiled, “ay, todas serias y rectas. asi…” i made a straight line gesture with my hand and saluted. you know, europeans are so serious with their queues and order, no? we are beautiful and happy because we don’t care.
he said something else i didn’t understand, but i laughed. which is what i do when i don’t understand spanish. then suddenly, i realized he was yelling at me.
“tengo el orgullo colombiano en mi corazon! regresate para europa!” oh shit. serious?
“oye, soy colombiana, señor. tengo orgullo de todo lo que es colombiano. lo bueno y lo malo.”
“no! no lo eres! eres de europa!”
“todos somos de europa, y igual somos colombianos.”
he just kept on keeping on…
“ok, ok, ok, señor. ya, ya pues. para. ya.” dude, stop, i pleaded, but on and on he went.
“dejalo, señor. tu no me conoces, y no me importa. ya, ciao.” he continued as he walked down the gate.
“ciao. ciao. ciao,” i said, as i shooed him away with my hands.
i’m pretty sure i was the spitting image of my mother in that moment. rolling my eyes, shaking my head, my arms crossed, and sighing out of my nostrils with my lips pressed together. este hijo de puta quien se piensa? the nerve of this guy.
if you can’t appreciate the beauty and the beast of a culture then, in my opinion, you’re either exotifying or stereotyping it. if it’s your own culture, then you need to come to terms with some of your own shit. i mean, if someone’s straight up insulting with malice, then let’s kick their ass. i’m with ya. i’ll totally be look out. otherwise, let’s just own our own nonsense.
because i’m halfsies i think i can get away with shit i can’t. those who just see my features, my skin tone, and my english, don’t see all of me and get upset. but if this dude wanted to skool me, he went about it very much the wrong way; the colombian way *wink* all yells and cara de mala leche. it just made him seem like he was ashamed we don’t follow our colonizers orders about how to board planes. sucker. he should have been like, “nena, yo entiendo. pero ojo con la gente a tu alredor cuando dices cosas asi.” then i would have been the one properly shamed. i should be more careful about how i’m perceived and who is around me. i know better. but his debasing of my european roots -which surely, white man, are yours too- and his negating the allowances of my heritage were too ultra male and defensive. it gave me the yucks (not yuks) for hours.
when i do foreign accents or describe people by their features and skin tone, some folks are initially put off. let’s not pretend we don’t see these things, people! let’s revel in all of our funny speech, terrible customs, triumphs and follies, ridiculous sayings, wondrous traditions, oppressive paradigms, inspiring songs, sadistic and rebellious histories, and fabulously tacky fashions. it’s funny cause it’s true; let’s laugh to keep from crying. pretending they’re not there only serves to divide us more. i’m a firm believer that conversing about and referencing our idiosyncrasies (with tact and grace) reminds us we’re all human.
the blessing of my multiculturalism is that i can see in and out. it has given me the gift of perception (though broadening that vision is a daily education), the curse is no one knows it and they try to steal my precious from me. tricksies. false.
*the following dialogue has been changed to make me sound cooler than i am.
there are certain questions i am learning to never bother asking costeños. these primarily involve things to do with time or distance. measurement, i suppose. “when will it be ready?” “when will they get here?” “how long will it take?” “how far is it?” “how much will it cost?” will get a variation of: “solo un ratico mas,” “ya casi,” “ayi mismito,” or “no mucho.” kind of like calling the restaurant to ask when your delivery will arrive. “it’s on its way,” is all you’ll ever get. the concept of latino time or p.o.c. time is nothing new, but witnessing its full meaning in action is a wonderment.
caribbean heat and humidity likely has a little to do with it. if you try to rush anywhere you arrive hot, sweaty, and agitated. and likely you’ll be waiting for everyone else. i’ve been on a permanent vacation for over five months and yet i still walk like i have to be somewhere real important. i used to get irrationally frustrated at the pace of local pedestrians, who likely have actual things to do; if i wasn’t throwing elbows about, i just gave up and risked my life walking in the middle of the street. as a slave to the urban clip, trying to walk at a speed where turtles lap me is not easy, but i’m in an intensive retraining program.
i have learned that it is well worth my time to criss-cross my way down the street to maintain constant shade or walk a few blocks out of my way to ensure i’m on a street with sun blockage or take a quick detour through the air conditioned supermarket. when i inevitably get stuck behind someone staring at the same pair of sandals that have been on that same corner booth for months (seriously?), i try to relax and enjoy the air con breeze from the stores. i linger inside air con’d cajeros, atm machine vestibules, because it’s like wrapping yourself in a silky ice cream blanket. “oops, i got my pin number wrong.” “oh shit, i meant to hit english, not spanish. guess i have to stay in here a little longer.” children and stray dogs often sneak their way into cajeros to play and nap, respectively. street kids sleep in there as well, when they can.
this seems to have created a stereotype of costeños as being slow and lazy. so what we have monday holidays like every other week? who cares no one knows exactly what we’re celebrating? so what we decide to be closed when the sign clearly says we should be open? we don’t feel like coming back after siesta. we rather be at the beach, the river, or the mountains. fuck work. fuck time. it’s too hot and it’s not worth it. except when we’re in any kind of motorized vehicle, though. then suddenly everyone’s in a real fucking hurry that can only be mitigated by incessant honking, high speeds, and a disregard for all social contracts.
you can’t really blame heat alone for our disregard for structure. we just don’t really give a shit. i love santa marta for it’s unassuming and unapologetic existence. it is what it is and it never tries to be something else. you’ll adjust sooner or later. where’s my hammock at?
my parents have done a lot of amazing things for me, but one of the greatest was refraining from teaching me english. not wanting me to speak like an esl’er, they decided to run a spanish only household in my infancy and i learned english when i started school. it has given me the magical ability to switch languages with the greatest of ease, dazzling the world with my linguistic acrobatics.
during my adolescent rebellion, i forsook my mother tongue. for a long time after, if i spoke spanish, it was as a joke; something i did when super stoned or imitating my elders. of course, i partially blame my roots resistance on the internalization of some racist and euro bullshit about family and independence. so my spanish development stalled at about age 11, and things just got worse from there:
- i’m often unintentionally offensive or harsh as the nuances of certain words or phrases i use are completely lost on me;
- my vocabulary is elementary;
- growing up with cubans, time spent in spain, latino clients, and latino friends have tangled up my accent;
- acquiring most of my spanish in the context of family dinner table discussions and being castigated has meant my most seamless spanish emerges when i’m all worked up about something;
- as a spanglishite, i usually speak english in spanish; directly translating things i should not. for instance, i will say “under construction,” as “bajo construccion,” which apparently means absolutely nothing.
all these things equal lots of giggles and quizzical stares from my brethren. “where are you from?” seems like an innocuous question and no one ever expects the long winded answer i have to give. “do you mean where i was born, where i grew up, where i live now, or where my people are from?” colombians ask me this question as soon as i open my mouth and they tend to ask it differently. they cock their head to the side, purse their lips, and say, “pero de donde eres tu?” because you’re certainly not from here. you must be from a big city far away. “eres de medellin/cuba/españa/argentina?” “no, soy gringa. pero mi familia es de barranquilla.” your entire family? really? huh. the idea that one plane ride could make such a difference seems to throw everyone off. gringa by chance.
just like my spanish, i’ve always felt like i existed in this in between place.
too straight to be queer; too queer to be straight.
too left to be complacent; too complacent to be left.
too rich to be poor; too poor to be rich.
too privileged to be disadvantaged; too… no, i’m just too privileged.
too cynical to be optimistic; too optimistic to be cynical.
too feminine to be masculine; too masculine to be feminine.
too white to be brown; too brown to be white.
no more have i felt all of these things than here in my latin root country. while i am more adept at deciphering our language and ways, i’m still a little on the outside. and when outsiders express bewilderment and frustration at our sociocultural structures, i feel apart once more. i understand gringos and i understand colombians, and i find myself cultural border hopping. in most ways, it’s a beautiful bilingual dance, and, in other ways, it’s just lonely. always a bride’s maid…