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…
my dear father has a tremendous knack for coming up with nicknames, or apodos. like me, and apparently most other costeños, he can’t remember anyone’s name so he makes up nicknames instead. he’s like an apodo prodigy, generating whip smart associations with speed and charm. por ejemplo, a few years ago my family went on an ecotour in mexico and there was a group of texan women with us. one of them was named ginger. my dad’s brain: ginger – ginger cookie – cookie – spanish cookie – galleta – galletica. henceforward, she was “la galletica.”
latino folk love nicknames. some names come with their own: jose can be “pepe,” francisco is “pacho,” gerardo “che,” luis “lucho,” etc. then there are generic terms of endearment: nena, papi, mami, muñeca, reina, amor, corazon, mi vida. these are quite useful for name forgetters like myself, and create an immediate sense of intimacy embraced by our culture’s more porous boundaries. you can go deeper and choose one based on an attribute: from “blanca” to “morena” to “negra/o” depending on skin tone, “flaca/o” for “skinnies,” “gordo/a” for chubbies, and so on. but the very special ones come from some terribly embarrassing thing you did when you were little or some very unfortunate physical characteristic: big ears, big cheeks, big ass, rat face, pants wetter, shit eater, etc. it adds a splash of humor, joy, and self-deprecation to our every day.
i’ve always wanted an apodo. the closest i got was as a fatty kid when my dad called me “baby shamu.” it wasn’t his best work and thankfully it didn’t stick. regardless, my heart fills with giggles when i get called “nena” or “flaca” around here. i know i’m getting the generic misogynistic apodos -and without the article “la” attached, i know they’re fleeting- but for that brief moment, their mine! it’s all i’ve got. i try engaging in novel behavior and exaggerate my more prominent features in an effort to inspire, but no one’s ever watching, it seems.
i believe an apodo of my own will fill some of the gaps in my colombian identity. it will bring me closer to my latino brethren and help me understand costeño rapid fire spanish; all their slang and all their sayings. my grammar and vocabulary will impress others. i’ll get invited to parties and know how to dress to fit the occasion. everyone would wave.
three guys walk into a bar. wait… three guys on a bender of alcohol, cocaine, and klonopin walk into a bar. i should mention i’m working at the bar, it’s 8am, and they haven’t slept all night. no… they haven’t slept in two nights.
i love working the morning shift. the bar becomes my domain. everything’s calm, people are sober, and i play delightful wake up music at a reasonable volume -some reggae, manu chao, maybe a little calexico and other white boy shit, and some hip hop once the afternoon light begins to glow. i enjoy this routine, and i enjoy being a solo worker in charge of everything from the dishes to the ambiance. these three dudes are looking like trouble set on spoiling my good time. did i mention they’re my coworkers?
“yo, let me put on some cypress hill.”
“not right now, dude. i’m just trying to chill with my music.”
“don’t be such a bitch!”
“hey guys, can you give me some room and get on the other side of the bar, please?”
“duuuuuuude, angie’s having a hissy fit.”
or was it…
“i think she’s on her period. chill out, half pint!”
i stop engaging, laugh, smile, and breathe.
“uh oh, we got angie mad! do you hate us, angie? we got nothing but mad love for you. angie needs a hug.”
“touch me and i’ll cut your balls off.”
“oh shit! you knew what you were getting into when you started working here at the boy’s club.”
it’s true. i did. but i’ve never worked with so many people raised as boys. social work attracts a different set of folks. i’m not used to having them as bosses or coworkers. i dislike it. since they don’t consider me a part of their creepy, special gender circle, they have no respect for my space or words. if they did, when i said, “get out of my face,” i’d get, “chill, brah. no worries.” there would be no attempt to give me a massage or a hug; i’d get insulted maybe, not belittled, and left alone.
mind you, i can handle testosterone. i acquiesced to their musical requests, played nice, and was generally loveable and had fun with it. all this despite the fact they hovered over me, made me fuck up the till, were jackasses in front of guests, and gave me shit when i put drinks on their tabs. this nonsense lasted the entirety of my six hour shift, and, for the most part, i gave in to the universe and gave up on the morning i wanted. attachment only leads to suffering, after all. and i knew any other reaction would only be countered by older brother bullshit and references to my menstrual cycle. in the end, it didn’t matter. paper does not beat rock, and i don’t know the hand gesture for boredom. the boy’s club rules on.
this is the first job i’ve ever had (college work study not included) where i am not really responsible for anyone’s well-being. feels good; freeing. i’m paid in room and board. the room part lasted about three days. not for me. instead, i bartered for more free food. best of all: FREE non-bottled water. water, people! also free is the lessons i’ve learned about myself and the world around me.
you know you’re a bad bartender if…
– you’re always turning the music down.
– your o.c.d. compels you to clean up glasses and beers before people are done with them.
– you can’t remember anyone’s name.
– you can’t remember what anyone likes to drink.
– you refrain from socializing with customers for more than 10 minutes.
– you don’t actually know how to make any drinks.
– you’re constantly cleaning around people and making them move their arms.
– you drop hints about how everyone should go to bed soon.
– last call is about 30-45 minutes prior to closing.
– you refuse to give straws.
– you can’t recommend any drinks.
– you’re ridiculously bad at simple math and regularly give wrong change.
– it takes you a really long time to give wrong change.
– you’re a stickler for rules.
– you won’t drink with the customers.
– when girls get on the bar to dance you envision ceiling fan concussions and make them get down.
– you’re me.
i always feel inclined to dress up for air travel. i’m unsettled by people who get on a plane wearing short shorts and flip flops. partially, i feel like you should be prepared for disasters that involve running with protective footwear and the inevitable coldness while on board, and also it just feels tacky and inappropriate. a child of the 80s with immigrant parents, flying was an occasion for which we overprepared and overdressed. my mom would wear her sunday bests, my sister and i would don fancy leisure wear, our carry-ons included anything we could possibly need while in the air, and we’d get to the airport hours before our flight. it kind of felt like we were embarking on an ocean liner or a locomotive ala the roaring 20s. except we didn’t have fedoras, regrettably. at our destination, assuming it wasn’t colombia, we stayed at nice hotels and often had private drivers to take us around. this upper class mode of travel still hangs over me. when i book accommodations, i think of key cards, sleek bathrooms, and cable television. i’m willing to go budget, though i’m always disappointed, but hostels seem out of the question.
once i stayed at a hostel in seattle and, if memory serves, i’m pretty sure i checked out the following day. the whole communal, hippie, backpacker vibe made me feel simultaneously inferior and elitist. i dislike being confronted with my classism by people who likely fall into my same class category but purport to not. i shed a lot of these random constraints before i came here, and so am less hostile towards hostels. i have thus found myself not living, but spending all of my time inside a hostel here in santa marta.
yes, yes, i know it’s not a way to truly experience the surrounding culture. in my defense, there isn’t a whole lot to do in santa marta that i haven’t already done and it’s really a beautiful place with many free amenities. i dig my free coffee, wifi, rooftop terrace with shaded hammocks, tv room, convenient and regularly cleaned toilets, and, yes, gringo companionship. hostel life also offers me a glimpse into a society to which i’ve been completely oblivious.
“when did you get here?” “where have you been?” “when are you leaving?” “where are you going?” “where are you from?” “how long have you been traveling?” blah, blah, blah, blah. i’ve asked these questions so many times, i’ve given up on remembering the answers, or maintaining the ability to match the answers with the correct persons. it takes all my willpower to refrain from saying shit like, “did you strangle a turtle in the galapagos after you took its picture?” or “don’t forget to plant a plastic bottle at a peak in cousco.” i’m a wanker, i know it. i watch fresh faced newcomers arrive and witness them slowly wither in the heat, humidity, onslaught of mosquitoes, and the crazy haze of cocaine. it took me a couple of weeks to figure out how these people were so entertained at the hostel bar until 5am with no dancing, and then i realized they were all hopped up on goofballs. fyi, cokeheads, your high speed conversations are terribly trite and drab.
they are australian, british, united statesian, isreali, new zealanders, irish, swiss, german, etc. white, basically. i mean, there are some folk of color up in here from time to time, but not often. obviously, these backpackies are young and have the economic means to travel; a fact i remind locals when they make grand generalizations about the economic propensities of gringos. they all seem to have met each other previously in bolivia or panama or nicaragua or wherever. it’s a small hostel world, after all. in medellin and cartagena, i ran into folks i’d met in santa marta and then traveled along with newly met others and then saw them again when i returned to santa marta. i suppose this is quite ordinary for seasoned travelers, but not for me. i would never have thought it a good idea to meet new people and right away engage in an activity that has a tendency to end even strong, long-standing relationships: budget travel. it does seem to work out alright, though. it provides an extra person to split cab fare, and some times people are ok. even those that travel in flip flops.
i’ve had the grand privilege of wandering parts of the globe from a young age. it blew my puny mind, and it still does. realizing my entirety was, in fact, a tiny little piece of existence linked within an enormous universe filled unimaginably different worlds. other than seeing really amazeball shit, that is the only justification i have for travel: consciousness blowing. aside from this, it feels too much like a bizarre colonial remnant.
primarily, people of european descent boosted by some economic benefit coming ashore for a few days, maybe a few weeks. we take pictures of the objects we see, like locals. cause they look so different and beautiful. we squander oil, go out to eat, buy water encased in plastic, consume, make waste, strut around like we know where we are, and act like we own the joint. it’s like speed colonialism. and we do all this just to know we’ve seen it. seen something; been somewhere. like that’s what we’ll care about in our last breath. well, maybe in the last few ones.
i’ve made people seriously reconsider having me as their travel companion. i tell them i’d just be a downer. i will talk about how our very presence is causing the destruction of what has supposedly awed us. i will spend most of my time thinking: why do we think we deserve to see this place? how have i earned the right to stomp loudly all over the planet? we don’t have to see everything. why has travel been rendered such a revered success? what am i doing here? i don’t belong here; it feels like cheating.
all of this spoken like someone who’s done it already, yeah? who’s doing it now. poor little rich girl. tell me about it. and like a good spoiled brat, i just don’t travel well. i always want to go home. i long for the familiar. i’m a restless nester. i hate living out of a backpack and walking around looking lost. i don’t know how to dawdle about and enjoy scenery. i’m too often underwhelmed. and i strongly, strongly dislike feeling like an uninvited house guest.