Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Made in Medellin

Colombia is famous...or infamous...for many things. The FARC and drug trafficking are two subjects that often come to mind. However, my month and a half here has confirmed what I already believed before leaving the US: that Colombia is turning around. A couple of weeks ago I met the head of security for all American armed forces in Colombia, and according to him, only a few years ago cities such as Medellin were still largely unsecured. Today that has changed.

Medellin is known most widely as the birthplace and burial place of Pablo Escobar. For those of us who are not loyal fans of HBO's Entourage, or who think that Vinny Chase's bloody portrayal of SeƱor Escobar may not be entirely accurate, Pablo Escobar is Colombia's most famous drug lord. At one point it is said that his Medellin cartel controlled 80% of cocaine shipped to the United States. This feat helped land him on Forbes Magazine's 1989 list of the 10 richest men in the world. The drug lord/billionaire even had the audacity to visit the White House at the time he was one of the most wanted men in the world. In his biography, there's a picture of him standing with his son in front of the White House lawn. Unfortunately, life tends to be rather nasty, brutish, and short for drug lords, and Escobar was no exception. He died in 1993.

All interest in drug cartels and the US government aside, my friends and I did not go to Medellin for the Pablo Escobar tour. We were going for La Feria de las Flores. After all, more than cocaine is made in Medellin.

La Feria de las Flores is a two-week long celebration guessed! Historically Medellin was a flower mecca; peasants from the surrounding mountains would decend to the city carrying flowers on giant woven circles attached to their backs. At the flower parade we went to on Friday, puppets of hummingbirds, flower beauty queens, and people carrying flower displays on their backs paraded slowly past us. I couldn't help thinking how few men I knew in the United States who would willingly adorn themselves with bright pink tulips and go out in public. A city that devotes two whole weeks to a celebration entirely about flowers? You had me at 'hydrangea.'

That night my friends and I met up with other members of AIESEC in Medellin. They told us we were going on a Chiva Tour. A Chiva Tour is basically a Colombian version of a party bus. Directions for proper Chiva Tour: take roughly 6 dozen twentysomethings and put them on what looks like an overgrown schoolbus with no seats. Add alcohol and filter in very loud latin music. Start driving. Voila - chaos, shaken, not stirred.

Saturday and Sunday passed by in an instant. We shopped, we ate delicious food, we walked around the botanical garden exhibition and saw beautiful flowers and handicrafts,

we rode the cable car up the hill to watch the sun set,

went to the Botero museum, and of course we took advantage of Medellin's very active nightlife.

Unfortunately the bus coming back to Cartagena took 14 hours instead of 12, and we were a little late to class on Monday morning. Our boss wasn't too pleased, but we'll know better for next time. Lessons learned this weekend? Medellin is an amazing city, absolutely anything can be decorated with flowers, and when in doubt, take the 10:30 bus. I can't wait to go back.

Monday, August 3, 2009

L'Auberge Espagnole

In the movie L'Auberge Espagnole, a French engineering student named Xavier goes to study for a year in Barcelona. He moves into a cluttered and chaotic house of Europeans. They speak a hodge-podge of different languages and constantly get in each other's way, fall in love, and then annoy each other. At times it all seems rather dramatic. Then again, this is all just part of the learning/growing/travel experience, n'est pas?

Here in Cartagena, life often feels a bit like L'Auberge Espagnole. I am the only American in my program, and am constantly surrounded by either Europeans or Colombians. We have people from Russia, Ukraine, Poland, the Czech Republic, Germany, Canada, and the US. The girls from England and Slovenia left right after I arrived here. Everyone speaks English, Spanish, or both, so communication isn't really a problem at all. That being said, some cultural exchanges will always inevitably be lost in translation.

I was talking to my roomate Anezka the other night. She said what I thought was, "I want to buy some yearbooks."
I knew this probably couldn't be what she meant, so I asked, "Yearbooks, really?"
"No, no, ear blocks."
"Ohhhh...ear plugs."
"Yes, that is what I said."
Main bien sur.

Thomas is another exchange participant whom I adore. Like Anezka, he hails from the Czech Republic. One time in a cab, I was commenting on the fact that I was getting annoyed at people who kept telling me I had to go to the beach to work on my tan.
"Ah, yes," said Thomas. "You are like...what is her name...? Snow White."
"Haha, yeup," I said.
"And here in Cartagena, you are going to find your seven dwarves."

It's true that most Colombian men tend to be on the shorter side, but the idea of seven Colombian dwarves following me around singing 'hi ho, hi ho, hi ho,' was absolutely riduclous...and hilarious. In another episode of 'Thoughts: By Thomas,' we went to a restaurant for lunch, and Thomas was remarking on the design of the placemat. The design was an abstract graphic of a woman with a large afro and various shapes and musical instruments coming out of her hair. Thomas asked, "What are all these things coming out of her hair? It looks very dirty. She should really use Head and Shoulders." He was kidding, but for some reason these comments strike me as ten times funnier when they come from non-native speakers.

Here all languages seem to mix up a little bit more every day. Last week Anezka taught me a Czech drinking song. I can greet people in Russian and Polish. I needed to consult the Colombian teachers today on how to explain English grammar, because I didn't know the rules for when to use a negative in a certain construction. Pretty soon I'll have to read 'Gramatica de Ingles por Dummies,' which is sitting in the office of Centro Colombo, where I teach. Life here is definitely an unusual hodge-podge, and if I begin to start forgetting English a bit...well...that's okay with me.