Thursday, 7 April 2011

Plaza de Bon Success: The Barca Loner makes some unlikely friends and par takes in cultural activity

I met him outside the MACBA on a sunny Wednesday afternoon. Tom was talking excitedly on the phone “yeah yeah awesome, ah wicked yeah AWWWWWWSOME.” Slight and pale with unfashionable glasses and trousers with useful side-pockets I was enjoying his enthusiasm after another painful Catalan class. I asked him for a cigarette, to which he replied, “awwwwsome, you’re English, WOW nice to meet you.” Now seeing as our shared nationality had enraptured him further in a city where there are more Irish pubs than paellas I assumed he was either highly xenophobic or new to this town. He announced proudly that he was on his gap year and was trying to start a band. “DING DONG,” I thought to myself and casually mentioned that I too had been trying to start a band since 1972. Having nothing better to do than sing bad folk with Tom with glasses I hastily picked up my guitar from home and met him in a small park, to while away the sunny hours with this sunny sunny boy.

We had not been going long when our merry duo was joined by Martin the German Anarchist. He stomped over to us head to toe in leather and slumped himself next to us. Occasionally he would contribute his own lyrics, such as “I never really liked your family anyway,” but mainly he just laughed at us and happily guzzled our beer and fags. At one point a tiny little girl with beautiful ringlets toddled up to us, mystified by the unusual goings, at which Martin shouted, “Want some beer, little boy?” Tom and I smiled apologetically at the nervous looking father and resumed our Top of the World harmonies.

I believe it was somewhere in the midst of Crocodile Rock that events took a sour turn. Martin reached over to roll another cigarette from Tom’s tobacco and, finding there to be none left, threw the empty packet at Tom’s face, slightly dislodging his glasses. “What the fuck is this man??” Tom stuttered that it appeared he had run out of tobacco. “Don’t fuck me man! You fuck me, I fuck you man!” At this he held up his fist to demonstrate the point, revealing knuckles branded with F.U.C.K. We hadn’t doubted his words for a moment, and his x-rated tattoo only confirmed our fears. We nodded vigorously in agreement, and I wished that Tom wasn’t holding my guitar at that point so I could have scarpered, leaving my new friend to whatever fate Martin prescribed, but he was, so I held my position and uttered soothing noises. After a medium sized anti monarchist rant the air seemed to be calming, and the whole episode ended in a warm embrace of the two, with Martin’s words, “You have one penis, I have one penis man,” and Tom’s reply, “I totally agree,” being the final words on the matter.

A while later, with the three of us in uneasy equilibrium,  Martin’s mates from the squat house showed up. Leading the way was Sasha(“it’s not girly it’s Russian”), a huge booming Hulk of a man with an equally enormous dog and carton of wine. “Don’t listen to what I say,” he boomed, “I’ve been drinking for...... ten years now.” Alongside Big Sasha sat Zach, a sweet young man introduced to us as the holder of the finest dreadlocks in Barcelona. He smiled modestly and shook his head muttering, “Oh, it’s nothing really,” while we were shown a dreadlock the width of Sasha’s hand. Impressive. Zach and I had much to talk about with Essex, Suffolk and Bristol connections (he was the founder of The Philosophers’ Fair phsy-trance festival in Mildenhall) and Tom tried very hard to woo the giant. Someone inquired as to the name of our whereabouts. Nobody knew exactly. “Bon Success!” boomed Sasha, “I call this, “Plaza de Bon Success”.”

Barcelona is alive with off-beat cultural activities. In just the last week I have partaken in a pillow fight flash mob, attended a recital in a squat of a man playing an African instrument made from a pumpkin and listened to an Effervescent Electronica D.J play at 9pm in a library, while everyone sat down and actually listened.

Language skills are improving, I’ve made a couple more mates and the sun is bloody shining. I call that a Bon Success.

Wednesday, 16 March 2011


The second leg of my world conquering adventures (Finblog: Barcelona), began in a haphazard, if not typical Finbow style. Having lost my mobile going through Stanstead’s super new security, then gone to gate 34 instead of 4 with 3 minutes left to take off, I had to be chaperoned silently by a rubbery  guard through all the back doors that said “staff only” until we emerged onto the runway, where  a little electrically powered bus met us and carried us round the runway directly up to the plane , the Whitney Houston classic “I will always love you”  bizarrely cutting through the awkward silence. The whole plane was clearly and unsympathetically waiting so I did that Wallace and Gromit half-grimace face and a jovial shrug and buried my face in Torso of the month.
Having thought that my little broken heart would never heal after leaving behind the white beaches and lazy daysof Cartagena, I suddenly realised that the sun also rises in Barcelona and my period of mourning has melted away into such excitement and impatience to do EVERYTHING. Where in Cartagena the people seemed to be satisfied with the very art of existing from one day to the next, here in Barcelona they seem to be jostling with one another to create something new and to not be left behind when something comes sweeping down. ..
Unlike Colombia where the sum total of my day to day activities seemed to be “having a nice time” I have been forced to do something productive in Barcelona and have enrolled at La Universitat de Barcelona to study Catalan Philology. All bar one of my classes are in Catalan, which is proving to be quite frustrating as I don’t actually speak it. At all. My Catalan language classes have only got me as far as being able to say that aubergine is my favourite vegetable and I have four of them in my kitchen, but that’s just not appropriate for debates about the true definition of literature. Imagine it, “Yes that’s an interesting point Professor, but have you ever considered that my mother is called Nina and in her free time she likes to read the newspaper and listen to the radio?” So for the hour and a half lectures I sit there quietly trying to pick out words. I’m pretty sure that they’re incredibly interesting because everyone else seems to be highly engaged, in fact in one class I could have sworn the debate was whether pornography could be defined as literature. But then again I usually emerge from the lectures with just the date written on my specially bought notepads, and maybe a picture of a stick man hanging himself with a rope made of Catalan words, so what do I know? I am also totally friendless at uni, because everyone looks at me like I’m some sort of freak, which I find ironic seeing as the majority of them have bull nose rings, impractically short fringes and fuzzy rats’ tails and wear the same sort of clothes as the kids in those GCSE French grammar books (think running trainers, too short jeans and a gaily coloured anorak). Hence: I am the Barca Loner.
I live in a 3 bedroom flat with Adrian and Meritxell, a couple of actors who sublet their spare room to students. My mum had great misgivings about the place before I looked around as the advert on the internet asked for “open minded individuals interested in the arts”, which she immediately assumed meant that they were lesbians. I use the term ‘actors’ quite loosely as I can see no evidence of them actually being on stage apart from some bizarre masks of their own faces, a mannequin in the hallway and a seemingly never ending stream of weekend guests who sit around the living room smoking through cigarette holders, listening to old French music and laughing heartily at extracts from a book about Barbara Streisand.  We seem to be coexisting quite nicely, as although Adrian is eccentric, passing the days in a marijuana haze shuffling around the flat in his pyjama bottoms, pointlessly opening and closing doors, they are kind and definitely open minded.
The most wonderful thing about my flat is that it is located in the part of the city called El Raval, that having read a book called The shadow of the wind ,made me fall in love with Barcelona. Along with other areas of the old city, it is comprised of tiny winding back allies, where you always feel like you’re being followed and that someone is waiting for you in the shadows. Catalan flags and washing hang out of windows and balconies over streets dotted with pink blossomed trees and lined with scooters. Getting lost is a standard part of life in Barcelona, even those who have lived here many years, or their whole lives merrily resign to endless back tracking or asking the shiney-toothed and slick haired policemen for directions. But losing yourself is not an unpleasant experience, because although there is the disconcerting sensation that the streets might have actually changed or somehow moved since you last came (platform 9 and ¾....) , there is always the possibility of stumbling upon somewhere new and undiscovered.
El Raval is also the skateboarding centre of Barcelona, and so the whir of wheels on pavement sends me running to the window or outside to the plaza around the MACBA to watch them doing kick-flips or 360s or whatever those sweets little tricks are. The coolest thing is that EVERYONE skates around there, not just beanie touting, baggy trouser wearing stoners, but young boys, old boys, skinny boys, chunky boys, boys wearing loafers, cowboy boots, Allstars, Nikes, wax jackets, tweed blazers, hoodies, trilbies... even girls whizz around, darting in between tourists like seals cutting through water. By far my favourite ‘skater’ I have ever seen was a small Japanese boy dressed in all the gear of a Harlem gangster, on a micro scooter, joyfully singing Bob Marley’s “Three little birds” at the top of his voice as he sent flocks of edgey pigeons scattering to the sky. I saw the same small Japanese boy about a week later with the same clothes and hearty grin, minus the micro scooter, but an absurd full moustache and beard drawn on with a black marker pen. I would like to think that this little boy is some kind of metaphor for life, riding the scooter of happiness or something, but am yet to form a coherent philosophy. Watch this space.
Although being European Barcelona is much closer culturally to England than Cartagena, there are sometimes instances in which I am shocked by the differences. I was recently in an unsuspecting bar just on the border between the nice and not quite so nice part of town, drinking a customary San Miguel with a friend when a overly boozed tramp came in. The barman firmly sent him on his way, but moments later he returned, seemingly having forgotten his recent expulsion. Again, a little firmer, the barman pushed him outside. Oblivious to his unwelcome reception, the tramp came back a third time, and this time the barman physically dragged him outside and began to push him. A scuffle began, with the barman throwing punches and waist high kicks, while an elderly lady fascist screamed encouragement and suggested alternative boxing moves. It was all kicking off. The tramp appeared to realise he was beaten and stumbled off into the shadows. But just minutes later, despite the collective groan of the clientele, the tramp with a death wish came back for one final showdown. The barman decided that enough was enough and deftly pulled out a very man sized baseball bat from under the bar. I gasped, but everyone else just shrugged knowingly as the tramp was chased outside and swung at. There was a thud and a crash and the screeching of a cat and then quiet, and the barman strolled easily back in, rolling down his sleeves. “Same again?” he asked, with a jovial smile.
I must briefly quantify the title “Barca –Loner” because although not the most popular Polly in school I would hate to give you the impression that day and night I stumble alone around this gothic city, blinded by tears and loneliness, with only the taunts of gangs to count as spoken contact with the outside world. I have in fact a couple of acquaintances, some English, some Spanish, some of indeterminable nationality,  and I sometimes get replies to those awkward friend of a friend emails which inevitably begin: “Hiya. You don’t know me but.....” Time to make some skater friends.

Wednesday, 26 January 2011

Finblog Finale: The Final Chapter

Of course everything happens suddenly when you're moving this slow...

Driving away....

Goodness Finbloggers, is that the time? How odd that a whole month has past since last we spoke. I bring you this, the final Colombia correspondence from the safety of England, literally a world away from Crazytown, on the eve of my next adventure: Finblog; Barcelona

It is bizarre relating events of the Caribbean from England, almost like talking about someone else, or as if I were making it all up. Walking through London yesterday it seemed like we were all attending some mass funeral; everyone wearing black and unwilling to catch another eye. I was told that when I returned I would burst into the pub to find everyone sat around the table in exactly the same positions as six months ago and after ten minutes of exuberant anecdotes someone would say, “Well you’ll never guess what Dave did last Friday…” And while people do seemed to be intrigued by my Colombia tales, they soon become bored of my wild eyed enthusiasm for the theme.

Juanita, Jair the dancer, Camo the photographer and some idiot with really small eyes

And so to the final events. By the end of November it had become clear that the teaching was coming to a natural end, when classes of 15 became classes of 8, and then 2, and then 0. It seemed better to end it on a high. So, I began working for El Universal, a highly esteemed broadsheet newspaper, writing captions for photos in Spanish and a blog in English for expats and English speakers; Cartagena through the eyes of an English girl, i.e. Finblog, but with less use of the word “megalolz”. I wrote from the heart, casting Cartagena in as beautiful light as I had been accustomed too. However, this inoffensive, rather bumbling blog earned me a vicious enemy. Operating under the pseudonym “Block”, an embittered Englishmen began writing essays (there are over 7000 words in total. To put that in perspective that is 3 times the length of a Bristol University 2nd year essay) of hate mail. Terrible, filthy, personal stuff, most inappropriate for a 21 year old girl on work experience. Below are a few of my personal favourites:

  • “ I found this article condescending and completely superficial. It reads as if the author is an arrogant or pretentious young adult who thinks she knows more than other people about Cartagena just from having lived there for a few months. As a gringo who lived there for almost two years total, I can say that you're almost completely full of sh#t.”
  • “ I'm curious as to what exactly qualifies you to be writing anything about Cartagena in the first place, besides the fact that you've been living there for a few months. How did you get this position? Do you actually get paid for it? Because I could offer much more pertinent and relevant insights into the costeño culture if given 5 seconds to come up with a coherent thought.”
  • “Also as a brief aside: I wouldn't let all of the compliments you are receiving from the Colombians go to your head.”

YEESH. This dude got more issues than a Ricky Lake participant. It also sparked something of an internet war between Colombian fans who were relieved that their city was finally being celebrated and this big old mental head who had far too much time on his hands. An interesting moment in my Colombian career, and definitely a test of the “sticks and stones” philosophy…

The island farm. It was nice

Far more happily, my family joined me in Cartagena for Christmas, which was a triumph in itself. I don’t know if you noticed, but apparently there was a bit of snow in England just before Christmas. A lot of snow. So much snow that it looked as if Family Fin were not going to make it. For two days I sat alone in my room singing “It’ll be lonely this Christmas” and “Have your self a merry little Christmas.” I announced to my friends that Christmas was cancelled. However, at the 11th hour a miracle was performed and at 6am on the 23rd December airports were re-opened. My family’s flight was at 7am. Christmas eve was a stunning night, with dinner at Hotel Santa Clara (the 5 star where I had done some translation work and attended the v swanky party) and then an after party in the beautiful old town house that had a pool in the living room.

No words

Now, I could bore you with lists of parties and beach and island expeditions but then I would sound like an “arrogant or pretentious young adult.” Cheers for that Block. Instead, I’ll cut to the end, to my final week and leaving party. The despedida took place on a friend’s farm on the island of Baru just off Cartagena and was to be shared with the birthday party of her husband. The place was unreal. All carpets of white wild flowers, hammocks, mango trees that at dawn looked like hands held up to high five the sun with rays splitting through each gnarled finger like sand, and frightening expanses of sea. Of course we had some home comforts: a darts board strapped a tree and an outdoor cinema scrambled from a sheet held between two trees, a projector and a lap top. Robert Downey Jnr has never looked so good. I was supposed to arrive on Friday and leave on Sunday, but Sunday came and I couldn’t leave, and then Monday came and I couldn’t leave, and then Tuesday morning, and then Tuesday afternoon and the realisation that my flight was the next day and I was yet to pack. The Saturday was the main party night, with about 20 friends showing up. As a surprise for the birthday boy (yes you still are the birthday boy at 41) I had devised with 2 dancers a sort of “show”; I was to walk down to the beach and the congregated party through a path of candles playing MGMT’s Kids on my little guitar, and once settled, Jeff Buckley’s Hallelujah, while the boys performed a choreographed dance. On paper, it sounds horrible and cheesey and brassy, but on the night, through the moonlight and sound of the lapping sea, it was magical, and I finished shaking, as if tectonic plates in my chest had just moved a little. The rest of the night was full of beauty and creativity and a surreal celebration of the friends I had made.
On Tuesday when I finally left, on the back of a motorbike along the dirt track to the ferry I imagined I was in Ernesto in The Motorcycle Diaries, leaving behind a seemingly unthinkable world to the dust.

Outdoor darts

Goodbyes were very, very painful, and I cried for 4 hours of the flight back home. Embarrassed onlookers kept asking me what I needed and I repeatedly gasped that I was just very sad. But how far I have come, and what a lot I have learned. I have lived alone, learnt some Spanish, made many many beautiful friends who have taught me everything that they could, survived a robbery, fallen in love, out of love, in love, sang a lot, danced some more, grazed my knees and brushed them off. What on earth will happen in Barcelona?

Birthday boy Javy and Albert the dancer

Finblog Colomblog; over and out.

Tuesday, 7 December 2010

FinBOGOTA- your city is MINE yo'

It's me, and the Colombian flag

I have really, really enjoyed sitting astride my high-language-horse for the last few months, earnestly remarking to other 3rd year language students that I have “really grown, linguistically” and that I feel “so alive, culturally” as a result of not counting a single native English speaker amongst my friends. I have advised friends in places where British students flock to, like Paris, to “break out of that bubble” and Bristol (oops, Buenos) Aires, to join interpretational finger poetry societies, in search of an authentic foreign experience like mine. How smug I was. How very, very smug. However, there comes a time in any smuggins’ life when what was originally a source of pride and self-satisfaction becomes a source of jealousy and frustration. Three months in, and I wanted to use Kerry Katona as a cultural reference point, I wanted to not have to defend GREAT British cuisine like baked beans, I wanted to discuss the new series of the Inbetweeners with someone who realised that the funniest part wasn’t when he fell naked off the boat, but the part when he got ID’ed in the underage pub, and I wanted to stop feeling like Mark in Peepshow when he goes to the Rainbow Rhythms dance class and chants to himself “I’m Louis Theroux. I’m Louis bloody Theroux”. I needed a wingman, someone to explain to me the various baffling cultural differences, someone with whom to test the hair-gel vs fertility correlation, someone who would understand my pathetic mockney accent and vague attempts at cockney rhyming slang (you wouldn’t Adam and Eve it...), and the only one I knew to be residing within an 1000 mile radius (but what a wingman at that) was  residing in Bogota. And so to the big city and into the arms of my wingman, Lucy Williams...
Bogota is either an overnight bus ride away or an hour long flight, and being a child of the instant gratification society, I chose the latter. Amusingly, on entry to any Colombian airport, you are greeted with the slogan “Colombia: the only risk is wanting to stay.” Although yes, indeed, I find myself somehow inextricably attached to this country and will find it very difficult to leave, the phrase isn’t strictly true, as I haven’t met a single foreigner here (myself included) who has not been victim or witness to a violent crime.  It’s a nice touch though.

Bogota as a city is a different world to Cartagena. Climatically, it is eternal winter as opposed to eternal summer, it is about 5 times the size, much more “big city”, the population is noticeably indigenous rather than black, and it has a much more menacing feeling, as if it is perpetually on the point of snapping into bloody disorder. Every street corner is guarded by a heavily armed bruiser of a policeman accompanied by a muzzled Rottweiler, one of which I witnessed unleashed on a fleeing thief with disturbing consequences.

Saying that, Bogota has a buzz that Cartagena lacks, a constant feeling of excitement and electricity, with people always searching for something new and thrilling. The shambolic streets are lined with explosive graffiti and witty statues ( like little men fishing bananas of roof-tops), restaurants of every imaginable food and theatres and art galleries. I easily passed an entire afternoon in the hugely impressive MAMBO (Museo de Arte Bogota), and only left in fact after Lucy noisily damaged a priceless piece of instalment art.
This was one witty statue

Where Cartagena is glam and jet set (dare I say it....tacky?) , Bogota is cool, sort of Mayfair versus East London. On the Thursday night of my week there, I went to a very cool party. Very very cool. I didn’t act very cool though. I never do...

Hey Lil Chris you're a long way from Lowestoft!
A friend of mine who works in PR had been invited to some party thrown by Adidas and told me that if I told the doorman that I was a guest of the photographer I would get in. It seemed dubious, and I had been given no details of what the party exactly was, but was sold on the point of free hamburgers and whiskey. I love free stuff.  Lucy and I were taken aback when the taxi driver delivered us to a multi storey car park, and were even more surprised when we saw the queue to enter was several hundred meters long. The queue was comprised of ambivalent looking hipsters with something retro round their neck (name that quote....),  gay boys in girls’ jeans and condescending knitted brows, and stripey shirted loafer wearing preppy sons of the Colombian ruling class (their body guards kept a respectful distance). Lucy looked at me doubtfully, but I was filled with resolve to get into the party. I marched to the front of the queue and angrily declared to the bouncer that I was a guest of “the photographer”. I thought somehow being British and angry would work in my favour. The bouncer calmly pointed to the press entrance. I stomped away, dragging Lucy behind me. The next bouncer asked me who I was as I tried to push past him, as if it were an insult he might be asking such a petulant question. I sighed and repeated that I was a guest of “the photographer”. “The photographer?” “Yes THE PHOTOGRAPHER”. “Which photographer?” “I’M A GUEST OF THE PHOTOGRPAHER” “OH the photographer! Go straight on through.” I couldn’t believe it, we’d just beaten the toughest security in South America, by repeating a meaningless word and looking pissed off. A woman fastened on our wristbands and I was almost stumped by her question, “ so what magazine are you from?”. “the photographer?” I suggested. I felt like Hugh Grant in Nottinghill claiming to be from Horse and Hound, but the woman nodded and pushed us through, indicating the top floor.  
Skipping Competition.....idiots.

Round and round a spiral ramp we climbed, almost disbelieving that a party could be taking place in such an industrial venue. However, it was worth the climb when we arrived at the top floor, and entered The Adidas Originals Street Party. The whole level had been converted into a sort of urban wonderland, with graffitied walls, skate ramps, burnt out cars, street signs, phone booths, swings, hot dog vendors and a basketball court. BMX riders pedalled around, a skipping rope contest was in full swing, afro’ed b-boys threw shapes on the car and giant basketball players slam-dunked (I think that’s how you say it). The DJ was playing electro and techno tunes I hadn’t heard since leaving Bristol, pumping through the crowd more powerfully than the whiskey that was flowing like water. I was over the moon, and very, very overexcited. I darted around like a minnow on speed, noisily exclaiming my enthusiasm, while the rest of the crowd mooched nonchalantly against one another. I was in heaven, almost every single male had a moustache! The crowd was a sea of trilbies and half shaven heads, and geek glasses perched on disapproving noses. How was this possible in Colombia? This was more Brixton than Bogota, but I liked it. The whiskey and excitement overcame me, and suddenly I was riding a racing bike without brakes at break neck (it felt break neck, it probably wasn’t) speed around the floor. Over the course of the night I bumped into an old friend from school who I hadn’t seen for 3 years, who kindly invited Lucy and I to get some food with him and his friends at about 4am. Conveniently he had an armoured 4 x 4 and several body guards, which was reassuring as I happily squirted ketchup over myself. No, it doesn’t make any sense, but it didn’t at the time, so let it be....

I call this one "Culture"

Colombia is an undeniably erudite, urbane and sophisticated country; however there are instances which lead me to doubt its dedication to high culture. While there is plenty to keep one entertained in the city, I have a slight suspicion that rather than cultivating cultural richness, the aim of events here is basically just another excuse for a party. Take the opening of an art exhibition, “Faces of Colombia”, with purely Colombian artists presenting their view of their country. I was interested to see how Colombia would be presented by different races. No one else was. The view of the paintings was blocked by people swigging down the free bad wine, and every time a waiter emerged with a tray of meatballs there was a stampede towards him as the guests shamelessly grabbed from all angles. None of the English “After you,” “No, after you,” “No, I insist, after you,” “No I really must insist, after you.....” Paintings and the elderly were elbowed out of the way and knocked down, and I realised that I looked like a bit of an idiot actually trying to look at the paintings, so I took my meatballs, and left.
My second experience of culture that week fell on the next day, a poetry gala to commemorate the end of a weeklong festival of poetry. Having had the opportunity to sit in on the various poets being interviewed in my job in the culture section of the city’s main broadsheet newspaper El Universal, I was reasonably excited for the reading. I had been moved by some of their responses: poetry as confession, the fear of running out of words, blablabla, and hoped these sentiments would be echoed in the poems.
The evening started badly when, having decided to attend the gala alone (I say “decided”, I mean that no one wanted to go with me) I was approached by a rodenty young man clutching a notepad. In one of those unfortunately nasal and monatonal voices, he told me that he had seen me at the art exhibition the day before, and proceeded to ask the normal questions of what I was doing in Colombia, if I was married, how many children I had etc. Suddenly he began furiously scribbling on the notepad and then triumphantly tore a page off and handed it to me, staring at me expressionlessly. I was baffled. What he presented me with was a sort of home made contact card, with all his important details, but surrounded by a very badly drawn picture of some trees in the rain. Due to his lack of expression, I was unsure of how to react and so waited for him to make the next move. “See, I drew you a picture,” he said, robotically, “It’s just something a do. I’m always playing the clown.” He then shook his shoulders up and down as if convulsing with laughter, but with his face still fixed in an unreadable grimace. Abruptly, the shoulder shaking stopped and he asked me if I wanted to go to a talk on oil refining with him, because he finds oil refining really interesting. I laughed heartily and walked firmly away.
I was not perturbed by the fact that gala started an hour and a half late. My English sense of punctuality has gradually evaporated, so this was to be expected. What did irritate me though was the opening of the gala: a short film some moron had made. It was a terrible film and the first 3 minutes were shown 4 times as it kept skipping to the beginning. The closing scene portrayed a baby crawling along the ground to the music from Chariots of Fire. It was meant neither in irony nor jest, and the large crowd in the theatre summararily ignored the film and continued talking amongst themselves.
Finally, the poetry began. It opened with a young Mexican poet, who I knew would be incorporating both singing and the flute into her poetry. It was horrible. Just horrible. The words were rubbish, something like, “motivate yourself, we all learn together,” the flute element of the equation had neither rhythm nor melody, and her “singing” could have been from one of those X Factor auditions that makes the front page of The Sun. Horrible. She finished and stomped of looking pleased with herself. Poet number two was somehow worse. He was clearly very nervous, and with shaking hands proceeded to read his set of poems at a locomotive shout, neither looking up from his sweaty little piece of paper nor drawing breath, nor pausing in between poems. It was a constant stream of assault until seemingly out of nowhere he shouted “GRACIAS!” and sat down. Sweaty men and timid women and a Slovenian hermaphrodite took to the stage, interestingly reciting her poetry in Slovene, (which I can confidently say that no one understood,) while the ambivalent audience continued to talk amongst themselves. At one point the man next to me stood up and yelled “MARICA!” at a friend at the front (marica is Colombian slang for gay). This is not what I had expected.
My discomfort reached fever pitch when a stout, hairy little woman took to the stage. Her dress was stained, her armpits unkempt and her expression petulant. Feminist. I took a deep breath and mentally strapped myself in whatever gauntlet she would lay down. I wasn’t ready for the attack. “MI CLITORIS”, she bellowed. A 15 minute anatomical ode followed. Once again, I left, somewhat disillusioned with the Cartagena cultural scene.

Yesterday the city was brought to a halt by 18 street blockades by protesting taxi drivers. The day before, 2 taxi drivers were simultaneously murdered, shot for the 50 odd quid they would have had on them. So the taxi drivers shut down the city to beg for their safety. In England when there are strikes on the public transport it’s about money, or longer holidays. Here they’re just asking to not get shot. Just a thought.

Sunday, 5 December 2010

Bit of music for yall

I just got back from seeing this band Bomba Estereo play in a free open air concert in the old city. They're from Baranquilla which is a town about an hour away from Cartagena, but this song, La Boquilla, is about a part of Cartagena which has the best beaches, and is populated by a surreal mix of the very, very rich and afro-colombians. During this song the singer (who dances more energetically than me, can you adam and eve it?) invited people to dance Champeta (african influenced music native to Cartagena) on stage with her. It was awesome, all this little kids and afro'ed dudes shaking their booties on stage, some of the girls move their hips so fast they seem to be vibrating. Also listen to Bomba Estereo - Fuego, the crowd went NUTS.

La Boquilla

Wednesday, 17 November 2010

Where did all the sane people go? Las Fiestas de Noviembre

Colombians do not like to work much. Pass by an average Cartagena house at any time mid-week and you will just about make out through the cigarette smoke and dust, the hazey outline of an entire family, just hanging out in the front room, smoking a fag, bad vallenato (popular Colombian music which favours the accordion over any more reasonable instrument) blaring through a crackling radio, the men with their vests rolled up over their bare bellies and the children naked, sticky with sweat under a useless ceiling fan. This is from a typical week in Cartagena. But what has just passed was no typical week. My tongue is yellow, my feet cracked and blistered, my toes broken, my arms bruised, my face spotted and my vision blurred. I have survived Las Fiestas de Noviembre.
As I have tried to communicate, Cartagena searches for any excuse to not work and just throw a big old party instead. The whole city grinds to a halt for an entire week to celebrate its independence day and host the finals of the incredibly important Miss Colombia beauty pageant. There are parades through the streets and on the water, catwalks, balls, concerts, drinks parties and DJs, every day and every night. Imagine Kate Moss doing Freshers’ Week in the Caribbean, sponsored by HELLO!, and soaked in whiskey, via Nottinghill Carnival on half the budget and twice the crowd.  In the words of the great Stevie Gerrard, here’s my story.....

Hotel Santa Clara. I work here. YERRRRRRR

My week actually began in tranquil luxury as I was commissioned to translate the gourmet menu and spa price list of the top 5 star hotel in Cartagena. I proceeded  to pass two days with coffee and chocolate on tap, loafing in the lounge bar, occasionally tap-tap-tapping on a lap top, trying to find appropriate translations for exotic Colombian fish. The prize:  lunch and massage at the hotel, plus THE golden ticket of the week: an invitation to La Fiesta Con Mas Estilo, the party thrown by Caras the South American equivalent of Hello!, where all the great and good of Cartagena, plus soap stars, singers and designers all clamour to get their ticket. I was Charlie on the way to the chocolate factory and I was going to find me a golden egg laying goose.
We are sailing....

I am sailing...

Wednesday began in equal tranquillity, as a friend took advantage of the time off work to take me out in his yacht to the nearby island of Baru, a paradise of white sand, coral and palm trees where the wealthy come to escape the claustrophobia of Cartagena. On the city beaches it is impossible to pass 30 seconds without someone trying to sell you a plastic necklace, a massage or, anything else really (I once encountered a man who first offered me a parrot, then a broken shoelace, and then a tyre. I declined all three, although was mildly interested in the shoelace.) But here it was pure silence, and I truly felt like I was in the Caribbean, mon.
However, on returning to the city at night fall, things started to accelerate at a dizzying rate. A Canadian DJ had arrived not speaking a word of Spanish and my delicate translation skills were urgently needed. When I found the man in a bar, he was very, very drunk, and was trying to tell a hat seller that his hats were stupid. The seller misunderstood and was proceeding to put them one by one on the Canadian’s head, at which point he would slap them away, like a child might swat away his mother’s attempt at brushing his hair. I intercepted at the crucial moment and led the bemused man away, with promises of more whiskey. In true Cartagena style, the night rapidly spiralled out of control, and before I knew it I was outside a salsa bar accepting an invitation to an after party, and then suddenly I was dancing on a table to Florence and the Machine, swearing blindly that she was my sister (soz Grace......) and that she was coming to see my in December and would throw a concert and they were all invited, and then suddenly I was on the floor, having smashed through the table. Wow, I thought, this is embarrassing. It got even more embarrassing when I awoke in the same position the next morning, amongst the ruins of the table, to see a group of civilised 40 somethings eating breakfast around a dining room table. I bade my farewells and scuttled out, high heels in hand, the door-man giving me an irritatingly cheeky grin.
Watching El Bando from the roof. We're all friends here. You've got the love....
Thursday.... A feeling of great dread had swallowed me into its dark underbelly, and I vowed never to leave my room. But then my phone rang, and a friend invited me to come and watch El Bando with her. El Bando is the parade through the main avenue of the city, with music, floats, horns, spray foam and general tomfoolery. Although many had warned me not to go to this because of it being super dangerous, I thought as a seasoned Nottinghill attendee I could handle it. But walking through the city centre towards the avenue I felt sick with fear, as the poorer kids covered themselves with thick black oil and held cups of piss threateningly towards you, daring you not to give them change. I must have spent about $15 000 COP in keeping these madmen away, but it was money well spent as we watched one poor woman who failed to pay the tax covered in piss and black, burning oil. All in the name of fun..... We finally reached the house of a friend of my friend, from where we would watch the parade from the rooftop pool, and a strange feeling of déjà vu began to drip down from between my ears down to my toes. I know this house..... I know that doorman...... OH GOD. Yes, I was back at that same house from the night before. I swear these things only happen to me.... However, there is a reason why there is no word for “awkward” in the Colombian dictionary, and they greeted me like an old friend. We watched the madness below from the safety of the rooftop, big black men dressed as babies, girls being arrested for donning military kit, drunken brawls, and as night fell and the frothing masses went home, we sat in a hot tub and discussed the attributes of each potential Miss Colombia.
La Fiesta Con Mas Estilo
Friday.... El Bando was on again today, but I had had more than enough if it. Today was special. Today was the day of La Fiesta Con Mas Estilo! I declined a VIP sunset drinks party thrown by Peroni (darling) and instead set to work on my animalistic hair. So, it ended up more Fimbles than Faboosh (a word I have learnt from Alvi –see older posts) but I was geared up and ready to go. I had been leant a beautiful dress (strictly long dresses only) and taught the correct way to hold a clutch bag (by Alvi) and suddenly we were outside the party. Red carpet, paparazzi, people clamouring for autographs, I was in HEAVEN. I LOVE CELEBRITIES. Inside the party, my friends were visibly embarrassed as I gawked around with mouth wide open uttering “ER...WOW”  at every corner, while they mooched disdainfully. I grabbed handfuls of sushi and bite sized cakes, a couple of glasses o’vodka and I was away, just drinking in the luxury of the event, occasionally knowing someone, but generally not. However, as has been the way in Cartagena for the last month, the heavens opened, soaking all the pretty little ladies and the men dressed in white. Everyone ran towards the chapel, where the rather sweet gay P.R. (quote: “What are my religious views? Honey, I believe in MYSELF”. Love ‘im) was begging a famous designer to remove herself from the altar. In the midst of the madness, a strong hand grabbed my shoulder and told me it was time to go. It was in fact a friend Beatriz, whose husband was about to DJ at some other terrace party. “Got to run darling, Javi’s playing at Kiki’s.” Too much. Waaaaaay too much. Said terrace party was much more fun, if marginally less glamouous, and we danced badly until far past our bed time.
Me all suited and booted and the like

Admiring Alvi
Saturday....  I didn’t feel very well on Saturday. Not well at all. It had been several days since I had got to bed before sunrise and I wasn’t sure I could cope. There were more parades and catwalks for Miss Colombia that day, but I was ambivalent, encased in a friend’s house with the equivalent of KFC. Day turned to night, the city was firing itself up. Tonight, the equally notorious Jet Set White Party, where I would be accompanying Alvi as his “date”.  We strutted in, looking faboosh. More free food, more free booze, more hopelessly glamorous women with impossibly sleek hair and great boobjobs. An excited buzz descended on the crowd as the highlight of the night arrived, the Señorita Colombias (the Miss Colombia finalists) entered the room. While the majority of the crowd whistled and shouted words of encouragement to their respective Reina, a drunken friend of mine with just a rudimentary grasp of the English language abrasively yelled “GIVE ME ONE. I SAID GIVE ME ONNNNNNNE!” She appeared to be confusing the expression “give me five”. It slightly lowered the tone of the occasion. I however, clapped with glee and danced the night away, trying to get into photos with the baffled beauty queens.
Senorita Bolivar in motion, giving me one
Sunday and Monday, more parties, more pain, the selection of Miss Colombia, and the city had had enough. Tuesday, and the streets were beginning to gain a salience of normality. In a week of such hedonism and debauchery it is hard to lose sight of what is the real Colombia. But then on the way to buy some food I stumbled across this: a group of teenagers practising vallenato in a supermarket car park. I apologise that the video is not of great quality, but I walked away smiling as I finally remembered where I was. Freshers’ week was over.