A year seemed like a good chunk of time. A chunky chunk. One not to be looked over like six months. Skinny, wishful ‘six months,’ who talked a lot, but who nobody really took seriously.
Well it was only 11 months really. But it was a faraway place and that was the most important part of it all.
In a world where everything seemed to me it had been done before. You could barely conjure an idea without some smug pair of lips babbling how they spent a year doing that very ludicrous thing when they were 22 and had left a long-term relationship.
“While I was living in Nicaragua I was taken in by a one legged healer and his wife. We ate nothing but tomalis and I didn’t check my Facebook for months, that’s right months, at a time. It was a really hard time in my life, and it’s changed me for the better.”
Oh shut it.
It seemed to me at times I had been born too late. We knew it all, we’d tried it all. We had investigated the magic of everything so thoroughly that we had scientifically gotten to the bottom of it. And that is the indisputable best way to kill magic.
Burke and Wills had had the life. Underprepared, unguided; setting into the great unknown to die with urine in their bellies and lips blistered into bubbles like the fine, lifting skin of a dead lizard, swollen under the Australian sun.
Enshrined forever in the glorious doom of the true adventurer.
Now you had to go to more and more extremes to touch foot on virgin trails. You had to buy a motorbike and drive backwards through continents on one wheel, or sell your house on Ebay and move to places nobody had heard of.
Once I read somewhere, “you don’t have to move to India to find yourself.”
I tried to live by this for a little while. Tried to look inside myself, straight through the freckled skin of my chest, past the throbbing little veins that shot blood throughout me, deeper than the clockwork physical, to focus my eyes to persistent green slits and stare into the existential soul of myself.
But in the end it didn’t work, and I decided that maybe I did have to move to India. Only the rapes in India made me cry, and instead of the spiritual heart of that country and stunning landscapes, I thought only of hurt women holding their knees. And my childhood longing to visit evaporated. Poof. Into the Queensland sky.
I decided on Colombia instead, the second friendliest country I had visited.
But I was not a fool. I knew this move alone wouldn’t quiet the mind that whirred at night, a million miles an hour like a plastic windmill stuck in a chain-mail fence. Spinning in glinting pinks and silvers, all that energy expended, yet going nowhere.
I had to do something, I had to challenge myself. With a language, with a culture, with new work and foods and people. But I also had to allow for internal mechanics to loosen, to reform, to rust and take on a new beauty.
I had figured out, finally, a small truth. And it had only taken me 27 years.
It was helped along, as always, by the words of Mary Oliver.
“You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.”
I had only to let my energy unfold. Slow as a green fern unfurling. Gentle and fresh and probing. Or bold as a buffalo calf kicking its way free of the birth sack, and into the arid, dangerous world of the African plains.
I had only to let it be. My will was strong, but my harmony needed the room to move, the chance to stretch out, test itself and perch, balanced, at its rightful equilibrium.
Part letting it be. Part letting conscious decisions guide your trajectory.
Existentialism: “A philosophical theory or approach that emphasises the existence of the individual person as a free and responsible agent determining their own development through acts of the will.”
I crept quietly from my dorm room, the other girls curled in sleep like kittens.
Shoes in hand, I met Laas in the foyer for our 5km run, circumventing the ancient walled city of Cartagena; Centro Historico.
A well-built running partner in South America was a bonus, just in case someone fancied your Ipod.
Past fairytale scenes. Pink bougainvillea sprouting from mint-green walls, yellow-washed balconies with sea-blue trimmings. Dark skinned locals in hip-hugging pants chatted as the neighbourhood woke.
No wonder this was the romantic city. Everything within Cartagena’s old walls was beautiful. The doors were from Colonial times, huge and full of stories.
As my sneakers pounded the brickwork I pictured the Spanish invaders, resplendent in red and gold threads, trotting their carriages in through the thick wooden doors, turning in the spacious interior courtyard, the horses steaming heavily in the humidity.
“You set the tempo,” came Laas’ Denmark accent, breaking my reverie.
‘Get ready to crawl,’ I thought.
We kept up a pretty good pace. It was too early for the pony-drawn carriages that now pulled tourists through the pretty streets, and too early for the barrage of taxis.
The ornate doorknockers looked down at us. Lions, iguanas, a fish king, even a cockatoo.
We picked up the pace, jogging through an opening in the historic wall, out to the morning buzz of traffic; Cartagena was yawning.
Past a park; a man stretched out on his couch, looking across the sea, and tightened the scrap of rope he used as a belt. Another man rifled through an industrial bin. The stench of urine signalled the bedroom of the homeless.
Little waves crashed against the sea wall and palm trees flapped lazily. I looked with disbelief at my new home for a year. Yeah there was highway, but there was also an ancient fortress wall….and a beach.
A breeze cooled my neck (a small miracle in Cartagena I am told). This isn’t so bad I thought, just as The Fleet Foxes sung in my ear… lyrics about a wall.
Under the yawning canopy of fig trees, dark green and glossy. Here the morning was in full swing. It was 6.45am and already the plantain (big bananas) were being deep fried in heart-stopping oil.
The recarga (mobile phone credit) vendors were in their usual spots, surveying all with their usual disdain. The ceviche vendors were still tucked in bed somewhere, no doubt with a fan going full bore.
There was still a slight choke of car fumes, even at this hour, and it made me miss my morning beach runs on Mooloolaba’s white sands. We truly are spoilt in Australia.
We cut back away from the ocean, away from that sea breeze.
As we rounded what I hoped was the final corner of the wall I held four fingers up hopefully in Laas’ direction.
With a laugh he shook his head and signalled we’d only done 3km. The humidity crept over me like an unwanted friend. Holy hell…..what’s it like to run here at 8am!
That night I met up with met a friend for a cerveza (beer) in the square beside the famous clock tower.
He was a Colombian gent from Cali (1.5hrs flight south of Cartagena) and worked around Colombia as a tour guide. We sipped and people-watched as he spilled the beans on the city’s secrets.
“That square is where the slaves were auctioned,” he said.
“And this square here is known as the one of prostitution.”
It wasn’t long before I saw he was right. Groups of women, subtle in their twos or threes, had begun cutting slow and deliberate laps around the packed square.
I had read about the troubling prostitution situation of Cartagena; women who needed the money, drawn to the tourist honeypot of the Old Town.
This report by the always on-the-pulse Vice.com, highlights the sad reality of underage exploitation in Cartagena. Bound to happen in the playground of rich foreigners.
It was an interesting place. Inside the historic walls people whipped out smartphones for selfies, motorbike taxis were banned from entry – to stop drive by handbag thefts- and there was an atmosphere of charm and frivolity.
Outside the walls the feeling changed. Life became real again, the buses were hot and crowded, and many lived life in slums, oblivious to the cavorting within the walls.
In my five days in the city I’d seen little of Cartagena’s other faces, save a hot one-hour bus back from one of the furthest centres where volunteers taught English.
I’d also ventured into a Centro Commericial (small street mall) for the worst haircut of my life.
There were no airs and graces. The lady begrudgingly cut my already short hair, complaining the whole time in Spanish that if she cut anymore off I would be bald.
I knew South Americans preferred long hair but I reminded her through gritted teeth that it was my hair, not hers. She grew increasingly annoyed. At one point I had to take the scissors out of her hand and demonstrate how to thin a fringe.
She was clearly used to trimming the end from Repunzel locks and calling it a day.
“I’m going to charge her 20 for bothering me so much,” she said in Spanish.
My friend translated and I was sure to fish out the exact (agreed upon) price of 15,000 for the hack-fest.
Despite the gringos in the old city I liked how there were also so many costeños. They occupied amazing ground level apartments behind bright yellow, orange or blue painted walls.
In the afternoons costeños cranked up their music, the heady beats of regaeton, cumbia and salsa spinning out into the afternoon heat. They sat out in plastic chairs, the old men often airing their bellies, and threw back tiny espresso shots of tinto.
There was a real energy in this city. I was excited for the year ahead.
If only rent wasn’t so damn expensive.
The Scratchy Side of the States
“Some of the centres you’ll be teaching in will have no resources, so I suggest you bring as much material as you can fit in your luggage.”
These were the scary words of our coordinator for the teaching English program.
‘Great!’ I thought, visions of myself with a half-stick of chalk staring back at a blank class of 30 university students. Gulp!
Three op-shops later I set off to sneak my way through airport baggage weigh-ins, approximately 3kgs overweight with books.
In the blur of small talk, security checkpoints and bad food that is travel I hit my first stroke of fortune……
I was merrily walking around Los Angeles airport, killing time, when a security officer came up to me.
“Are you Lisa?”
“Ah…yeah…how did you know that?”
“Are you missing a laptop?”
To my great luck, the security team had opened the forgotten laptop at the end of the x-ray conveyer belt to discover my spare ream of passport photos.
“My boss said to just go find you,” the grinning security officer said.
She marched me back to security like a trophy.
“How good am I!” she yelled to a team of about seven, who all turned and gave a shout of hooray. How embarrassing.
THANK YOU Los Angeles security people! I wouldn’t be typing this blog without you.
That night I stayed in the tackiest place I have ever been (and I’ve travelled South-East Asia!).
It was called, ironically, Backpackers Paradise, located in dodgy old Inglewood, a suburb not far from the airport.
Tubes of party lights wrapped to the top of palm trees, there was an Egyptian gift shop on one side (the owner told me I’d be worth 100 camels in the old trading), little tables clustered around while people smoked doobs or had pointless arguments about topics they didn’t really know that much about.
The swimming pool reflected back the whole depressing scene.
I chose it for the free airport shuttle and free shuttle to LA’s best beaches. It was just a bed for a night after all.
It was about 11pm. Rude receptionists (“I just wanna get home and watch my shows” “Did you hear what he was telling her that night!?” “Here’s your key…anyway”), a free glass of champagne (gross pink stuff) upon check in, and a room including three women who lived there permanently.
The bartender finished an argument with her boyfriend on the phone before she got around to serving me. She was from Slovenia and a toilet-installer from South Carolina and I spent the next while teaching her words like ‘rekindled’- you need to rekindle your love with you man- and ‘disposition’ – you have a very saucy disposition.
Everyone I met at that place was bizarre. Most of them lived or worked there. I couldn’t wrap my head around this scene being a daily sight.
A guy named Robert walked past with a coke-can bong.
“You’ve gotta watch ya’self round him,” said the toilet-installer.
“I’ll probably be gone in the morning before you’re up, guess I’ll never see you again.”
“Guess not,” I said, wondering what the point of that statement was.
“Yeah I’m from the south,” he continued, as though we’d been talking about it.
“Just a regular old redneck. My work takes me everywhere though, everyone needs a toilet!”
When I walked down the street to buy an adaptor the next day guys yelled “Ooh look what just got in! How you doin? Looking good.”
I replied automatically then stopped very quickly.
The ladies I passed were all nice, and said hello, beaming from under cornrows and buoyant fringes.
Still, I’m glad I stayed there. It showed me a very different side of America to the one I’d seen as a tourist three months ago. This was the side Obama tried to fight for with his healthcare legislation. And boy did it need it.
Cleveland the Cricket Loving Jamaican
On my flight to Bogota I had the pleasure of sitting beside an elderly Jamaican gent.
He was a real gent. He helped pass my stuff across the seat, had a chequered kerchief in his pocket, and tipped his hat and said “shpank-you!” with a hearty laugh whenever he cracked a joke.
Cool frames, a leather cap and the refined manner of an educated man.
“Australia. Now there was a guy killed there from a cricket ball to the throat right?”
“Oh you mean Phil Hughes. To the back of the head while batting, very sad, the whole country was so sad.”
Cleveland was a huge cricket fan. He’d played in Jamaica and spoke with reverence of an Australian fast bowler (name escapes me) the West Indies team faced in the days of Bradman.
“Our first mon, Allan Rae (Jamaican batter, son of Ernest Rae), took da pitch, and ‘e was good.”
“But ‘e ‘it ‘im on da hand!”
“Our second mon took da pitch, and ‘boom!’… ‘it ‘im on da arm.”
“Oooh ‘e was fast!”
Cleveland was one of those people that give me my kick in life. The kind you can sit down with as strangers and leave as friends.
He thought in a few years Colombia would legalise marijuana. He told me how his friend had seen in planted between coffee rows high in the mountains.
“’e said to me, “mon those buds, they leave a tar on yo hands.””
He held out two fingers to show the size of Colombian buds.
Surprisingly it still wasn’t legal in Jamaica. Old Cleveland had never smoked a cigarette in his life, and didn’t smoke pot. But he did have a useful remedy for stomach troubles.
It involved taking some marijuana, putting it in vodka and storing it for a year or more.
“Yo stomach giving you trouble, take a little sip, and mwa!”
He kissed his fingertips in the manner Italians used.
We got to talking about the cancer he’d had.
“Where was it?” I asked.
“In da anus,” he said without blinking.
“Dey told me I have tree to five years, and that was two years ago.”
“I think you’ll live longer,” I said, and meant it.
“You’ve got that spark. Lots of people don’t have that.”
“Thank you. Thank you,” he said with emotion.
He’d lived a great life. He’d schooled in Connecticut, where his parents had also made him learn the dreaded piano.
Like me, he hated the cold (an obvious position for a Jamaican) and moved to California to study business at university.
“Dey gave me money to continue my piano, and I took that money and had a good time!” he chuckled.
He’d been everywhere; Africa, Europe, America, Australia, you name it. He knew the president of Jamaica and would tell him frequently to legalise marijuana so the people could make a better living.
He’s worked as a business consultant at government level and gave me his address to post my first copy of my book to. “Make sure you write it,” he said.
A rasta walked past to use the bathroom.
“See dat guy,” Cleveland said in his too-loud for a plane voice.
“Yeah?” I yelled back (he was slightly deaf).
“’is Dad was the finance minister for Jamaica. ‘E’s a famous musician. You like reggae?”
When the plane landed he called his mate.
“Yeah mon, we landed, but we still on da plane.”
People tried to push past while Cleveland got slowly out of his seat. I blocked them with my large posterior until he was finished and shook his hand goodbye.
You can’t silence paint- Bogota’s Graffiti Movement
The real start to 2015 for me.
Blocks of 5pm light sat in golden fullness on the dormitory wall. A cat on the terracotta roof tiles yowled mournfully into the chilly afternoon. Hello South America. I was back, and it felt wonderful.
Touchdown in Bogota and I had already been ripped off by my taxi driver. The rookie error of not researching how much a trip to your suburb should really cost. Live and learn!
Still, Alejandro had provided me with a good warm up for my Spanish before re-entry into the fast paced world that is Colombia.
Not far from the airport we passed a stunning seven-storey mural of a couple hugging. I was to learn about this the next day.
Alegria’s Hostal (cnr Carrera 2 and Calle 9 in La Candelaria) was all I’d hoped for; quiet, wanker-free, comfy bed with good blankets, and a homely atmosphere with friendly staff.
Vivianna insisted we speak Spanish and told me I could be fluent in 3 months. Ambitious, but possible she said.
She said I’d be a good teacher and laughed at the offer to come to Cartagena and be my Spanish professor.
She pretty much laughed at everything though, so it wasn’t a good measure of how funny you are.
The next day I woke in time to seize the last breakfast croissant and a cup of coffee (many SA hostels have breakfast included). I was happy as a pig in mud, full of good energy and enjoying flying solo for now.
I set off for the Bogota Grafiti Tour (sign up here http://bogotagraffiti.com ) just a short walk away.
I’d missed it last time I was in town due to partying with a local who didn’t care to differentiate between night and day.
Running 2.5hrs and costing tips only (20,000 to 30, 000 pesos is courteous) it was the best walking tour I’ve been on.
The Bogota graffiti scene has been around for 20 years, really exploding in the last 10, and solidifying itself as part of the national identity in the last five.
It has a similar concentration of talent in the one city to Sao Paulo or Rio de Janeiro in Brazil.
The flyer given out by our guide Ray stated the importance of graffiti as social commentary and cultural expression during “La Violencia” and the height of Colombia’s ten-year civil war.
“With a growing middle class and a drastically improved political system, modern taggers have removed some of the preach from the paint and continue to focus on creating artwork that showcases their skills rather than on a cause.”
Ray was an artist himself and a general mover and shaker in the Bogota Grafiti World, sourcing commissions for artists and walls for them to showcase their works.
While La Candelaria by night involves a fair amount of hassling from its many (persistent) homeless, it is a true pleasure during the day. Bursting with life and colour, this old historical centre draws tourists just as much for its modern graffiti murals as for its old cobblestoned streets.
First up was Bastardilla, a Bogota woman making her skilful mark in a male-dominated scene.
She draws from poverty, feminie empowerment, the effects of violence, pain and nature.
Father and son duo Rodez and Nomad also put up some impressive paint. Papa bear prefers to work in arylic. He has more than 30 years experience and has put out more than 60 children’s books.
His work is characterised by abstract line work and multiple eyes.
Keep one of yours open as you traipse around Bogota and Rodez’s presence is not hard to spot. He also has a paints a unique signature on his work, including date, location, time, other collaborators and even the names of passers by.
His son Nomad prefers spray paint as a medium. A little more expensive but much faster when putting up a large mural.
The two often work together and Rodez is now teaching his younger son.
Bogota’s street artists are now coming out to paint during the day in hopes of making themselves identifiable as artists and removing the stigma of street art as a form of vandalism.
Needing mention is street crew Animal Crew Collective (also know as Animal Crew Culture). They have a big presence in Bogota, and you can see their APC tags everywhere in the city.
Venture into the more forgotten suburbs, off the tourist trail of La Candelaria and you will see some of their more extravagant work. They are constantly replenishing their crew, and artists rotating in and out of it.
APC had claimed this wall for some time, but it was recently painted over in green by city authorities.
Since the artists’ appear more in public Bogota’s public has developed an almost protective nature towards their favourites.
In this beautiful piece by Guache, commissioned by the building owner, you can see white paint on the left of the piece where the police tried to paint over it.
Citizens saw what was happening and rushed out to stop it. The repaint was happening due to no permit being acquired by Guache for the work.
Not all business owners are so happy to have their walls adorned, however. The owner of The Platypus Hostel was so sick of graffiti that he invested in paint that can simply be gurneyed clean each morning. Expensive, but effective!
A Mexican artist named Pez has coined his own ‘happy style,’ featuring fish (pez in Spanish) and gaining him rapid notoriety as an artist.
This wall was valued at $20-$30,000 US dollars were it to go to auction. Not bad for a guy who started out with a simple ‘pez’ signature that he gradually grew into the happy fish characters pictured.
Rounding a corner you come to the elegant, Escher-esque tessellating birds of fellow Mexican artist Gilberto Perez.
This piece, artist unknown to me – but tagged with PCK, evokes the ancient spiritual culture of South America through Pacha Mama images (the hands, earth, plants) as well as the use of hummingbirds, known as the messengers of the underworld.
A fun artist to spot around town is Mr Troll. This sculptor/artist places a plastic like material on cookie trays and bakes it in the oven to achieve his bright, hardened wall mounts.
Another artist whose works deliver a burst of delight if you happen to look up, out of the ordinary periphery, is a recently deceased paper mache master. Unfortunately our tour guide did not know their name, but their work was some of my favourite around Bogota.
Here the shoe shiner’s box doubles as a bird-house. Shoe shiners are one of the common staples around Plaza Bolivar.
A unicycling juggler stands as a monument to Bogota’s large circus and performer culture. Jugglers have in fact performed on this very wall.
It is a strange week in Bogota if you don’t see street performers performing tricks in front of traffic for money, or in the La Candelaria plaza.
At the end of my three days of freedom I caught the bus with 150 excited (and exhaustingly chattery) volunteers and headed to our two-week classroom prison. Fourteen days sitting and learning….it had been a while. It required a lot of coffee.
I felt good to be back in South America, and excited about the year ahead. Each day of training gave me further insight into the challenges waiting ahead.
“I had one kid who lit a fire in my classroom,” the lecturer said.
“But it was only a little fire.”
2015 here I come!