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Returning To Colombia, Because It Called

S.A. CALLING: Typical street scenes in Colombia.

S.A. CALLING: Typical street scenes in Colombia.

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?”

“Oh shit!”

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.

SWINGIN: This shop in La Candelaria, Bogota, has been painted in Cuban style, with a jazz twist.

SWINGIN: This shop in La Candelaria, Bogota, has been painted in Cuban style, with a jazz twist.

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.

FINE DETAIL: Here Bastardilla used a rubber cut stamp to create a wheat paste paste-up.

FINE DETAIL: Here Bastardilla used a rubber cut stamp to create a wheat paste paste-up.

WALL OF COLOUR: One of Bastardilla's larger murals serves a brilliant backdrop to children's play equipment.

WALL OF COLOUR: One of Bastardilla’s larger murals serves a brilliant backdrop to children’s play equipment.

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.

LOOK OUT: Rodez's work is characterised by multiple eyes.

LOOK OUT: Rodez’s work is characterised by multiple eyes.

SLICE OF TIME: A Rodez signature includes the names of passers by.

SLICE OF TIME: A Rodez signature includes 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.

IN THE FAMILY: Nomad, while learning from his father, has developed his own style favouring spray paint.

IN THE FAMILY: Nomad, while learning from his father, has developed his own style favouring spray paint.

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.

STREET CREW: Animal Crew Collective is one of the most prominent crews putting up work around Bogota. This wall was recently painted over in the green, visible.

STREET CREW: Animal Crew Collective is one of the most prominent crews putting up work around Bogota. This wall was recently painted over in the green, visible.

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.

CITIZENS UNITE: The bottom corner shows where authorities attempted to paint over this piece in white, because the artist did not have a permit. Citizens intervened to save it.

CITIZENS UNITE: The bottom corner shows where authorities attempted to paint over this piece in white, because the artist did not have a permit. Citizens intervened to save it.

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.

RISING VALUE: This piece by Mexican artist Pez has an estimated auction value of $US 20,000 - 30,000.

RISING VALUE: This piece by Mexican artist Pez has an estimated auction value of $US 20,000 – 30,000.

Rounding a corner you come to the elegant, Escher-esque tessellating birds of fellow Mexican artist Gilberto Perez.

LET'S TESSELATE: Gilberto Perez brings a little taste of Escher to Bogota.

LET’S TESSELATE: Gilberto Perez brings a little taste of Escher to Bogota.

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.

CULTURE DOSE: The spiritual side of South America, captured on its busy streets.

CULTURE DOSE: The spiritual side of South America, captured on its busy streets.

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.

CHEEKY COLOUR: Keep an eye peeled for Mr Troll's quirky works.

CHEEKY COLOUR: Keep an eye peeled for Mr Troll’s quirky works.

SPOTTED: Mr Troll, take two.

SPOTTED: Mr Troll, take two.

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.

ARTIST UNKNOWN: A paper mache maiden fishes for a banana above eye level.

ARTIST UNKNOWN: A paper mache maiden fishes for a banana above eye level.

Here the shoe shiner’s box doubles as a bird-house. Shoe shiners are one of the common staples around Plaza Bolivar.

STREET CHARACTERS: The sculptures provide a snapshot of life lived on the bustling streets.

STREET CHARACTERS: The sculptures provide a snapshot of life lived on the bustling streets.

A unicycling juggler stands as a monument to Bogota’s large circus and performer culture. Jugglers have in fact performed on this very wall.

BOGOTA DREAMING: Performers, artists and musicians all contribute to the increasing arts scene.

BOGOTA DREAMING: Performers, artists and musicians all contribute to the increasing arts scene.

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!


Venice Beach…Take Two

Spirit Airways, the cheapest way I could fling my travel-weary body from Bogota, Colombia across to Los Angeles.

Their seats don’t recline and their airhostesses yell at you without finesse to stow your bags under the seat for takeoff. But hey, that $200 saving is half a month’s travel in South America!

I sat beside a lady and her son, originally from Panama. I looked at the rich purple/black of her skin and wished for the millionth time I could go ten shades darker. Her clothing was like a vibrant shout against that shade.

“You should go there when you return to Central America. It’s a really good place to travel there.”

She told me about her favourite area.

“Watch your stuff, but you get that everywhere. Food is really cheap, and a taxi is like $3.

“The only thing is there’s a lotta hookers around there, but they shouldn’t bother you.”

We both laughed at that.

“Hopefully not,” I agreed.

With a budget airline the five hours felt like ten. I thanked the powers that be (whoever they may be) for my short legs and tried unsuccessfully to sleep on my window.

Two hours to kill in Fort Lauderdale, which was beautiful to land in at night, ablaze with a grid-work of lights. Luckily for me I made a friend.

As always, the best people I meet travelling seem to appear in the dullest spots. A boring layover where you eat your over-cheesed sandwich and watch everybody sit on wifi instead of talking.

Organised as usual, I had arranged not much for my midnight arrival in LA, with a whole day and night to kill until I flew out at 6pm the next day.

“If you get stuck,” said my new acquaintance, “you can always crash at mine.”

“I have two bedrooms, and I’m not creepy. And you don’t seem creepy, so that’s always good.”

A stunning woman of Indian heritage, it came as no surprise when she said she’d moved to LA to further her acting career.
She had been acting professionally for around ten years, and I was intrigued to learn that an audition could still be nerve racking after that time.

“It’s good though sometimes because you can turn those nerves into really great on-stage energy,” she said.

We had a great chat about the challenge of doing what you love for a living while walking the thin tightrope of not leaching it of all creative joy.

“I want to write books for a living one day,” I told her.

“Fiction with characters you can really picture, to an extent you know what they’d do in certain situations… as though they are real people.”

We looked around at the crowded waiting lounge, a flat and luck-lustre backdrop for a conversation about chasing your dreams.

Tired people said tired things to each other, chewing airport food unenthusiastically and wishing they were home already.

“You could write about this waiting room and make it really funny, if you just get your dialogue right, and use a fresh perception,” I said, thinking out loud.

It remains my motivation for moving somewhere I know nobody and learning another language. To loosen my mind and distance myself from my ability to earn money through writing. Only then I feel will the proper creative juices flow.

In the end the friend in Venice Beach I had emailed last minute got back to me with great news. Yes I could crash on her couch, she had just finished a late night business meeting and her and her partner were on the way to pick me up from LAX airport now!

“Wait outside, we’re close,” the message buzzed on my laptop.

“Black convertible, see you soon! Xx”

I said goodbye to the kind-hearted actress, and thanked the world for sending a stranger to brighten my dull day of transit. We swapped Facebook details, as is the glory of our times.

There I stood at the front door of the LAX terminal, my chode of a backpack strapped on, and my video camera bag on my front. I looked like 2-Pak, but obviously tougher.

Then they pulled in. Could there be anything more LA? I counted the number of times I’d been collected in a black convertible….oh that’s right…one. LA baby!

I met my friend’s partner for the first time. He walked past my outstretched hand and wrapped me in a bear hug. After just five minuted, whizzing back to Venice Beach with the hood up so we could hear each other, I was glad he was with my Aria.

A handy twenty minutes from the airport, their apartment was a cool studio style layout, one large-room encompassing lounge, bedroom and kitchen, with a bathroom and walk-in robe leading off.

There were surfboards in the bathroom, bikes beside the front door and a huge printed graphic of a New York streetscape with the Flat Iron building immediately drawing the eye.

I slept on the extremely comfy couch, picturing a pile of feathers beneath me. I could hear the very distant hum of LA traffic as I felt myself sink down through the layers of sleep. Just as I drifted out of consciousness I felt content, safe and comfy…once again in the home of a friend.

In the morning, well rested from my time on the couch of dreams, we strolled down Pacific Ave, past the famous Venice Beach sign strung across an intersecting street, and ordered bagels and coffee at Café Collage.

Oh salmon bagel, welcome back to my life. Australia was slowly catching onto the beauty of bagels, but here you could pretty much trip over them.

I liked thinking they had the same effect on my physical appearance as say, broccoli would, however their deliciousness made me doubt this.

We sat on the beach to eat, watching surfers appear on the white caps one by one like evening stars.

Can there be anything better linked to happiness than a morning surf before work. The waves were so close to the beach it was like a box-office seat at the theatre.

I watched a guy scampering back and forth on his longboard, distributing his weight with each lift and drop of the wave. Eventually, the wave won.

We talked for around an hour about almost everything, my golden-haired friend and I. Love, sustainability, growing into adults, living in a smaller place but a better location, the need to run away from life as you know it and return wiser, better travelled and with a newfound tenacity.

We had met in primary school and seemed to have grown into adults who still shared similar values and enjoyed an easy connection. I love our generation’s view of the world, the ability to reduce it in size so that moving overseas no longer means you drift inevitably away from people.

Thank you technology and great airfare deals.

We spent the morning in her apartment, her working remotely and me remotely working…mostly scouting jobs in Australia and Colombia.

In between we’d break for coffee or chocolate. It was good old-fashioned girl hangs, and much needed.

Back on the job search, depressing and hopeful at the same time. Eventually the temptation of the pool was too much. I let the cold water swallow me as choppers cruised overhead in the LA skyline.

One mention must be made of the take-out we got from Pacific Ave’s culinary gem…..Mexican joint, The Flying Jalapeno.

Holy smack that food is good. With a whole counter of fresh toppings, you create your own taco, burrito or bowl of delicious.

They cooked my fish fresh and I chose black beans, guacamole, lettuce, corn, grilled peppers, onion and some unknown breed of great salsa.

As I sat waiting for my fish, sipping an amazing house-made lemonade, I realised I had misjudged Venice Beach on my last visit.

Don’t get me wrong, I still hate the boardwalk strip of weird beggars and hawkers, but I was pleasantly surprised by the foot, board and bicycle traffic that went past as I waited.

Many people running, surfers, Dads with great tattoos carrying kids on shoulders, girls with wicked rockabilly hairdos, artistic types and pinup types.

I also noticed the street art everywhere, which I hadn’t seen as much of on my last visit, and my friend informed me of the fantastic local arts and creative community in the area.

With a bit of afternoon left before the hours at the airport began, I walked the very short jaunt to the Venice canals.

Built by American developer and environmentalist Abbot Kinney in 1905, the canals fell into disrepair after losing functionality/popularity with the increase of the automobile in Los Angeles.

They were drained, renovated and refilled in 1992 and are now home to some stunning and pricey waterfront houses.

It’s a beautiful walk, with white, arched bridges intersecting the walkways and canoes and rowboats moored nonchalantly in front of houses.

The gardens burst with hydrangeas, bougainvillea and yellow hibiscus bursting in vibrant colour pops on all sides. Little fish swam, the water was still and the day felt easy.

So, Venice Beach, on round two I liked you much better.

NB: No photos because I lost my camera in an overloaded taxi in Peru. Sigh.