Friday, December 8, 2017

Noche de las Velitas

Last night, December 7th, was an important event for Colombians. La Noche de las Velitas, or Night of the Little Candles, is a time when people light candles and lanterns to celebrate the Virgin Mary. I was told by a friend here at the hotel that the lights are meant to light her way to the place where she will give birth to Jesus Christ (a bit early, since he wasn’t born for a few more weeks, right?). Wikipedia informs me that this celebration dates back to December 7th, 1854, when Pope Pius IX defined as dogma the Immaculate Conception of the Virgin Mary, published in his Apostolic constitution Ineffabilis Deus. In anticipation of this decision, people lit candles and paper lanterns to show their support and belief in this idea. This event happens on the eve of the Feast of the Immaculate ConcepciĆ³n, a public holiday here in Colombia (one of many Catholic holidays that are observed by the whole country—interesting concept since, in the US, we technically have a separation between church and state and don’t publicly celebrate any religious holidays, which is sort of a shame considering how many public holidays they have here in Colombia!).

The event is also called the Alumbrado de Navidad and it is the unofficial start of the Christmas season in Colombia. Indeed unofficial, as I have been seeing Christmas decorations popping up around the city as early as October! Colombians looooooove Christmas!

I assure you these two photos were taken in a mall in Cartagena on October 30th!

Here on the coast, they have the tradition of lighting the candles in the very early morning on December 8th, unlike in most other parts of the county that celebrate it the evening before. Still, we saw plenty of candles lit as we walked around the walled city, and it was a beautiful sight to see.

In other Christmas related news, have I mentioned that this city goes totally Christmas crazy!? Seriously. The build up to the holiday season here is intense. Buildings get new paint jobs. Street medians get new trees. Potted plants get new soil. Roads get re-paved. Lamp posts get decked out. People build and sell giant Christmas-themed lawn ornaments on the street. 

Full moon and the walled city

Carrera 1, the street between us and the beach!

Okay, so I can’t quite figure out if it’s baby Jesus they’re getting spiffy for or the hoards of tourists that descend on Cartagena in the high season. Unfortunately, high season has officially begun and therefore so have long lines at the grocery store, atrocious traffic (and I thought it was bad before…), and sky-high prices. Either way, the city is looking quite beautiful these days, and the hotel too!

The resident sweethearts at the Hotel Bellavista!

Hope you’re enjoying the holiday season wherever you are! 

Here I am as a sheep in the Christmas play at the German Cultural haus!

Thursday, November 30, 2017

Multilingual Like Whoa

Living in Cartagena is like living in a whirlpool of language, and it’s not only because it’s a massive tourist destination. Being trilingual, I’ve never had to use all three of my languages simultaneously. In Miami, I’ve gotten into the habit of speaking a mix of English and Spanish (the notorious Miami Spanglish). When I was a student, I studied French and English simultaneously, but in separate classes with distinct teachers and textbooks. Many of my friends in middle and high school had French backgrounds and some of them had only recently made the move from Europe. As a result, my friend group was dubbed “The Frenchies” for our constant use of the language. But usually, I’ve used my languages one at a time—French when I’m visiting my family in Europe, Spanish when I’ve traveled through Spain and Latin America, English when I’m visiting all the former and current British colonies around the world.

But living in Cartagena has upended all linguistic delineations. Both my work and social lives are a soup of languages, and I’m constantly switching between English, French and Spanish. At the Universidad de Cartagena, I’ve been teaching English in their Foreign Languages program. The students I teach are learning English and French intensively. Most of my colleagues are proficient in all three languages, and the other foreign language assistants are also trilingual. As it turns out, all three of us have French heritage: one is 100% French, one is Scottish-French, and I’m my own wacky combination—French Belgian Cuban American. Amongst each other, we move fluidly between all three languages. Banter in the teacher’s lounge is always trilingual, sometimes to hilarious effect. And the students are unceasingly impressive with their high levels of English and French.

The residents at the hotel where I live are a mish-mash of Colombians and Europeans. French, Spanish, Italian, Andorran, and lots and lots of Germans. (Interestingly, I haven’t met any other Americans during my time in Cartagena, besides a Puerto Rican woman who’s doing volunteer work in Cartagena and an artist who’s been living in the hotel for 29 years and has raised his Colombian-American children in this beautiful place.) As you can imagine, we’re quite the international bunch and our conversations take on the vibrant colors of each of our homelands. A dinner on the patio is never boring, I’ll tell you that much.

Now let’s add another element to the mix: German. As you may know, my partner is German, or ‘el aleman alto’ as they call him here. (The tall German.) Somehow, I’ve been thrown into the German category by virtue of living in the same apartment as him. Perhaps it’s just easier to say “The German couple live there”? Anyway, this does not change the fact that I am not German, nor do I speak German.

Interesting fact about Colombians: there are currently 14,000 Colombians in Germany right now. In fact, there’s enough of a migration that a German organization was inspired to publish this study, “The Colombian diaspora in Germany: transnational action and country of origin-related involvement.” Many Colombians you meet have a cousin or a son or a brother in Germany. Apparently, Colombians love Germany! Perhaps this bond between the countries has been created because Germans seem to love Colombia, too. At the hotel there is a predominant German presence. One of my neighbors directs the Casa Cultural Colombo Alemana, a German language school with great events and resources for anyone wanting to immerse themselves into German culture. And I’d say they have a very successful operation. Last month, we attended an Oktoberfest in Cartagena and next week, we’ll be attending a traditional Weihnachtsmarkt, or German Christmas market. They even teach German classes on the nearby Islas del Rosario!

I’ve really enjoyed learning German. My teacher is from Barranquilla but you’d never guess it from her impeccable German skills! As someone who’s never really had to learn a language from zero, it’s a very humbling and often frustrating experience. But I’ve got a patient teacher at home who helps me with my homework. The philosophy at the German school is to speak as much German as possible, even if what you end up speaking is a mish-mash of Spanish and German, or AlemaƱol as they call it. You should see my notes from class: an eruption of German, Spanish, and English. Lucky, I am beginning to see some slight similarities between German and English, but German is still a wild beast all on its own, but I aim to tame it!

My teacher said to label everything in my house... so I did!
At times it feels like my brain is going to explode from switching between English, French, Spanish and GERMAN, but hopefully this experience is like weightlifting for my brain. Sometimes I’m mamado, as they say here on the coast. Totally wrung out. But often it’s just exhilarating to be able to put all my languages to use in one day, and sometimes, in one sentence! 

Thursday, October 19, 2017

Whirlwind of Tropical Travels

Hallo mein lieblings, my apologies for my radio silence. I’ve been very busy enjoying all that Colombia has to offer! (And learning German! Hence the greeting!)

Since I last updated you all, I’ve taken a few cool trips. The first was to Minca, a little town in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada outside of Santa Marta. Minca is at 600 meters so the cool mountain air was a nice respite from Cartagena’s relentless heat. I stayed in a tiny hostel alongside the river and enjoyed several days of listening to the river flowing while reading and writing. I hiked to the Pozo Azul one day and joined locals and tourists in the cold water that travels down the mountain from some of the tallest peaks in Colombia. I left lots of hikes to do for the next time I visit, because there will surely be a next time!

Click for VIDEO!

Me and my hiking companion

Some much-needed mist to recover from Cartagena heat

A writer's paradise!
Then, Norbert and I took a short trip to a little town called Rincon del Mar. First, we took a bus to a town called San Onofre. Well, we were so distracted by the beauty of the ride that we missed our stop, but the bus driver was kind enough to pull over and flag down another bus heading back from whence we came. In San Onofre, we hopped on the back of two motorcycles and took a bouncy ride towards the coast. Midway to Rincon del Mar, we were stopped by a group of military men carrying big scary guns, but they were very kind and jovial as they searched our bags for drugs. Apparently, these kinds of searches are very common in these parts of Colombia because of the remote location and the nearness to the sea. One of them practiced their German with Norbert and another sent us away with God’s blessing.

At Rincon del Mar, we didn’t have much on our agenda besides relaxing. The next day, we took a boat trip with some fisherman to the nearby Islas de San Bernardo. We snorkeled the reef, visited the world’s most densely populated island, Santa Cruz del Islote, and had a delicious fish lunch on the beach.

Once back at the hostel, Norbert made friends with all the village kids by letting them practice flying his kite. This provided immense entertainment for all involved, and I’m not sure who had more fun—Norbert or the kids.


Who's having more fun??!

That night, we strolled into town for an ice cream and caught a glimpse of a cockfight happening in the town’s center. Apparently it’s a popular activity around this part of Colombia, including on the island we visited.

My latest trip was this past weekend to the town of San Basilio de Palenque. This weekend was a “Puente” in Colombia, meaning it was a long weekend. This means full-on fiesta for three long days. (I don’t know how they have the energy!) It was the fiesta patronales de la Virgen del Rosario, and there were lots of festivals happening in the area. One was a gaita festival in Ovejas and the other was the Festival de los Tambores in Palenque.

Image result for palenque festival de tambores 2017

With a big group of friends from work and from Bella Vista, the hotel where I live, we all headed out to Palenque late on Saturday afternoon. What we found was a tiny village pulsing with drumming and dancing that didn’t stop throughout the whole weekend. The stage was full of dancers and musicians presenting folkloric dances from all over Colombia and beyond! Then there were music groups giving concerts late into the night.


Around four in the morning, the sound system turned off and the folkloric groups gathered in the streets for the most important event of the weekend – la arborada. This is when the drummers and dancers parade through the dark streets towards the only hill in town. The celebration continues at the top of the hill as the sun comes up. The idea is to bring the festival to those who live at the top of the hill who might not be able to make it down to take part in the festivities. They bring the festival to them.


What a crazy experience. I was only in Palenque for less than 24 hours but I fell in love with the energy and the history of the village. It is considered the first free black village in the Americas and it is said that the women slaves used their hair braids to draw maps and pass on secret messages to the others about the road to Palenque. Hair braiding is still a strong part of their culture. There were signs on houses that read “Hay Pelo,” literally translated as “We Have Hair.” On porches all over the village, you could see women sitting still as their head was woven into intricate braided designs. Although many women offered to braid my hair, it’s something I’ll have to do next time I visit Palenque. I’ll definitely be back!

Then, I went straight from Palenque to las Islas del Rosario to begin working on my social project. I’m volunteering with an up-and-coming group of eco-guides in the region of Baru and Islas del Rosario, mostly fishermen and young men from the islands. My job is to help them improve their English so that they can use it to speak to tourists, land more jobs, and give their clients the best experience possible. I am also helping them on the marketing side with photographs, videos, and messages to post on their social media accounts and attract clients. It’s been fun getting to know them and I’m excited to continue working with them over the course of this year. I’m already learning so much about the history of this area as well as the flora and fauna, and I’m lucky that get to be their guinea pig and go on all of their excursions!

In case you’re interested in my writing outside of the blog, I’ve had several pieces published in the last few months, so feel free to browse my publications page! I also have several pieces that will appear in print soon. I’ll be sure to pass on the info about how to purchase your copies as soon as I get it!

In the meantime, here are some pics of life in Cartagena to entice you guys to come visit us!!!!!!!

Celebrating Oktoberfest in Cartagena!

For more exciting VIDEOS of life in Colombia, please go to my YouTube channel and check out my Colombia playlist!