Colombia is one of those places with a somewhat negative public perception. You all saw Narcos, innit (I’m yet to get on that). In the months leading up to my trip, there nearly wasn’t a raised eyebrow each time I mentioned that I was headed to Escobar’s Colombia. Some thought it was a joke. But I really was headed that way and I really did go and guess what, I really did have an amazing time. One of those trips that will be listed next to ‘Unforgettable’ in my dictionary.
One thing they tell you if you actively prepare to visit Colombia, is to take your Spanish with you. Probably more important than your suitcase. Nobody speaks Ingles. Okay maybe a handful can fake their way and a finger nail full can speak proper English. But chances that you’ll meet these few in your every day interactions are very slim. So when they say take your Spanish with you, they are not kidding. I have never had to spend up to a day in a place where my language of communication was the minority and I wasn’t accompanied by someone who spoke the lingua Franca. So, this was a truly humbling yet exhilarating experience. I got lost, with not smart phone internet, and had to rely on the few words of Spanish I knew, the sharpness of my ears in catching English sounding Spanish words, and very limited hand and body gestures of my helpers to find my way back. And try negotiating taxi prices when there is a language barrier. I quickly learnt though, that if I was to win this service provider – customer battle, I had to be forceful. Sharp sharp, I learnt my numbers in Spanish from the drivers and street traders. When I ask you “Costa?” and you tell me “trente mill (30,000 pesos)”, I will shake my head in negation and tell you “viente mill (20,000 pesos)”. And if you said a number that I did not understand, I knew to ignore your number and go as low as I possibly could with my own negotiation. Surprisingly, we were never told to sod off. They negotiated as well until we, the customer won.
Colombians do not care that you “no hablo español”. They will continue to converse with you in the fastest Spanish you have ever heard. You really don’t have to respond for them to continue. And when they get tired, you hear “Donde son? (Where are you from?)”
Unlike the gorgeous Ethiopian woman I met on my flight to Bogota who had spent a month in Colombia and had been to about 5 cities in the country, I spent 6 days and visited 2 cities – Cartagena and Bogota.
Where Cartagena brought the nostalgia of Lagos, the city of my birth, Bogota took me back to commercialized United states. It could very well be a Seattle with all its space, modern buildings and cyclers (who have roads blocked off on Sundays just for their pleasure). Of the two, a piece of my heart is definitely lounging somewhere in Cartagena; filled with love for the city with oh so many beautiful women, happy skies and beaches, lots of history to walk through, and men that never failed to tell you how beautiful you are. One of them even used Google translate (we assumed) to slip a note to my friend at dinner that said “Give me your number”. Cartagena definitely captured a piece of my heart and just to ensure that my heart stayed put in its colourful embrace, it went on to break off this piece when two men riding a motorbike snatched my phone out of my hands as I was using it to navigate. It was the ultimate film trick. This phone was leaving my grasp and I was watching it happen but I didn’t understand what was going on until they zoomed off and my hand was an empty c-shape. And get this, unlike Lagos where even if I was in shock somebody would have yelled out “ole (thief)”, the same silence of car horns, moving vehicles and human conversation continued after it happened. No pauses, no shouts, nothing.
Nothing makes a trip more enjoyable than knowing that you will not go back home to drink garri and swallow air. This place is cheap, in comparison to New York. On the first day, I had lunch (soup appetizer, pork chop with rice and salad, and a drink included) for the equivalent of $3.50. Say who die??? Tiree dollars! For a proper meal. No be say McDonald’s oh. The most expensive meal that I had cost $15 and some – and we knew we were splurging a little bit. I bet there are much more expensive places to eat but seeing as we did not go out of our way to find cheap places to eat, I can confidently say that food here is cheap (again in relation to NY).
Speaking of food. Can I just shalla to Naija? Man, I’m yet to go to a place that has more food variety. The food in Colombia, honestly, did not do it for me. It was very repetitive, boring and what’s up with all that corn flour? I was so looking forward to street food – empanadas, arepas, and friends. But they are all done with corn flour which for some reason, I do not enjoy. Regardless, I refused to succumb to the pizza-pasta-burger-crepe-waffle temptations all around and only ate “Colombian food”.
Colombia knows how to do tourism. This is my takeaway from the last 6 days. From beaches to mangrove tours to building a park atop an underground salt mine cathedral to fortresses that have stood for centuries to emerald jewelry stores at every corner, there is no shortage of attractions – and worthy ones at that.
There is something special in not knowing too much about a place before you visit. There is an openess that comes with that type of naivete – knowing that it is different from what you know but not knowing how different or what to expect. But even in allowing yourself to travel places through the written word and visual stills and moving images, it is still not the same as seeing it for yourself. The smells, sights and memories of Colombia are still with me and will probably be here for a few more weeks before the pungency of NY takes over.
Where have you been to lately? What place is up there on your bucket list to visit? Share with me!