Sunday, 18 April 2010

Choque Shoque

If anyone, ever, suggests that you learn the dance 'choque', check out the link before you bop. Click on the word choque above. I had no idea.

It's Monday morning and I've just spent the last hour and a half teaching body parts in English to the Pronino kids. Whilst the early hour and unfriendly weekday didn't exactly quell the pulse of hormones amongst the mixed group of teenagers, Simon Says and Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes went down as surprisingly well as ever. I was pleased about this, and even more pleased that the class was over, because, honestly, its stressful. 20 teenagers in a small room is never a good plan. However, they are a really great group and the week before had promised me to show me some of their music and how they like to dance. For me, this seemed like a fair enchange and it often helps to have the kids feel like they have something to offer too, so I was up for it. Intitially.

After whinging at their supervisors until they handed over the CD player, the kids quickly turned up the volume on some over-pumped latino mix which sounded like a toddler had just discovered how to work a synthesiser. The assault on the senses wasn't exactly welcome but the noise was quickly usurped but what it seemed to necessitate. ‘Choque’ literally means crash or bump, and the dance did just that. Standing back to back with their partners, the dance started with some simple sort of hopping steps before the dancers simultaneously twisted around to face each other, threw their arms in the air and proceeded to crash together opposite hips in time with the relentless boom boom. Both dancers twisted and gyrated whilst all the time keeping this action going, they turned away from each other, sank down, rose up, moved apart and then together again. It was clumsy and rough but somehow worked in its scarcely veiled sexual context.

Scarcely veiled? Ha, they weren’t even trying. As the acting supervisor, I realised I had unwittingly given the students free reign to dry hump each other for an hour, all in the name of rumba. Oops.
Admittedly, it wasn’t anywhere nearly as explicit as the above video, but it definitely hurled me into that unpleasant limbo between wanting to laugh and cringing like only the British know how. They tried to get me to join in, but I backed up against the wall muttering something about hating to dance and just prayed no other teachers walked in.

Something that I really love about being here is that nothing is ever the same. You think you have it all planned, that a morning will be normal and straightforward, that you will arrive at places as expected, leave as expected and nothing too weird will go on in the meantime. And then things like that happen and you look back on your day and you can’t believe how it turned out. Luckily, the experiences are usually interesting, pleasant or funny. But there are times when you wish unpredictability and opportunism would just give it a rest, because it can just get annoying after a while.

One such ‘incident’ that week truly made my blood boil. It was 8 in the morning the following Thursday and I had just boarded the Transmilenio to go to El Refugio. It goes without saying, there are some days you would just rather miss out on. It’s raining, you’re tired, you have no clean socks and everyone else just seems little too energetic for your current mood. When you feel like this, nowhere is more hassle to navigate than Bogota. Gulping down a mouthful of pollution, avoiding the potholes where hydrant covers used to rest before they were stolen, and jostling to claim a slidey plastic seat on the lurching coaches of Bogota’s main transport system just wasn’t what I felt like doing. Nevertheless, I managed to get myself seated and was settling down for a 20 minute nap before teaching that morning's class, when I hear a soft voice a little bit too close to my ear.

‘I’ll accompany you’

I looked around to see a balding, middle-aged, vaguely indigenous looking Latino smiling blandly at me with fleshy lips and a high colour. I pointedly looked around at all the other empty seats in the close vicinity, but he didn’t take the hint, so I shrugged and went back to staring out of the window.

‘Where are you from?’

I tried to ignore him, but he seemed to have that incredible Colombian persistence and impossibly thick skin which rendered anything as passive as point blank shoulder turning futile. In my ignorance I thought I would try a different tack. My logic at the time led me to believe that if I spoke tersely, maybe it would be more obvious that I wasn’t in the mood for any early morning flirtation. Error.

‘Are you married?’
No ring, evidently not. Crap.

‘No, but I have a boyfriend.

‘What is your name?’

‘I don’t give my name to strangers’

‘Oh. Would you like to do out with me?’

‘As I said, I have a boyfriend’
He leans closer, as if I had given any signals that invited conspiracy.

‘You could still come out with me’


He takes my hand to shake it. Initially I’m a bit surprised by the contact and don’t react quickly enough to stop it. Only when he tries to raise it too his lips does my stomach contract and snatch it away.

‘What are you doing?!’

‘Sorry, excuse me. You are very beautiful’

By this point, it was all too much. I was so tired, in a foul mood anyway and had negative interest in communicating with anyone, let alone having my personal space invaded but ugly men twice my age and half my height.

‘I’m sorry Senor, but I’m not comfortable with this conversation, please leave me alone.’ I almost shouted in my most pissed off tone.

‘Would you like my email address?’

God, I could have hit him.

This sort of thing for travellers is in no way unique. Foreigners are a target for creepy men the world over, but this exchange demonstrates how persistent the Colombians can be. The fact that someone might not want to do something means very little to them, as do hints, prompts, signals and body language. They just keep going, and not only in situations like these. Many have absolutely no qualms about needlessly appropriating your time for their own means and subtlety is, evidently, redundant. Initially I found this funny, now this kind of person genuinely winds me up to the point of indignant rage. The cult of infidelity amongst some people is really shocking. I’m not usually judgemental about this kind of thing, but it is a little different if you witness it first-hand. It doesn’t matter what level of relationship you are in, if a Colombian man wants you, you are fair game. The women and girls don’t even seem to believe that they have much choice in the matter. If a guy pursues you, it is expected that you like them back. Hannah explained this to me, and I now understand why my students looked at me in such shock when I first told them I was single. It’s just not the norm here. I’m pretty sure they all decided I was a lesbian.

Luckily, the day improved from then on. It was the farewell day for one of my favourite students in El Refugio, so I had planned a catwalk for our class. I paired them up, gave them all a black plastic bag and told them to make an outfit and prepare a presentation in English. Image, fashion, music and teenagers: that was a successful class. I am worried about Andres leaving the safety of El Refugio though. This sweet natured maricon is so trusting and innocent, though not that quick mentally, so there isn’t much he can do in the real world and I’m worried he’ll just end up prostituting like before. He made me a wool scarf and said thank you for teaching him. It is sad that he has to leave just because he is 18. There is such a huge hole in the system here, as young people leave care at this age and there is no other welfare option for them until about the age of 25. It seems ridiculous; I just hope the world doesn’t prove too much for him.

Next blog... Travelling to the coast with Celine 

Friday, 9 April 2010

On the other hand...

As I said in my last post, it is not all shocking street tramping and miserable stories of violence and drugs.
Aligning myself with some friendly Gringos and Colombians I had a really good time during Semana Santa, which was last week. Usually, the festivos in Bogota make me a bit nervous. Normality is thrown to the wind and people just begin to act a bit strangely; super friendly or generous, elevated sense of humour and a feeling of unpredictability which just makes me nervous. People are bolder when approaching you and asking for money, among other things. Anyway, during the 5 days of religious rest, Bogota emptied as everyone headed for their fincas in the country.

I also headed for the country on several occasions.
Drive for about an hour and you find that the plateau of Bogota unfolds into sloping mountains, looping down into verdant forest or farmstead and significantly warmer climes. It was a Tuesday evening and I was halfway through the week and with no plans of letting up, as some lines of work don't pay much attention to religious holidays. I received a message from my Canadian friend, Ben, who said his friend had a car with three spaces, they were going to do some adventure sports in a place called Tobia the next day. He wasn't very clear on the details but, determining the possibility do jump off things and get wet, I called Celine and we jointly took advantage of our positions as unpaid volunteers and rearranged Wednesday so that we could go adventuring. So we set off pretty early the next day with Ben and Graham and headed for Tobia.
Compared to its surrounding countryside, Bogota is a pollution choked hole at best. The hills and mountains just outside it are beautiful and peaceful and it is easy to imagine how the reality-enhancing crops that ruin the country and its inhabitants are grown so abundantly, but it is also difficult to think of the violence and terror which prowls the countryside as a result. For once, where we were going didn't involve much danger, and we drove deep into a leafy valley and stopped by the side of a river. We were approached and asked which activity we would like to get involved in, and as the river was low we all decided on repelling, or abseiling down a waterfall and jumping into the pools at the bottom. We had to take a small train and hike for about half an hour to get to the base of the cascada. I hadn´t really realised we would be getting completely soaked so didn't bring a change of clothes. The rest of the day was spent in a slightly uncomfortable cocoon of soggy clothing. Obviously, abseiling down the waterfalls was completely worth it and although it proved to be safe, it was brilliant to be completely free of the safety restrictions which plague such activities in the UK. There were experienced guides, short explanations and then we just had a go :)
In the afternoon we opted for horse riding to take us up to the top of the mountain to see some of the views. It was that time of day when the sun relaxes its grip on the atmosphere and everything slumps into a balmy post-baked reverie. Including the horses, which were not used to the British/American bulk and struggled with the climb a bit. The summit revealed sharply undulating hills and greenery that stretched for miles. It´s not the dramatic scenery of the Peak District dotted with slate lakes reflecting an equally morose sky, but a wild, intense and thrumming landscape, as if a fully formed rainforest would have sprung out of the ground given the chance.
So that was one trip.

The second, two days later was a hike in Parque Chicaque. This is a national park way down south on the outskirts of Bogota. It is a leafy, mulchy, footricking, rainforest trek, and I had been a week earlier with Fabio, Caroline, Kaitlin and some other friends. I had almost died the week before. The trek itself isn't actually that long but the first half is a VERY steep descent for about two hours, which my knees never deal that well with, and all the time you are thinking of the return journey. All the way back up. Luckily there is a midway destination of a pretty waterfall which makes rainbows in the sun (the pot of gold myth is definitely a lie, I checked) and a restaurant. Hannah, Celine, Vanessa, Santiago and I all bought picnics and it wasn't nearly as stressful this time, despite getting lost for a while in the woods. Good exercise and bonding and views etc. But it did last about 7 hours, and then Celine and I had been invited to Fabio's birthday dinner that night. I thought it would just be a sit down meal thing, nothing too stressful. But we soon realised it involved a bus, an hour long trip to Chia and a lot of drinking and dancing. Fabio and Caroline had booked a bus to take us to Andres, the most famous Colombian restaurant, bar and club. It basically sells meat and it a novelty restaurant mixing the burlesque, gothic and circus decoration codes. It was a mash of colour and salsa, Colombia paraphernalia dripping from the ceilings and rough wooden furniture cluttering the floor. It was cool, but by 3 am and far too much salsa, I was falling asleep on whoever happened to be in the direct path of my nodding head. We didn't get back until 5 am. I had stopped drinking at about 12 so I didn't have much of a hangover, but I spent the next day at work (Fenix meetings) feeling sick with exhaustion. The altitude makes everything hurt more.

By Sunday, and after a very long sleep, we decided a trip to La Calera in the North of the city was a good way to spend Easter Day. When I say we visited La Calera, we actually stopped at a roadside shack and ordered a Fritanga, on Hannah´s suggestion. This consists of a metal plate the size and shape of a medium sized, circular table top, piled high with grilled meat, platano, corn and salsa. There were 5 of us, all teaching in one way or another, and we sat and whinged about our respective classes. Ha. Never thought I'd be doing that, but it was funny, especially as the other two girls taught classes of 30 4 year olds English, and one of them could barely speak Spanish herself... Suddenly a class of ten ex-prostitute teenagers didn't look so bad.

And that pretty much brings me to this week. Not much to report that I haven't already said except that I would like to record that the Refugio kids were brilliant this week. I even taught them how to tell the time, a lesson I found so boring it took me about 3 years to learn. Seriously. Now I´m sitting with Fabio in Horwath doing some translations and trying not to do too much damage. I was left as main translator in a continuous flow of emails between the audit partner of Horwath and a client. Finance speak in translation? My head hurts... But it's fun and I enjoy coming here.

Thursday, 8 April 2010

La L

Walking around Bogota after two months here, the recyclers, the peddlers, the drunks and the prostitutes have just become just part of the scenery now. Admittedly, like most things here, they all have their specific districts. Santa Fe is brothel central, La L (aka The Bronx) is a crime-filled drug district, El Favorito is where all the motorcyclists stop off for a hit of Bazuka, and the centre is the home of petty theft, flea markets and lonely figures of walking rags.
Until now, I have been following fairly simple rules: keep alert, walk fast, know where the mountains lie. This sounds weird, but it helps.

Bogota has a bizarrely polarized class system, where people are categorized and characterized by the different estratos or neighbourhoods (1 being the lowest, 6 being the highest) in which they live. The wealthy live in the relatively clean, commercially defined and mall-peppered North. If the mountains are on your right then you are heading towards Business Town, smart clubs and European prices. Past the centre, headed in the Southern direction, the further down the taxi seat you slide. Mountains on the left = lock the doors, don’t break down. Having said this, whatever the district, the silicone religion prevails.

I work in the south three times a week so I'm quite used to getting there on my own and it doesn't really bother me to be there. Recently I have started another teaching program in 'Patio Bonito', which is a pretty rough area and in no way lives up to its name. I thought this was about as sketchy as the whole experience was going to get for me.

Today, Celine and I were due to go into Santa Fe to start a reading program with some of the kids who come into El Parche. This is a clinic which attends to all those who don't feel they can approach or are somehow not entitled to healthcare. It is run by a beautiful angel of a doctor called Tatiana, who is just one of those lovely people I could never even hope to be. She has endless patience and kindness with the various levels of hopelessness who walk through the door and she is part of the Procrear group which runs activities and workshops for the people who come in and their kids. So we were going to start the kids with some reading. We had organised this last week in a Procrear meeting where we had met a community worker called Javier, and he had suggested we do this class, and also at some point come to do a 'parcheando' (giving out food and drink to street people) with him one day.
When we turned up this morning nothing was really going on and the kids were involved in another activity. Whilst Celine (who will be a starting medicine in the summer) sat in on consultations with Tatiana, Javier turned to me and said 'Listo, vamos'.
Generally, I take advantage of anything going on out here, (bar the substances). Javier is part of the Procrear group, and despite only having been off the streets for a year, very trustworthy. So we started walking to what I thought would be an area no more shifty than the Prostitution zones or the bar districts. When I heard we were headed for the Bronx, La L, I seriously almost turned back. I have been lucky in that the people I work with are not paranoid scare- mongerers. They work in the difficult areas, know them well and give good advice which hasn't failed me yet. However, the day before I had had a long conversation with Hannah about La L and how not only she but many of her Colombian friends label it the most frightening places in Bogota. I had built it up as a sort of hell hole in my head and I wasn't far off.

I figured I was safer staying with Javier than bailing and walking back through Santa Fe on my own, though only after several minutes of discussion which culminated in me taking off my watch, shoving any valuables down my bra and zipping my hoody up ASBO style. Plus, I was curious.

Walking along, the density of street people increased alarmingly. These weren't the 'respectable' sort who casually rake through the dustbins of the centre, mug gringos and wash themselves in the fountains. Here, Men and women, half-unconscious or itching with lice and skin disease, lay sprawled in the direct and trickling line of a contemporary's morning ablutions. By the time we had finally reached La Quince, the squalid epicentre of depravity, the vacant expressions had dislocated into gnashing teeth, rolling eyes and the hypervigilent twitching caused by the long term Bazuka, Cocaine or Marijuana abuse. I barely looked up, partly because I didn't want to catch anyone's eye, but also because there was plenty to see on the ground. The mud was inches thick on the crumbling tarmac and it wasn't the brown, healthy British sort either, but a dark grey, poisonous looking concoction of human and animal excrement, rubbish and metal. It was crowded, barely space to move, and people crawled, raving, out from under tarpaulin and sacks. A little higher in my eyeline were rows of ironically sumptuous, three sided marijuana shacks, eating stalls selling near rotted fried pig fat, and sagging, broken vehicles. The smell of weed was overpowering and joints which were the thickness of my thumb and twice as long were casually passed between neighbours, the search for oblivion bringing with it the pot luck of TB contraction. Think Hieronymus Bosch, without the colour.

It was only about the size of a block, and as we walked round I more or less attached myslef to Javier who eventually directed me into a more respectable looking area where some sort of covered market displayed rows and rows of clothes. I almost didn't give it a second thought, until Javier told me this is where the inhabitants of La L swap their clothes for a drag of Bazuka. The ordinary sight transformed itself into a physical manifestation of consumption, quantifiable and eerie in its normality.

Later at dinner I spoke to Hannah again, whose visit to La L was on the arm of a street girl and disguised as a regular sex worker. She was told not to open her mouth and betray her gringo accent or there would be trouble. Having not seen the dead bodies or the street children who are paid to clear them away, apparently my experience of the place was tame.
Obviously I got back OK, and was grateful for the experience, though trying to put it into words when meeting Celine again was interesting. As a Literature student I have never really found myself stumped, but when I tried to speak all I saw were flashes and images. Javier shouldn't have taken me there really, but he was the safest person I could have gone with, so the calculation was correct.
Walking back after that place, Santa Fe looked like a high class resort with suddenly well-groomed call girls and paternal looking pimps.

OK, these are all a bit depressing, normal stuff happens here too. Next blog, hiking, adventuring and fritanga!