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