Quiet leavings

We’re currently on a minibus from Santa Marta to Cartagena, which while having WiFi and air conditioning, has seen us nearly witness or be involved in a humungous number of head-on collisions.  Defensive driving isn’t really a thing in Colombia, and that doesn’t make for the most relaxing of rides.

Moments ago, we stopped at some kind of truck-stop, where vendors came up to the door bearing food as an official checked the passenger manifest.  One of the guys offered me what looked like savoury donuts, and I said no.  He then smiled adorably, and in halting English, said “thank you–thank you for coming”.  A far sight from my most disgusting interaction today, wherein a man riding a bicycle starts calling “gringa! Gringa!” at me.  For one, I’m not a gringa.  For two, when he caught my attention, he starts rolling his tongue around in what one can only imagine was a parody of oral sex.  It was utterly repulsive, which does somewhat raise the question of what the hell he was trying to achieve.

Santa Marta has been a bit of a strange place for me, and not just because of incoherent interactions.  It feels a bit like a microcosm of my life for the four years since I was there last–the people I’ve met there, and moreover the people I’ve met from there, have led to such a number of calamitous incidents in my life, as well as some positive elements as captured by Daniela and her lovely family.  Catching the bus back from town to Rododero earlier, I had ths sudden deep feeling that it’s a place I’ll never see again, and it’s a bittersweet impression at best. It feels like things are changing, and I suppose they are–but it’s still somehow weird to feel thatall the things that have happened because I went to the town in the first place are suddenly, abjectly, over.  Finito.  Terminado.  Completo.  And on to the next adventure…

We haven’t been up to much the last couple of days.  After getting back from la Ciudad Perdida on Saturday, we showered then headed out for pizza with Daniela’s family.  Sunday was spent resting, for the morning, and posting an obscene number of blog posts (that part may have come across…).  In the afternoon I headed out into the storm to go for a walk through Rodadero, along the beach, and to eventually find myself drinking an excellent coffee at Juan Valdez.  That coffee was so good, I started getting emotional.  Too much Colombia!

After a couple of hours enjoying my wet clothes (!), my book, and the raucous noises of birds overhead, I headed back to the house, where we were awaiting Daniela’s dad.  You see, the Dutchie was still feeling poorly, and needed to go the doctor.  In the end, they didn’t get back until something like 1:30 in the morning.  Meanwhile, Daniela’s mum and I watched some overly violent films, and she put up with my pidjin Spanish.

Today was all about Santa Marta, as we headed into town to look for some books.  I’ve wound up with another of Roald Dahl’s books in Spanish–I’m acquiring quite the collection.  Our adventures took us to a delightful vegetarian restaurant, and to the public market just south-east of the main centre of town.  Here it was a bit more flavoursome, with more dirt, more smells, more people.  Slabs of meat hung or sat on tables, a dog may or may not have been dead on the floor, the overwhelming stench of fish and sweat pervaded, and we wandered through sections from shoes to books.  It felt pretty real.  And, of course, people continued to help us all the time, offering directions, making sure we knew where we were, and asking if we wanted to buy water/bus tickets/a new soul (okay, so these last may have been sales pitches).

That more-or-less brings us to now, and this bus, and my 3.5 hours’ sleep, and being hungry, and consistent elbowings from Anouk. But only two hours to go.

No Dill


Well here I am, back in vertical Germany, and finally starting to catch up on my Russia posts.  Needless to say, they’re completely out of order—but what are you going to do about it?!

Staying with Naz reminded me of all the little details about life in Russia.  She and her Belorussian bf live in an old Soviet apartment, in the Primorskiy District—partly developed, but still quite old.  There’s this ubiquitous grime covering everything, as though you’re seeing the world through a faint coffee stain.  There are the little old ladies selling flowers, the stalls with baked goods at the start of the day, the fruits and vegetables being hawked, and people wearing loudspeakers which broadcast ads at you, while their wearers bear indifferent faces.

After walking past the crying sounds of a harmonica one day, we got on the marshrutka (bus) to head into town—only to be greeted with a mouth full of gold teeth.  Not that the driver was smiling.  I think his teeth were just uncomfortable, meaning his mouth had to be propped open.  He then took us on quite the adventure—I’ve never been on a bus which did a u-turn in the middle of the street before!

It’s always quite interesting to have Naz’s South African perspective to be honest.  She describes Russia, even the cities (themselves a world away from the rest of the country), as being like the undeveloped parts of South Africa, or akin to the more dilapidated and uncared-for cities.  We started talking about different countries’ equivalents of bogans, about the trashy clothes, the bad hair, the grab and run attitude that you can’t go a day without seeing in Russia.  Incidentally, at this point I think I have to establish some kind of bogan scale, because nobody ever knows what the hell I’m talking about.  Basically, ‘bogan’ is Australian for a non-violent, opinionated person of typically low education or socio-economic status.  But I’m an idiot and didn’t make this graph 3d in order to incorporate opinions:

On a very much related note, someone peed in the lift to Naz’s flat.  The only way into the building, and someone decided it would serve better as a urinal.  And not even once, but multiple times in the week!  Eventually someone cracked and wrote “НЕ ПИСАЙТЕ В ЛИФТЕ!”, “don’t piss in the lift!”.  The next day, someone had rubbed out the не/don’t.  Next step in the battle was someone rewriting in the не, and also adding the same text in bright red on the other wall of the lift.  Who the fuck has a piss-battle over a lift?!

Anyhoo.  One of the few inconveniences associated with living in Russia is the fact that the water gets turned off in summer.  Usually just the hot water, though it could go either way.  And we’re not talking about an especially balmy country here—there are no palm fronds in sight.  Of course, the most inconvenient part is the fact that you’re not told when the water will be turned off, nor how long it will be turned off for.  Usually it’s a few weeks to just over a month, but it could really be any time.  And we don’t understand why—it’s not like other far-northern countries do this, though the Russian explanation seems to be something to do with checking the pipes.  How and what and why?!  Either way, it led to our  spending a couple of hours each day heating pots of water on the (ineffective) stove, then sploshing around in the bath scooping water over ourselves.

On one occasion Naz and I decided to go in search of a hairdresser, because washing your hair takes a fair bit of water, and doing it with freezing cold water isn’t that much fun.  After rather a number of hairdressers, we eventually found one that would wash our hair for under 1000 rubles (total rip-off), and who would let us go into the street with wet hair (though they thought we were crazy).  They were lovely, though Naz’s hairdresser was apparently pretty fond of booze, and smelled it.  Professionalism ftw!

I’m going to skip talking about dill and my hatred of it for the nth time, because it can really be summarised with (a) I hate dill (b) I always request ‘no dill’ (c) food always arrives with goddamn dill.  DILL IS DISGUSTING.

As mentioned in my post ‘Вернуться‘, I bumped into one of the managers of the brilliant Eclectic Translations in a book-store in Piter.  Eclectic is the company that did the English subtitles for Leviathan, the Yolki films, and a bazillion more—they’re brilliant.  Anyway I went to ‘Trannie’ (Translator) Tuesdays at their in-house bar a couple of times while in St Petersburg and had a fairly brilliant time drinking far too much wine.  The first time I went, I got rather unplannedly tipsy, and pretty much announced as much when walking in the door at Naz’s apartment.  She’d been expecting me, so had had water heating up on the stove for my bath.  I therefore found myself, post-vodka, sitting in an old rusty Soviet bath, washing myself in an inch or so of water, and happy as Larry.  Really all I needed was a rubber duck to complete the scene.  Naz then proceeded to take the piss out of everything, to my hysterical reaction.  My favourite line was “Fuck Zurich; I’ve never been to Switzerland, but I don’t think I like it.  Zurich poo-rich”.  Yup; much maturity was had.

I did learn one thing of particular interest, in relation to Russian border security.  One of Naz’s friends was due to come in on a cruise ship, and generally customers on a cruise apparently don’t need visas, as they are under the ‘captain’s cloak’ (ie the captain’s authority).  Not for Russia, though.  Recently the country decided to withdraw that privilege, in a fairly unprecedented (from what I gather) fashion.  So now there was a big ship full of people stuck in port.  However, in Russia there’s always a way, always a rule to be broken, always a way around.  In this case, passengers were told that as long as they booked a particular tour with a particular company (at an exorbitant price, no less), they could enter St Petersburg.  You couldn’t pay directly, though—you had to pay in euro, to a bank account in Norway.  Not sketchy.  Not sketchy at all.  (Russia never is.)

Colombiana Blanca

I received one of the greatest compliments of my life the other week.  It was, naturally, at the hands (voicebox?) of a Colombian.

I’ve said before how much I love Colombians [eg here and hereColombia blog posts].  I admire them for so many reasons: their friendliness, their hospitality, their passion, their overwhelming loveliness.  I feel like, with Colombians, you can walk around with your heart out, and nobody’s going to trample on you.  It’s honestly a great way to be.

As such, you can imagine how I felt when after a night drinking, two of my Colombian friends here said I was Colombian on the inside, that I was their “white Colombian”.  This has even persisted into sobriety!

Last Friday night we had a ‘Colombian dinner’, which I didn’t end up leaving until well after five in the morning.  My friend Sandra’s dad gave the most beautiful speech. welcoming me and us to their family.  He also told me, more personally, how hard they find life here.  Belgian culture is not at all that of Colombia.   It’s not that of many countries—I had a late-night conversation with one American guy, who told me thankfully how nice it was to speak to a ‘normal’ person.  Because a lot of non-Europeans find it hard here.  Hard and cold.

This perception is, of course, not limited to Colombians and Americans.  Even my housemate Mr Belgium has commented before how difficult he finds things here, and that most of his good friends are ex-pats, as he finds the people of his own country too cold and too difficult to get to know.  I’ve had a lot of conversations with a lot of people from different places, and when they drink enough wine they all start saying the same thing—Brussels is a very lonely  place.  A very meaningful one, sure—granted, there are some people here to be career bureaucrats, but a lot of people want things like ‘world peace’ and a resolution to climate change.  But, as one girl said to me in a bar recently, “people’s careers won’t keep them warm at night”.  And given how difficult it is to meet open-hearted people here, it’s only our careers that we have.  No wonder so many people here seem so sad.

On the upside, I’ve officially called it—it’s finally summer!!!

Не привыкайте никогда and squishy hearts.

“I used to be like you,” said my friend Louise, with the involuntary condescension common to happily married couples everywhere.  “Then I fell in love, and my heart got squishy.”

“Louise,” I replied, turning to her, “I only just barely stopped myself from pushing you down the stairs.  Don’t even!”

Louise laughed and thanked me for not pushing her down the stairs (she works next to me, so is used to the rage).  I think I was partially suffering from end-of-the-week exhaustion, but my goodness was it a trial of a week even without people preaching the virtues of romance.  Eugh, it’s like everybody suddenly realised that it was Valentine’s Day and they were single, and I have been inundated.  Phone; email; facebook; people on the street.  Thank goodness that’s over—and other than somehow agreeing to go out a couple of times in the next few weeks (and why? why?!!), I escaped unscathed.  I’m leaving the country again in 10 months; I’m not going to waste anyone’s time.

Romance is something I have been thinking about a lot for the last few months (eg here), partly because it’s something that as a traveller, I don’t get to play with much; and partly because of my book.  My novel is an absurdist fairytale, which gets more and more satirical as I redraft it—but fairytales are supposed to have happy endings, and everybody’s supposed to fall in love.  However, that’s so very different to real life, and I like to write the truth as much as I can, even if it’s in a very silly way.  What’s more, everything the rest of the world seems to find romantic seems like destructive bullshit to me.  I mean, 50 Shades of Grey?  Abuse!  (As opposed to a trusting bdsm relationship.  Also, for the best book review ever, see here—I actually couldn’t bring myself to read Twilight fan fic mommy porn, so read Katrina’s review instead).  On the topic of Twilight, how is a really, really old guy stalking, harassing and obsessing over  a teenager romantic?  And how is all the angst?  Eugh, and speaking of angst, why does every chic flick ever either (a) promote battle of the sexes bullshit (this isn’t a freaking war, people!) or (b) have miscommunication as the entire premise of the movie?  Oh, you didn’t say what you meant, and then you cried about it, and then you said it after all but it was too late, and then you went and tried to get over it while silently moping, and then finally your life was vindicated when the other party ‘fessed up and now everything’s all hunky freaking dory?  How is that something to aspire to?!?!  And then there’s the freaking books.  I read about fifty romance books last year trying to get a feel for writing in that style, and it was all so annoying.  God, it’s like every single one had some difficult love triangle (I don’t understand how you could be in love with two people at the same time), or some man in need of reforming (how about you just don’t date douchebags—hypocrisy accepted), or just lots of sex scenes which the protagonist inevitably views as romantic, even when they’re blatantly not (how about you come to terms with your sexuality, and don’t need to justify or confuse it with love?).

Google has let me down, but I once read something by John Cleese which pointed out that there’s very little difference between the prescriptions of romanticism and the symptoms of clinical depression.  It was funnier when he said it, but.  So do I think romance is dead/fiddy-faddy/whatever?  No, not at all.  In writing the book, I couldn’t figure out whether I was desperately cynical, or desperately romantic—and I really feel like they should be opposites.  I think I’m going to make a table.  Yup, it’s table time.

What culture tells me is romantic

  • abuse
  • angst
  • obsession
  • miscommunication
  • stalking
  • love triangles
  • ‘fixing’ somebody

What I think is romantic

  • trust
  • intimacy
  • compassion
  • respect
  • loyalty
  • acceptance
  • partnership

Stoopid culture.

The other thing that really bothers me is summed up pretty nicely in this quote from the only gossip page worth reading (so hilariously harsh, it’s irresistible):

[W]hile they’re hot, the majority of non-famous chicks think they’ll be hot forever, so they date and bang bar owners, DJs, club promoters, tattoo artists, and musicians. Then when they hit 28, they’ll marry the first dude who calls them back the morning. That’s usually Harold in accounting with the 2004 Chrysler Seabreeze because he’s gone more than a year without his power being disconnected.

It can’t be just me who sees this every day, right?  People (usually ones who don’t know me very well) tell me that I should just ‘choose someone’, and as long as they’re nice to me, who cares?  Well, me.  Because as one of my favourite blog entries ever so eloquently put it, sometimes people are an ellipsis and not a period.  The rest of my life is like a book, why can’t this be, too?  And if I can’t have the Big Love, if I can’t be with someone who’s as hungry for worlds and places as I am, who I can truly love and trust, then why would I choose an unsettling mediocrity over the life I have now?  It’s incomprehensible.

And now, because it seems timely and appropriate and super Russian, here’s my (quick and dirty) translation of Edward Asadov’s poem “Never Give Up on Love” (Эдуард Асадов, “Не привыкайте никогда к любви”).  Corrections are of course welcome.  Also note that I translated “не привыкайте” variously as ‘never give up’ and ‘never get used to’.  As usual I went for idiomatic rather than literal translation, like with Я Вас Любил (Пушкина, конечно!) a while back.  And yes, there’s one sentence which I just had no idea how to translate.  You’ll see it.

Не привыкайте никогда к любви!
Не соглашайтесь, как бы ни устали,
Чтоб замолчали ваши соловьи
И чтоб цветы прекрасные увяли.

И, главное, не верьте никогда,
Что будто всё проходит и уходит.
Да, звёзды меркнут, но одна звезда
По имени Любовь всегда-всегда
Обязана гореть на небосводе!

Не привыкайте никогда к любви,
Разменивая счастье на привычки,
Словно костёр на крохотные спички,
Не мелочись, а яростно живи!

Не привыкайте никогда к губам,
Что будто бы вам издавна знакомы,
Как не привыкнешь к солнцу и ветрам
Иль ливню средь грохочущего грома!

Да, в мелких чувствах можно вновь и вновь
Встречать, терять и снова возвращаться,
Но если вдруг вам выпала любовь,
Привыкнуть к ней – как обесцветить кровь
Иль до копейки разом проиграться!

Не привыкайте к счастью никогда!
Напротив, светлым озарясь гореньем,
Смотрите на любовь свою всегда
С живым и постоянным удивленьем.

Алмаз не подчиняется годам
И никогда не обратится в малость.
Дивитесь же всегда тому, что вам
Заслужено иль нет – судить не нам,
Но счастье в мире всё-таки досталось!

И, чтоб любви не таяла звезда,
Исполнитесь возвышенным искусством:
Не позволяйте выдыхаться чувствам,
Не привыкайте к счастью никогда.

Never give up on love!
Do not resolve, no matter how tired,
To silence the nightingales of your heart
And allow those beautiful flowers to wither.

And, most importantly, never believe
That things all come and go.
Yes, stars fade, but one star
called Love always always
continues to blaze bright in the heavens!

Never give up on love,
Exchanging happiness for habit,
Like a flaming bonfire for tiny matches,
Don’t trifle with such things, and passionately live.

Never get used to those lips,
As though you’re too long familiar,
Like you never get used to the sun nor the winds
nor downpour amidst the booming thunder!

Yes, petty feelings can exist again and again—
Be met, lost and regained once more—
But if you find yourself amidst love,
Immerse yourself like your very blood has changed
Or to the last drop the time you’ll fritter and lose!

Never get used to happiness!
Unlike the dawning light of combustion,
View your love always
With lively and constant surprise.

Love, like a diamond, disobeys the years
And never becomes small.
Marvel always at that, whether you consider it
Deserved or not. Judge ourselves not,
For happiness exists in the world regardless.

And so, love is not a fading star,
But an art inevitable and sublime:
Don’t let your emotions lose their breath,
Never, ever give up on your happily-ever-after.

Magical Realism

“Guys, is it very important that you understand what the fuck has been happening here the last sixty years,” said our tour guide.  I was on the free walking tour in Medellin, and our guide Pablo was about to explain Colombia’s history in a nut-shell.  Not, might I add, an easy thing to do.  When I told my students in Russia that I was going to Colombia, they were worried about me: it’s clearly a place under the duress of massive stigma and a culture of misunderstanding.

I am in love with Latino writing, and more specifically their use of magical realism.  The first book in the style I ever read was Laura Esquivel’s Like Water for Chocolate, and it was so vivid that I feel like I can still taste the chilli, smell the chocolate, and see the sister running off with her lover on horse-back.  Gabriel Garcia Marquez is one of the most famous writers in the field, and it was only actually last week that I learned he was Colombian.  He’s from a small coastal town, which has a completely different culture to that in Medellin: but nonetheless, I can understand how magical realism started in Colombia.  It’s in every minute of every day.

Medellin became rich thanks to a railroad, built on the back of 250 years of gold mining.  As in Marquez’ One Hundred Years of Solitude, it was the arrival of the train that changed everything.  Suddenly, a previously inaccessible world was opened up, with drastic social and economic consequences.  Subsistence became industry, and with the ‘discovery’ of coffee by the West in the mid-1800s, export brought money into the country.  The train was almost literally an engine of progress, and it would later be another locomotive—in the form of Medellin’s metro system—that helped to keep peoples’ heads above water during drug cartel domination.  It’s a matter of great pride for the city, and as Pablo pointed out, the metro itself is spotlessly clean.  It almost feels unused.  The announcements over the loud-speaker are also atypical, my favourite being “Smiling is good for the soul.  There is always a reason to smile.  And it is part of the metro culture.”  Medellin’s is the only metro system in the country, and really is a symbol of hope.

Pablo later told us about the deaths of 22,000 civilian deaths in 1985.  “The left took justice and raped it, then the right took justice and raped it, then one week later nature took it and slapped it in the face.”  Most of the deaths were due to an earthquake, which followed clashes between guerrillas and government forces in Bolivar Square (Bogota) by barely a week.  Listening to him describe it, I was reminded of ‘Bloody Sunday’, a day in Russia’s history where ~1000 civilians were killed or injured by the Tsar’s forces in Palace Square, St Petersburg.  It struck me, not for the first time, that human history is one of violence, while all of the great love stories are lies.  Happily, however, Colombians don’t think like that: instead, they forget.  Hence, you have these strange contradictions between a country which is still in civil war and an incredibly happy populace; one wasted and helpless man being searched by police in the square while his companion unconcernedly and involvedly blows bubbles in the air next to him.

But what of the drugs?  Colombians must love cocaine, right?  We all know that it comes from here, and a lot of tourists come here for that reason: surely they bring money into the country.  In Pablo’s words, “the only thing we owe drugs is pain, blood, suffering and stigma.”  As a man named Pablo from Medellin, he’s inevitably searched whenever he travels, but it’s not just that.  There’s the fact that for every 1 gram of coke produced, 4 square metres of rainforest is destroyed.  Moreover, it’s coke that has fuelled the violence in this country.  What was once a conflict between Left and Right (and don’t forget, this is against the backdrop of the Cold War, and nearby Cuba had just switched to Communism) became all-out guerrilla war-fare when drug cartels played one side against the other in order to protect their crops.  That in turn brought money, which only served to escalate the conflict further.  Hundreds of thousands have died in the war which has been ongoing since 1964, most of them civilians.

And what of religion?  Surely Colombians are devout Catholics?  Not quite: “in Colombia, religion is used as soap.  Get your hands dirty, then go and get some soap.”  We saw this with our own eyes, with one church surrounded by wasted sex workers, and another with back-alleys full of porn.

Happily, however, things are changing for Colombia.  More and more areas are becoming safe, tourists are starting to come, and people no longer have to be afraid of assassination while in their own homes.  Part of this is thanks to education: in Medellin, libraries have been built in the middle of slums.  Our ever-eloquent tour guide explained that they are the “needle of the slums”, and that they’re serving to lance away many of the problems faced.  Today’s featured image is from the ‘city of light’: a massive stand of tall lights by a library in the centre of the city, which only 15 years ago was too dangerous to go into.

When I was reading One Hundred Years of Solitude, I found it very difficult to keep track of who was who.  Everybody was either Jose or Aureliano, and it covers six generations.  After a while, the individuality of each of the characters was blurred, and what became important was the cycles of history, and moreover the cumulative events that occurred.  Rather than dwelling on individual tragedies, instead it became this build-up of progressively fantastical events, until the minor happinesses and obsessions of each character all join together to create this vibrant tapestry which is beyond life itself: and that’s how Colombia feels to me.  Pablo said that “I think we Colombians forget on purpose,” and it seems almost as if this creates the blurring featured in Marquez’ book.  Rather than remember the massacres and warfare, assassinations and fear, Colombia’s history instead becomes a montage of minor World Cup victories, of winning stages of the Tour de France, of saving itself, and a metro that represents it all.  It’s ultimate magical realism, wherein the good things are divine moments, and the rest is subsumed by comparison.


You can book Pablo’s unmissable tour here.