A NORTH AMERICAN GOES SOUTH
The “New World” of the West that Columbus discovered in 1492 can be divided into the region of Spanish influence and the region of English influence. Geographically, North America (excepting Mexico) is the land of English influence, and Central and South America is the land of Spanish influence. We English-speaking people vacation freely within the US and Canada; the Latin Americans usually vacation in Central and South America. Few Americans or Canadians speak Spanish; few South Americans speak English. The cultures between the two spheres of influence are very different also. So traveling between the two regions presents and interesting contrast for travelers.
I have traveled to South America many times now, visiting Argentina, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru and Uruguay. I like traveling to that area for a good reason. Like visiting the Czech Republic, travelling in South America seems inexpensive for Americans.
This visit I traveled to the coast of Colombia to visit a friend and take an Easter vacation in the historic Cartagena. The charm of this city and inhabitants did not disappoint me.
Gasoline is cheap in Colombia, since it is an exporter of petroleum. So Colombians have many cars, like people in the United States. Unfortunately, they lack something for cars- parking places. If you stay in a nice hotel in the United States anywhere except New York, you are almost guaranteed a free parking place. Not so in Cartagena, as in much of the rest of Colombia. There might be a convenient parking place, but then there may not be one, either. The hotel staff tries to help visitors as best they can, but always often the demand for parking exceeds the supply.
Here is something really strange: the police do not often control parking by issuing tickets with fines. Who controls it? Very poor unemployed people of the streets do. They seem to manage the flow of parking, but for a price. A street close to an attraction is crowded with cars? No problem, they will show you to the nearest small space and help you squeeze your car into it. They may even help you drive your car onto the sidewalk!
You park your car, and these fellows remain in the area, vigilant over your car, protecting it from theft and damage. When you return, they help you drive out of the space. Then you pay them. Not much- usually less than half a US dollar. What happens if you do not agree to pay them? Something bad will happen to your car.
Can I Sell You Anything?
Like many other
countries with high unemployment, Colombia has people trying to earn a living by
selling things. The quantity of
vendors will amaze you. On the beach, A vendor approaches you about every 45
seconds. Just imagine!
Colombians must be some of the most patient people in the world.
Without getting angry, they are always stopping their conversations to
say “No, Gracias!” (“No, thank you!”) to yet another vendor.
Here is a partial
list of vendors who approached us at the beach: a woman selling fruit, a man
selling cigarettes, a young boy selling sweets, Indian girls selling rugs, a man
selling sunglasses, a man selling crabs, a man selling ice cream, a man selling
jewelry, a man selling toys, and a man selling cold drinks.
I cannot even remember the rest of them. There is one type of vendor I am glad I did not ignore: women giving massages on the beach. Wow, their treatments were great! These women lacking formal education give massages lasting thirty minutes. It costs about 6 dollars US. Sometimes they even use fresh coconut juice during the message.
Colombia, like other
countries, has three distinct groups of people.
There are white people, who are descendents of the Spanish. There are
Black people, who are descendents of slaves. There are Indian people, who mostly
live apart in rural areas. Then
there are people who are mixes of these racial groups.
Colombia is a place where nobody pays much attention to what race a person is. It is really refreshing. People of different races seem to work together in harmony without animosity or envy. I wish we were so lucky in the United States? Why is it like this in Colombia? I am happy about it, and I would like to know. One reason might be that the government there does not have any misguided programs telling employers who they must hire and which people the colleges must admit. People are not constantly reminded about race. Political parties do not form along racial divisions. People seem to thing of others as merely people, and not members of racial groups.
Another thing I cannot figure out about Colombia is why their youth are so normal. In the United States, it is rare for a teenaged boy not to have an ear pierced. That is about the least weird place that a teenager might have pierced. Other places might include a tongue, a lip, an eyebrow, a nose, or a stomach. I cannot remember seeing any man in Colombia with pierced ears, or any woman with anything except pierced ears.
I did not see any tattoos, either. I think more women in the US than men have tattoos now. And many are in highly conspicuous places, too: the ear, the arm, the neck, and the leg. These youth will regret their decisions in twenty years when their tattoos are faded and ugly. I cannot remember seeing one Colombian with a tattoo. Why would there be such a difference between cultures?
The clothes of Colombian youth appeared surprisingly normal also. For some reason, many American youth like to draw attention to themselves by wearing bizarre clothing, often including vulgar language on it. I cannot remember seeing similar clothing in Colombia. Colombians dress very conservatively, except for some rather seductive women’s fashions!
Do You Hear Any Silence?
The answer is probably no, if you are anywhere in Colombia. Colombians like a lot of music, and they like it LOUD. “Salsa” music, “techno” dance music, music of the Indians, and the last arrival, Arabic, may all be heard throughout any big city. Loud music is everywhere- on the bus, in taxis, restaurants, shops, cars, and of course in bars and discos. The quantity of popular music is amazing, both in its pervasiveness and its volume. It is hard to talk without shouting in a Colombian disco.
I drove to the top of a mountain to visit a historical church on Saturday evening. The panoramic view of Cartagena was famous. The panorama of sounds was also incredible. Beneath us were hundreds of houses of poor Colombians. From every corner beneath the mountain, I heard loud popular music. It was an incredible mix of sounds. The bass notes were so loud, a person might believe an army was approaching with cannon firing. It was certainly nice to get in our car and listen to some cassette tapes of European Baroque composers. “Art” music by European composers is about the only kind of music not popular in Colombia.
Colombians excel in celebration more than anything else. The Carnival in Barranquilla is not exceeded anywhere else except in Rio de Jainero, Brazil. Almost anything can be turned into a celebration of many days. Besides being a religious day, Easter is turned into a week-long excuse for a vacation. Christmas provides more days for celebration, as well as Independence Day. Colombians love to celebrate, and they really know how to throw a party. A person will never have so much fun as to go to a celebration in Colombia.
If a tourist is careful to travel in areas without guerillas, he will hardly find a place to have more fun with less money. Every time I go to Colombia I have more fun. It is a place quite different than Europe, and worth the time to visit.
Here is a photograph- a study in black and white- I receive my wonderful message on the beach!