Happy Birthday to me! 17 years in Colombia and still … huh?

Well, it’s been seventeen years since I first arrived to Colombia. I flew into the Pereira airport after a two-day travesty of missed flights, missed connections (winter winter winter weather) and a blubbering meltdown in the Miami airport because of said missed flights. Finally, after spending the night in a paid-for-by-sympathetic-airline hotel, I boarded a flight for Bogota where a nice flight attendant ushered me into a small waiting room. Then I boarded the flight to Pereira, experienced a very bumpy bumpy landing, and walked down the Avianca stairs onto the tarmac. There was a crowd of people at a fence waving at me, and I felt totally and completely … terrified.

This is my home now.  I married a Colombian (love this guy!) and have two Colombo-American daughters. (More Colombian than American). Much to my dismay, they don’t like peanut butter. I know. And Cheerios are marginally acceptable to them.  I know. I know. It’s hard for me to wrap my brain around that one.

So, as I said, Colombia is home. But I’ve realized that I’ll always be a foreigner here, and there are some things I just don’t get. It’s taken me a long time to come to terms with these, “Huh?” things. But I’ve accepted them and have learned to question less, shrug my shoulders, and instead of “huh?” I say, “Hmmm.”  (Mostly to myself, though, because I can’t deal with another explanation of the inexplicable!)
(And I’m WELL aware many Colombians look at me and the things I do and say “huh?” too!)

Weird product-combos:
The idea, I think, behind giving free products when someone purchases a product is to either introduce the customer to a new line of products similar to what the customer already is buying or give a bonus product that most customers combine with the purchased product. (Say that ten times fast.) I’m not in advertising or marketing, but it seems that that would make sense. 

dandruff shampoo with a free dulce de leche sample; milk with free pencils; razors with canned sardines …

It’s kind of like bacon gumballs. Just …huh?
These are just the ones I remember. I’m not making this up. I’m simply not this creative.

Semantics, semantics, semantics:
Ahora (ahorita)

Ahora literally means “now.” Now, however, does not exist in Colombia. For instance, if you were to shout out, “Oh, look out! A bus is going to run you over ahora.” The guy would be one smashed frogger. Just by using “ahora”, you’re suggesting he has oodles of time. So, if  nothing is now … what is now? And if Colombians swear by living in the “now” but don’t have “now” …
“Huh?” I know! This, do not be fooled, is Colombian, not Spanish.

Me (while working in cafe in Spain): Would you like more coffee.
Spanish guy: Mas tarde (later)
Me: Okay. Ahora.
Spanish guy: No. mas tarde.
Me: I know. Ahorita.
Spanish guy (clearly irritated by the stupid American. They don’t like us much over there, you know): I said mas tarde.
Me (muttering): Damn ahora 
The only time I’ve heard a Colombian use ahora meaning now was when I was in labor. 
Doctor: Oh. It looks like she’s coming ahora.
Me (moving to get up): 
Doctor: Where are you going?
Me: To vaccuum. I have lots of time (major nesting happening here). Uff. What’s that weird pressure?
Doctor: The baby. She’s coming ahora.
Me: Ahora as in ahora or ahora as in ahora?

Trust me. While in labor, it’s not the best time to get in a semantic discussion with your Ob/Gyn.
In Colombia, they call blondes “mona.” Colombians love nicknames. It’s never meant in a derogatory way, and I think it’s kind of nice. So, let’s take the Colombian blonde test:
Which of these members of my family are mona(o)?

If you said, “all of the above,” you are right!
Yeah. I don’t get it, either.

Interpretive Traffic Signals:
Red is greenish, never really red. Green is always green, even if it’s red. And yellow is more of a sign to rev your engines and hit the gas. Basically, if you’re crossing the street, run like hell.

El sereno (serenar):
Here, people always talk about el sereno in whispers and almost always as if it were a menacing thing.  Of course I didn’t speak Spanish when I arrived, so imagine when somebody told me that her uncle got pneumonia because of el sereno, I was freaked out thinking, “Oh shit. Do they have a vaccination for that stuff?”
Literally, serenar means to go out in the evening.
Yep. That’s it.
And people here are terrified of the deathly effects of “el sereno”. Most people here have never lived in snow. So when we’re in the tropics, and temperatures drop to the low sixties, panic sets in if somebody has a sniffle.
“Don’t you serenar or you could kick it.”
“What happened to Phil?” “Bronchitis?” “Did he serenar?” “Yeah. Silly, silly Phil.”

Living with parents:

I get that a lot of the time people live with family members because of economics. I’m talking about the Latin cultural aspect of it here. It’s very much the same in Spain, France, Italy … and Colombia. People live with their parents long after high school, college, getting a steady job, becoming economically independent.
I just don’t get it. (Just as they don’t get why we don’t, I suppose.)  

 Maybe if I stick around another 17 years, I’ll be able to resolve (in my very core) one of these things. Plus, I might have daughters who never, ahem, leave the nest. Who knows what will be?
Until then, I’m grateful that I have a beautiful home surrounded by beautiful people who tend to be terrified of evenings.

Happy Birthday to me! I love you, Colombia.

Now THIS is a Beauty Pageant … Colombia from the Hip

Colombia is the land of flowers, coffee, dance and really beautiful women. It’s unnatural how consistently beautiful the women are here. Honestly, I sometimes look around me and wonder if they made some kind of genetic beauty pact with the devil years ago. Nevertheless, after so many years here, I’ve grown accustomed to them, and a little tired, I must say, of all the baggage that comes with the cult of beauty. The “Princess Complex” gets a little tiresome.
So it’s no surprise to anybody who knows me or has read this blog that I pretty much despise beauty pageants, runways etc. etc. etc. There’s so much more to a human being than silicone implants and swaying hips! But when friend called Cesar to tell him to stop by the studio he set up to photograph these beauties, we couldn’t resist.
THIS is a beauty pageant — with all the pomp and feathers, color and pizazz, and … chicken shit that comes with it! THIS is style.

Most Likely to Become Sancocho

Mr. Congeniality

Best Hair (Nobody tell him Farrah Fawcett hair is passe)

Best Talent

Next Gillette Icon … Shave Those Feet

As always, I really try to find books to tie into what I write about … So, recommended rooster, or ridiculous beauty pageant reads are as follows:

December 9 and December 10 … Colombia From the Hip

I’m going to take a short pause from a book a day to give you a glimpse into Colombia’s Festival of Lights. December 7th and 8th, Colombians (and most Catholics, I imagine), celebrate The Festival of the Immaculate Conception. And it happens to be one of my favorite Colombian traditions. The streets line with colorful lanterns and glow with the soft light of candles. Then, of course, there are the fireworks and craziness that go with it.
What I love, though, is that it’s a festival of sharing. Parents and children light candles together. There’s a sense of awe that comes with candlelight and shimmery, rich colors.
Candles are used in ceremonies around the world. Sailor’s wives and mothers used to keep candles lit in their windows until a sailor returned safe from his journey at sea. Candles are lit at churches to say a prayer, remember someone, ask for help … the mystery of fire is like a messenger to the Gods.
I moved to Colombia in 1997. My dad also believed in the magic of light and candles. He found a candle-shaped light bulb and put it in the window to remain lit until my return home. And, because my dad NEVER did anything without thinking it through, he had a slew of backup light bulbs on hand. That light was never  turned off. He’d call me and say, “The light’s still on.”
I’m sure I appreciated it.
But not as much as I should’ve.
And I’m sure I smiled and rolled my eyes and said, “Dad, you don’t have to have a light on for me. I’m not out at sea or anything.”
He did, though. He kept the light on for me. So after two years in Colombia, I decided to stay. I was pretty head over heels for that guy in the picture up there and thought I’d stick around to see what happened. (Two beautiful daughters and a wonderful life is what happened.)
Dad kept the light on. Waiting for me to return home.
Cesar and I lived in Europe and Asia. We backpacked all over Europe, ASia, and South America. At some time, and I’m not sure when, Dad put the light away. I think he decided that with Cesar, I’d found my home.
So this past weekend, I lit a lot of lanterns, and I made wishes and sent love up into the stars because I know Dad’s found his home.
I miss him. I miss knowing there’s a light in the window for me. But it’s my turn to turn the light on for him, to remember him, to send messages up to him through the magic of a flame.

So, Dad, the light’s still on.

2012: What were the odds that …

This year is the year: What were the odds … in honor of Mike, my main character in WANTED and a high school bookie.
So to start off 2012: What were the odds that I’d still be in Colombia after 15 years!!

Okay, technically we traveled a lot and lived all over the world, but truth be told, I arrived to Colombia 15 years ago this month. What were the odds I’d STILL be here? (My work contract was only for two years. Boy have I milked that sucker!)
So, it’s officially my Quinceañera … Where’s the party? Where are the rose petals, fancy dresses, hoopla??  I WANT A CAKE!!!
Honestly, though, upon reflection (though nobody’s really celebrating my big 15), there are two things that have cracked my world open and really, REALLY, formed my life.

1. Moving to Colombia when I was 23
2. Becoming a mother

I know. What about love and marriage and college and travel and being an aunt and GETTING TO BE AN AUTHOR (which, I must say is like icing and strawberries and cherries on the cake) and all that stuff? Absolutely those are milestones, but the two things that have most profoundly impacted my life (thus far) are stated above. So today, I’m going to take a little moment to tip my hat to Colombia, the gifts its given me, and the things I’ve learned since I immigrated here! (Yep, I’m one of those … AN IMMIGRANT!)

Lessons from Colombia (a hodgepodge of tidbits …)
1. Family doesn’t necessarily mean you share the same DNA strand. Family comes from the heart.
2. The friend of the postman of the cousin of the sister of your boyfriend will always be welcome at a party!
3. Now doesn’t mean now. Tomorrow doesn’t mean tomorrow. There’s really no rhyme or reason so just go with it and stop trying to figure out Colombian time.
4. Traffic lights are merely suggestions … as with most traffic signs. 
5. Work hard to live. Living doesn’t mean things and possessions but friends, music, family, smiles, unforgettable moments.
6. It’s not really wise to smile and wave at those guys who shout out, “Hey Monita!” Unless you want stalkers.
7. Every taxi driver in Colombia has an uncle in New Jersey.
8. Music is part of everything.
9. I will NEVER walk like a Colombian woman. *sigh*
10. There’s no such thing as too-tight-jeans in Colombia.
11. There’s always time for a friend.
12. “Impossible” doesn’t exist here.
13. Everybody talks at the same time — about different things — and as confusing as this may seem, it’s like watching chaos take form and it all makes sense … sometimes.
14. There’s never too small a reason to have a party. (Once some friends of ours had a big party to celebrate a little gazebo they built at their farm.) 😉
15. Happiness is a choice … Colombians choose happiness every day.
16. I’ve lived, and continue to live, a life a privilege. From this privilege comes a social responsibility to make my community better by sharing and giving the best of me.
17. Dancing is imperative … or else you will have NO SOCIAL LIFE. (Yep, I know how to salsa!!)
18. There’s more plastic here in a square kilometer than at an International Tupperware Convention … these boobs don’t sag!
19. Motels aren’t for sleep.
20. “The heart’s memory eliminates the bad and magnifies the good.” (Gabriel Garcia Marquez)

Colombia is far from perfect. The social differences are staggering. Racism and classism are omnipresent. No society is perfect, and I’ve had the privilege to learn and continue to take the best of Colombia I can. It has made me, I believe, a better person: more tolerant, more aware, more appreciate of the United States as well as aware of the flaws of my country.  Colombia is my home.
Colombia, I love you. I’m grateful for all you’ve given me. I’m grateful that you’ve accepted me, my funny ways, and the accent that just won’t go away. Every day I learn from you.
Happy Birthday to me!
What were the odds??

The Year of Prime … On the Eighth and Ninth day of December

“I survived the Bunuelado, 2011” … I should get a t-shirt that says this. 🙂 A bunuelado, you ask??
December is “THE MONTH OF THE BUNUELO AND NATILLA” in Colombia. Bunuelos are like donuts, but instead of being sugary, they’re made with cheese and are delicious fried balls of wonder. Natilla is a cinnamon-like jell-o/pudding sweet that, though slimy in texture, is pretty tasty (if you can get past the slime).
The seventh and eighth are THE ALUMBRADO in Colombia. Being Catholic, this is the celebration of the immaculate conception and pretty much marks the beginning of the madness to come! It’s really pretty. Everybody lights lanterns (even kids!) … the glow of light is exquisite.
Every year, we have a party at the farm. We invite a choir to sing Christmas carols and eat bunuelos and natilla until, really, I don’t want to see another one for a year. There’s a catch. We also have the contest of THE BEST BUNUELO.
Since the dough can be “molded”, we hand dough out. We have trophies, a panel of judges, and pretty much everybody (adults and kids) get into it. (We now have two categories). And, if you’re skilled, you can go home with THE GOLD, SILVER OR BRONZE BUNUELO.

Clark Griswold would have trouble competing with this. Hello Vegas!

Lighting Lanterns

The Golden Bunuelo goes to … the Pig

I also have a book recommendation! (Of course!) I just thought you ought to know why I was so absent yesterday … Keeping it “light” (teehee … okay, I’m tired. My puns aren’t really up to par.), I recommend a great book for that person who has “everything” and you really don’t know what to give. It’s also a good book for those who aren’t big readers but are curious.  AN UNCOMMON HISTORY OF COMMON THINGS (A National Geographic Publication) has half-page length explanations of how things came to be — everything from indoor plumbing and pizza to kites and capitalization/punctuation. It’s fascinating!

The Year of Prime … On the Seventh Day of December

Today madness begins. Well, it began a couple weeks ago but now Colombia jumps into the nonstop (literally) December celebrations with the Alumbrado. (pics up on Friday since it’s today and tomorrow!) Anyway, to commemorate Colombia and celebrate its exuberance (to say the least … yes, I’m bracing myself for the next twenty-four days of insanity), I’m recommending COLOMBIA: A NEW VISION by Santiago Harker.
Santiago Harker is an accomplished photographer who has spent his life traveling Colombia and capturing magical moments. We just went to one of his exhibitions this past week. The light, life, color, and dimension of his photos is indescribable. This is a truly exquisite journey into the Colombia I love, not the one we so often see misconstrued in the media. Open the pages and join me exploring the world I love!

Happy Reading!

The Year of Prime … The Lamentable Act of Banning … or worse NOT READING!

I miss banning. I miss people getting offended about a book and making a stink. I miss the debate about whether or not a book is appropriate and should be removed from the shelves.

This is a weird lament considering I’m an author and find any kind of censorship appalling. But when I hear about a censored, banned, or challenged book in the States, part of me feels a sense of longing because that can ONLY happen when there are readers. (Certainly misguided, ignorant readers, but readers nonetheless. And, yes, I’m aware most banning happens when a parent, administrator, blockhead, whoever hasn’t actually READ the book but HEARD about the book.) Here, though, when I mention book banning, I sometimes, very rarely, get a response akin to: Oh yeah. That happened to me in the 1970s when there was this popular erotic poet. My parents FREAKED out when I was reading his work.

And then the topic changes from books to something very not book related. This is because, quite simply, people don’t read in Colombia. I’m not saying they CAN’T read, but the habit of reading, joy of reading is virtually non-existent. In Pereira, the average book read PER YEAR is fewer than one. (This counts ALL SCHOOL CHILDREN WHO ARE “FORCED” TO READ BOOKS).

People FIGHT to read in some places. People DIE to read in some places. I live in a place where this freedom is there … at all times … but it’s not cherished.

Excuses abound:
Time. “I don’t have time.” (This makes NO sense to me since I always have time to read … ALWAYS. It’s just part of my daily habit. It’s like eating. Sleeping. Reading. Essential daily activities.)
Expense. “Books are expensive.” (Welcome to the world of the library!)
Interest. “There’s nothing to read.” (*faint*)

See what I’m getting at here?

So book banning is a conversation we can’t have until we have book reading.  So maybe I don’t miss banners after all.

I miss readers.

The Year of Prime … Dios a Domicilio … Soccer Mania … Colombia from the Hip

Okay. I’ve been slack.
Big time.
Time is no excuse since I know every blogger out there in bloggersphere has lots to do as well. Many have kids, full time jobs, but it seems all manage to maintain their blogs. I, however, do not.
That said, I’m back … though I can’t really promise this will be as regular as I dream. And I’m back with a rant, a rave, and A GIVEAWAY! (So that’s not SOOOO bad)

I live in Colombia, for those who didn’t know, and am surrounded by the world of Catholicism. Which is fine. I was raised in a Christian tradition, baptized Lutheran, and many of the Catholic beliefs and values are what I was taught as a little girl. But there’s something that just bugs the hell out of me here: mass … everywhere. In shopping malls, grocery stores, tennis clubs, country clubs and more, mass services are given. EVERYWHERE. Like everywhere. Priests even go to people’s apartment complexes to give mass. Now, I’m all for portable holy water — it’s almost comical to me to think of portable holy water, actually. Sure, we’re in a world in which we need all the drops of goodness we can get, but what bugs me (besides the fact I’m not Catholic and don’t like mass and don’t really want to hear it EVERYWHERE I GO) is the idea that now God comes to your door if you’re too bloody lazy to go to church. Harsh? Yep. I know it sounds brutal, but to me the idea of religion for those who practice is a sense of sacrifice. A sense of commitment outside of our regular day-to-day activities. So, if I’m too freaking lazy to go to church, but it’s CONVENIENT for me to have mass at the mall or country club where it doesn’t interrupt my day too much so I can have my coffee, meet with friends and do a little shopping, it all seems WRONG. And invasive. Dude, I don’t want to hear your mass and services. Really. I don’t. If I did, I’D GO TO CHURCH. Really. So this whole tendency of take-out God services just bugs me. Keep your church and services in your church, and let me buy my mangoes in peace. And if you can’t manage to get to church or a cathedral or wherever you want to be to pray, then it probably isn’t that important to you to begin with.

Colombia put on one of the most beautiful, organized World Cup tournaments ever!! And I’m so proud. Our local stadium was revamped for this occasion and is, without a doubt, one of the classiest, most gorgeous stadiums I’ve ever been in. (And I’ve been to Camp Nou in Barcelona and Boca’s Bonbonera in Buenos Aires.) I think it’s given a little uumph to our local team, Pereira, too. Last night they beat Equidad in Bogota … and pretty much need a near-perfect season to NOT drop down to B … So, hopefully it’s an inspiration to play pretty amazing and win, like every game, this season. Yep. We kind of need a miracle here for Deportivo Pereira. If that miracle comes in the form of a new stadium, that works for me!

As promised, a giveaway!! Click over on the cool GOODREADS button to the side and win a signed paperback of COMPROMISED.

The Year of Prime and Colombia From the Hip …

THE Guiness Record.
Yep. I went to see a really really long chorizo on Saturday. A 1,917 meter long chorizo.

Think of it this way. It’s like going up the Burj Dubai (including its spire) and down and back up a third of the way with one LONG chorizo … Yes, making Oscar Meyer seem quite flaccid in comparison.
(I WILL refrain from any other inappropriate chorizo references because it’s way too easy, expected and inappropriate, right?)
Anyway, here’s the dish (literally): 900 kilos of meat, 500 kilos of fat, 50 kilos of condiments, and two-thousand meters of intestinal stuff to stuff it. 
Holy heart burn, Bat Man!.
So where did this cholesterol bomb get made? Santa Rosa, Risaralda — a small town about twenty minutes from where we live in Pereira. When Cesar told me that we’d have this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see the longest chorizo in the world, I didn’t hesitate quite simply because I doubt most people will be able to say they’ve seen such a thing. I mean, it is kind of cool.
So we drove up to the Santa Rosa and wandered through the crowds that packed like sausages (ha!) around the haz-mat-like looking tent with the workers intently stuffing the pig intestines.

… music blared over the speakers, people cheered, signs were posted everywhere celebrating the goal of 1400 (though it ended up being 1917 meters long!) and the Santarrosano pride.

And our daughter got her first traffic ticket. Apparently, you’re NOT allowed to ride livestock in a public park. Go figure. (The cow’s name is Chiquitolin. Her owner battled the authorities for the right to ride. Personally, I don’t think it’s such a bad idea to NOT have livestock in a plaza. But, well, Pamplona and other cities don’t necessarily set the best examples, letting bulls trample all over the town.) This does not bode well for our daughter’s future transit future. Her first “transportation” and she’s ticketed.

And after almost getting Chiquitolin, um, towed, the police let us off with a stern warning, and the owner led the cow to … well, I don’t really know where. We wandered around, checking out the chorizo progress, finding a beautiful cafe where we drank hot chocolate and decided it was time to end our adventure. The weather determined this since it started pissing rain.
Not to fear. The chorizo-lovers weren’t deterred so easily. I guess we’re a bit wimpy.
There’s something magical about a city in celebration. I LOVE this about Colombia — their celebrations.  Colombians can find a reason to celebrate every day: music festivals, food, history … anything worth a *cheers* gets one. And most everything is worth celebration. There’s a general happiness here that I haven’t encountered elsewhere. They’re less broody, less gloomy, less existential angst-like. Colombians are quick to smile, quick to laugh, hot-headed but also quick to forgive. They talk loud, sing louder, interrupt each other constantly and ALWAYS are ready to tell you what they think. But there’s something about this openness and sincerity that’s endearing and, sure, infuriating. But Colombia wouldn’t be Colombia without it.
Today in Santa Rosa, they’re DEFINITELY not worried about counting calories, triglycerides and cholesterol. They’re not worried about heartburn and ulcers. Hell. They have a near two-kilometer sized chorizo to eat.
And we got a chance to see it. 

Colombia from the Hip! Working Hard …

SELLING MINUTES: People buy plans with several cell phone providers and sell minutes on several phones, wiring themselves to the phones so nobody will steal them.

HORSE-DRAWN CART: It’s common to see horse-drawn carts on the streets of Pereira (and killer for traffic at times). They’re contracted much like a truck … but they’re horses.