About Me

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I teach abroad and continue to pursue the life I was given as if it was my last. Many people think it is. In my spare time, I enjoy lapping up ice cream, reading spy novels, and euthanizing manta rays.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Super Rico

"Fear the ball of fire in the sky, for it burns...oh how it burns..."

---Former Greek God of Heat, circa 22 B.C., near the equator

There are several things to note as I reflect on the initial ten weeks here on the banks of the Rio Magdalena and the Caribbean Sea.

One is I am writing this from neither the banks of a river nor from the shores of the Caribbean. It would be more romantic if I were. But it would also be a flat out lie. I am in fact laying in bed in an urban, fully furnished apartment watching a Sunday night NFL game with Spanish color commentary ("El balon fue interceptado...Vernon Davis por los 49ers....touchdown!!! Davis esta en la tierra prometida!!!") Since I haven't written (or read much of anything) in weeks, here are some non-linear, tangential, somewhat blurry thoughts on the past stanza of my Latin American life.

I have actually met people and made friends. The colleagues at Uninorte (this will be the name I use for the University where I work, aka Universidad del Norte) are simply heavenly after the isolation of my twenty months in east Africa. Having lunch companions, binge juice drinkers, weekend drinking buddies and sounding boards has been just about the best thing for me. No matter how long the weeks can get, it's nice to have company around again.

Other things I really have enjoyed so far about Colombia:

  • The warmth of the people. How can they be so patient as I butcher their language. How can the women and men stand and talk for hours with someone who is stumbling and rummaging his brain so inarticulately for the words to convey what he wishes to express. At malls, on streets, in restaurants, at school...all the Colombians I have met are solid people people. If that makes sense. 
  • The fitness center "it" couples. Barranquilla has a fitness club called BodyTech that breeds beauty. In the bicep area, the man: early forties, wavy brown hair, lycra outfit, white tube socks pulled up mid-calf. He takes out an ear bud, refreshes himself with a pull of water, and looks for his mami. The woman, doing stair aerobics not so innocuously behind him, does a quick circle around the gym, chatting with other women of her ilk, and then finds her beau, plants a hot kiss and squeeze on her papi, then returns to her fitness trainer for instruction on how the new ab machine works better than the year-old ab machine. They discuss this as people who might be discussing nuclear physics or hunting. Complete concentration. The Ab Machine will change their lives. It is that revolutionary.
  • The juice.  Jugo is off-the-hook super rico delicious around here. Fruit I never knew existed is suddenly a top priority the moment I feel parched (which is basically all the time). Lulo, mango, fresa, uvo, mora. There is something so simple about sitting on a stool in the shade watching an old Colombia women with crooked brown fingers grab a handful of cold grapes, crushed ice, sugar, and water and make me a drink. I could do it pretty much every day.
  • The one-kiss cheek peck. It's cultural and it's endearing. And I can never tell when I should do it.
  • Speaking Spanish again. No matter how many days I struggle (and there are more of these to come) it really can't be calculated how much more rich the culture becomes when you engage the people in their own language. That being said, if any of you locals are reading this, slow it down a bit. 
  • Club Colombia. It's my beer. I drink it.
  • Salsa music. I can't dance to it, but I love watching people who can (note: the word "people" in this sentence generally refers to women)
  • But...old and/or drunk men who look like they can't dance but really can dance are often nearly as interesting to watch
  • Taxi drivers who speak slowly and pronounce the entire word so I can understand them 
  • The midday siesta. Around campus, most offices are closed from noon to two. Shutters drawn, doors closed, customer service simply a rumor. It's as if a movie set has wrapped and all the actors have gone back to their Hollywood bungalows.  
  • Seafood, salsa, empanadas, pinchos, arroz con coco, and a host of other dishes you can find on the street. 
  • Air conditioned rooms. Nearly every place of business has air conditioning. It's a mandatory excursion to escape the sun and spend a few minutes pretending to shop for bars of soap and vaseline while the sweat dries and your body temperature returns to normal. I take my time at the ATM machines, in grocery stores, in elevators. I know what is waiting for me outside.

Some other oddities I have noticed:

  • Roughly every third person between the age of 16-21 wears braces. And that could be a low estimate.
  • Riding the bus is a great way to sample bad rap artists.
  • It's also a great place to introduce your sweat glands to an armpit near you.
  • how to put this next point delicately...let's just say plastic surgery seems to have a firm grasp on the subculture here. Extremely firm.
  • Super rico and super chevere are the two most important terms a gringo can use to blend in. Anything cool, good, nice or positive can be expressed using one or both of those terms. 
  • People love their futbol here. Seven sports channels on all hours and you can guarantee six to seven of them are airing soccer.
  • Colombians know how to dance. This makes it all the more petrifying to dance with or around them. But intoxicating to watch them. If there's a hell on earth, it would be a room where I would be forced to sit and watch a video of me dancing salsa. I can't imagine anything worse.
  • Going to a soccer match live (as I did last week) is the craziest thing you could do to shock your system. Everyone screaming, shouting, drinking, dancing, chanting, goading, sweating. A sea of yellow can be seen everywhere on game day (when the Colombian National team is playing) or red and white (for the local team, Junior). 
  • You can't overcome soccer. You can't escape soccer. Even if you hate it, it will come find you. And own you. 
  • No matter how often I repeat my first name to students, I am simply known as Teacher. This can get creepy when you are spotted off campus and still are called Teacher and other adults are around and don't know who I am or what I do. Or what I is. 

And then there's the weather.

Stifling, oppressive, relentless. It's as if someone threw a quilt on top of you and told you do pushups. Actually it's not like that at all. But walking three blocks in the afternoon sun is something I cherish about as much as a root canal. Three blocks. That's all it takes and an outfit becomes a rotting corpse at the bottom of my laundry pile.

It's a massive ordeal to run errands on foot. Not to mention how stupid you feel for even trying it. I have learned - through my own errors - to do everything I can to be in the presence of cold, contrived, free-flowing air. Fighting the heat is like standing up to communism. You know you should, but you really won't ever see the fruits of your labor and may even die trying.

(Thinking about Communism and how that really isn't a great analogy)

Where I work is a fantastic village of Colombians and expats living and working as one efficient, linguistic unit. Teachers have offices and work among Colombian staff, making the group I see every day a diverse and entertaining one. We have janitors who seem to be nearly always around when I fill up coffee and water bottles. They speak Spanish and wear uniforms. I forget the color. Blue, I think. There are several secretaries and even more administrative employees who do a million things I don't know yet but are always cordial and welcoming and charming in their own way. Some speak some English. Others don´t.

The campus itself is a square city block, a verdant oasis of shade, mixed with offices and classrooms that are both modern and clean. Once again, with Africa as my point of reference, everything is so damn modern and efficient here, I can´t help but enjoy myself. There are cafes, a small gym, yoga and dance rooms, racquetball and tennis courts, and ongoing expansion to keep the place cutting edge. Most students have laptops. Seemingly all of them have the newest blackberry, iphone or droid gripped tightly in ready position.
The teachers come from far and wide. Exotic places like Brazil, Italy, China, Japan. And not so exotic places, like Baltimore and Kansas. Everyone has a story. A past. A future. Everyone is interesting and entertaining in their own way.

And now it is time to put myself down for the night. I will try to write more soon. Mainly for my mother, my sister, aunts and uncles who wonder what am I doing and why I am doing it. I hope this clarifies things a bit.


  1. Sounds amazing! I'll be fighting wanderlust for the entire day now thankyouverymuch :0).

  2. Matt, Always good to hear your updates and I'm glad you have a crew to hang out with again. They're luck to have you in Colombia. I am so impressed you stuck with it in Africa as there's no way i could have handled it. I'm sure it was an amazing experience (that only made you appreciate all of your blessings) and you'll have the rest of your life to reflect on it. Looking forward to your updates.

  3. Dude, give Africa a Break!

  4. anonymous, I like what you've done with your hair.

  5. not even a local that has lived in Colombia his whole life has described bquilla as perfect as you've done with just few weeks living here, very impressive Matt :).

  6. I love you matt!

  7. I was nice to read your insights about my Killa!