SA CHRONICLES

As I stood waiting for the painfully slow line to advance, I saw my name flash up on the monitor. I rolled my eyes and sighed. This wasn’t my first rodeo, with a Colombian surname and a Pakistani first name, I really felt like public enemy number one. They pulled me out the line and moved me to the front, they swabbed my bag and searched me, maybe looking for drugs, or bombs, maybe both? Like my mum always said, el que nada debe nada teme, meaning he who owes nothing fears nothing. At this point these checks were routine. In the grander scheme of things this racial profiling is awful, but in this case it got me on to the plane first, so in reality I couldn’t really complain. I walked on to the plane and adjusted my pendant like I often did when I was bored or nervous. I put my hand luggage in the overhead bin and sat down, seat 23E.

The flight attendant woke me. I had landed in Colombia, I looked out the window and we were here, I was home. I was born and raised in London but I couldn’t help but miss my homeland of Colombia, like my mum says, la sangre llama. I knew exactly where to go; I had planned this moment. I collected my luggage and went straight to the cafeteria, I ordered 3 empanadas with aji and a tinto. Empandas are somewhat like meat pies (but way better) aji is a delicious tangy chilli sauce, finally a tinto is like an expresso (but also better). As I bit into the empanda it tasted like home, I sipped my coffee and yawned, and saw a British couple getting lead by a Colombian taxi driver.

I knew what this meant. Some may think of Colombia and connect it with Pablo Escobar and cocaine, or maybe its delicious coffee or better yet its beautiful nature, but something that’s not so well known, is how persuasive and sweet talking the vendors and taxi drivers are. They probably heard the couple speak English and pounced. The man was in his 40s and somewhat overweight, the woman was probably 30 and petite. I heard the taxi driver speak in broken English and ask if the man was a famous footballer. This made me chuckle, granted the man was wearing an Arsenal shirt, but it was also two sizes too small. My mind was at ease, aside from maybe getting charged two to three times the normal cab fare, they’d be fine. This gave me a sense of complacency; I was too street smart to get caught by anything like that. I adjusted my necklace, so the pendant was the right way and  opened up Uber on my phone. It was illegal in Medellin at the time, but it was far cheaper, the trick was to sit next to the driver in the passenger seat and if the police stopped you, just say you’re friends. As a native Spanish speaker, I had no worries. I finished up and took my coffee cup to the counter, the waitress winked at me and said “Chao papi” and I thought to myself, God bless Colombia.

I got into my Uber and went to my apartment, I was so tired that I opened up the flat and headed straight to bed. I woke up after 10 hours but I was still tired. I decided to look around the apartment as I didn’t really get a chance to see it yesterday. It was a pretty nice two-bedroom apartment, in a nice area, in a gated community. I had a shower and started to plan my lessons. I took some instant noodles out of my traveler’s backpack and had it for breakfast, it wasn’t the most exotic breakfast, but I had overslept, and was late for my class. I finished getting ready and went downstairs to meet my Uber, I waved at the officer at the gate and got in. As we drove to the school, I rolled down the window and looked out, it was beautiful. It was as if the world had the Hefe Instagram filter on it, but what I found most intriguing was how happy everyone looked. Quite a contrast to London. I had a nice chat about the Colombian national football team on the ride to the school, even the Uber drivers seemed friendlier. I arrived at the school, I thanked my Uber and made my way into the school. I wasn’t the type to get nervous, but it was my first time teaching so I was a little apprehensive. I was met by my internship associate, Carolina. She introduced me to my class; much to my surprise the class was around my age in fact, a few were older. They greeted me and were inquisitive, they wanted to know where I was from, why I spoke such good Spanish and what London was like. The class was a voluntary so everyone in the class wanted to be there, despite this there was still a class clown, Alejo. Granted he made me laugh and helped me with the class, so I’ll always remember him fondly, the class went smoothly. The feedback I got back from the class was positive, I was very pleased. I adjusted my pendant and ended the class. The students cheerfully said their goodbyes and made their way home. I was teaching in Barrio Los Mangos, which wasn’t the safest area but I felt fine.

 I began to make my way out, when suddenly Carolina rushed outside after me and handed me a blue waist jacket. Somewhat startled and confused I took the jacket and asked what it was for, Carolina explained that this jacket guaranteed my safety in the neighborhood. They didn’t take kindly to outsiders. She said that if the locals saw me without it, they’d probably snatch my pendant and phone. Barrios in Colombia are something like favelas, they do tours of barrios, like they do with favelas. When you think about it, it must be so dehumanizing, having wealthy foreigners come to view your neighborhood as if it were a zoo. I thanked Carolina and put on my waistcoat. It had the name of the school on the back. I tucked my pendant into my shirt. I saw a group of guys looking at me, they walked towards me and I thought to myself, shit, the waistcoat didn’t work. But as they got closer, they yelled ‘oye Profe’ they knew I was a teacher at the school and I breathed a sigh of relief. They told me not to get an Uber back today, there was a planned attack on Uber drivers and their cars. Much like London’s iconic black cabs, Colombia has a rich history with their taxi drivers. Thus, there’s almost a civil war going on with the taxi drivers and Uber drivers. I took their advice and got a taxi home, what I saw on the way home horrified me. The road ahead of us was blocked by 3 or 4 deserted cars with ‘FUERA UBER’ spray painted on them, and on the side, burnt remains of what looked to be Uber cars. My taxi driver sighed and said “eso les pasa” translating to that’s what they get. I didn’t grasp the severity of the feud between the two groups. As I rode home in the taxi I looked out the window seeing cars in flames, I felt my own impotency, my pendant tucked in and confidence knocked down a peg. I felt like a child who had been told off for being naughty, when suddenly my phone buzzed. It was my friend James Monslave, I had become friends with him when I visited Colombia as a child, we had kept touch and we were finally going to reunite. My taxi driver arrived at my apartment, I greeted the caretaker and tipped my taxi driver, I walked into my apartment, and my phone rang. It was James, “Dime donde te quedas papi y yo le llego” this meant where you staying at I’ll make my way over, we traded barbs and laughed over the phone. I hung up and text him the address. Without realizing I had walked out to my balcony whilst on the phone, I gazed at the view, it was beautiful. The mountains covered the capital of Antioquia, the river ran endlessly opposite the metro, the sun was setting and the warm, red, cloudless sky warmly illuminated the whole city. Despite this tranquil spectacle, the cars continued rushing, each one looking like a small orb of light zooming from one place to another. The energy was crazy, the day was just getting started. I showered quickly and threw on my favorite jeans and a black shirt.

I heard a knock on the door, it was James! I opened the door and gave him a hug, James had a bottle of Aguardiente in his hands (something like Colombian Tequila) and he insisted we do a shot before heading out. I offered little resistance and did two instead! We laughed as we made our way out the gated community. My instinct was to open Uber but after today, I refused to let anything else go wrong. Instead, I waved down a taxi. Me and James got in. James offered the taxi driver a shot of Aguardiente if he got us where we were going faster, I laughed, James was always a joker, to my surprise the taxi driver agreed and we all did shots together in the taxi as the radio blasted reggaeton, Salud! (cheers) we all shouted. I felt secure now we were in the taxi, but my mind was so fixed on the Uber/taxi conflict I just realized I didn’t know where we were going… I asked James in Spanish “where are we even going?” He responded with a big grin and said “El Poblado”. When we pulled up and got out, I was taken aback, the street vendors making fresh Perros Calientes (Hot dogs with everything) the smoke from clubs leaking into the streets, the sea of people smiling and dancing, it seemed like a mythical street. El Poblado was a large strip with many nightclubs and bars, each nightclub housed a different genre of music, some had Salsa, some Vallenatos, some Rancheras, some Reggaeton. So many flavors, it would be hard to choose wrong. I stood just looking around like a child who had just seen snow for the first time, when a slim hand pulled mine and broke me out of my trance. It was a beautiful girl, her hazel eyes, red lips and olive skin just put me into another trance (not my smoothest moment). She giggled and asked “Hola me llamo Leslie, tu Bailas?” I lied and replied I can dance whatever she wants. James shook his head as we were led to the Salsa club by Leslie. Leslie had a friend for James to dance with, so it looked like we’d be okay, but truth be told we weren’t the best Salsa dancers. So we decided that the masterplan was to order double shots for everyone before we started dancing. As we took our shots we laughed and joked with each other, the fluorescent nightclub lights beamed everywhere, the smoke clouded the dancefloor (to our benefit, our dancing wasn’t great) and we danced and danced and danced. I danced with Leslie and just felt the Salsa music reverberate through me, I felt the sounds and instruments almost in my soul I suppose, this was the best moment I could’ve asked for. Leslie just moved so gracefully, I think for that night she was the love of my life (if that’s possible?). After a lot more dancing, laughter and alcohol later, we made our way out, James and Leslie’s friend decided to get a burger near James’s apartment, me and Leslie decided to order a pizza at my apartment, so we parted ways outside the club. At this point I was swept up in the moment and drunkenly ordered an Uber, I figured it’d be fine now. My pendant was backwards, I didn’t realize, I just wanted to get back and order pizza with Leslie.

Leslie and I argued as we got into the Uber about what toppings we’d have on the pizza when 5 minutes later a car stopped in front of us and one stopped behind us. I was very confused, as was Leslie. They opened the car door aggressively and screamed for us to get out, they carried baseball bats in their hands, it was the taxi drivers. I put my head in my palms, my complacency had landed me and Leslie in trouble. What Leslie did next really saved us both… she shouted at them back, and explained I was from London and if anything happened to me the British embassy would get involved and the Colombian government would crush them. I quickly provided my British driving license as evidence, they grabbed it, examined it and threw it back in the car, in frustration they yelled at each other and ran back to their cars. It felt strange to use my privilege to escape a tough spot. I looked to Leslie and we just laughed, we had just escaped, we should’ve been rattled but that wasn’t the Colombian way. We were healthy we were okay; we were happy. We got back to the apartment and finally ordered our pizza. We stood on my balcony talking about everything and anything, life, music, love, family, the pizza came, and we had a few slices and continued speaking. The minutes turned to hours and the sun began to rise, she told me she should probably go now, we shared a kiss, and she went in a taxi home. I walked back up to the balcony and watched her taxi leave, I wonder if she knew what impact she had on me, she’d forever changed my thoughts when I’d speak or act. I deleted Uber, I got into bed and slept for the whole day. I wondered if it was normal to have such a profound connection with someone so quickly.

I got out of bed and got ready for work in the evening, I had one morning class and one evening class a week. I’m glad I had an evening class because after yesterday’s antics my head hurt. I put on my hoodie and wandered outside my gated community and found a great lunch spot called Maria’s Fonda, after tasting the Sancocho I decided I’d have lunch here every day until I left. I developed a routine, I’d shower, go to eat at Maria’s then walk along the river to the taxi station. Me and James continued going out on Friday’s, we danced, drank and laughed every time. My students looked forward to our class as I devised revision games with prizes, given the age of my class I’d occasionally have prizes of the alcoholic persuasion. Like life tends to do cruelly, time flew, and my time was up. For my last night all my students came out to El Poblado with me and James, we all toasted and drank, several embarrassing dance moves later (I blame the Aguardiente) I saw Leslie across the room, I smiled at her and she smiled back. That was enough for me, having her part of my last night in one way or another was more than I could’ve asked for. The music blared all night until it went off, the last song had been played, we all made our way to the exit. I needed to finish packing for my flight in the morning, but before that Leslie grabbed my hand and screamed “Viva Colombia!” a huge roar was returned by everyone in the club, they screamed “Viva Colombia!” I screamed with them; it was almost poetic. I laughed and said my sad final goodbyes… I got into my taxi home, I adjusted my pendant, it was perfect. My time in Colombia was done. I love you Colombia. See you soon.