Sunday, 16 November 2008

"Hablas muy bien español!"

Today I am back in Santa Marta, on the Caribbean coast of Colombia, after a couple of days in Valledupar, a city a few hours inland from here.

I had planned by now to be on the second day of a six-day trek to la Ciudad Perdida (aka The Lost City - aka the sight of Matthew Scott's infamous kidnapping in 2003 - don't worry - security has improved drastically since) but the trek has been delayed basically because my Irish friend Jenny and her mates were still on their way here from Cartagena. So, at a loose end for the weekend, I decided to take up an offer from a Colombian girl I had met on a bus last week to visit Valledupar. I made this choice largely because of (not in spite of) the fact that Valledupar gets not one word of mention in my Lonely Planet guidebook. Not one. And it has a population about the size of Edinburgh.

My choice was rewarded by an authentic couple of Colombian days. Previously (Wednesday, Thursday, Friday morning) I had been in Taganga, a tiny village stuffed to the brim with western backpackers and - I would estimate - more budget hostel space than the whole of Edinburgh. In Valledupar I saw not one westerner. Not one. Even in the "touristy bits", which included - amongst no others - a pretty river and an impressively large main square.

I was quite pleased too to spend the whole time talking in Spanish with my new friend Jessica, her mates and the family she was living with.

For the past month and a half I have been - depending on the people I meet - varying between days of speaking almost entirely English, days of speaking entirely Spanish, and days of hardly speaking at all. (Estimated respective distribution: 50-35-15%).

I've found that my level of spanish in this time has oscillated considerably. Some days (or hours) my tongue feels completely tied and I make tons of mistakes and forget words. Other hours (or days) it all flows off the tongue readily and I have no difficulty. In general, though, my level has dropped quite a bit from the high of 2003. I have forgotten some words; I hear myself making mistakes but can't avoid them in time; I speak a bit slower on the whole; Colombian Spanish is tricky for me to understand.

The measuring stick for how well I speak is how often people complement me on my spanish. The more I hear "You speak very good Spanish" the worse I am speaking. If I'm not complemented at all, I know I'm on good form.

This rule of thumb rests on the following assumption: you only complement someone on their language if they a) speak to an acceptable level and b) sound like they need encouragement. If someone simply speaks a language, there is no need for you to remark on it, beyond perhaps: "Where did you learn to speak Spanish?"

I was pleased that over the course of the weekend and several hours' conversation, only once did I get the "Hablas muy bien!" treatment, and once I was able to pass as a native of Bogotá to a cab driver in order to keep the cost of the fare down. (Admittedly Jessica did almost all the talking in the cab.)

I've now set myself up to be vaguely studious with my Spanish, after the past weeks of simply staying still with it, practising but not improving. I'm reading García Márquez (the price which I haggled down with an elderly bookshop owner in a part-excahnge deal. After our chat about South American literature, he even commented on the irony of a white man negotiating a deal with a Colombian to save a few pesos on the cost of a Márquez novel. A classic moment which I'm only faintly ashamed of) and I'm making notes on the words I don't know.

But still, in keeping with the rythms that have built up in my trip of the last two months, I'm looking forward to a few days of just English. Yin and Yang.

Tuesday, 11 November 2008

November 11

Here in Colombia, November 11 marks the indepedence of the city of Cartagena from Spain. And what better way could there be of marking this historic occasion than the Miss Colombia contest, which concludes this Friday? (Sadly I have now moved on from Cartagena, as I felt I couldn't justify chilling out there for than than the week I had already spent. So I will miss the major Miss Colombia events. But I did see the beauty queens at least once, at a go-kart race organised by Juan Pablo Montoya, the Colombian Formula One driver.)

November 11 is also a national holiday in all of Colombia (or at least the nearest Monday is, or something. It's hard to tell when a day is a holiday in a country like Colombia, which combines the lazy Latin/Caribbean stereotype with the trademark Third-World work ethic - shops are open all day, all the time.)

In Cologne, Germany, November 11 marks the beginning of the carnival period, which concludes in February with Ash Wednesday. In fact, der Kölner Karneval begins at 11.11am on 11/11.

Meanwhile, in the UK, 11am on 11/11 is a time for sober reflection of Armistice Day. I believe the same date is Veterans Day in the USA.

I've often wondered how some Brits would react, learning that a bunch of Krauts are using the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month to mark the beginning of several months' festivites and debauchery. Now I learn that a whole load of Spics over this side of the Caribbean are holding a beauty contest to mark the most sombre day in the offical calendar of the USA and also Her Majesty's Commonwealth....

It reminds me of how I've always thought that us Brits are missing out big time when it comes to Shrove Tuesday/Ash Wednesday. In New Orleans they have Mardi Gras, in Rio de Janeiro they have Carnival, in Britain we have... pancakes.

Wednesday, 5 November 2008

Safe and sound in, er, Colombia

So I managed to enter Cartagena de Indias OK without an onward ticket.

In fact, at the eleventh hour in Cancún (well, about 9pm on Monday) I met an Argentine who showed me how to make a free flight reservation just to calm my nerves. But then they didn't ask me anything when I got to Cartagena, despite what I would call a shaky performance at immigration. ( I always get so nervous).

They did, however, thouroughly search my bag at customs - but only because when I pressed the button that randomly shows a red or a green light*, it came up red. Obviously I used up my good luck at immigration. No complaints there.

*The same thing had happened coming through Tijuana on October 1 - to both me and Sam who I was travelling with. (Very bad luck apparently). The guy at the desk said how annoyed he was with this new system of button-pressing. It meant he had to search good fellas like Sam and me and left him unable to discriminate, he explained, nodding towards a bandanna-wearing Mexican walking past us. In the end he gave our bags only the most perfunctory search immaginable. I could have been carrying a small nuclear detonator and 5kg of cocaine and he would not have noticed.

The customs officer here in Cartagena was sincere but sympathetic. I got a laugh for my hip-flask of Tequila and kid's cricket bat and was on my way after about 7 minutes.

Monday, 3 November 2008

Low- and higher-stakes gambling

Today is my last day in Mexico. I spent it as I had always planned to: on the white-sanded, Caribbean beaches of Cancún. It was a nice day and I took another small step towards evening out my farmer's tan. (Still many steps on that path. I may never make it to the end.) But I must say that after my third trip through Mexico, having taken in a broad sweep of the country from north to south, I am really underwhelmed by the Yucantan Peninsula. Mérida was nice, but the Caribbean Coast is very much the American Costa del Sol. Beautiful beaches, gorgeous weather, and no need to trouble yourself with local food, currency, customs or language. For a "hardcore", adoptive tapatío/mexicano like me, it just isn't right. The parallels with the Costa del Sol even extend to the fact that both areas were deveolped at the behest of non-democratic governments in the 60s/70s. I like my American history to go back at least 60 years....

Anyway, having given myself a fair bit of time around the Peninsula, a couple of times I found myself at a bit of a loose end as to what I should do. Embracing the freedom of not knowing where I might sleep the next night, and in keeping with my mini-philosophy about the randomness of life and how often decisions needn't be mulled over, I found myself tossing a coin a couple of times to decide where to go next. The coin came up tails both times and, as a result, I have still not been to Chichén Itzá, the most famous Mayan ruins in the peninsula. Instead I have been to Izamal ("The Yellow City"'s yellowness was - as far as I could see - it's only notable quality) and tiny Puerto Morelos (very pretty, almost as quiet as I was hoping).

But today I'm deciding to gamble for slightly higher stakes. Technically, to enter Colombia I need an onward ticket out of the country, or at least South America. I don't have one, and I've decided to risk it, in order to save the cash I would otherwise have to shell out (the pound isn't doing so well, after all) and retain full flexibility.

The (rather flimsy) evidence I have gathered suggests that border officials in Colombia rarely bother about the onward ticket or the evidence of sufficient funds (which I do plan to have covered if necessary) but still, my next blog post will either be coming from sunny Colombia (the first South American, and the first equatorial country I've ever visited - exciting!) or perhaps a detention centre in Miami.

The question I will have to ask myself, waking up at 3.45am tomorrow, is: do I feel lucky....?