As I turn the corner on my first month in Barranquilla, Atlántico (Colombia), I find myself writing lists in my Attic Journal from Spanglish Arte (Sacramento, CA). Each list has its own page in the journal and, so far, just a few items under each title:
What I Notice
What I Don’t Understand
What I Hope to Know
What I Miss
What I Wish I Had Brought With Me
What I Brought but Don’t Really Need
What I’m Happy to Have With Me
What I Like
Recently, fighting off a dip in the W, I was torn between What I Miss and What I Notice; this week, what I notice is how poorly people drive here. I’ve heard traffic is bad in Argentina, but twice this week I was nearly hit, first by an impatient taxi turning right on a red light (is that even a law here? Who knows!) and next by a mototaxi who drove up on the sidewalk to get around a parked car. “It’s a sideWALK not a sideRIDE.” I also notice nearly everything I eat makes me feel sick, not violently ill or vomitous, but like a candy pinch: that cramp in your stomach that you get after you eat too much candy. If only it were from a giant bag of pastel Robin’s Eggs.
Moving on to What I Like, last weekend my friend Shauna and I walked a few blocks through our neighborhood to the nearby Cancha de Futbol de Sevillar for a free outdoor party in anticipation of Carnaval. While the actual Carnaval is not until the beginning of March, Barranquilleros begin celebrating at the end of January.
Arriving in barrio Sevillar, we found blocked-off streets with police patrols, donkey carts selling fresh fruits, street meat asados, and people gathered at corner tiendas enjoying cervezas and chatarra. Of course, Vallenato music was blasting and people shouted at each other over the festivities. We walked onto the sandy lot of la cancha towards the huge stage and were soon surrounded by smiling faces of the growing audience. Once the music started, a young man introduced himself as Eddy and insisted we dance with him and his friends. People looked on and laughed as the “gringas” twirled and bailado, oblivious to any potential criticism of our moves.
The woman who sang for the band on stage was simple yet incredible; with a silver sequined top hugging her every womanly curve and her tan thighs spilling out of black shorts, her entire body seemed volcanic and yet melodic as she rhythmically danced and led the songs. As I observed this singer, I couldn’t help but remember when the US dubbed Jessica Simpson “fat” for gaining weight and performing with a few extra pounds. In Colombia, Jessica would be revered as sensual, feminine and “normal,” which to me, she is.
For the next few days, I began to notice the people here; to my surprise, few people who are emaciated or frightfully underweight. Women have realistic figures and even the naturally-thin girls have curves. Saturday, I watched a statuesque woman in a bright yellow top, tight jeans and heels flirt openly with a mototaxi, then hop on the back seat like she owned it (for $2000 COP and 10 minutes, she did).
Sunday at Playa PradoMar, I watched curvaceous girls in bikinis splashing in the shore. I met Roxy and her friends – three beautiful, non-skinny Colombians with gorgeous smiles, infectious laughter and a taste for Aguila – who playfully poked at me through my tankini as we posed for photos. While this may have made me self-conscious in the US, here it just makes me laugh and feel “normal.”
Completing an exercise in my 4th grade class a few days later, I was disappointed to find the publisher had included, on a page about describing who we are the option for “I am fat/thin,” after “I am short/tall.” While short/tall is clearly obvious, several students seemed confused by fat/thin; as mentioned before, all of my students are beautiful.
With body image an important aspect of kids’ lives, I decided to change the words in the book, and had my students write “pretty” instead of fat or thin. I told them (as my fantastic mom told me), “people come in all shapes and sizes,” and added, “and all of you are pretty.” Because they are. They beamed at this declaration, and now we sometimes say, “hello pretty!” to each other in the halls.
With another week as a volunteer in Colombia coming to an end, I am grateful to have noticed more, including the beauty in those around me, how to successfully avoided being hit by a taxi and walking upright while feeling the candy pinch. Currently, I’m focusing more on the What I Hope to Know list, including how to not get lost in a city with no printed maps, and why the sidewalks resemble all heights of Crossfit jump boxes. More on those as I discover them…