Humility, Curiosity and Empathy: A Thank-You to Anthony Bourdain

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*** Ten Minute Read***

Two days ago I decided to write a blog post about Cartagena, Colombia because it’s been three weeks since we left and returned to San Miguel de Allende. I intended to title the post A Love Letter to Cartagena and use a music video (this one by Carlos Vives) to illustrate the cultural complexity of the Caribbean coast, with its unique African and musical heritage, breathtaking beaches, and talk about how, surprisingly, Cartagena felt like the safest and most welcoming city of its size I’ve visited.

However, when I sat down to write, I kept circling around specific interactions I had during my five months there, and pondering how often my cultural context got in the way of reaching correct conclusions.

Yesterday when I woke I was hit hard by Anthony Bourdain’s suicide.

On a tough day, I decided that even if I risk offending some, I should write that other article in my head, this one, in his honor.

If there was ever there was a patron saint of digital nomads like myself and my honey (those who live and work from different countries to broaden our experience of the world), it was Anthony Bourdain. He was the model of the humility, curiosity, kindness, and empathy it takes to bridge an uncommon background and find the common humanity with a person from a different place and culture.

Anthony Bourdain challenged our perceptions of places like Colombia, and Syria, and Lebanon, and Cambodia, and Congo; regions of the world that are so easy to write-off as war-torn, violent, stuck in the permanent strife of civil war or poverty. With the gifts of humility and optimism, he guided us through a different view, an insiders view.

Bourdain helped us see not the stereotype, but the hope, the optimism, the common reasons to eat good food, and laugh, and enjoy family that exist in us all, no matter how dire the surrounding circumstances. That’s why his choosing not to continue with his own life so affected me.

This was my first tweet, upon hearing the news.

I can’t pretend to know what happened. What I do know is to me, the world feels especially cruel right now. In the last two years it has become acceptable to say online and in person things I would never have imagined hearing.

In the US, in the media and on twitter, we talk of immigrants from other nations as if they were ‘less than’, using (without much thought) words like alien and illegal to describe other humans. (This a good article on the impact of de-humanizing language in immigration and this article explains the impact of rhetoric on our actions). What those articles explain, and what terrifies mea bout where we’re headed is de-humanizing language creates “a mental loophole that lets us harm other people”.

The US is already treating asylum seekers as having less human rights than Americans. We lock mothers and their children in jail for nothing more than requesting their legal right to asylum from violence. (And yes, I realize I’m verging on political here, which I try to avoid on my writer social media accounts, but on this topic I don’t care.) I can’t relate to a world where fellow humans are considered to have lesser rights than me, merely by fact of being born in a different location. (If you are not familiar with how the US is incarcerating legal asylum seekers including children this is a great educational article as is this).

So in the current climate, what can any of us learn from my tiny universe of interactions in Colombia over the last months? Let me give three examples of why sharing Anthony Bourdain’s humility gets you further than any pre-conceptions from our own history or culture-driven perceptions.

Example 1 Finding an apartment. Who exactly is on commission here?

I mentioned in my post on First Impressions of Cartagena that it seemed everyone in town was trying to help us find an apartment. After a week there, we had help from a stranger we met on a Facebook group (now a close friend- hi Jessie!), Edgar the taxi driver who drove us from the airport the first day, the cook in our guest house, and a random tour-seller we met on the street while searching for a certain building.

My initial assumption: Everyone saw dollar signs. The rich (AKA American) white folks are looking for somewhere to live and so there is money to be made. It didn’t bother us, but the people showing us an apartment were being paid a commission.

 

The breathtaking view from the apartment we were lucky enough to find, with a lot of help from our friends

The reality: No-one other than the landlord was making money on the transaction. So why were folks helping us? This was exactly the welcome that Bourdain referred to in this article. For so long Colombia has held the reputation as a dangerous nation that when a US couple wants to experience the reality of living in this wonderful country with an open mind, Colombians are, as said by Anthony Bourdain with words better than I can find, “heartbreakingly welcoming and happy to see visitors who have come to their beautiful country for something other than to talk about narcos and violence.” 

Example 2 Sending status photos on WhatsApp (of everything!)

One day we messaged Edgar (same taxi driver as above) to see if he could drive us somewhere. He responded by explaining he could not drive that day (similar to Mexico City, Cartagena has traffic restrictions, based on registration number, controlling which days your car can be on the road). Our response:  ‘No problem, makes perfect sense’. A minute later Edgar sent us a photo of him washing his car, suds and all.

Another day we had an appointment with our land lady who had volunteered to take us in her SUV to the local Home Depot-like store to buy some desks. She explained that she needed to change our time because her doctor’s appointment had been rescheduled, and we said  ‘no problem’ (Don’t forget she was doing us a favor!). Next thing I know she whips out her phone and is showing me the entire text interchange with her doctor’s office.

And it goes on—sending a photo of your location when you are running late, sending a photo of you under the bed covers when you are sick… I have countless examples!

My initial assumption: Here’s what I thought locals were thinking: “I don’t think those Americans trust me, so I’ll show a photo to prove that I’m not lying to them.” Which to be honest, I was both surprised and a little insulted by. Why would I assume someone I barely know is lying? Do they think all Americans assume the worst of others?

The reality: This isn’t something special that was being done for us, the gringos. In Colombia everyone does this ‘send a photo of where you are, right now’ thing. I’m willing to be debated on the why (my answer is only as good as the handful of people I asked), but the common answer was ‘it’s a way of letting people get close/ get into your life.’

As opposed to not being trusted, we were being let into the inner circle of someone’s life and offered friendship.

Example 3 Blackface at Carnaval

This one is going to make some of my American and British friends squirm (and that’s the point folks, so stick with me). In February we were lucky enough to attend the Carnaval in Barranquilla (Amazing! Second largest in the world after Rio de Janeiro).

As we watched the parade, groups of young boys in black face paint invaded the stands, running up and down the aisles, growling and bearing their teeth at the tourists. Was it scary? Yes, especially given the officials were chasing them away from us, as if we were at risk of harm.

Image Credit: El Universal

My initial assumption:

“Wow, blackface. This is so racist, and out of line in today’s world, right?”

My context for blackface is US American history where it is so beyond “not ok”. It’s offensive, it’s demeaning, it’s born of white people painting their faces black for entertainment, creating a caricature of a black person.

I had a powerful emotional reaction to the hundreds of black kids running around dressed like this. It must be sign of a backward culture, of a respect for the other that has not yet caught up with the US, which is ahead in these matters of respecting black history and not being offensive, right?

The reality: 

Colombia’s black history has similarities, but also diverges from the US. The similarity is a history of slavery (what is today the main square in Cartagena with the famous yellow clock tower was one of the largest slave markets in the world).

There’s a fascinating (and romanticized) history of how the diversity of music that exists only in Colombia is due to slaves being brought from many regions of Africa, with no common languages, and music filling the void.

The dance and character at Carnaval (referred to as Son de Negro) was created by the Afro-Caribbean community as an example of defiance of the Spanish. This costume, with the black face paint commemorates the greatest rebellion where the black enslaved community fought for their freedom. The grimaces on the faces of the men (now more often boys) are mocking the Spanish conquerors, after their escape.

So is blackface in Carnaval racist?  If it is, then it’s institutionalized racism because Son de Negro is one of the official costumes of the Barranquilla Carnaval and one of the most popular. The carnaval website describes the costume as a cultural celebration of Afro-Caribbean identity and history and the teens running around at Carnaval wear it with pride.

This is a great example of what Anthony Bourdain taught us about humility and respect for the other. It’s not my job, as a white Brit-American with a different historical context, to bring my perspective and my history to the question. When something like this make me feel uncomfortable, that’s my challenge to overcome, not Colombia’s.

Thank you Mr Bourdain, for helping me understand that often the situations that fire up our discomfort circuits are the most valuable, if we can find the humility, curiosity and empathy that to ask the right questions.

 

__________________________

 If you’re interested to read more about the gray line on blackface and Carnaval this is a well thought-out articleThis article talks of how, of the 10-16 million Africans who survived the slave voyage, 60-70% ended up initially in the Caribbean and Brazil.

Also – currently the Afro-Colombian population is far from having equal rights and opportunities. FEM in Cartagena is an organization that is fighting to right that inequality.

Best Bars in Cartagena to Watch Sunset

Best Bars in Cartagena to Watch Sunset

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My favorite part of living in Cartagena is listening to the sound of the ocean while I write, but second comes the sunsets.

The most popular spot to watch the sun dip over the ocean is from the old city walls. So why not combine that with the mellow vibe of a good drink in your hand? Below are three bars on the walls where you can do just that. For fun, I also included a few more rooftop bars with breathtaking views.

Each of the first three bars will cost around 30,000 pesos for a cocktail (less for beer), but in my opinion it’s well worth it. Here’s a GOOGLE MAP of where to find them all.

Cafe del Mar

This the best known of the three bars on the walls. Lots of space, nice views directly out over the sea and toward the skyscrapers in Bocagrande. Can have a bit of a party vibe, depending on the night, so not always the place if you ‘re looking only to chill.

El Baluarte

This bar has the best cocktails of the bunch, and it’s right in the center of town overlooking both the ocean to one side and inland to Plaza de Santa Teresa, where the Hotel Charleston and the Naval Museum are located. Convenient if you are heading to dinner or any other activity in the historic centro after your drinks.

Casa de la Cerveza

This is my favorite of the last three. It doesn’t look out directly over the ocean like El Baluarte and Cafe del Mar. Instead it’s on a corner of the ramparts with 360 views over the lagoon and Castillo San Felipe on one side, the skyscrapers of Manga behind, and the towers of Bocagrande toward the ocean. This is where the photo at the top of the page was taken as I watched the pelicans dive.

This location is close to the Getsemani area of town, which is fun to wander at night. Lots of great bars and restaurants and a neat mural wall I could stare at for hours.

Insider Tip: Getsemani has a free open air Zumba class on Sundays at 7.30pm in Plaza de la Trinidad. The class is given from the steps of the church and is a blast, either to participate or just to watch with a beer in hand. If interested, you can see a quick video I created here on my author Facebook.

Rooftop Bars in Cartagena

If you’re interested in other rooftop bar options, here’s a few that I particularly like.

Movich Hotel

Also a great place to catch the sun going down, although it does have a 50,000 peso minimum (think a drink and an appetizer each). Good option go go hand out at their pool in the afternoon for a few hours.

Townhouse

This is fun hotel with a rooftop pool that is fun day or night. On the way up the elevator, check out how each floor of the hotel has wall and door art by a different artist. Drinks were less expensive here than any of the bars above.

You can find locations for all the bars above and a few more in the Map of Rooftop Bars.

Prefer the sunset without the booze? Juan Ballena has a great article on Best Places to View the Sunset in Cartagena. I second his recommendation of the mall, Plaza Bocagrande, which looks right over the beach. Also a good spot to escape into air conditioning if you’re wandering that area during the day!

Want more rooftops? Hatsoff, a fellow Brit Nomad, also has a great article on 5 Rooftop Bars in Cartagena.

Interested in hearing more about my travels and adventures and path to publication as an author? Follow my FaceBook page where I post regular updates on my exploits (more than on this blog). Or sign up for my somewhat irregular newsletter.

First Impressions of Cartagena

First Impressions of Cartagena

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Beyond Friendly, Great Food, Insane Heat…and Boobies

Three weeks ago today we arrived in Cartagena, Colombia, our new home for the first part of 2018.

I wanted to share my first impressions, especially for those of you who may be most familiar with Cartagena from the movie Romancing the Stone (complete with imagery of narcos and running from them in the jungle). That movie was actually shot in Mexico, by the way, but that’s for another day…

First, the Heat

We were worried about this before we arrived and it turns out we were right. It runs 80 to 90 degrees Fahrenheit most days, but actually feels closer to 100 degrees with humidity.

A little considered impact of this heat: we have not yet worked out how to buy ice cream and get it home from the grocery store (no joke). One day we naively believed we’d solved this dilemma by purchasing ice cream bars in the pharmacy in the lobby of our building. Only to find they had melted before we completed the elevator ride up to our apartment.

Saying that, our new apartment is located on the 24th floor facing the ocean and has such an amazing through breeze that we don’t use the air conditioning at all during our day at work. Plus, at night it’s much cooler. In the evenings walking into town is delightful. No jacket required.

The Walls

The first thing that strikes you wandering this city are the walls around the old town. Cartagena is one of the world’s best known fortified cities and the massive walls and turrets make for some great photo opportunities and an amazing place to watch the sunset. Watching the sun dip below the horizon over the ocean is one of the city residents’ favorite activities. For some bars to catch a sunset from the wall, don’t miss my post, Best Bars in Cartagena to Watch the Sunset.

However, we’ve also realized the walls are a royal pain in the ass! If you want to exit the old city by foot to get to our apartment building (very close on the other side), there is only a small tunnel on our side that closes at night (that’s me in it in the photo). If a taxi wants to exit from the grocery store to our place below is a view of the tortured route it has to take.

So the walls are beautiful, historic, but today sometimes rather impractical! Hard not to see the irony that they built this fortification in the 1600s to keep out the invasion of Brits like me. And today it’s still kind of working.

 

Our Taxi’s Route home (forgive the crude drawing).

Beyond Friendly

They say Colombians know how to enjoy life and our real first experience of this city has been searching for an apartment. We expected this to be challenging, but the reality is we felt like the whole city wanted to help us. From our first taxi driver, to a friend we made online in the expat forum on facebook who took us around apartments just to be helpful, to the person serving breakfast in our hotel who actually found us our place, EVERYONE was searching for an apartment that met Honey and my requirements (enough space for 2 separate offices).

 

As we wander, it’s hard to miss the smiles on the street. Although we look like gringos, we feel welcomed and safe.

We asked a few people what the impression of Americans (and Brits) is here, and the answer was refreshing. Somewhat paraphrased:

“We’re just so happy to have visitors from abroad coming again that we really want them to enjoy their time here”. That’s certainly been our impression so far, and the result is that we found a great place to live and work!  Here’s the view from my new favorite new reading spot.

A Few More Snapshots

I’m sure I’ll write in future posts about the money ($300 US dollars makes you a millionaire in Colombian pesos) and the language (very different to Mexican words and accent).

For now, let me leave you with a few more shots of this colorful and friendly Caribbean city, which is a unique juxtaposition of old and new. Think Miami Beach meets New Orleans meets city walls that are uniquely Cartagenan!

 

Oh right, the Boobies..

See, I knew you’d keep scrolling down (smile). I had heard that Columbia was one of the world’s plastic surgery capitals and yes there are a lot of ridiculously beautiful women here wearing very little clothes (especially in the tourist areas).

I’m afraid no photos on this one, so you’ll just have to believe me the outfits are rather similar to what you’d see at the Burning Man festival in terms of level of covering up body parts (or rather not). Seeing as I refuse to get all stalkerish and take photos you’ll have to put up with this google link if you want more.

Till next time!