Deciding to Enjoy Life

The dreamy streets of Barichara


On my final afternoon in Barichara, a tiny, beautiful, impossibly tranquil Colombian mountain town I have now decided is heaven, I dropped in to a sweet bakery and coffee shop for a rainy-day cappuccino. A Colombian woman, around 50, asked if she could park her bags and herself at my table. Of course. For me, meeting locals is really the whole point of traveling.

My new friend Shoya is a painter and also rents rooms to tourists. She would like to organize artistic tours of Barichara to show visitors the artistic side of the city: sculptors’ studios and the beautiful interiors of Barichara homes. My Brazilian friends Roma and Iracema and I stayed in a couple’s home, sort of an informal bed and breakfast worthy of being written up in Conde Nast Traveler, that only cost $17 a night. The interiors are indeed stunning. The ceilings are about twenty feet high and have exposed driftwood beams, the floors are large cobblestones, and every windowsill and bookshelf was adorned with a piece of unexpected art. My shower consisted of water that shoots over a piece of rock, creating the sensation of taking a shower out in nature.

A hammock in my home away from home in Barichara

Shoya and I talked about writing, sculpture and painting, and how to avoid suffering during the creative process, when the answer to a problem is not yet clear. It sounded like she had spent enough time in solitude painting. While she loves painting, the solitude is not always fun or easy. So she wants to spice up her life doing other things she enjoys.

Somehow conversation turned to San Francisco’s cable cars and the enjoyment of life. She asked me about the cable cars, and I said, yes, they are great but they are for tourists. Why, she said. I explained they don’t help me get where I need to go. And that in twelve years of living in San Francisco I never even took a cable car.

In my thirteenth year, I decided that I wanted to take a cable car. I wanted to enjoy life and somehow taking a cable car–doing a touristy thing in my own town–became symbolic of enjoying life. I told her I wanted to “disfrutar la vida,.” I finally took a cable car ride with my best friends Jenny, Liz, Sonya, and Adam, and Jenny and Adam’s son Kai as part of a scavenger hunt we organized for Jenny’s birthday. None of us had ever gone on a cable car before. The ride was magic.

My new Colombian sculptor friend immediately latched on to this phrase, “disfrutar la vida,” and become quite animated.
Read More

Looking for Joy, Finding It in Tango

My first teacher Mauricio corrects my hips Tango feels like the passion I have been looking for a long time. It makes me happy. I don’t even need to be dancing. Watching others dance can be equally blissful. It’s the transportingly beautiful music, and most of all, the utter concentration and mindfulness that tango requires. If I am dancing, and my mind wanders just for a minute, my dance falters in a way that it is much more obvious than if my mind wanders while dancing salsa. I love the way that tango captures all of my attention. Even when I am watching others, I find myself completely focused watching them.

I have to admit that sometimes in my pre-tango life (funny how I could already say that, the pre-tango life. . . ) I felt a certain kind of despair. I would look at other people who have passions like ceramics or snow-shoeing that they really love. They get lost in the moment doing them, they know that they are going to enjoy a day if they spend it doing ceramics or snow-shoeing. I just couldn’t think of any one passion in my life where I would fairly reliably find joy.

How many Saturday afternoons did I spend shopping with a friend? Buying a new shirt might be sort of fun but it’s an expensive (and also cheap) form of joy. I’m not sure finding a great dress on sale qualifies as joy, more a thrill. Yoga, not really. I enjoy it for its emotional and physical benefits. Tennis is occasionally fun, but I can’t say that I care enough to work on my serve. Languages, yes, I love learning languages and that comes relatively easy for me. Writing is a need and it makes my life, mind and spirit infinitely richer. But I can’t say that writing consistently brings me joy. It also has brought me angst. So where is the joy in my life? That zone in my life where I lose track of time and become one with whatever I am doing, that gives me energy and uplift? I felt really sad when I didn’t know.

I was on the search for something that would give me joy at home this year while traveling. Traveling, I would say, is a joy. I get to be the amateur (for the love of it) sociologist that I naturally am, observing other cultures. But for most of this year, I felt like I was trying out a lot of things that I didn’t love enough to commit to, like scuba diving and surfing. I did a week of surfing lessons in Jericoacoara, Brazil. I enjoyed understanding the velocity of a wave and how one might try to ride it, but I wasn’t a natural and I thought, I just don’t care enough to spend a month of my life battling waves. I enjoyed watching surfers, especially the women, but just couldn’t imagine getting there myself. Ditto with capoeira: I like it, but would I ever get that good at it? I wondered, when am I ever going to find anything that I love enough to commit to it?

Patience. I think I finally found it. There were times when I really thought I was going to quit tango and give up, because the basics of the dance like the walk and the posture weren’t coming to me. But I stuck with it and found the right teachers and over time I gradually improved. There were also “big bang” improvements when suddenly the dance clicked. I am at the beginning of a lifelong learning curve, but over time I am loving tango more and more. The music. The dance. The blissful mindfulness of dancing and watching other people dance. And the people I have met through tango. I have learned some really important things by sticking with tango, even for just two months in Cali.

Now that I have finally found something that I actually love enough to commit to, I can see that it makes a big different to find the right fit. Maybe this is how people feel when they finally meet a lifelong mate. They realize that they were just trying too hard with all those others who weren’t the right fit. Now I can see that tango is a fit for me in a way that a lot of other things—most things, in fact—are just not.

For example, kitesurfing. While I was traveling I met tons of women who brimmed with energy and enthusiasm when they talked about kitesurfing, They talked about the adrenaline and I love adrenaline rushes, so I thought, I’m going to try this! Well, I did. I just couldn’t quite see it. It’s possible that I quit my lessons after one day because the water was way too cold at Lago Calima near Cali. But I kept thinking, for the cost of one hour of kitesurfing lessons I could do four hours of tango lessons!

Tango is a way better fit for me than kitessurfing. Tango is about connection and I enjoy feeling connection with others because I am such an interior person. Kitesurfing is totally solo and feels a little lonely to me. I am already lost in my own thoughts. Tango is a language, a communication between two people, and I enjoy languages. Tango has an endless depth to it in terms of styles and moves, and the depth of emotion expressed, both light and dark, and I like depth. Kitesurfing must have a lot of depth too but I just don’t care to learn it. Kitesurfing involves a lot of equipment and I hate dealing with equipment, it would be a chore to me to set up and take apart the kite every time. All you need for tango are proper dancing shoes and music. I love that.

Tango has really shown me that I have to find a lot of joy and bliss in an activity in order to want to pursue it. And that I feel a degree of passion for tango that I never felt for yoga, tennis, capoeira, or improv theater. (Though I am thinking improv theater might fall in the category of “if I had stuck with it longer, I might love it more, so I am going to try it again once I am settled somewhere.)

It brings me a feeling of peace to realize that there is at least one thing out there that I love enough to really commit to and learn deeply. In some way, understanding the qualities that bring my joy in tango helps me to understand how to bring more joy into my life with other things too. I’ve realized that my joy really comes through collective forms of music and dance–singing and dancing with other people. I am very much at the beginning with tango. It’s even possible this will be a passing fancy, though I hope not. Tango can be a lifelong love, and people usually get better as they get older. That is an exciting thought.

Reconciling the Sweetness of the Colombian People with Their Violent History

As I traveled through Colombia over the last three months, I remained ignorant of Colombian history. Specifically, the history of violence. Of course I knew there were guerrillas here, and they lurked somewhere in the corners of the country. But the publicity campaign to reassure the rest of the world that it is now safe to travel in Colombia worked for me. A Brazilian friend from Rio convinced me Colombia was the place to visit now. And once I arrived, it was all to too easy to appreciate the beautiful blue-green scenery of the Colombian coffee zone mountains, the stunning hot springs framed by waterfalls in Santa Rosa, the fresh juice stands in the streets and the new fruits I found here like lulo, and the intoxicating worlds of salsa and tango in Cali.

I noticed a lot of military in the streets, but I never felt fear of violence. Colombia felt a lot safer than Brazil. Colombians whom I would meet on buses and would help me through my various travails (like being sick on a bus, or without a place to stay for the night) would tell me there are buenos and malos (good people and bad people) in their country, but there are far more buenos than malos. I hadn’t met any malos so I didn’t really know what they were talking about. In fact, for me, the country seemed overwhelmingly full of buenos, people who are sweet and eager to help.

The distinguishing characteristic of Colombians, for me, have been super amable (nice) people. When they say goodbye, they say, “Que le vaya bien” (“that you go well”) and “cuidate” (take care of yourself). Colombians always say hello and how are you. It is common to be affectionate with strangers, and call them “mi amor” (my love) or “mami” (honey). People are exceedingly generous. (Though they can be savage in line at the corner store, not waiting their turn! There is a disorder in Colombian culture that can be infuriating. The concept of a line sometimes does not seem to exist.)

In some ways, Colombians felt too nice to me. I aspired to be Brazilian because I appreciated Brazilian wildness of spirit and charisma and their strong national identity, the music, dance, appreciation of the moment. Although Colombia also offers many of those qualities, I didn’t feel the same attraction to be “Colombian.” Colombians seem insecure. They always want to know how their country appears to you. “Como te aparece Colombia?” After decades of violence, and the resulting stigmatization of the country, it is understandable that Colombians are curious about what foreigners think. Generally I don’t ask people what they think of San Francisco when they visit. I assume they will be impressed.

Colombians are nicer to foreigners than they are to each other. They want to be friends with the rest of the world after being cut off for so long.

What I find the strangest of all is how such a nice people could also have been capable of so much violence. The violence in Colombia has diminished considerably over the last ten years as the former president Uribe cracked down on the two remaining guerrilla groups and paramilitary groups. It really is much safer now. Until recently Colombians did not travel on buses, and they left their homes in fear of being kidnapped. I met a couple in Barichara who left their home for that reason.

I had the perception that the drugs and narco-trafficking and guerrilla groups came first and then came the violence. But the violence in Colombia precedes narco-trafficking and guerrillas. The history of Colombia, while democratic, has been characterized by widespread violence. For example, when the populist leader Jorge Eliécer Gait‚àö¬∞n was assisinated in 1948, violence erupted in Bogota and throughout the country. Liberals and Conservatives fought in the streets, and more than 300,000 people died in the late 40s and 50s.

Once the drug economy and narco-trafficking grew, the endemic violence in Colombia grew as well. According to this Latin American Review published by Harvard´s Center For Latin American Studies, ´´more than 50,000 died in the Drug Wars of the 1980s and in the escalating guerrilla warfare of the 1990s.´´ The author continues, ´´it is difficult to escape the conclusion that Colombias history is one of the most violent in the hemisphere, with organized killing existing at chronically high levels, punctuated with episodes of high intensity murderousness, for nearly two centuries.´´ Only the Sudan had more displaced families, people who had left their homes for fear of being kidnapped.

At a certain time, the military gave rewards to soldiers for killing guerrillas. So the military kidnapped men from the countryside and dressed them up as guerrillas and killed them. These were called the falso positivos. It is this kind of cold bloodedness which is hard to square with the incredibly sweet Colombians who I met along my travels. The person I know best in Colombia, William, told me he could never understand the capacity for violence in Colombia.

We went to see the Sin Tetas No Hay Paraiso one evening. A telenovela and book that has now been turned into a movie (and is a telenovela in many Spanish-speaking countries), this slick movie tells the story of a 14-year-old girl who prostitutes herself to drug dealers in order to get the money for breast implants–and the easy life she things large breasts will provide. The movies is splattered with violence: botched breast implant surgery, random killings, and overall loss of respect for human life. I sat in the cinema at the end of the movie feeling shell-shocked. William wasn’t fazed. For him, the movie was an accurate depiction of life as it is.

So how can such sweet people also be so violent in their history? Are the buenos just really bueno, and the malos really malo? Is this a country of passionate extremes and I am lucky to have come at a time when the malos are on the run? I am still perplexed by the combination in the Colombian character. If anyone has any clues, do tell.

The Colombian Compulsion to Say Hi

I only started to really get to know Colombians in Cali, where I stayed for two months. When you are traveling from place to place, it’s hard to get to know anyone if you only say for three or five days. In Cali, I also met my new Belgian friend Griet, whom I believe will be a friend for life. Griet and I noticed something very peculiar and sweet in our new Colombian friends: they were often compelled to call to say hi, to “saludar.” “Saludar” is a verb that means to say hello, how are you doing? And that would be it. The phone call would be over in a minute or two. There was no particular plan to make, no question to answer. It was just a call to say hi. And often enough, to say, I’ll call you later.

Griet and I would look at each other in amazement when the call is over. And laugh, and ask, why is this person going to call again tonight so we can say hi again? In our worlds, if you make a short phone call, it’s to make a plan, not just to say hello. We call less frequently, but the conversations are longer. In Colombia, shorter phone conversations are the rule. (Minutes are scandalously expensive. A twenty minute conversation could easily cost seven dollars.) And saludando is a way of life.

Why do Colombians saludar so much? Were these just a few phone-happy, love-to-say-hi people that we met? I don’t think so. Colombians have a desire to check in, to stay close. Our friend Mauricio asked Griet how often she called her family and she said once a week. He was horrified. He calls his family daily to “saludar.” I call my family and friends when the impulse strikes, and I have to admit weeks may pass between calls, if not more than a month. When we talk, it’s usually at least for ten minutes and often for half an hour. (Calls on Skype are cheap.)

In the daily rhythym of life it doesn’t occur to me to call to saludar (just to say hi, how are you?) the way that Colombians do. I’m more accustomed now to communicating my state and impersonally to my 500 family and friends on Facebook! Or I suppose to “chatting” online to say hi. And in the U.S., I got used to texting rather than calling. Griet defended herself by saying that she is busy and can’t call everyone every day to say hi. It’s true, where would it end? I would easily spend an hour every day calling my family and friends, but I suppose if I were more in the rhythym of daily contact, I would rotate people. As I write this, I notice how much efficiency and efficacy factors into my thinking about communication. I don’t pick up my cell phone and press someone’s number to say hi for one minute!

The height of saludar absurdity came twice for me. Once was at the beginning of getting to know William, my sweetheart in Cali. He called me to establish contact. Now we have each other’s phone numbers, he said. “Ummm, OK.” That was basically my response. Thanks for calling to establish that we have each other’s phone numbers. I hung up feeling bewildered, though when I asked him about it a month later he smiled and explained that that was just his strategy. He would hover and see if I had anything to say to him.

The second was after my very short foray into kitesurfing at Lago Calima, a manmade lake near Cali. I went only for one day and decided the water was too cold to learn. My teacher was really nice, and I didn’t want him to think that I was jumping ship because of him, so when I told him I was aborting my lessons, I assured him I thought he was a great teacher

A day after I returned to Cali, he called to saludar me. Why are you calling to saludar me, I wanted to ask. I would never have thought to pick up the phone to call a student whom I probably was never going to see again just to say hi. There was nothing romantic between us, and we were never going to see each other again. But this is the Colombian compulsion to say hi.

My Tango Show in Cali

Tango has become one of those subjects where I have way too much to say. Tango consumed the last six weeks of my life in Cali. I have been so fully engaged with learning tango, and thinking through its various resonances and pleasures, that I wasn´t able to stop and write about it because the story of my tango learning experience kept evolving.

Now I have left Cali (sniff, sniff) and I am hanging out in Bogota for a few days before flying to Boston, so I will at the very least post this video. And soon will come the flood of writing, along with photos and videos documenting the steep learning curve of learning tango! (I am still at the beginning of that curve, I would say.) Tango is going to be a lifelong love.

Below is a short show that I did with one of my teachers, Oscar, to show off everything I learned in six weeks. Actually I only worked with Oscar for my last ten days. He was the showy teacher, the one who taught me lots of wild, sensual moves. He is a pure performer. My other teachers were more focused on technique or on feeling. Our show included two improvised dances: a traditional tango, and a Tango Nuevo (new tango, which relaxes the rules to allow the dancers to let loose with a lot more performative moves).

Playing Tejo in Cali

Tejo is the national sport of Colombia, and finally, after two months of running around this country, I got to play. Think shuffleboard or petanque, but with explosives and alcohol. A group of friends divides into teams. The object is to toss a metallic disk underhand into a clay bed and to land your metallic disk in the center of the target or to hit a “mecha” (a little piece of dynamite) so that the mecha explodes. Hitting a mecha means points! I was a little nervous about the whole dynamite thing. But it turns out the explosion is rather mild. Another important rule is that team members drink with each toss. The national liquor in Colombia is augardiente, an alcohol made from sugarcane that has the unique and wonderful property of not giving me hangovers (unlike beer and wine and virtually every other drink). The Colombians drink aguardiente collectively–they order a whole bottle and then pour tiny shots into little plastic cups to share. Like the Brazilians share a long-neck bottle of beer. I love these cultures where people order a drink collectively and share. . .

Cali’s Seductive Dance¬¨‚ĆCulture

A viejoteca plays old salsa classics, and may or may not attract an older crowd.

Traveling is not necessarily that relaxing. Being on the move all the time, unpacking and repacking every two or three days, getting up for early buses, meeting new people every day. The rest comes when you find a place where you want to stay for a while.

I have always been fascinated by travelers who unpredictably wound up staying in a place. One Swiss woman told me her story of going to Honduras’ Bay Islands for cheap diving. She fell in love with a German diver and became a dive master herself, working for the diving school. She wound up staying for two months and loved both things—the diving and the guy. I wanted to fall in love unpredictably (with a place). Cali and Caleno-style salsa and tango have been those unpredicted loves for me. Call has lulled me into a dream world of constant dancing.

Cali is not a very pretty city. In the end, a beautiful environment doesn’t matter so much as a beautiful activity. I never realized how much I absolutely love dancing. I don’t call myself a dancer because that sounds like professional dancer; but being in Cali and consistently studying salsa and tango has made me realize that I am capable of dancing faster and learning much more technique than I believed possible. It just takes sustained practice. And I never felt such dancing highs before as I have felt here. I wouldn’t say every night has been that way, there have also been real downers. But there have been some truly magical spells, spins on the dance floor when I thought, wow, I didn’t know dancing could be so much fun.

Dancing at La Matraca, a favorite nostalgic mostly tango (with some salsa) club. Pre-lessons. I would never look at the floor now! (Right.)

Cali is a party city but it’s a party city based around an artful activity. I’ve visited party towns like Praia de Pipa in Brazil where it seemed all that people did was stay up all night, drink, do drugs, and start dancing to electronic music at 3 am and it all seemed pointless to me. Boring. Cali has this huge nightlife but it’s built around a real passion. Going out is a lot more interesting when there’s something do beyond just getting a beer and talking.

I’ve gotten a little obsessed with figuring out how long I have been in Cali. The fact that I didn’t even know how long I have been in Cali disturbs me. I have the sensation that I have lost control of my life. In the end I will have spent about six weeks here if I can execute on my plan of actually leaving. Funny how dramatic that sounds but when you are traveling and get comfortable in a place it takes a lot of emotional energy to catapult yourself into the traveling mode again.

The words unbeautifully seductive run through my mind when I think about Cali. I only planned to spend a few days here. That was five weeks ago. I always say, just one more week. That’s a common story in Cali: it’s not just me.

Mauricio, a national Tango Champion, and one of our tango teachers, performing with partner at La Matraca

Cali is a city driven by a singular passion: to dance salsa (and bolero, cha-cha, bachata, doble paso, fox, and tango). On more than a few occasions, we go out and someone points out a Salsa World Champion on the dance floor. Or a Tango World Champion. (Sometimes you start to wonder how could there be so many?) The recent salsa festival showcased the talent of Cali’s kids and adults, and my, can they dance. People tell you stories of learning to dance from their parents and grandparents and I feel jealous that the U.S. doesn’t have this strong tradition of partner dance. We have lindy hop, swing, Charleston, but I can’t think of any parents who taught their kids these dances.

Cali calls itself the worldwide salsa capital. For a long time, I didn’t really believe it.

Caleno style salsa isn’t widely recognized in the way that Cuban salsa or Linea (LA-style) salsa are. If the rest of the world doesn’t know what Caleno salsa is, how could it be the capital? The recent Mundial (Worldwide) Salsa Festival in Cali featured almost exclusively couples and gropus from Colombia, if not Cali. I discussed this with a guy who runs a salsa video show from London, and he said it’s because the Calenos absolutely live salsa in a way that no other city does, and they incorporate styles and music from all over the world. The audience for salsa is greater here than in any other city because the passion is so pervasive. I walked into a grocery store the other day practicing some salsa steps and a man in his mid-50s or so smiled at me and said, Yo bailo tambien–I dance too. And he showed me his steps.

Caleno style is so diverse and varied that the dance, when danced well, is never boring, and finely attuned to the music. Almost every cab or grocery store is playing salsa music, and it’s about the music just as much as it’s about the dance. I rarely hear Top 40. Once in a chi-chi club in the chic neighborhood Granada, but I had the feeling, how boring and soulless.

A gentleman celebrating his birthday at La Matraca, and his dance partner of the moment

There are dozens of dance schools to choose from and more salsatecas than I will visit. Some of the clubs are reminiscent of Saturday Night Fever, with florescent lights lining the floor and the ceiling, others are nostalgic and like a club in Havana or Buenos Aires. I am a fan of the viejotecas that play older music and attract a more mature crowd. I love watching people in ther 50s, 60s, and 70s rule the dance floor.

Sometimes it seems like dancing is too important in Cali. My favorite dancing nights have been at Tin Tin Deo where there are a mix of Colombians and foreigners, great dancers with a variety of styles and no pressure. Sometimes at other places a dance can feel stiff as if the men are humorless and seem ego-driven. They really want to teach you and look good, and if you mess up, you can’t laugh about it. For me, messing up is often the best part. It’s a chance to laugh together.

Dancing plays a central role in dating. A Colombian friend Angelique tells me Caleno women will go out with guys they don’t like that much because they are good dancers.

During the daytime I sometimes wonder what I am doing here. Rio was a city where I loved the luxury of taking a cab–the city was beautiful if sometimes overly stimulating to watch go by. In Cali, taking a cab is much cheaper but the view is boring. The streets all kind of look the same, blocky, cinderyblocky new buildings. And unless I am in a dance class, or enjoying the friendships I have made here, I get confused, What am I doing here?

But at night (or in almost any dance class) the appeal of Cali becomes more clear. The wheatpasted posters for Viejotecas (salsatecas playing old salsa classics) and other salsa nights give hint to the pulse of the city, and to why so many people stay here much longer than they expect to when they come to visit for a few days. Cali is one of Latin America’s cities with the greatest African influence (other big ones are Havana, Salvador, Rio). The African influence shows up in the city’s obsession with dance.

Now that I am actually getting more skilled and confident in my salsa I am enjoying dancing more and more. It’s getting to be a true high. Before coming to Cali I always felt kind of bipolar with salsa: sometimes I loved it, sometimes I hated it. It all depended on the night and my dance partners. If I had partners that I loved, being spun around and connecting with someone could be a total joy. But if I got asked to dance by men who were rude or threw me around like a doll, I felt manhandled, and wondered why I had put myself in that situation on a Saturday night.

But I never actually took classes. I never trained the way I am training now, practicing steps over and over again, as an individual and in partner work.

Now that I am taking so many classes, practicing the steps so much, I have developed a much stronger sense of rhythm. You can always keep your rhythym is what people have told me here, and now, in week three, I’m happy to say that’s actually true. I don’t quite feel quite as much at the effect of every partner.

My Belgian friend Wooter who is a bit of a fact boy (one of those guys who always has a study to cite) tells me that dancing all the time makes you happy. I still want to see the study and understand the science, but it’s not hard to believe.

A Battle of the Sexes on the Salsa Dance Floor

Can't we just all get along in a salsa class?

This past week I went to a free dance class offered by the Cali’s Mundial (Worldwide) Salsa Festival. The class was actually bugaloo and it was a lot of fast-stepping fun. At a certain moment the teacher told us we would not do “pareja” (couples) work. A stocky, red-haired Irish-looking guy and I drifted toward each other. The first thing he says to me is “Relax.” I said in response, “I’m already relaxed. Are you relaxed?” He says, “Maybe you want to dance with someone else.” Then he went off to find a new partner. Why did he need to tell me to relax before saying hello? We were about to practice a dance combination, not compete on Dancing With the Stars.

Salsa dancing in Cali, Colombia, the worldwide salsa capital, has been a magical experience. I’ve gone out dancing to about a dozen clubs and there are still dozens more to explore. I’ve taken classes at a phenomenal school Swing Latino and with fantastic teachers. But immersing myself in the salsa culture of Cali, Colombia, has also immersed me in the machismo of Colombian culture.

It’s been a full-on battle of the sexes with both Colombian men and other travelers that I haven’t felt since college.

I am ordinarily quick to avoid conflict but I have morphed into the lady with a short fuse. Give me some attitude and I give it right back.

You could argue that salsa is inherently machista because men lead and women follow. But it is a spontaneous social dance, and someone has to lead and someone has to follow. Why is it the man? Tradition. Latin culture is machisto itself.

Don’t get me wrong. I don’t have a problem with following. Leading is harder. The leader (who could be a man or a woman) has to think about what comes next. I like the sense of abandon and living the moment with the music, not having to consciously plan. But these are roles that a man or woman could play. A woman can lead, a man can follow, and the best dancers know how to do both.

But the idea that men are the leaders permeates the classes in a way that really pumps up feelings of “natural superiority” for men.

Too many men get the idea that they are our “salsa daddies”—that they know more than they already do. The paternalistic attitude trickles down in our classes. The “salsa daddies” tell us we don’t need to look at the teacher, we only need to follow their lead. They criticize their female partner when actually they don’t have any clue what they are doing themselves. Like the cliche of men who won’t stop a car to ask for directions, they don’t want to ask the teacher for a demonstration when they are not getting the steps themselves. Of course not all men behave this way. The coolest men resist the machismo pull to think they know better than their female partners, and those are the ones I enjoy learning with because learning feels more like a team effort.

It’s psychologically intense to be paired with a stranger in a relatively close embrace and to have to work together. If I sound as if I am sensitive to the male psychology of salsa dancing, I can be. But if anything, the last week made me pissed off.

Here’s a very typical example: I was at Manicerro, a Caleno-style dance school, doing partner work. My partner and I were learning a combination. He wasn’t getting it and it was impossible to do the turn. He called over the female director of the school because according to him, I needed help. She danced the man’s part, and the combination went off smoothly. She smiled and said, “I think she knows it. I couldn’t resist saying, “Now maybe we can focus on you and your problems.” The female director gave me a knowing smile.

Sometimes I feel like men feel responsible to correct their female partners on everything once they step into a salsa class, including how to speak or tie their shoes. The day before, I took a semi-private class with five other foreigners at Swing Latino. My partner was also American. I said “Listo” as we were about to begin. “Listo” means two things in Colombian Spanish: “ready” or “OK.” I was using it to say, “OK, let’s go.” My partner responds, “Lista. It’s lista,” assuming I was saying “ready.” Was this southern Californian guy really correcting my Spanish? I tell him, “listo” doesn’t follow the gender of the speaker if I am saying “OK.” But I did feel “lista” to kick his butt.

This past week I was at Cali’s phenomenal Mundial (worldwide) Salsa Festival. In addition to performances, competitions, and concerts by Yuri Buenaventura and other big names in salsa music, there are 20 free dance workshops open to the public. The workshops are on everything from Salsa Calena to Fusion of Salsa and Tango to Salsa en Linea (otherwise known as LA Style). The classes are large and there is only one teacher per class.

During the free workshops at salsa festival I really started to really feel the imbalance of male teachers leading the class with microphones and silent female partners by their side.

I attended six workshops out of twenty, and all of them had men teachers. I’ve had plenty of male and female dance teachers, and it’s always been just fine to learn from a man. But consistently seeing men speak and women silent as their partners started to get on my nerves. What about the female point of view in a partner dance? My friend Griet showed me the way she dances at times and says she naturally drifts toward the male style of the basic step in salsa, with more vigorous footwork and armwork, because the only examples we see demonstrated are from male teachers with the occasional female partner.

One teacher of Caleno-style salsa, “El Mulato” Luis Eduardo Hernandez, told us that men hold all the responsibility for the dance. He joked that his partner needed to dance on her toes–the Caleno style–so that she could be “manejado” (driven) by any man. A titter of outraged laughter went through the crowd.

Most insane: the workshops “Estilo para Mujeres” (Style for Women) was taught by a guy who couldn’t have been older than 20. He began the class by telling us that he has nothing against gay people, but he isn’t gay. What can I say, but WTF?

I saw a young woman dancing beautifully. I asked her why she didn’t go upfront so we would have a female example. She smiled and said that a man or woman could demonstrate. That may be true. But I also wanted to hear about Style for Women from a woman.

I talked with a female organizer from the Secretary of Culture who is organizing Cali’s salsa festival. She says she and her female colleagues have discussed the issue themselves and wish there were more female teachers leading workshops. Why they don’t invite women teachers then? When I expressed my pissed-off-ness a female Colombian friend looked at me like I was a little crazy, overzealous.

The imbalance in teachers is not such hard problem to solve. I vented to my uber-sweet Colombian friend William who takes salsa and dance classes himself. He told me he learns from women all all the time. His teachers are both women, and he pulled a card out of his wallet to show me his salsa teachers–they are a couple and the woman and man teach equally. The ideal situation, according to him, is a group class with a man and a woman teacher. That wouldn’t be so hard for the Salsa Festival to pull off. Just give a microphone to the woman demonstrating so both people have a voice.

New salsa fashion: mustaches on the dance floor

It’s hard to change the behavior of arrogant boys who think they already know everything. How do you teach humility? But as a woman, sometimes you really have to stop and insist, let’s see what the teacher has to say. Or if he criticizes you in an unhelpful way, just say, can you stretch your feet a little more because right now I think you walk like a duck. Or paint a mustache on your face to tell an overly helpful dance partner to step off.

Thanks to David Reina for wardrobe assistance, Wouter De Maeseneire for serving as impromptu photographer, and Griet Van Herck for the styling genius, modeling, and being my fellow Reina (queen) on the dance floor. More of our salsa photos to be posted soon as soon as I figure out the WordPress galleries feature.

The Most Annoying Thing About Colombia

In Brasil: First get your cerveja paper, then get your beer

The worst thing about Colombia is certainly not the threat of being kidnapped. With the exception of Cali, Colombia has felt very safe. It’s not the food. I like the juices, the soups, the beans. The worst thing about Colombia is that it’s IMPOSSIBLE to pay for things at a bakery or corner store.

Well, impossible is probably a dramatic way of describing the problem, but sometimes I feel disbelief, thinking, the Colombian people want to give you me bread, vegetables or a bottle of water but they do not want me to pay for them. Or, in my most paranoid moments, I wonder, do these people at the corner bakery just hate me?

In the United States and Europe, we are used being served in a line. At a bakery, the clerk attends to one client, giving her what she wants, and then rings her up. Transaction complete!

In Colombia, or to be fair, I’ve noticed this phenomenon the most in Cali, a clerk attends to everyone at once. If I gesticulate wildly enough, the clerk at the corner bakery will give me the bread made of maiz that I have grown to love for breakfast. That’s one victory. But then paying is another matter altogether. I basically feel like I have to do facial gymnastics in order to get her to tell me what I owe, and accept my money and make change, because she is giving bread products to someone else. Or just staring into space. Calenos are not closers. They don’t want you to pay them. I have mentioned this to several Colombians and they agree. You are so right, they say. We laugh.

The people who work at bakeries and corner stores don’t necessarily think in a linear way of serving one person and then the next. This all-at-once-but-not-really-closing-with-anyone thing is conceptually interesting. It’s not a very good business plan, though. I have wondered what would happen if I just walked away. But these are neighborhood establishments; for one, I would feel guilty, and number two, they would see me again. So I gesticulate, dance, do everything I can to seem not pushy, but pushiness is really the only way sometimes.

The Brazilians have another way of delivering interesting customer service. Instead of serving everyone at the same time, Brazilian stores create complicated multi-step systems for buying products. It’s quite comical. Once, for example, I went to a farmacia to buy ibuprofen. I was having menstrual pain and wanted ibuprofen asap. First I tell one woman what I want. She writes the product down on a slip of paper. She hands the slip of paper to another person to go get it on a shelf that is literally a meter away. This person hands the box to another person to ring up. With such an intricate division of labor, the farmacia seems more like a hang-out session than a job. Of course, there’s a darker truth behind the absurdly detailed assembly line. For one, jobs like these pay so little (the minimum wage in Brazil is about $250 a month) that there’s no real motivation for the employees or for the employer to create a more efficient system that relies on fewer workers. And Brazilian friends would tell me the education system is so poor that multitasking isn’t expected at minimum-wage level jobs. Still, it’s hard to believe that someone with limited schooling can’t go get the ibuprofen as well as write it down.

The multistep system applies to getting beers at bars too. First you pay for a little ticket with “cerveja” written on it, then you cash in your cerveja chip for a beer. I found the Brazilian way of creating many more steps to be inefficient, but at least they had a linear process. It was a little easier there to actually pay!

Colombians are unbelievably honest though. I must say that makes buying stuff here to be a more relaxed experience than in Brazil. One thousand pesos are about fifty cents, and ten thousand pesos are about five dollars. It’s very easy to mistakenly give a clerk ten thousand pesos when you mean to give a thousand. They always seem to correct you and give you the correct change. In many ways, the Colombians are just unbelievably amable, kind and sweet. Except for that staring-into-space-lady at my corner bakery.

Deciding to Enjoy Life (in Colombia)

The dreamy streets of Barichara, Colombia

On my final afternoon in Barichara, a tiny, beautiful, impossibly tranquil Colombian mountain town I have now decided is heaven, I dropped in to a sweet bakery and coffee shop for a rainy-day cappuccino. A Colombian woman, around 50, asked if she could park her bags and herself at my table. Of course. For me, meeting locals is really the whole point of traveling.

My new friend Shoya is a painter and also rents rooms to tourists. She would like to organize artistic tours of Barichara to show visitors the artistic side of the city: sculptors’ studios and the beautiful interiors of Barichara homes. Indeed Barichara’s homes are beautiful.

My Brazilian friends Roma and Iracema and I stayed in a couple’s home, sort of an informal bed and breakfast worthy of being written up in Conde Nast Traveler that only cost $17 a night. The interiors are indeed stunning. The ceilings are about twenty feet high and have exposed driftwood beams, the floors are large cobblestones, and every windowsill and bookshelf was adorned with a piece of unexpected art. My shower consisted of water that shoots over a piece of rock, creating the sensation of taking a shower out in nature.

A hammock in my home away from home in Barichara

Suffering and the ruts of everyday life
Shoya and I talked about writing, sculpture and painting over coffee. We talked about how to avoid suffering during the creative process, when the answer to a problem is not yet clear. It sounded like she had spent enough time in solitude painting. While she loves painting, the solitude is not always fun or easy. So she wants to spice up her life doing other things she enjoys.

Somehow conversation turned to San Francisco’s cable cars and the enjoyment of life. She asked me about the cable cars, and I said, yes, they are great but they are for tourists. Why, she said. I explained they don’t help me get where I need to go. And that in twelve years of living in San Francisco I never even took a cable car.

In my thirteenth year, I decided that I wanted to take a cable car. I wanted to enjoy life and somehow taking a cable car–doing a touristy thing in my own town–became symbolic of enjoying life. I told her I wanted to “disfrutar la vida,.” I finally took a cable car ride with my best friends. We were all longtime residents of San Francisco, and none of us had ever gone on a cable car before. The ride was magic as we crested up and down the hills under a full moon.

My new Colombian sculptor friend immediately latched on to this phrase, “disfrutar la vida,” and become quite animated.

It’s not so hard to enjoy life
“It’s not so hard to enjoy life,” she said. “You don’t have to buy a ticket to Paris. You just have to decide you want to enjoy life and make small dreams come true. Her friend has a dream that their friends will gather and cook five sauces to try with bread. That’s not so hard,” she told me. “We are doing it, Wednesday.” She had gone to visit a friend’s beautiful finca, or coffee farm, nearby, on that day, which she told me was “muy rico.”

In many ways, I think that’s what this trip for me has been about—proving to myself that life is first and foremost to enjoy. That it’s not about work first, or even worse yet, suffering. Work has been the way that I have proven to the world that I am valid. I couldn’t imagine an identity without some kind of output validating my existence, a very American way of seeing.

The belief that life is hard
For the longest time, I have moved around with the belief that life is hard. Somehow this became an unexamined belief for me, that anything worth publishing or releasing to the world would require a lot of sweat and frustration, and that in order to enjoy the positive sides of a trip, for example, I would spend an equal amount of time in agony deciding the the best place to go. Every pleasure required a pain.

To make enjoying your life the center seemed hedonistic to me in previous incarnations of myself. I worked in a consumptive way on my books or magazine or Internet startup. I would meet people in San Francisco who had travelled extensively. I didn’t even get that there was a world of pleasure out there that I was missing.

Now that I have been traveling for most of 2010, my life has been focused on pleasure and learning and exploration. Not that traveling has been all fun. It hasn’t been. It’s been grueling at times, and confusing much of the time, but the whole experience has been so rich—denser in learning, new experiences, interesting conversations than staying in one place ever was.

Walking through life like a donkey
A new Swiss friend (who is half Portuguese) told me about a Portuguese expression about “walking through life like a donkey.” Walking through life like a donkey means that you are blind to everything around you, focused only on work, chores, maybe the gym. You don’t seek out new fun, food or learning.

My life pre-traveling had some overtones of walking through life like a donkey. Cooking the same foods, going to the same bars, listening to the same pop song. I don’t want to be overly dramatic and say that I lived the most donkey-like life in the world, because I didn’t. My life was interesting and filled with some adventures. But come Saturday, I rarely planned some fantastic outing like the ones I am regularly going on now while I am traveling. I often was content to stay home and listen to public radio and do my laundry. I didn’t pursue a sport that I genuinely loved. I didn’t cook myself great meals to enjoy life.

When I go back to the U.S. I don’t want to walk through life like a donkey anymore. Or, as another traveler helped me articulate, I don’t want to go back. I want to go forward. I want to consciously decide to enjoy life every day when I wake up in the morning.

Bringing the traveling spirit home may be biggest challenge of all, continuing to infuse life with newness and joy, and not get lost in my everyday habits. But I don’t want to predict that it will be hard.

Magical paper art at an Atelier de Papel in Barichara

I bought a beautiful piece of art at a paper atelier in Barichara, which they made for me so that I could carry a smaller size in my backpack. It’s a piece of driftwood with hundreds of tiny circles of colored artesenal papers floating on strings with beads on the end, paper they make at the atelier. It’s totally my aesthetic and when I saw it I was just transfixed.

I am starting to imagine a new home where I can enjoy beauty on a daily basis with new art (not just the stuff I collected for ten years and didn’t even see anymore.) And where I can cook new recipes and listen to new music. Have friends over to eat and play games and watch movies and be silly. Sing Brazilian songs to myself. And plan future travels with a minimum of deliberation and agony.