A Few Weeks of Solitude… Ramadan in Colombia

So I’ve been in Colombia for 3 weeks now, and today is not only my 3 week anniversary but also Eid, the end of the month of Ramadan. It’s been an emotional and challenging few weeks so I thought I’d write about some of it, especially as my family are all in Algeria and I haven’t been able to speak to them, writing seemed like the therapeutic solution.

A quick brief for those who are not familiar with Ramadan – it’s the ninth month of the Islamic calendar and is when Muslims fast from dawn until sunset. This means no eating, drinking, or sexytime as well as some other forms of abstinence. It makes you more conscious of yourself, your behavior, your faith and your everyday blessings from Allah.

I miss dates and milk. Breaking my fast on anything else feels so wrong. Throughout the year my Dad is very insistent on the presence of “real bread” in the bread basket. By real bread he means French baguettes. And when dealing with French baguettes you best be getting your hands on the crusty fresh warm ones or you might as well not come back from Sainsbury’s because he wont let you through the front door. Dates have a similar, or even higher importance during Ramadan. The day before Eid I spent the equivalent of about £8 on a small packet of dates to relieve some of my homesickness.

Just before coming to Colombia I really took having my family around for granted. I went out with friends I wanted to say bye to, and I only made it to one or maybe two family meals, something which I really regret. I miss the craziness of my kitchen, my Mum is like a mother hen in the kitchen, she hates people touching the food or using the microwave and goes a bit mental the 10 minutes before Iftar (when the sun sets and we can munch!). If we try to escape to the living room my dad gives us this stern look and sends us back to the kitchen to “help your mother”.

In recent years my sisters and I have managed to get around this conflict by claiming responsibility for certain dishes or aspects of preparation and staying out of our mother’s way. My contribution is usually a cake of some sort. I remember last year my dad took us all out to buy our necessary ingredients and came poking the the kitchen to see what we were preparing and asking lots of questions.

My sisters and I bounce between the kitchen and the dining room getting everything set up, and my Dad will sometimes come in to direct us in laying the table. Otherwise he is praying or watching Arabic television. English TV is very rare during the month of Ramadan in my house. It’s crazy and everyone is in the same boat, just looking forward to sharing the meal around the table. It’s one of the only times in the year that we really do that.

It has been just as challenging trying to cope with doing Ramadan alone as it is to keep the discipline. Being by myself means that I haven’t been making massive tasty meals because I was really tired from getting into the new rhythm of early mornings and my work timetable. Most nights I just boiled a pack of noodles and shared fried plantains that the Mexican girls I live with had made. It’s not usual to lose weight during Ramadan because you usually make up for things at Iftar with massive yummy meals, and eating late usually plays havoc with the old metabolism. But this has been the first year that I’ve dropped a few pounds. I’ll definitely appreciate sharing Ramadan with the fam next year!

I went to a dinner the other day which I was invited to through some of the people in the Theology department of my university. I thought that I was going to someone’s house, but when I arrived with the head of the theology department and another professor, I realized that I had been wrong. The gent hosting the dinner was a Turkish professor, and he had invited a lot of prolific members of different churches to share Iftar. One of the leaders of the Catholic church in Colombia was there, and the head of the Greek Orthodox church, as well as many others. And apart from the head of the theology department I was the only other lady person there. It was a bizarre but lovely evening, having a mixture of Muslims and Christians. Everyone was given to the opportunity to give thanks for the meal, and the Greek Orthodox father said “Que Allah les bendiga” which I thought was really special. It means “May God bless you”, but he used the Arabic word Allah instead of “Dios” which is something that many people usually see as belonging just to the Muslim faith. I really liked that he used the word in his own sentence. I felt privileged to be there and it was the yummiest Iftar that I’ve had over here – stuffed vine leaves, avocado salad and plantains…

My boss at my university has been amazing and really supportive. He invited me over to his house to eat with his family, and tonight he has invited me to a restaurant with him and his wife. I was a bit nervous about how people would react to me fasting. In England people are sometimes really shocked and can’t believe that fasting includes not drinking water, and seeing as Colombia is a Catholic country with very little religious diversity I thought that people would be even less understanding. However I was massively impressed by the response I got from the majority of people I talked to. People ask loads of questions and are really interested and it hasn’t been half as difficult to bridge the cultural gap as I had expected. One of the girls I lived with has a Muslim friend and was really excited to help me out in finding information about the mosque, even offering to take me! Other girls made an effort not to eat in front of me, and to check that I had eaten at sunset which was really nice.

Being tired from not eating or drinking has been tough, especially because the tiredness has made me feel especially emotional and homesick, but I am glad that I stuck with it and kept the discipline to keep my fasts in Colombia. Beyond the abstinence you have to be conscious about your behavior and watch what comes out of your mouth as well as what goes in it. No losing your temper, bitching, swearing or getting jealous. It’s like a detox of the body and the mind. Despite the craziness of my lifestyle here I have listened to Tariq Ramadan’s Ramadan Chronicles on Facebook throughout Ramadan to help me feel grounded and peaceful. For those who haven’t heard to him, Tariq Ramadan is a Swiss Egyptian academic and writer. He has a PhD in philosophy and is renowned for promoting the re-interpretation of the Islamic texts. Everyday he released a five minute sound clip on his Facebook with lessons about character development and positive messages coming from the teachings of the Prophet (pbuh). It has been really nice being able to listen to the chronicles because they were about behavior and attitude, as opposed to being specific teachings about Do’s and Don’ts. Overall I’d say that fasting and being more conscious of myself and my faith has made me feel more peaceful and happy, which is something I’m grateful for, seeing as most of the time I’m quite anxious or nervous about things around me.

Today I went to the mosque in Bogota for the Eid prayer. It’s under construction so it was basically like a building site, but when it is done it’s going to be beautiful. The community isn’t humungous, but it was nice to see other people because I miss seeing my girls from home on Eid. Usually we got to Kelsey Kerridge sports centre in Cambridge for Eid prayers and I get to see my ladies looking all beautiful and excited. At least they had Arabic cakes at the mosque, and then I was invited to have breakfast with the Turkish families afterwards which, yet again, was delish.

Anyway, I just thought I’d share the experience for anyone who was interested. I am by no means a model Muslim or someone of any authority, but if anyone has any questions feel free to inbox me or comment. I hope everyone has had a nice day, whether they are celebrating Eid or not ❤

First Fortnight and Other Firsts

It’s not easy to get a blog rolling in a new place because there’s that inevitable need for a backdrop for future blogs. So, I’ve started out as simply as I could, with a list of “first experiences” that I have had in my first two weeks, since arriving here. So much has happened already, but I’ll try to make it easy for you to keep up!

1. First concerns.

Well yes, a quick Google search for “Colombia” will present you with pages of articles full of enticing words such as “paramilitaries”, “guerillas”, “prostitutes”, “arms” and many things related to the infamous drug baron, Palbo Escobar (or Pabby E as I have taken to calling him). But I have to say it wasn’t until I had been here for a few days that someone told me that Colombia was the only Latin American country with landmines. Fan-bloody-tastic. They tell me that after I get off the plane. Oh and there have been a number of revenge attacks with women having acid thrown in their faces. Not to mention the fear of Scopolamine, the drug that, once blown into your face makes you lose your free will. Criminals walk up to people in the street pretending to be lost with a map and ask the victim for directions. Then once they have their prey close enough the blow the powder that was lying on the page into the victim’s face, and with that the person is drugged, and unable to control their actions. I wont go into the details of some of the horror stories that I had to hear in the security briefing. Let’s just say if anyone comes to me asking for directions imma pepper spray them in the face and run away screaming like a banshee. (Although I’m considering gas-mask idea my friend Tess gave me…). Oh, and be careful with taxis, they might whip you round the corner where two of their hench mates will get in either side of you with guns and frogmarch you to the closest ATM machine. Do you think I’m concerned yet?? Nah not really, it’s gonna be fiiineeee.

2.  First Oral Class

Well this is basically what I’m here for so this “first” had me even more nervous than the thought of getting mugged at gunpoint in the street. I have 15 students in my oral class, most of them Law or International Business students. Many of them have been to the States and London before and there was even someone in my class who had lived at a language school in Brighton for six months. Most of my students are 22 or 23, taking English so that they can get super sick internships abroad. I am not letting on that I am younger than them.

So this ain’t no campo, teaching’s got to be serious. As fate would have it, the chosen book which the class follows is one which my mum edited whilst she worked at the Cambridge University Press, a something that got my new boss very excited – especially when he found her name in the credits page. The class I gave was about pronunciation and it went really well, I got the students to listen to exercises about different accents in English, and then I made them debate which was better, British English or American English. Clearly I was quite biased but it turned into quite a laugh and I even showed them the trailer for Snatch and a clip from Ellen Degeneres with Hugh Laurie where they discussed different slang from the UK and the USA. All in all it went down pretty well. But I realized 4 days later that I had left the audio CD in the computer. It almost certainly wont be there any more. At least I can get my mum to send me a replacement…

3. First time in a private institution

Those who are familiar with me are familiar with my general rejection of private education. And yet the Fate Fairy strikes again and drops me in one of the swankiest universities in Latin America, Universidad del Rosario. Now, I grew up in Cambridge, a city which prides itself on its educational institutions, but I was not prepared for how nice my university was going to be, especially because of its location in the notoriously dangerous centre of Bogota. The university gym is as nice as the state of the art one we have at Leeds, and there are statues of the founder in the central cluster which itself is pretty impressive. The students roam around wrapped up in their Ralph Lauren and Armani polos – one of my students even turned up to class in a suit and another was wearing limited edition Team GB Adidas trainers! I’m already seeing the differences between private institutions in this country and those in the UK, but that can be the subject of another blog. Right now I’m grateful to have been given the opportunity to experience a part of the world I had never previously been exposed to.

4. First time in the Ministry of anything

No, it had nothing to do with Harry Potter. On my second day all of the British Council assistants went to the Colombian Ministry of Education to get the lowdown on exactly what we were going to be part of. CNN was there, so we felt quite fancy and they treated us nice. It was also interesting to see how much of an investment Colombia has put into the project with it’s English program and the British Council.

5. First time working in an adult office

I have my own computer. At work. And a work ID. And free gym membership. And my name is on the door to the office. And people address me formally – I’ve had Professora, Señorita, even Señora (I didn’t really like that though).

6. First time on the public transport

In Bogota there is a Trans Milenio system which is something like a guided busway that has platforms around the city which you need and Oystercard-type thing to get onto. There are also propa latino style little buses with tassels across the dashboard, and little trinkets around the reverse mirror saying “In God We Trust”. There is a reason why Latin Americans are so fond of their vehicles blessings… the bus I was on struggled to get past the aftermath of one accident where a girl was struck by a motorbike… So we can add transport and crossing the street to the list of concerns then. But, I have to admit, I managed to reach my destination by grabbing one of these buses on the side of the road. And it was nighttime, and I was alone. And I managed the return journey in the morning. Two of the more stressful journey of my life – and I’ve conquered the C1 from Fulbourn to Arbury!

7. First run-in with the po-po

The less said on this the better. Some drunk policeman in a car, some fighting policemen in a club and some corrupt policemen by the side of the road. Let’s just say things could have turned out a lot worse.

8. First Colombian night out

A whole new set of rules. Amazing dancing and the best music for it!

9. First family get-together

Colombians have been incredibly welcoming (|’m not just saying that, they actually do have Arab standards of hospitality), especially my boss, Manuel. I’ve really lucked out with my placement, not just because of the institution, but also because my boss and his family have taken me into their fold. Manuel’s sister-in-law is my tia Colombiana, and has helped me sort out my ID, and we’ve been shopping and for sweet treats (another first was a fruit salad with cheese and coconut…). I was also privileged enough to be invited to Manuel’s house to celebrate his son’s 5th birthday. The highlight was probably having a deep and philosophical chat with the Grandpops who is in his 70s and tried to encourage me that I should get myself a Colombian boyfriend. He went upstairs briefly and came hobbling down the stairs shouting that Algeria had won a gold medal in the 1500m in London. His wife had her own endearing qualities – she told me her secrets to keeping her svelte figure into the 70s, and got out the recipe books to share with me. Overall it has to be said that this family are repping Colombia well!

10. First time in student accommodation abroad

I am living with 44 latina girls (and one Jamaican). All you boys out there be jealous. It’s like student accommodation at home just sexier.

Anyway, thanks for reading, keep in touch and let me know how things are at home, slash, where you are. Besos!! xxx