My Birthday Wish

Dear Family, Friends and World,

The year has spun around super quickly and I am already reaching my sixth month living in Colombia which is hard to believe! On the 18th of this month I will be turning 22, and since I have already had an unconventional Ramadan, Eid, Christmas and New Years, I thought I would follow suit with my birthday and celebrate it differently this year.

Part of this includes making a wish for my birthday that you might be able to help with, even if you are on the other side of the world. I would like to request a small voluntary donation to Islamic Relief for one of the appeals which they are running for Gaza, Syria, Yemen, West Africa or Haiti. I am not expecting packages or presents, and I and not really wanting for anything, but the situations in these particular areas are only sporadically featured in the media, so I figured that I might use my birthday to try and promote the causes.

I am living in Colombia, and there are many worthy causes here, but I have had the suffering of my Arab brothers and sisters on my mind daily whilst I have been here. I was also living in a Haitian village when the earthquake stuck in 2010, so I feel particularly strongly about these appeals. I wont overly express the suffering going on in these countries because I would like you to donate lovingly and not for reasons of guilt, and I am sure that you are aleady aware of at least some of the situations that are taking place. There is of course a comprehensive breakdown on the website for each of the country profiles, so I suggest reading that before choosing a cause, or you could donate to more than one.

You may or may not have heard of Islamic Relief, but it is really a wonderful organization, and I really support the philosophy which they advocate:

Islamic Relief provides support regardless of religion, ethnicity or gender and without expecting anything in return.

You can find more about who they are here:

http://www.islamic-relief.com/Whoweare/Default.aspx?depID=2

Apart from Gaza, Syria, Yemen, West Africa and Haiti they work in many other countries, so if you feel like there is another cause that you would rather dedicate to then go ahead. Just go to the site, have a read and see what you want to go with.

This is the link to make donations:

http://donations.islamic-relief.com/donate/t_signin.asp

You do not even have to know me to do this, you do not have to be Muslim either, and you are not required to contact me if you do so, although it would be nice to hear that the idea has spread a little. Even if it is just five pounds or 10 dollars, it would be an appreciated gesture.

I hope you have a blessed day wherever you are, and I wish you peace, whoever you are and wherever you are going.

A-child-quenches-his-thirst-from-IR-hand-pump-at-Muzaffargarh-Punjab

Christmas and New Years in Colombia, two sides of the coin.

I think it would be fair to say that my New Year’s officially began on the 30th when I first went out with my friend and colleague from the university, Bea, and her cousins. I took a taxi over to the west of the city, against the recommendations of the taxi drivers and friends I have in the city who told me that it wasn’t very safe. Bea was waiting for me on a corner with her cousins and we caught a taxi together to Juanchito, a strip of bars and clubs outside the city which caters to those living in the afro suburbs of Cali.

Thanks to my taste in music and dancing, I am often the token lighty in the room, and that was how I was to spend the next few days. What was interesting about this bar was that it wasn’t reggaeton, dancehall or afrobeats like I am used to hearing in afro-clubs, but pura salsa. Luckily I spent the first semester at uni in the salsa presentation class at my university, so I managed to defend myself on the floor and salsa the night away. The club had little table booths all around the sides so when we weren’t dancing in the middle we were chilling in the booths with Bea and her cousins friends. In the next booth the guys were snorting coke on the table the whole night and I had to carefully reject their passes without causing a scene.

It was a fun night and an experience to be in that kind of crowd. I stayed with Bea and one of her cousins, rolling in at a ridiculous hour and barely slept because I was going out of town to spend New Year’s with Bea and her family in a small town way out by the sugarcane fields. I went back to where I was staying, picked up my stuff and got a taxi to the bus station. Somehow I got out and my phone stayed behind, and what with it being Colombia, the chances of us being reunited are pretty slim I would guess. So I had to mission it to some internet, get my Beas number and sort everything out old school style like before phones were invented so that we could coordinate.

I took a bus to the town on Puerto Tejada, an afro-sugarcane village where many of the slaves who came to Colombia were brought to work in the fields. It is quite amazing to the racial differences between different cities in Colombia. This was the first town that I had been in where the population was entirely black. My university is predominantly white, with a few token mestizos who are not really in touch with their roots and Bea, who is the only afro professor. I could feel the difference in the way that people referred to me. In Bogota I am often referred to as “La Morenita”, which roughly translates to mean “The Little Brownie” because I have a cinnamonny colour that makes me look darker than my European looking students. But when I was in Cali and the surrounding area they called me “La Monita” or “The Little Lighty”.

When I got off the bus in Puerto Tejada I heard a succession of loud bangs and saw some naughty looking boys running away from where they had been setting off fireworks in the middle of the street. I sat outside the fire station which seemed quite ironic to me, and watched the people going by as I waited for Bea to come and pick me up.

The street was chockablock with motorbikes, obviously no helmets and more often than not 3 or 4 people aboard. I know that comparing places to places you have already been to is a terrible habit, but I will just say once that the feel of this town made me think a lot of the Latin America I loved in the Dominican Republic.

I felt really happy to be there because it just felt normal. I hate travelling with a guidebook and I don’t like being in a place with other visitors because I think that in a place where the locals are accustomed to foreigners they have a preconceived idea of who you are and that is usually not a good thing. I am quite fussy about the whole thing about not travelling like a tourist mind you, because I also don’t want to rock up in some place where I have no base and flounder about trying to “get in with the natives”. Luckily I have quite naturally met interesting people through work, socializing and generally being a bit of a chatterbox so I have been fortunate enough to be invited into friends’ homes to meet their gramps, nephews, aunties and cousins.

Due to the nature of the season I have spent extra time with friends’ families, but I could write a pretty interesting essay to the title “Compare and contrast the Colombian communities where you spent Christmas and New Year’s”. I spent Christmas in Baranquilla with my flatmate from Bogota, Andrea and her family. The day before all of the women spent the day in the salon, the men went to the gym and the maid worked all day preparing food for the family meal for the evening. There were lots of presents, photos were taken on iPhones and Samsung Galaxy watchamathingies, and Instagrammed instantly. My favourite thing about the night was watching the aunties, uncles, ma, pops and gramps dancing salsa together and feeling the happiness of all the family being together.

The next day we went to a cribs-worthy home with the whole family where the kids were playing on their new bikes and drum set that they had received, and where the adults launched into Karaoke. After all the partying subsided Andrea and I recovered by the pool.

New Years was a different experience to say the least. The whole village was on a completely different economical grading to where I had spent Christmas, and the streets were more dirt than paving, and we had to be careful about no getting blown up by the fireworks that were being literally lit and thrown high into the air. Someone should have told the kids that fireworks are designed to fly by themselves…

I dropped my stuff where Bea was staying at her grandma’s house, and we went to find her cousin Leidy to see what the plan was. Leidy is 26 and has two adorable kids that I partially adopted for the time I was there. Her five year old son was sitting on my lap and I was playing with his little ears which he must have liked because he took to calling me his girlfriend and was telling everyone that I was his lady. He went took his mother’s hand and put it with my hand said “suegra” which means mother-in-law. They get started young in their habits here in Colombia! I have to say I fell in love with the chocolate babies who looked adorable in their best clothes, suited and booted like miniature princes and princesses with their hair gelled and braided, running around and wiggling to the music that filled the streets.

At midnight we were all in Grandmas house to say the prayer and soon after midnight we were out in the street. All day I had seen people across Cali with scarecrows flopping precariously out of the boots of their cars. In Pto. Tejada the boys had made some with oversized penises and were looking for small change from passersby. They fill them with old clothes and usually stick on the face of the President, or an equally unpopular public figure, and at midnight they set fire to him in the middle of the street. So after midnight the streets were ablaze with bonfires, the music was blasting, fireworks were being set off in every direction and motorbikes where whipping past making me dizzy. I loved it.

Everyone was wishing Feliz Año to each other, and I was presented to numerous faces as the sister-in-law of Leidy who was adamant that she was going to set me up with her brother. Leidy quickly passed her kids over to her great aunt so that she could get on with the party and I think she must have introduced me to every man in Puerto Tejada. She is evidently very popular.

We eventually settled down on some plastic chairs outside a small open bar at watched the people from the down “dando vueltas” of the main streets, getting together, gossiping and generally being loud and happy. The street filled up with men and women sporting the clothes they had received for Christmas, totally done up and ready to show themselves off.

Let me break down for you the typical male in Puerto Tejada on New Year’s. PT is something like 50 Shades of Chocolate, and the guys were competing for who had the most talented barber with a range of fades, ringlet mohicans, braids and intricate patterns including among many designs ones with flowers, spiders and of course, their own names. On a similar thread, the majority of them had tattoos across their chests, arms, necks and God knows where else; Pictures of the Virgin Mary, the names of their various children and sometimes portraits of their own mothers. What is most disturbing is how many Colombians choose to get tattoos in Arabic that do not resemble what they want them to say in the slightest… Anyway, the clothes were bright and blingy with many of them dressed in fluorescent yellows or oranges, and rather amusingly there were many wearing tshirts that said something about London or America. nyone would think that London and Manchester United were countries by speaking to some of the guys over here… to tie everything up, most of the men were wearing flashy Nike Air Max or Converse that they were taking EXTREME care not to crease.

The women were my favourite ones to watch. Every outfit without fail was iced up with some degree of bling. Bling on the shoes, bling on the dresses, on the nails, dripping from the ears, neck and wrists and the really talented ones managed to work it into their hair. It would appear that bling was part of the New Year’s uniform. Weave and braids were the basis of most of the hairstyles, but what the women did to make themselves stand out was nothing short of impressive. The dresses and jeans looked like they had been sprayed onto them and they gripped onto their thighs, asses and waists. There were splits and gaps wherever possible to show more than a flash of skin and I must say that I was mesmerized by it all for hours. There were tell-tale stretch marks on many of the girls which they had no intention of covering up and although it was quite a garish sight I was impressed by the variety of bodies and the “sin verguenza” attitude of the ladies who were unapologetic of their bodies.

People would say to be “You don’t dress like the rest of the people here” and I would politely smile and have a little giggle in my head to myself. HA!

I spent the night dancing salsa in the bar, one of the very few similarities with the way I had spent Christmas Day. When I wasnt dancing I was chilling on the plastic seats in the middle of the action. There were loads of people around, a few motorbike accidents and lots of noise coming from every direction. Upstairs in the next building was an open club where there was a lot of what can only be described as violent dancing taking place. There was not a smartphone in sight. Bottles of rum were rapidly emptying on the each of the tables and I sipped Mango juice and water all night to the great surprise of the people that we were with.

There was a gay guy doing the rounds on the streets, knocking his hips out of joint as he sashayed down the main road. When he swung around spectacularly you could see that he had butt implants that made him look like a voluptuous woman front behind. It was a sight to behold. Many of the women had also had surgery but it wasn’t always easy to tell who had had surgery and who was just flaunting what they Momma gave them…

By 6am I was dead so Bea and I made a move for home where I collapsed into bed, but the loud music continued right until 2pm the next day. I went for an adventure at the River with Leidy, her brother (who I have no interest in whatsoever) and her children. I feel like I have rambled so much, and there are so many details that I have missed out but I just wanted to capture some of what I have seen this week and share it with you. It was too dangerous to venture out with a camera so I have described things in quite a detailed way so that you might understand better what I am talking about and also so that I don’t forget it all. I have had an eventful month of travelling and I feel very far away from home but also very alive. I hope you have had a blessed New Years and Christmas, wherever you spent it. Stay blessed. Un besito x