Things I’ve Learned.

tumblr_mdy6olzcqL1r4s4cuo1_500Exactly one year after starting my blog, it seems somewhat appropriate to publish a few of the most important lessons that I have learned and confirmed in these past 12 months.

1. I can watch a sunset on my own.

Watching a sunset on your own reminds you of your presence on this earth, without it having to be shared with anyone else. It reminds you that there is something bigger than us in this universe, because it doesn’t get tangled up in the candyfloss clouds of love that cushion you as you appreciate something beautiful with a loved one.

2. Maktub. It is written.

Everything happens for a reason. Accept it. Destiny is a force. But remember that life is like driving a manual car. Americans would have no need for so many self-help books if they would learn to drive stick and catch onto the following analogy. In life we have to strike a balance to move forward. Much like finding the biting point when driving a car, one much learn to let things go, to be at peace and accepting of the things that one struggles with, whilst also remaining strong, resilient and persistent. You have to find the biting point between being peaceful and strong. This is the basis from which we can progress, making good, healthy decisions. The most successful people I know are those who accept fate as a force, but who work hard and use their faith to keep themselves motivated.

3. Discipline is a good thing.

Without discipline there is no direction. Self-discipline is a way of self-control that does not have to be excessive. In fact, the whole point of discipline is to protect us from anything in excess. In the purest form it is what helps us to do the hard things that are better for us in the long run. It is what makes us stick to what we are training for, through the sweat and tears, and pushes us through to improvement. A disciplined individual is to be admired.

4. Imagination is the key to positivity.

A creative imagination is indispensable when it comes to creating a positive outlook on life. Children have these untethered imaginations that run away further than most adults do. This is why so much more seems possible for children. Dreams are in colour, games have meaning and nothing is too complicated to get fixed. Having a healthy imagination makes you good at improvisation, which means you are less likely to get stuck somewhere that you don’t want to be for too long. You know those people who overflow with ideas whenever they are confronted with problems? Logic can get you out of straight forward stitches, but your imagination will have you flying out of the ones that look like they are closing in on you.

5. Read the signs.

Take your time. Look for the red light and listen to the alarm bells ringing. Go with your instinct and that gut feeling. Signs are like a language that one has to practice throughout life in order to become fluent. You can waste a lot of time and energy by denying the obvious, ignoring the hints, warnings and nudges in the right direction. Follow the path that leads you to peace by listening and understanding the energy that surrounds you

6. Love is not enough.

But it is very nice and usually free.

7. Family matters most.

Even if they disappoint you or drive you crazy. That is family.

8. Do not say anything that you do not mean.

Empty threats make you look desperate and manipulative.

Insults can be forgiven but not forgotten.

Broken promises lead to trust issues.

9. Lying is generally perceived as the worst thing you can do.

Ever. This includes general deception and lying to yourself. Owning up to your wrongdoing saves you from adding lying to the list. Being ‘two-faced”, “fake” or “fronting” will just land you with the wrong crowd and attract bad energy.

10. Let people be honest with you.

Listen and be forgiving and number 9 should start happening less to you. If you are accepting of people and their mistakes you allow them the room to own up to them and grow in order to change. Know where to draw the line so that it is possible for them to get in the box and open up to you, without them thinking they can repeat the same mistakes again without consequence.

11. Look after yourself.

Clean bedsheets, warms baths/showers, decent meals and regularly treating yourself to underwear in your favourite colours are all things that you can and should make time for.

12. Have faith in their potential.

But don’t fall in love with it.

13. Know what makes you happy.

Start with the little things. Identify what makes you smile so that you can reach for it in times of need. Whether it be the guilty pleasure of singing Adele on karaoke, eating Nutella with a spoon or rearranging your shoes collection, knowing what brings you happiness is to know the better side of yourself.

14. Don’t make unnecessary comparisons.

Comparisons reduce what we are comparing to what they are in relation to one another, not allowing us to fully appreciate them on your own terms. Whilst comparisons allow us to familiarise, prioritise and understand what we are dealing with, it is important to try and be objective and open-minded, not chained down to a way of thinking that is restricted to what we have experienced and already know.

15. Accept who you are.

This includes but is not restricted to: Your name, birthplace, age, sexuality, parents, heritage, ethnicity, physical appearance, economic status, flaws, qualities, what have you. Accept the now and plan to improve and work with what you have in the future.

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A Straight Girl’s Experience Of The Gay Scene In Bogota

Where else could my bizarre journey have begun other than with an invitation to watch the Eurovision Song Contest finals? After spending the majority of the year divided between rich kids parties, San Andres reggae/dancehall events and Pacific salsa nights I figured it was time to see what the rest of the British Council lot had been up to all year.

Quite a large majority of the boys at BC are openly gay and have been busy exploring the gay scene in Bogota and the rest of Colombia, and I had followed some of their escapades and experiences via Facebook and some very worthwhile blog posts (anyone interested in reading the revelations of a witty Irishman in Colombia: http://ryanmcfaul.blogspot.com/2013/01/a-guide-to-dating-in-colombia.html )

Eurovision is an annual family event with my Mum and sisters. My Dad pops in just to give a nod to the Turkish entry but he finds the whole thing a bit overwhelming so the rest of the time he disappears and occupies himself with something a bit more macho. Being so far away from home I jumped at the opportunity to watch it with some fellow Europeans (the attraction is difficult to explain to people who are not from Europe…). One of the other language assistants had set up the projector and was being a wonderful host to about 20 guests, having made both falafel and humus; she is a woman after my own heart. Meanwhile, the boys and girls were giving a running commentary of the performances. This was welcomed because the contest was being streamed from some Eastern European channel which meant we were missing the crucial input of Graham Norton. Although in a room full of gay guys and I am not sure that there would have been space for his contribution… “WHY ISNT SHE CRYING?? IF SHE WAS COLOMBIAN SHE WOULD BE CRYING!!”, “Her dress is so tacky, and I am saying that as a fan of Miss Universe”.

Irish Ryan was very upset that the UK only gave Ireland 1 point and proceeded to the rum, along with a few others in the group and we ended up having a bit of a dance after all the results had been counted and yet another European country that I have never visited won the contest.

Conversation turned to the fast-approaching night and what plans people had for it. A place was mentioned called “Theatron”, somewhere that I had heard of in passing, but never visited. My gay companions were shocked at this revelation and made a pact to take me there that night.

Apparently Theatron is one of the most famous superclubs in the whole of Latin America, CJ even referred to it as being “the size of Sheffield”. I am a curious cat and I was interested to know what has been going on right under my nose on the gay scene in Bogota. I was even more excited when they told me that the previous year they had had a gigantic layer cake out of which popped a dancing transvestite who rubbed cake all over her body. I wanted to go.

After a whirlwind of preparation I caught a taxi to the venue to meet the boys. The queue was like something I had never seen outside any club in Europe. There was one for men only and another for men and women, snaking around the sides of the block. The venue itself took over half a block to itself.

I have spent a while in Bogota, wondering whether Shakira wrote the song “Where Are All The Men In This Town” specifically about this city. Talent is thin on the ground (remember, I am comparing this to the Dominican Republic, Algeria and my beautiful, beautiful friends) and whilst the women are notoriously attractive, it has been a very long time since a man has turned my head here. Cliché though it may sound, I found all of the talent of Bogota concentrated in the queue for the gaybar. Men of all shapes and sizes, many with nice bodies, well groomed facial hair and exquisite style, I do believe that even the most die-hard homophobe wouldnt have been able to deny that this crowd was pretty delicious. It was not as overt as I had thought the Latin American gay scene would be. I had been given the impression by Colombian friends that it was wild and crazy and that the guys were all over each other and a bit promiscuous, but I have to say, it was a good 40 minutes before I even saw a couple kissing and was reminded that I was not in a museum of divine men created for my admiration, but actually in a gay club.

After paying a very expensive entry fee (oh the perks of being a lady in a straight club) we got our cups for the free bar and I vowed to get my 35,000 COP worth of soft drinks before the night was through. (I failed because another pitfall of a lady at the bar in a gay club has much more competition for the bartender’s attention).

The interior of the venue was beautifully decorated. It was designed like a regal theatre, with lots of red and gold features, leather sofas, high ceilings and large paintings on the walls. And that was just the first room or “ambiente” of 11.

We proceeded to the main room where there was a huge stage, two bars and a number of levels going up in the style of a theatre. There was a go-go dancer in a sort of stage platform that could only be described as “hunky” (sorry) wearing tight silver hotpants and big black boots, feathery wings, shaking his thing much to my the delight of the on looking audience.

We danced our way through the labyrinth of ambientes. Mark is from San Andres and made an exceptional dance partner, and I have to say, I have never been treated so well by any men in any club in my life. They held my hand and warned me of all the steps and were so concerned about me in my heels and whether I had enough water. It was lovely. And, I was not their target for the end of the night!

We reached an open air section in the middle of everything and I really understood why some of the boys had renamed El Theatron “The Gay Disneyland”. It was colourfully lit and the surrounding windows to the rest of the ambientes were full of beautiful dancing people. There was a purple minaret that rose high into the sky and a massive screen showing the sexy music videos that accompanied the reggaeton being played. It was a really nice atmosphere and I was having a lot of fun with the boys, having little dance-offs and wondering how I had gone so long before making this discovery. I like to go out for one reason: to dance. I do not drink and I do not hook up with guys. This place was like the perfect place for me because none of the guys were interested in me, but they were amazing dancers so we could serve each other’s dance floor needs.

The crowd started gathering in the main ambiente where the theatre was and there was an excited buzz around the whole room. Dancers came down and mingled with the crowd who came close to admire their impressive outfits…they had the most impressive eyelash extensions and makeup – black and white balloons and huge headpieces and shoes that Gaga would go gaga for.

Suddenly it started.

Ten chorus singers entered the stage and the host, in the style of a jester/narrator, opening the show with lots of panache. What followed was the best spectacle I have seen in a very long time. There was a fantastic routine that had men and women dressed in red Dorothy-esque high heels and lace leggings dancing with chairs and generally making Beyonce look like a wannabe.

A number of diva anthems were drilled out, as well as flamboyant renditions of all of the best songs from Les Mis, The Wizard of Oz, Moulin Rouge and Cabaret, among others. The standard of the performances was jaw-droppingly good, the outfits were divine and the atmosphere euphoric. In another life I think I was a gay man, either that or I was just overcome with nostalgia for my dance school years and all those summers I spent at musical theatre camp. Either way I was really enjoying myself, as was everyone else. Finally they had indoor fireworks, hundreds of balloons falling from the ceiling and, of course, glittery golden strips of paper spluttered all over the audience. It continued to be a crazy wonderful evening until I got into the taxi, completely sober but giddy off of all the excitement of the night.

The boys were amused and pleased with my reaction and promised to take me out with them again before I leave Colombia. They were so great with me, they really looked out for me, were so lovely and all looked after me and the rest of the group. I felt really safe and happy to be with them.

I consider myself to be Muslim, but I also believe that to each their own. If someone wants to ask me about Islam I will happily tell them about it and I believe that we should share our ways of thinking so that we can have mutual understanding. People who have no idea what the gay community is like can fear it a bit because they do not know what it is about. I like to go and see things and not take someone else’s word for it. I went to the club and I really enjoyed it, and I defend the right of anyone to live their life as they see fit as long as it does not impact on the life of another. That is how I can enjoy my freedom to do what I believe and see to be right, so just in case anyone was confused, let that just be clarification for you.

I have seen the seedier sides to Colombia, I have worked with the prostitutes and the nuns in the red light district, I have seen the upscale strip clubs where the rich kids get their kicks in Bogota, I have heard my students stories about sex and relationships and I have heard a lot of homophobic comments. I have to say that after all of that the gay scene as far I have seen is much healthier than any of the “on the side” escapades that many Colombians get involved in. At least their actions are based on two consenting adults making their own decisions, without the issue of exploitation that I have seen when it comes to prositution. Morals are a complicated issue to tackle, and I do not really want to get into it now. I just wanted to let people know about the wonderful experience I had and say thank you to the wonderful Brits Irish and Colombians that made it such an enjoyable night for me.

Love and peace to all who are reading this. Know who you are and what you want, but leave the doors of your mind open to recognize that understanding other people and their right to make their own decisions is the key to peace. One love x

PS. This video shows a little bit of the interior of the club. For the curious cats out there. It wont kill you to look 😉

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=y5HgGNRe5zY

Solitude.

Solitude. It’s been on my mind for months now. I’ve written little notes and diary entries about it. I’ve considered writing about it for a blog a dozen times before but I just wasn’t sure how. I thought that I would have an epiphany and suddenly know exactly how to write about it. I thought that I would know what I wanted to say about learning to be alone sometimes. I guess it’s just not one of those things.

 

Still, I feel like I want to document and share some things that I have learnt about this state of being. When you’re little you (usually) get familiar with your surroundings. You get used to being around siblings, parents, friends, class mates. You develop your personality and what you are known for. Your habits grow with your lifestyle, people know your personal traits and learn how to treat you. An intricate web is spun around you which gives you a certain sense of security. You cannot forget who you are because who you are is partially defined and kept safe by those who are around you.

 

It is easy to find people who identify with the experiences you are going through, be it the all wise parent who has suffered the same insecurities as you at your age, the best friend who sees the group of scary girls from school in the same light as you or the sibling who understands the craziness that can only be understood from inside the family.

 

As you get older your path strays from that of those who you have grown up with. The combination of experiences that you have give you a richer makeup and a deeper understanding of the world that you live in, but it also means that it is harder to find people who can identify completely with you.

 

There are a number of ways to deal with this. Firstly, you could pretend that nothing has changed. Push the doubt to the back of your mind, switch off the part of your brain that thinks independently and maybe, if you listen hard enough to what everyone else is saying, you might be able to convince yourself that you feel the same way. Unconvinced? Well, you could just decide to not leave your home, stay as close as you can to what you know and remain faithful to that which you have become so accustomed to.

 

Here I find myself with an issue. Even at the best of times at home I find myself struggling to settle and keep myself to a routine. I have a split personality depending on which environment I am in, I guess that comes from having two cultures that do not make a very harmonious balance, battling inside my head.

 

I went to live in a Haitian village in the Dominican Republic when I was 18. That is quite a young age to be going so far away from home I guess, although it didn’t really feel like it at the time. I lived in a village with temperamental electricity where the villagers had no running water, bathed in the river and lived with sporadic electricity that came for a few hours each day and then disappeared with no hint of when it would return. I got held up at gunpoint, went to more than one funeral of a student, as well as the funeral of one of my best friends there and dozens of other nameless faces whom I had never had the chance to meet. I felt the earth tremble when the earthquake happened in January 2010 and became completely detached from life in the UK. I grew accustomed to the village but I was just a spectator, friends with many, family to none. As an 18 year old there were many things that I found hard, trying to find some stability in an environment that was very foreign, working for a church-based organization when I was raised in a Muslim home, listening to stories people told about how witchcraft had taken their loved ones and how the earthquake was God’s hint to the apocalypse.

 

I came home and realized that as much as I could talk about these experiences, my words would only paint a watercolour picture for whoever I was talking to. There would be little identification with what I was saying, and any discussion would lean more towards storytelling than mutual dialogue or exchange.

 

I went to Leeds and Fresher’s week rushed past. I wasn’t particularly interested in the craziness of what was going on around me, not because I felt like I was any better than the rest of the student, but simply because my freedom had expanded beyond the realms of the student life.

 

I hung around with a variety of people, many from the Afro Caribbean society or from various classes I had. I never met any Algerians or half Algerians like myself, nor did I meet any Dominicans or Haitians. I hung out mostly with Latinos or black friends and that was fine.

 

I didn’t feel particularly happy or centered in Leeds. The good thing is that I had my own radio show last year and I was on the newspaper editorial team and I was friends with the people that ran the Latin nights in town so I always got to go to them for free. I decided that I wanted to go back to a Latino country and the universe conspired to get me to Colombia. So here I am. Eight months in. Working a cushy number in a swanky uni. Interesting that. Those from home who are familiar with my preferences know that I am about as anti-private school as they get. Growing up in Cambridge I went to a regular comprehensive with it’s fair sprinkle of teenage pregnancies, fights in the the playground and classroom dramas. When I went to sixth form I found myself with a lot of people who had been to private school until the age of 16, and let’s just say I decided that I wouldn’t want to send my own kids to one.

 

But somehow I have ended up in one of the most elite institutions in all of Colombia. My students get more pocket money than I earn in a month. Their big concern about prostitution is that prostitutes are not properly taxed and regulated and they would have loved to have burned Chavez at the stake. Let’s just say I have a lot less in common with most of my students than just my native language.

 

I arrived last year during Ramadan and had made the decision to not eat anything that wasn’t halal because of where my head was at that time. Many Muslim friends and indeed my father insisted that if there was no halal food I could eat the chicken, especially as I am living in a Catholic country. I decided that the need wasn’t that great and stuck with a largely vegetarian diet, in a country where ham is used in most meals as if it were salt.

 

I don’t drink alcohol but that hasn’t stopped my friends here from trying to get me to try “just a drop” of the national tipple Aguardiente. I have politely resisted. I went to the mosque for Eid prayers and again to see how things were moving along with the construction but I did not meet any girls like myself. In fact, it was pretty much only men who were there. I don’t meet up with any of the other British Council assistants who are dotted around Colombia because I guess I don’t identify much more with them than I do with Colombians, strange as that might sound.

 

I do, however have many varied Colombian friends. People from every corner of the country and I have travelled and shared with many different people. I have met the most amazing Mexicans you could ever imagine and shared their independence day with them, smiling as they cried, clinging to their flag, listening to the mariachis in the Mexican restaurant where we were sharing the evening.

I have had so much fun and felt so blessed to have been accepted into so many people’s homes. It has been a year full of delights and tribulations. I am nearly always swept off my feet with travelling plans, parties, study, work and crazy social events. However I have spent my solitary moments trying to decide what kind of person I am, where my foundations lie and what my true core values are. There is no-one familiar around to guide me or remind me who I am. I have to do it myself. This is the first time that I have lived alone in my whole life. Everywhere that I have been I have had a friend, loved one or colleague either by my side or on the other side of a wall, close enough to share a cup of tea or breakfast. Even when I was in the DR I lived on a compound with the art teacher who had her bed next to mine.

 

Now I am a big girl and I sleep in a double bed all by myself. Sometimes I wake up with a nightmare and I have to calm myself down and go back to sleep because there is no-one else to do that for me.

 

I met a model yesterday, a stunner of a girl who towered over my with her willowy limbs and pretty face who was telling me all about her boyfriend/not-boyfriend who takes her out, spends the night, drives her places and buys her pretty things. She explained that as she is living in the capital by herself she gets bored and lonely, so she likes the company of this gent. I thought to myself, that is another way that people sometimes deal with things. Distractions and fillers help busy the mind. But I couldn’t/wouldn’t be able to do the same. I like my independence and I don’t like to be close to people in that way. The best thing about solitude that I have learnt this year is that it can help you turn up your natural metronome. That internal rhythm that you live by, the values that you wrap yourself in before you go to sleep or set off in the morning. Being surrounded by people all the time drowns out your personal rhythm and can make you unbalanced if you never get a chance to reclaim it.

 

That is why I like my solitary reading moments. I have a few haunts in particular where I can make an overpriced tinto pequeño last for three hours. I curl up on a sofa and love myself in the words of some authors who take away the rhythm of Colombia and replace in with something that neutralizes and tranquilizes me. I honestly prefer to lose myself in books rather than men. You can always close them and put them away if they get a bit too much. It is rather more difficult to do that with a man.

 

In just over three months I will be going to New York for a month. Then I shall briefly pass by London for five days before jetting off to Algeria for a few weeks to see my grandparents inchallah, whom I haven’t seen for far too many years now. Then it will be back to London, Cambridge and Leeds to finish this degree that I have started. Then who knows? All that I am sure of is that all of this bouncing around is going to require a strong sense of grounded-ness somewhere deep inside me. I’m working on it but I see it to be a work forever in progress. Something new always comes along to unsettle the balance, if not naturally then by my own will. I am blessed to have some amazing friends and family who love and support me and it is thanks to them that I am able to lead this wonderful, challenging life that I am strapped into. I hope that I haven’t disrupted your own internal balance with this release, or that you have felt bored by what I am saying, but I wanted to put this out there and see…maybe these aren’t such solitary feelings afterall. I will leave you with the words of Alice Koller: 

Being solitary is being alone well: being alone luxuriously immersed in doings of your own choice, aware of the fullness of your won presence rather than of the absence of others. Because solitude is an achievement.

 

Peace.

Hugo Chavez on Racism

I have lived with Haitians in the Dominican Republic and I have worked with the elites in Colombia, and never have I seen a quotation quite like this by a Latin American leader. This kind of vision is incredible and very rare. I wouldn’t classify myself as a Chavista, but I have a lot of respect for the man.

“When we were children, we were told that we have a motherland, and that motherland was Spain. However, we have discovered later, in our lives, that as a matter of fact, we have several motherlands. And one of the greatest motherlands of all is no doubt, Africa. We love Africa. And every day we are much more aware of the roots we have in Africa… Racism is very characteristic of imperialism. Racism is very characteristic of capitalism. Katrina, —indeed, has a lot to do with racism– no doubt about it. Hate against me has a lot to do with racism. Because of my big mouth, because of my curly hair. And I’m so proud to have this mouth and this hair, because it’’s African.”

Hugo Chavez

Muhammad Ali. Faith and Fear

Muhammad Ali was an important chapter in my personal understanding and growth in Islam.

When I was younger, I used to go to an Islamic School on a Saturday, the teaching was very strict and it really struck a fear of God into me. From a young age I have been conscious of my actions and the consequences, and for a while I was so overwhelmed by it and I distanced myself from my faith. I was scared that I wasn’t good enough and I felt so much pressure and very little peace.

As I got older, many things happened that made me feel like I was being called back to my faith. From the people I met to the places I visit and the little signs that you learn to read in life. Some of these signs manifested themselves through the words in books and quotes that I heard from people.

One of the biggest influences in drawing me back to my faith was without a doubt the literature and expression of Tariq Ramadan. When reading his work I really connected with the peace of the religion, and I felt the positive effect of having my Iman close to me.

It’s funny that my name is Iman, but for a while I got people to call me Leila because I got tired of having to avoid little wisecracks about my name having the word “man” in it. But when I got closer to my faith I got closer to my name, and now I feel like it fits me properly and I wear it with humble pride…

Apart from Tariq Ramadan, Muhammad Ali was another great influence. Ali is famous for many quotes, but there is one video that really changed my perspective on Islam and with time brought me peace and understanding. In an interview, a young boy got up to ask Ali what he intended to do after he retired. Ali could have said that he was going to wear slippers all day, watch all of his best matches back to back whilst eating rice crispies from the packet and that would have probably satisfied the little kid, but he didn’t. Ali took the opportunity, quite out of context, to relay to the audience the number of days and waking hours each person has left on this earth.

He went on to talk about how each person would meet his creator and the fate that would await those who would go to hell. I felt the uncomfortable feeling creeping up in my stomach like I used to get when my teachers told me of similar examples when I was a seven year old girl learning about the Quran. I felt a bit nervous and I wanted to turn the video off. But I didn’t. My friend who had showed it to me couldn’t understand why I felt uncomfortable by it.

I took a moment and thought about it. I didn’t want to lose the ground that I had gained in my spiritual journey but I knew that I could never talk like Muhammad Ali was talking. The fear in me is so high that it is enough for me to listen, but talking about punishments does nothing to strengthen my faith, it just makes me feel scared. I came to this realization though that for Ali, the words were exactly what he needed. Ali is the World’s Greatest by title, and is recognized as such even when the world knows that he is very ill at home. Ali has had decades of success and been held up by black, white, and Muslim communities worldwide. There is a film where he is played by Will Smith, a song sung by R Kelly, and thousands of teenagers, including myself, have pasted their walls with inspirational posters quoting him. The man looks invincible.

But nobody is invincible, and we all need to know that in order to keep ourselves in check, from power, arrogance and selfishness. Ali has always shown that Islam is what has kept him grounded, even when speaking of his long-term illness he once said: “God gave me this illness to remind me that I am not the greatest, he is”. It is a sad thing to think of such a strong man being so weak, but his words show such strong faith inside him that it calls for a lot of respect.

Ali found his peace in Islam, through the means which he required, being the man that he is. I too have found my peace in Islam, even though my needs, vices and virtues are very different from his. This is because Islam is a religion that knows that one size does not fit all. We are all created differently and find ourselves differently, and whilst Ali finds security in some areas of Islam, I know that they exist whilst focusing my learning on that parts that make me work harder to be better every day. I have faith, and the fear is present, but too much paralyzes me but the balance for Ali is stronger because his character is such that he requires a higher dosage.

In a way it is like when you are dealing with your children. You love all of them equally, and you expect the same basic priciples from each of them, but you recognise their differences, how they respond to praise and punishment, and whilst you treat them all fairly you take into consideration what it is they need as an individual to grow. Some children are more sensitive than others and need a little bit of extra encouragement, some are reckless and need to be reigned back in, but essentially you are all from the same family.

Muhammad Ali did not show me how to be a Muslim. He showed me that anyone can be a Muslim, as long as they accept the fundamental principles and look to improve themselves, give thanks and ask for forgiveness, there is space for anyone within this beautiful religion.

Today there are many more prominent figures who have adopted Islam, but Muhammad Ali was one of the first big names, and in a world where the media is often short of representing Muslims in a positive light, I am glad that I grew up in a world where Ali had broken the mould.Image

You may be of a different opinion, but my own opinion allows for that but I do not want to get involved in a debate. This is my own personal viewpoint that I wanted to share because I have been thinking about Ali a lot recently regarding his health. I wish peace upon you, whether you have faith or not, I am not looking to influence or convert anyone and I sincerely hope that you have a blessed and happy day.

Iman.

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

How to stick to your convictions without alienating people.

“It is very seldom, as he noticed, that in debate any one of two evenly matched antagonists will succeed in actually convincing or “converting” the other. But it is equally seldom that in a properly conducted argument either antagonist will end up holding exactly the same position as that with which he began. Concessions, refinements and adjustments will occur, and each initial position will have undergone modification even if it remains ostensibly the “same”.”
Christopher Hitchens on Sir Karl Popper ’s argument for argument. Letters to a Young Contrarian

This week’s book of the week was recommended to me by a student of mine who is nothing short of a genius in the making. This Colombian has a vocabulary in English that outstrips many native speakers, and has just landed a job in a law firm in Bogota. He also has a knack for reading people evidence for this lying in the very title: “Letters to a Young Contrarian”, by Christopher Hitchens.

Now, I find the word “contrarian” quite a sharp word to use to describe anyone. I mean, who wants to be labelled as the person who says black, just because the rest are saying white? Personally I like to think that I am more yin and yang, a balance of both. However, this young prodigy made the very good point that I come across as quite a strong character (some have used the word “fiesty”), and some of my beliefs and practices go against the current of my surroundings. In that sense, I guess he is right to have identified certain characteristics of a “contrarian”.

What beliefs and practices you ask? Well, I am a British Algerian living in Latin America, who doesn’t eat meat or drink alcohol. Talk about melting pot. As soon as Latinos hear that I am an English teacher, they think that after a few drinks I become a Nancy type barmaid singing “Oom Pa Pa” on a table with a cockney accent. You may have some preconceptions about Colombians, but don’t kid yourself, they have some about you too. Not many of them have come across any Arabs, let alone Muslims, and the ones on their televisions don’t really look like me.

When I tell my Colombian companions that I don’t drink alcohol, they try to give me beer instead of spirits. Similarly when I say that I don’t eat meat they start getting the chicken out of the fridge. Colombians are a lot more direct than Brits. They want you to have a good time, and for them that goes hand in hand with doing shots of the national tipple, Arguardiente. (“diente” means tooth, so for some reason this always has me thinking about drinking mouthwash…). In these moments one has the sometimes uncomfortable task of asserting some limits that go against popular expectations.

When I have said I don’t drink and, shock horror, the national party-starter has never passed my lips, my dear Colombians can be somewhat offended. “Do it for Colombia”, they tell me. “You can’t go back to England without trying the national drink of Colombia!”, “A sip won’t get you drunk, just stick your finger in and lick it to see what it is like”.  To which, I politely decline.

This is when it becomes evident that on this topic, we are on different sides of the fence. We are the “antagonists” of which Popper speaks. I know that I am not going to change my position, as do they. However, that does not need to be a problem, or push us into two separate camps. As I said to some friends the other day at a party “It is one thing to say you don’t drink because you don’t fancy it, it is another to not drink because of your own convictions”. That got them nodding their heads and mumbling in agreement. After all, it is a Catholic country, so they have a respect for faith-based decisions. I believe that I have no right to tell someone that they should not be drinking, or put pressure on them to behave according to my own morals, and equally I expect the freedom to not engage in whatever I don’t wish to participate in. Plus, at a party or a dinner, I am one of the lively chatty ones, buzzing from my iced tea and sweets. I might not drink, but I am the real party-starter!

Standing by your decisions and beliefs doesn’t mean imposing them on anyone else but when dealing with people who are on the other side of the fence it is important to remember that they are your neighbour. Hence, even if you aren’t always on the same side, you can have a nice chat about your differences over the peonies and the honeysuckle, and plan a barbeque to get to know each other better. It is only through discussion between two parties that disagree that understanding is developed.

Hitchens uses a lesson learnt from Dr Israel Shahak to further crystalize the importance of conflict in resolution:

“…a long and risky life has persuaded him that only an open conflict of ideas and principles can produce any clarity. Conflict may be painful, but the painless situation does not exist in any case and the pursuit of it leads to the painful outcome of mindlessness and pointlessness, the apotheosis of the ostrich”

People aren’t so different really. We all have dreams and hopes and want to succeed. Generally most cultures value the importance of family, trust and respect. Wherever you go people rally behind their national football teams, boast about their national dishes and unite behind some kind of music, be it Michael Jackson, Magic System or Berber drums. No one trusts the politicians. Yet sometimes, there are going to be points where cultures, faiths or customs collide. It is impossible to just try and convert another party, but through discussion, we can come to learn about the context behind which customs and practices have been formed.

Last week, there was a big debate over the fate of the San Andres Islands and the surrounding water. It was a struggle between Colombia and Nicaragua and was taken to an international court. My best friend who is Nicaraguan was debating the issue with one of my students, a Colombian, over Facebook. It was a heated topic fuelled by the fire of patriotism and the two parties were not going to agree. That much was obvious. However, my student told me later that he respected my friend for what he said, because it meant that he defended his country, which was exactly what he was doing on his side. Whilst they did not agree on the matter in hand, the principle of loyalty was mutually understood and respected, and that meant more than the argument over the islands.

If we cannot share the same opinions, the next best thing is sharing mutual respect. As Popper explains, in this way, we may not be “converted”, or be able to “convert”, but we will come out with a richer understanding of not just our own convictions, but of those which conflict with our own. Why bother with this you ask? Well if you can identify the reasons behind someone acting against what you believe, it is easier to live in peace alongside it. As long as it remains foreign and inexplicable, you will always fear it or hold it in contempt.

One last point. I have been known to stand up for one or two opinions that go against the popular majority. I was against the Kony propaganda from the get-go, I never liked Julian Assange and I think that whilst we should have freedom of speech there should be greater penalties for those who intentionally provoke or incite hatred. Whilst this may merit the title of “contrarian” I believe that the path to peace is picking your battles and remembering to express your positive views also. I don’t feel the magic of the Beatles, but I won’t say that to someone who lives for their music. I also can’t stand reality shows, but I will sit through La Voz Colombia and comment on the dresses when my flat mate wants to watch it. I wasn’t feeling the Olympics because of the corporate money circus that it became but I didn’t rain on everyone’s parade. I did rather like the Royal wedding however, despite the fact that it goes against my anti-elitist views. I just felt like the party was going ahead anyway, so I might as well smile with the masses and have a celebratory cup of tea. One doesn’t have to militant every day to defend ones beliefs. In doing so you make yourself the argumentative bully that people think is always trying to pick a fight.

It is important to know what you won’t budge on and why, but also to try and reach out to people and find some common ground, because it is unlikely that one of the parties is simply going to evaporate into thin air.

Maybe in reading this you haven’t been “converted” to agreeing with any of my opinions about opinions and beliefs, but perhaps there may have been some modification in your initial standpoint. Who knows? The best I can hope for is that somewhere in these words you might have found a little peace and maybe a few points that we can share. As long as we can agree on the value of respect, we can continue to have discussions that will bring about greater harmony.

I will leave you with a quote from Malcolm X, for those moments when you need a bit of courage:

“If you don’t stand for something you will fall for anything”

Have a nice day, wherever in the world you are.

Love and blessings from Bogota x

One from the heart – Personal Involvement

Experience has shown me, both with young and older people, that day to day mingling and personal involvement is what awakens minds, brings awareness, and spurs the desire to go further, to understand better, and to carry out a dialogue. This is why we must really live and work together on shared projects
What I Believe, Tariq Ramadan

This week I munched my way to the end of Tariq Ramadan’s little gem of a book “What I Believe”. The timing couldn’t have been better, as I feel like it was a catalyst to the events and positive energy what has washed over me this week, and I would sincerely recommend it to anyone and everyone. The above quote is an example of the motivation and clarification that I benefited from, and if you give me the chance, I would like to explain why…

As you are probably aware, as a reader of this blog, I am currently living in Bogota, Colombia, working on a placement for the British Council. The events that led up to this position were, put simply, a year placement that I did working in a Haitian village in the Dominican Republic, and a subsequent degree in Spanish and Philosophy at the University of Leeds, having developed a taste for the language, and a thirst for reason. This is my compulsory year abroad, but I slipped out of the university system and managed to avoid the standard route of an Erasmus year in Spain, landing a position in one of the top private universities in Colombia. I have asked myself how I came to fall into this spot, being the private institution skeptic that I am, but I believe that everything is part of a bigger plan. I had similar thoughts when I was put on my gap year placement in a Pentecostal organization in the Dominican Republic, seeing as I am from a Muslim
household, but I have to admit, both experiences have opened my mind and my heart more than I could have possibly imagined.

When living in the Dominican Republic I worked as an English teacher in a Haitian settlement, as well as helping with a youth group conducted by the church. I had no qualms with working for a Christian organization, as they were the ones who had set up shop, and were working in the community, and I felt that if they were doing something positive, the religion shouldn’t turn me off. I later came to understand aspects of the system that made me feel uneasy, or that I wholeheartedly disagreed with, but I feel like the experience made me more understanding, and these concerns were things I witnessed first-hand, making them entrenched experiences that I could draw from in the future. The village was an image of poverty, no running water, an average of two hours electricity a day that was incredibly unpredictable, and a high mortality rate. My students bought knives to school and many of them had serious issues at home, as well as frustrations that caused disruptive and difficult behaviour. The characters I met however, will forever be etched in my mind as real people, with hopes, dreams and aspirations, annoying habits, endearing qualities, and most importantly, distinguishing features that made every person unique and special, separate from association with any stereotype that I might have had before living with them.

This year however, I have found myself in a completely different Latino dimension. I don’t know what plan has been made for me, or how I have managed to hurtle to the other end of the spectrum, but I am now teaching in one of the most esteemed universities in Colombia. The majority of my students have spent the summer, six months, or even a few years in Europe, Canada, the States and Australia, all paid for by their parents. They have iPods, iPads, MacBooks, cars and pocket money that is more than what most people in this country earn to support their families. Coming from Cambridge, I thought I knew about elitism. Turns out, I knew nothing.
It is sickly fascinating working in such an environment, where many of my friends at the university have two or more properties around the country, knowing that Colombia is a country with so many social issues affecting the bulk of the population. Colombia is the country with the second highest amount of displaced persons, after Sudan. The Amnesty International campaign “Everything Left Behind: Internal Displacement in Colombia” makes this statement:

Each year, hundreds of thousands of people join the millions already internally displaced in Colombia. In the face of the continued violence and displacement, the Colombian government’s assertions that the impact of the internal armed conflict has abated ring very hollow. Amnesty International calls on all parties to the conflict to put an end to the abuses that force people to flee their homes and to support communities under fire in their struggle to live in peace and security and to protect their way of life.

Outside my university building in the centre of Bogota the reality of this situation is visible, as you see countless homeless people searching through the rubbish for anything they can get their hands on to eat, begging, a number of times I have even witnessed the muggings. All the while I am sitting with people who are blissfully unaware, eyes fixed on the screen of their iPad/iPhone/Samsung IIIS/WhatHaveYou, making plans for whose country house they are going to have a party at over the weekend.

That said these students, like the Haitian friends I made in the Dominican Republic, are more than just the stereotype that they appear to conform to. They are friends with hopes, dreams and aspirations, who have defining qualities that makes them stand apart from one another, and more complicated than they appear on paper.

All of us are products of our environments and experiences. Therefore, we are always going to have parts of us that reflect that, and that will influence our feelings and decisions. However, what I feel like I have learnt is that it is important to try and be conscious of this, and for that reason actively try to expand our horizons and experiences so that we can have a greater understanding of those who live in completely different circumstances.

Since arriving here I have tried every day to do something productive, to push the boundaries, meet new people and at the same time protect myself from the dangers that I might unknowingly be exposing myself to. This has proved incredibly fulfilling, as I have met hundreds of people since my arrival, “mingling” (as Ramadan puts it) in different circles outside of my comfort zone, heard so many stories, and changed my mind enough times to lose solid judgement and opinion on subjects which I thought I was so sure of before.

As a philosophy student, that is part of how I have been learning to learn, and I have found a peacefulness in the fact that there are so many different angles and perspectives. I have met people who have told me that Pablo Escobar was a criminal beast who ruined the country and many others who saw him to be a modern day Robin Hood. I have met Colombians of all colours and descent, with African, Spanish and Native heritage, as well as all kinds of backgrounds. I was invited to an Iftar meal during Ramadan, at the home of a Turkish professor, where the top members of the Colombian churches were present. We shared a meal and prayers which was very special. I have had countless people introduce me to their mothers, and mothers introduce me to their sons and daughters. I have been fortunate enough to meet some of the most prestigious doctors and politicians in the country, and I have even been invited to accompany some new friends I made to their interviews at national television studios in Colombia. Every experience has added to my understanding of the way that this country works, as well as what kind of person I am in response to it all.

This week I was invited to accompany a very hard working human rights activist and charity worker in her work in the most deprived, dangerous barrio of Bogota. It was an enlightening visit, especially as the core of my work here is based in a private institution, where I am exposed to some of the most influential, powerful people in the country. I must admit I was quite surprised by the response among my friends at the university, when I told them of my plans for the weekend. Colombians themselves, they had never entered this barrio, and they couldn’t understand why a young, European girl of 21, with a cushty position in a comfortable job, would have any reason to go to “the other side”. What I could not understand however, is why anyone wouldn’t. Thankfully I didn’t encounter any problems during my visit, and I met a group of youth workers who had planned an event for the children in the barrio, promoting human rights. I got roped into face painting the little children, and they had music and young people performing hip-hop that they had written themselves. One day, I hope to invite some of my friends to come with me to see the barrio for themselves. I think it is really important that they come, and get to know individuals first hand, because these students at the university are those who are going to be running the Colombia of tomorrow. If anything is to change for the people living at the bottom, those at the top must feel some kind of connection, obligation or brotherhood with them, rather than seeing them simply through the eyes of the media, which distorts their image in such a negative way.

This is exactly what the Tariq Ramadan quote relates to. I feel like the “personal involvement” is crucial in developing a way of being that may have a positive effect in whatever one sets one’s mind to. It is all well and good reading about a subject, or becoming an expert on paper, but until you really put yourself in a situation, engage with the people and understand the intentions, pressures and circumstances surrounding decisions that people make, you cannot fully appreciate the reasoning behind them. And like he says in the quote, it really does fuel the desire for progression and understanding.

Sometimes it is very hard to be so open and accept things that seem to clash with one’s fundamental beliefs and interests. Yet it is important to recognize that parallel to working in circumstances outside of one’s comfort zone, it is possible to learn so much about yourself and question your own beliefs. In doing so, you can begin to disregard thoughts and beliefs that have no real foundation, or understand more fully the reasoning behind others. The effect is two-fold: a deeper understanding of others and a more coherent understanding of yourself.

Am am 21, and I am learning every day and there is so much I have yet to learn, but this is a lesson I wish to share along the way. I hope that you may find some peace or inspiration in it as I have.

Here are a few photos I thought I’d share…

 Some of my students from my English class

One of the cuties in Soacha – she smiled all day but I love this photo

Myself with another Muslim on EidOne of the restaurants in my universityA street in Soacha

Miss Colombia – A weekend of mixed luck in Cartagena

Cartagena: Two Reinas in Colombia.

Cartagena is one of the famous hotspots in Colombia. You might have heard about the CIA prostitution scandal that happened a few months back with some of Obamas men getting themselves into a bit of a pickle with some of the working girls in the area, and it would be hard to deny that sex tourism is a strong draw for many middle aged tubby white men. And yes, this is quite evident as you are in the street. Its not unusual to see two señoritas led by a gent with silver hair, tucking their bare bronzed legs into the taxi as he wraps his arms around their tanned, skinny shoulders and pulls them in for a snuggle as they head off to his hotel.

However, as I am sure you can guess this was more of an undesirable footnote rather than an attraction to the area for my Mexican amiga and I. We made plans to head up to the Caribbean coast because this weekend was a bank holiday festival – the carnival for Miss Colombia – and we wanted to check it out. We headed up on the Friday, we left early and were lucky enough to get pushed into Priority so we avoided the queues. Two things that I cannot stand include waiting, and travelling, so I was pretty pleased to be able to alleviate some of this stress. When we arrived the Caribbean heat hit us and we jumped into a cab with a young shouty taxista, who was very annoyed at how the taxi line was being organized. We had some banter and I told him to stop being so serious as he was going to ruin my first impressions of Cartagena. He gave me his card which read “El famoso rompe corazones” (The Famous Heartbreaker) and asked me to smile, with that he told me that I had paid for the taxi, he jumped back into the taxi and sped off without charging us. Good first impression restored.

We were staying in a hostel slap bang in the middle of the old part of the city, which has a colonial feel not dissimilar to that of the Zona Colonial in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic. All the houses had fat old wooden doors with huge bolts and many were painted pretty Caribbean colours like pink, yellow and blue. The streets in the Old City are small and just make room for the horse and carriages taking wealthy visitors around, as well as the little yellow taxi cabs.

This weekend the city was crazy busy, and as we ditched our stuff we went out to eat and run some errands. I had to pay a bill in a specific place so we took a taxi out of the Old City to a shopping centre in the wider region of Cartagena de las Indias. Outside of the quaint, touristy area things are a little more straggly, and there were a lot of people sitting by the sides of the road, chilling, watching the traffic go by. It is crazy to have spent three and a half months living in Bogota, which is nestled in the mountains and has a bizarre mixmash of a climate, to experience an area that ticks all the boxes of a Caribbean island. It was boiling, there was fried everything, everywhere, the girls were wearing crazy bright tank tops and diamante jeans with impressive nail extensions, and there was reggaeton blasting out of every crack in the pavement.

One distinct feature that I felt about the people in Cartagena was that they were a lot more down to earth than the people in Bogota. Much as I love the capital, it sense of humanity between strangers is frozen, as you see in London and Paris. Everyone is going about their business, running as if they were on a treadmill that never stops, that won’t let them look to the side and see the homeless man looking through the rubbish for something to eat. When we were in a resto-café, we ordered a plate of fried fish, creole rice, plantains and salad. Yes, this was definitely the route to an early heart attack, but it was also DELICIOUS at a mere two quid. The place was full of Costeños, (people from the coast, as opposed to gringos) and all of them put together their leftovers in a takeaway box to give to the guys who were begging outside. It might not seem like a huge gesture, but having seen people completely ignore brothers and sisters in the street, it struck me to see people going around the tables, carefully picking out pieces of meat to share with those outside.

We were in a hostel but we went about it the comfy way with a private room and en suite, and we met a lot of backpackers. They were very nice people, but it was strange having hardly seen any English speaking people to bump into some “gringos” with their flip flops, battered guidebooks and of course, those beasty backpacks. There’s this stereotype of having a rugged beard, dirty feet and a shitload of bracelets and necklaces bought of that market that makes the backpacking lot look very bohemian. They all seemed to be enjoying themselves, but I really clocked that I travelling like that wouldn’t suit me or my desire to see more of the world. I like travelling with people who know the area, fully immersing myself in the culture and getting my teeth into the language. I guess there are different ways to travel depending on what you want, but the most important thing is that each person finds what satisfies them.

We took a fat off bus journey along to coast to the very pretty Santa Marta for the day on Saturday. The buses in Latin America are very often more comfortable than planes, but I guess that is because there aren’t any trains. We made our way to the beach, and then hopped on a boat just the two of us to get to a more secluded beach called Playa Blanca. I bought some arroz con coco, a sweet Caribbean version of rice pudding, and we lounged out for the afternoon, feeling very much detached from the craziness of Bogota. We made friends with a Colombian fitness model with a cracking bod, who seemed to continuously be rubbing tanning oil onto her chest and glutes (this is the perfect word to describe that derriere…). Later we took the big journey back to Cartagena, and went on a nighttime adventure exploring the nooks and crannies of the Old City. As it was the festival weekend, there were stages with live music, plenty of street vendors, and groups of people sitting in plastic chairs in the street soaking in the atmosphere.

The next day was CARNIVAL DAY! The city was packed full of people, armed with spray foam to attack passersby, so we carefully slash sprinted to the promenade, where the procession was going to pass by. It was sweltering and everyone was in tiny shorts and t shirts, sunglasses firmly on the face, milling through the security to where the crowds were congregating to watch the carnival. To get up into the seated platforms and have a good view you have to buy tickets, which we hadn’t done, but the carnival fairy have us a hand and we managed to bag a pair for free.

The carnival was as would be expected: colourful loud and very very dancey. Each of the Reinas or Queens went past on huge floats, shimmying away in teeny tiny bikinis and killer platforms, and we could hear the commentator over the loadspeaker repeatedly commenting on their “cuerpos perfectos, cuerpos naturales” which was a massive joke. Although the Reinas were all objects of “perfection”, I would question the claim that they were all natural. After all, Colombia is renowned as being a hotspot for plastic surgery – you see huge billboards for it around town, and even commercials on television. Each area of Colombia had a beauty out there to represent them, and the competition took place the day after at a swanky hotel, watched by the whole country in their living rooms.

All of the spectators were whining away to the music enjoying themselves, and from the safety of our paid-for seats we could see randomers being attacked with the dreaded foam spray in the crowds. As we were going to leave I bumped into some of the other assistants for the British Council who are working in Barranquilla which was a nice surprise – I hadn’t seen them since the week that we had arrived!

We went home to wash off the sweat and spray and went out on a mission for ice cream. Considering that Cartagena is a beach city, it was surprising how difficult it was to find an Heladeria that sold ice cream, and we wound up in a very swish bar where the ice cream cost an arm and a leg, but we decided it was worth the sacrifice.

As we were ordering, a gentleman on the next table interrupted us to ask the waitress something and I got a bit narked because I thought it was really rude. He apologized and I aired him, but later when we were asking drinks prices the waitress told us not to worry, as the gentleman had said he was going to cover our tab. The three of them came over and apologized to us, and invited us to join them. We rejected their offer initially, but they won us over with a bit of charm and we sat outside and shared virgin cocktails and fancy food. It was a really fun night and the atmosphere was very relaxed, so we went onto a club later on. Not being from Cartagena, my friend and I would never have found this place, it was very exclusive and full of the “It” people who were in town for the carnival. We were definitely not dressed for the venue, but it didn’t really matter, we were dancing away in our flats and watching all of the interesting people. Finally we left the guys to do what they needed to do and made our way back to the hostel, having had an incredibly fun and spontaneous night.

The next day we were due to get our plane and we arrived on time, but somehow managed to miss the flight whilst waiting in the waiting room. It was a bit of a nightmare and we had to pay a bomb to get new flights. As you can imagine, being the impatient person that I am, I wasn’t very pleased. But I think God was trying to balance out all of the good luck that we had had throughout the weekend! Luckily my fairy-grandmother in the UK came to the rescue, and we managed to get flights that were to leave in the evening, as I had to be at work at 9am the next day. We ended up having one of those deep conversations where you really get to know the other person and what events have shaped their lives, so I would say that it wasn’t all bad. At one point we were sitting outside the airport with our bags and I was joking out loud to passers by that I had spent all of my money on my flight home, that my mum was in another country and that I really wanted an arepa (a typical Colombian pancake/bread). One man actually stopped and forked out 3000 pesos (about one pound) so that I could by one. (Remember what I told you about people from Cartagena!?) My friend and I were killing ourselves laughing and we spent the rest of the day in fits of giggles, lamenting our bad luck and joking with each other. The only moment we got a bit serious was when we had to catch our flight, because we didn’t want to miss another one, and I don’t think I could have found enough Costeños to fund a third ticket before 9am the next day!