When I post pictures and status updates to Facebook showing weekend activities or describing something interesting I’ve seen in the streets of Cartagena, many of my friends often comment about what an exciting life I’m having here. While it’s certainly different from my life in New York, but I’ve figured out that no matter where I live, if I am working, it’s easy to fall into a routine. I prepare for class, I teach, I grade papers, I do paperwork. I go out to the same bars and plazas over and over again with the same people in Cartagena because it’s a small town and there aren’t many to choose from, plus I’ve found the ones I most enjoy.
So my day-to-day routine is pretty consistent, and I wonder if I had more spending money how different my life here could be. Maybe I would just be drinking more and going out to fancy dinners (one visit to a sushi restaurant was my biggest food splurge thus far in Cartagena). Would I be tempted to try the substance that Colombia is best-known for exporting? Probably not, since my preferred rush is from real travel rather than “trips.” If I had more money, I’d likely just travel more on weekends because when the sheen of a new job wears off, you have to add some new experiences to keep life exciting.
A lack of disposable funds rather than just general malaise is the likely culprit of my host mother’s tedium. She works from about 7am to 7pm, Monday to Friday, and 7am to 1pm on Saturdays. She comes home, heats up dinner, reads the paper, watches TV and then falls asleep. Her weekends aren’t much more exciting. She hangs out at home all day, watching TV, and on Sundays, she makes a big lunch, then reads, and lies around. While eating lunch together now (the same red bean soup we have every Saturday), I sat and thought about her life. I wondered if she’s happy living with her elderly father and her two daughters or if she’d rather be out socializing with friends, finding a new love, or seeing new parts of her country that she hasn’t visited. She makes no effort to do any of those things. Is it lack of money that keeps her repeating the same rhythm or just a lack of curiosity? She does a whole lot of “resting,” as opposed to her 87-year-old father, who wakes up at 5am every morning for his hour walk and then shuffles between reading the paper, playing online games, watching TV, and napping. At least he’s exercising.
I learned early on in my stay here that Colombia does not have a very strong culinary culture, so if you like eating the same things over and over, you could be very happy here. Street foods are ubiquitous. You can find at least one arepa stand, one pizza cart, a rotisserie chicken and potato stand, and a hotdog/hamburger cart on nearly every block. New York hotdogs have nothing on these guys. In Cartagena, they pimp out their hotdogs and hamburgers with a variety of sauces and toppings, like fried string potatoes, pineapple sauce, onions, mozzarella cheese, mayo, green sauce, etc. (I think the addition of so many sauces and toppings hides the poor quality of the meat) and what’s inside the soft bun become so enormous that people have trouble fitting their mouths around them.
Sure, fast food can be delicious, but it’s also incredibly unhealthy and not very interesting after the first few go-rounds. And yet, when I asked my students what they would miss most about Colombia if they traveled abroad, they said the food. Colombians LOVE
their national foods. These include, but are not limited to: fried arepas with eggs, grilled arepas with cheese, a variety of soups, plantain chips or flattened and fried plantains, fried chicken/fish/pork chops, rice, beans, lentils, and anything else involving rice or potatoes that can be coated in flour and deep fried. There are a wide array of fresh fruit juices to enjoy (too many to name, and I still don’t know some of the fruits anyway), but that’s about the extent of variety.
Repetition can have its benefits, of course. During my first month here, I got really excited when I heard a familiar song on the radio, thinking that my recognition of Spanish was improving. I quickly discovered that the radio station plays the same loop of songs over and over again, so it’s not surprising to hear the same song played 3 to 4 times a day. It can be a good way to learn the music, but it can also be really annoying if it’s a song you don’t like.
For example, I went to my first Colombian house party the other night and was excited to be on the other side of the gate, receiving shot after shot of Aguardiente and sitting in front of the fan on the front porch, attempting to dance to music that my body is unaccustomed to moving to. The music of choice that night was vallenato and the host insisted that it be played the whole time. Vallenato is repetitive, accordion-driven ballads with plaintive, and I’m told romantic, lyrics.
All I hear is the same voice whining over and over again, a broken record. I thought it would be an insult to Colombia to tell my friend who brought me to the party that all vallenato music sounds the same to me, but he agreed (which is probably one of the reasons we’re friends). When I tried to play a different type of music, this infectious song by Yelle, it was like the record scratched, or rather, people were scratching their heads not knowing what to do. I felt like I was Marty McFly in Back to the Future when he starts playing a heavy metal riff and no one at the dance knows how to react. The host of the party was gracious enough to let the song end before putting on the next vallenato song and returning equilibrium to the party once again.
It must be the unpredictability of life here that promotes this comfort in the familiar. When you’re not sure if your son or daughter will come home safely from school, when the downtown area of your city seems dangerous after dark, when transportation can become synonymous with theft, when there are murders of pregnant women in the neighborhood next to yours, when the security guard at your apartment complex polishes his gun and delicately loads it up with bullets as you sit and watch from your balcony (this happened the other night at my place), the world can feel like a very unstable place. Eating the same meals every day, albeit repetitive, can also be very comforting. You know that Monday is chicken, potatoes and rice. Tuesday is arepas con huevos. Wednesday is grilled cheese. Thursday is pork chops. Friday is chicken and pasta and rice (oh yes, only in Colombia will you have rice on the same plate with pasta). And so on. Listening to the same songs brings comfort as well. And for me, living in a foreign place where my language abilities don’t offer me the kind of solace I’m accustomed to, having at least a work routine is a stabilizing force for me.