Day 136 – Every Day’s a Learning Day – Salsa and Spanish Lessons in Colombia

When I finished university finals I naively assumed that completing my formal education would mean I would never again need to study.

Just a few years later I realised an accountancy qualification would be a necessary evil if I was going to get the job I wanted. Sacrificing countless summer evenings and long weekends to sit in sweaty little classrooms was miserable, although the euphoria upon finishing each round of exams almost made the pain worthwhile.

Looking back, it wasn’t the studying per se that was the problem – it was the topic. I didn’t particularly want to be an accountant, and even when I understood my debits and credits I took very little pleasure from balancing balance sheets or building financial models.

Who’d have thought that by changing the topic to something you actually enjoy and want to be good at, studying gets a lot easier and maybe…even…fun?

Well, in recent weeks I have been an extremely diligent and well behaved little Spanish and salsa student, completing somewhere in the region of 25-30 hours of personal and group salsa lessons, and at least the same again in Spanish classes and homework time. Am I too old for a gold star?

Doing ‘home’ work while travelling is a bit of an oxymoron, the last thing you would expect from a fun-seeking backpacker, and really the last thing I expected from myself, but for the first time in years I have felt really engaged and motivated by studying.
Salsa Update 

My salsa quest started at DanceFree, a brilliant little dance studio in Medellin popular with both gringos and locals, who take cheap private lessons during the day before practicing their new skills at evening group classes. It’s a great model and the atmosphere at DanceFree is always fun and welcoming.

With mirrors everywhere the school was intimidating at first but after a couple of sessions my inhibitions were gone and I was bouncing around like an extra in Glee. Warm-ups for the group sessions tended to involve a lot of hip thrusting which I found very natural.

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My first instructor was Felix, an amazing dancer with a smile that could melt icebergs (I know what you’re thinking mum, but I’m still not gay). It helps to dance with both male and female instructors to understand both sides of the partnership.

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The man always leads, so regardless of how many moves you have in theory, if the woman can’t read from your hands, body and face what it is you’re trying to do you’re more likely to give her a dislocated shoulder than a good time.

After learning various moves with Felix I tried them out on a number of female instructors with varying levels of success. I twisted a few arms into knots and got one of the smaller instructors into what could only be described as a headlock, but am pleased to report no hospitalizations thus far.

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From dancing with teachers in what was effectively a controlled environment it was a huge step up to dancing with strangers, with much faster music, in actual salsa clubs. El Tibiri in Medellin was a baptism of fire; being surrounded by people who were salsa dancing in the womb is unnerving, but more often than not the locals are pleasantly surprised and impressed when you can pull out a few basic moves. Even Jonesy senior did well, despite his reluctance to be photographed.

Dad salsa

The etiquette in salsa clubs seems to be that if a man politely asks a woman to dance, she is generally expected to join him for a song. As a result you see all manner of unlikely partnerships on the dancefloor. A grandad spinning around a 21 year old is standard practice, and usually great to watch as the old boys can really dance.

I have grown to love the atmosphere in salsa clubs – the ‘asking a girl to dance’ thing is kind of formal and often feels a bit like a school disco, but there is also something very charming, traditional and classy about it. The regular switching of dance partners also helps to integrate different groups and makes for a really friendly environment.

While this post is by no means the end of my salsa journey I feel some evidence of my progress is required. While there are many videos of me dancing well with my teachers, I found out early that that doesn’t really prove anything.

The real test and what I had been building up to was my trip to Cali, often referred to as the world capital of salsa, where we visited La Topa Tolondra – a famous local club which has hosted many better dancers than I over the years.

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While I don’t expect a signed photo of Oliver Jones will be going on their wall any time soon I did pretty well. A few nods of approval from surprised locals and smiles from dance partners was all the encouragement I needed.

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It’s not really the done thing to take a video of yourself dancing in a salsa club, but thanks to a random Kiwi guy who was impressed with my moves I do have some grainy footage from a late night venue in Cali.

Starting off in the ‘Colombian style’ with lots of his-and-hers spins I throw in a couple of open breaks at the end. It’s lacking some flair but I think I managed to look the part for 45 seconds, mostly thanks to my partner. I’ll let you judge for yourselves…

Spanish Update

The 4 days of group Spanish classes I took in Madrid late last year were quite demoralizing, mostly because I didn’t try very hard. After some sporadic effort with Babbel and Duolingo (two mobile apps both worth a look if you want to learn a language on the cheap/free), I decided to give school another shot, 3 months later, signing up for a week-long immersion course in Medellin.

There are many language schools in Medellin but the approach at Blink is great for backpackers – it’s a hostel, restaurant, language school and even a launderette rolled into one, meaning you can get a week’s accommodation, two meals a day, 20 hours of group lessons, 2 hours of one-on-one classes and some clean underpants for under £200. It’s a pretty stellar deal and the teaching is great, with class sizes of 5 or less.

Speaking a foreign language is very rewarding when it goes well, and after finally learning all the main tenses (subjunctive aside) I have been able to have some proper conversations with locals. Just today I managed 45 minutes of almost continuous chat in a cab, covering the classic Colombian taxi driver discussion topics of politics, women and football. I was exhausted but pleased with myself on arrival.

Again there have been some lows to go with the highs. During my Spanish lessons in Medellin I inadvertently asked my teacher to ‘get me hard.’ That was entertaining, but just a few days ago I managed to upset a friend who was on her way to meet me by texting “I have forgotten you” (No me acuerdo de ti) when I meant to say “I don’t agree with you,” (no estoy acuerdo de ti), so much so that she turned around mid-journey and went home. No puedo gañar a todos.

The Three S’s

The things that unite my three S’s – learning Spanish, Salsa and Surfing – and possibly the learning of any new skill, are the need for perseverance and regular practice. The more waves that have landed on my head, the more times I have frozen on the dancefloor and the more locals I have confused or offended with my broken Spanish, the more I have learned. The bigger the fail, the more likely you are never to do it again.

Still, despite the many challenges and bumps in the road there have been far more ups than downs and I am delighted to be making some real progress, with hopefully a lot more to come.


Next Stop: Getting Spiritual – Salento, the Cocora Valley, and San Pedro

What is The Gump Method

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Day 120 – Medellin Part II – He Who Must Not Be Named

Mark Twain.PNGI love this quote by Mark Twain, which sits somewhere in my Facebook profile as a relic of the days when people used to bother with the ‘favourite quotes’ section.

If you’re reading this thinking “I don’t know what he’s talking about” then I don’t believe you. Lying and getting caught is a rite of passage – it’s just that some people learn from it and others don’t.

I’d put myself in the former category. As friends and readers of this blog will attest I am honest and very open, sometimes to my own detriment. An ‘oversharer’ if you will. Still, with every rule there is an exception, and a couple of mendacious moments will always stick in my mind.

The first was at around 13 years of age, when I told a mate about how a group of us had got into a fight in McDonald’s, been chased through Chichester and ended up escaping through the multi-storey car park.

The problem with this story was that I hadn’t actually been there, but the friend I was telling it to had. He let me get all the way to the end before exposing me mercilessly.

Fast forward 20 years or so to Paris, and a weekend trip with the boys to watch the Prix de L’Arc de Triomphe, an annual horse race which coincides with Paris Fashion Week.

After two long nights of scowls from Parisian fashionistas upon hearing that I worked in finance I foolishly decided to take on the persona of my sister, saying I was a womenswear buyer for MyTheresa. Yep, what a loser.

Shockingly, Anna from Paris believed me. We met for lunch the next day, where the budding designer subjected me to unrelenting questioning about my fashion career. After a tortuous recitation of my sister’s resumé I finally escaped, agreeing to put her in touch with my non-existent London fashion contacts. Despite not being formally caught out it was horrible, and I promised myself never again to get into such a situation.

Medellin Le Tissier

I wish these painful memories had come to me before I decided to tell Ruben the Medellin taxi driver that I was an ex-professional footballer for Southampton. Conceived of by Jonesy senior as a harmless way of practicing my Spanish on a short taxi journey, it would have been quickly forgotten had Ruben not subsequently become our unofficial Medellin tour guide.

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Over the course of three trips we made with Ruben (who turned out to be a huge football fan) I was asked many questions about my premier league career. What was your best position? Who was your favourite coach? Did you play against Cristiano Ronaldo?

Rather than abandoning ship at the earliest opportunity, this fabrication again lasted the distance. While my back up plan (to claim I was Iain Dowie) thankfully wasn’t enacted the whole thing was torture for me, hilarious for my dad, and I’m sure Ruben eventually worked out that it was all rubbish anyway.

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He Who Must Not Be Named

I suspect Pablo Escobar told a few porky pies in his long, murderous career. While I absolutely devoured Narcos (the Netflix series about Escobar) and was excited to visit the sites of his former reign of terror, on reflection I feel dirty for some of the things I did on our ad hoc tour with Ruben.

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I had already visited the Escobar family grave with Walter, Patrick and our Colombian familia. Popular with narco-tourists keen to get a photo of themselves snorting cocaine off his tombstone, this unassuming grave was clearly intended to portray his simplicity as a true ‘man of the people.’ This, like his well-publicised generosity to the poor folk of Medellin, was just propaganda, done with personal ends in mind.

For every one of the 300 plus houses he built for the poor in Medellin (when he was, coincidentally, running for President), Escobar was responsible for a multiple of that number in murders and executions (estimated at around 3,000).

An excellent free walking tour guide Edgar, who had grown up in Medellin through its worst years, was baffled that so many people could “compare the value of houses alongside that of human life.” He was careful not to use Escobar’s name in his commentary as we walked around the city – just hearing it invokes highly emotive interventions from locals, whichever side they’re on.

It is surprising that anyone could side with the narcos when there are regular reminders of the atrocities committed, like these remains of a bombed Botero sculpture in Plaza San Antonio, where 23 people died at a concert in 1995.

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We made a trip to the Catedral – the luxury ‘prison’ Escobar built himself after a deal with the government in 1991. Looking down over all of Medellin you could just imagine Escobar standing there surveying what was then still his kingdom, despite his incarceration.

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With no visitor centre, entry charge, or any real effort to create a tourist attraction we initially regarded the Catedral as a missed opportunity for Medellin. This, however, was absolutely the intention. The government and the city, well aware of Escobar’s enduring reputation, are doing their best to distance themselves from it.

Colombia’s recent history isn’t taught in schools, which is why some of the younger Paisas, who didn’t live through the terror but did watch Narcos, can be seen wearing pro-Escobar t-shirts. While gratuitous tourist photos are part of the problem I have no regrets about this shot of me and my dad sitting on his former helipad.

P1000502.JPGIn contrast, I am ashamed of my behaviour at the next stop we made. Billed as an Escobar museum by Ruben, we went to visit one of his former safe-houses in Medellin which was really more of a shrine, operated by his surviving family members.

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An extremely pro-Pablo tour guide led us through the house, encouraging photos of the gratuitous and distasteful variety. I went along with it, not wanting to offend our hosts and not really thinking about what I was doing. I stood on his old jetski, sat on his favourite sofa, hid behind the revolving bookcase, took fake hundred dollar bills from the secret compartment in his desk and reclined on top of his old land rover, complete with bullet and grenade damage…I’ve included a couple of the more acceptable shots here, but the list goes on.

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The real low point came when we met Pablo’s elder brother Roberto Escobar, former professional cyclist turned drug lord turned reluctant penitent and strange old man, who used to sit alongside Pablo on Colombia’s most wanted list with a $10m price tag.

The grand finale of this very expensive tour was to shake hands with Roberto who claims, as ‘cartel accountant,’ that he had no part in the violence. Sorry Bobby – if you’re counting and spending the money you’re as culpable as anyone.

After the recent murder of a Netflix location scout in Mexico, Roberto was quoted as saying “It is very dangerous [to film in Colombia]. Especially without our blessing. This is my country.” Not the words of a simple accountant and pacifist.

When given the opportunity to ask questions of Roberto, all I could think of was ‘how many people did you kill or have killed?’ This didn’t seem appropriate, so we stood there for a photo before making our exit. It was awkward.

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Conclusion

This is a blog, not an essay, but I feel the need to conclude.

First up, I think we can all agree that lying is bad, even if it does result in some funny stories.

Secondly, Pablo Escobar and his big brother were very bad, despite what many Colombians will tell you. The Medellin of today is a safe, friendly and happy place where residents no longer need to worry about kidnappings, executions or bombs.

Finally, I accept that there is some hypocrisy in going to the ‘museum,’ shaking hands with a man with so much blood on his, then writing this account and posting the photos. While I have learnt a lesson from this experience, if I could do it all again I would keep my money and skip the Pablo Pilgrimage.


Next stop: The Highs and Lows of Salsa 

What is The Gump Method

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Day 113 – Medellin Part I – Mi Familia Su Familia

I have a lot to say about Medellin. Spending a few weeks in Colombia’s phoenix, formerly regarded as the world’s most dangerous city, I have, like many recent visitors, developed a strong sense of affection for Medellin and its people.

The city occupies a long, thin valley formed by two Andean mountain ridges. The valley’s steep sides ensure that everyone in Medellin has some kind of a view – up, down, or across. The city is not architecturally beautiful: imposing municipal buildings sit alongside soulless residential towers, with poorer residents occupying the higher slopes. However, while Medellin has no truly memorable landmarks, when viewed from a high vantage point on a sunny day the cityscape as a whole is iconic.

colombia-medellin-panoramic-wallpaperInternational visitors to Medellin are immediately greeted with this view as its major airport sits at a higher altitude to the south of the city. The drive down into Medellin is breathtaking, both as a result of the panoramic vista and the taxi drivers’ ridiculously aggressive downhill overtaking manoeuvres.

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Paisa Hospitality

The positive atmosphere in Medellin and the openness and hospitality of the ‘Paisas’ (Colombians of the Antioquia region) towards foreign visitors are immediately palpable.

Our first night started in an authentic salsa club – I say ‘authentic’ based on the fact that we were the only foreigners – but it seemed legit. Arriving late we were offered the only remaining table upstairs, away from the action. A couple of old guys saw this and demanded that we join their table in prime location next to the dancefloor. After plying us with aguardiente (“fiery water”) they introduced an equally steady flow of dance partners who were extremely patient and accommodating of our 6 left feet.

It was a great taste of what was to come. In a city which has only recently gone from global murder capital to the jewel in Colombia’s crown its people clearly love having fun and are proud of what they have collectively achieved, showing it off like proud parents.

Our New Colombian Familia

We met our Colombian-parents-in-waiting the following day, travelling to Itagui in the south of the city, where the hospitality levels went through the roof. Our affiliation with them was very loose – Walter and Patrick knew a Colombian guy back in New York who suggested we meet his parents in Medellin. Sure. Next thing we knew they had found us accommodation, sent a driver to collect us from the airport and invited us to what we thought was a light lunch on New Year’s Eve.

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From the moment we arrived in Itagui we were treated like long lost family members; within half an hour I had been offered the spare room for the duration of my stay in Medellin. After a delicious (and very typical) lunch of chicken soup and tree-tomato juice we were led outside by our new tour guides, walking down the hill to view Pablo Escobar’s grave (more on that in a separate post) before going on a magical mystery tour, riding Medellin’s immaculate subway and taking a round trip in a cable car over some of its hillside neighbourhoods.

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As dusk approached we suppressed a few yawns and started to regret a big night out on the 30th. Worried that we were peaking too soon for New Year’s Eve we suggested to our new Colombian dad, Gildardo, that we go for a couple of sharpeners while Eugenia (our new Colombian mum) went back home to pray.

We should have said our prayers as we proceeded to get hammered on aguardiente. Over the course of a three-legged bar crawl (there were three bars – we didn’t tie our legs together) we polished off an unknown quantity of the good stuff – every time we thought we were going home Colombian Papa ordered another ‘media’ (half bottle) despite being absolutely shitfaced. The more we drank, the more likely we were to be found dancing with any Colombian women that came near us (mostly in the 50+ category).

By the time we returned to Itagui our yawns had subsided; concerns about peaking too soon had been drowned in aguardiente and we were fully committed to seeing in the New Year with our new fam. We were led around like royal visitors and introduced to more family, friends and neighbours, always with a shot of tapa azul (“blue top”) to ease things along.

We weren’t quite sure how we’d got there but we went with the flow that night and loved it. Colombians regard New Year as a time to be spent with family and we couldn’t have experienced a more typically Paisan family New Year, including the obligatory handheld firework launch, which went surprisingly well for me.

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I have never been made to feel so welcome by people I have just met, and went back to visit my Colombian parents again a few days later, this time taking my real English dad. It’s not often you get to spend one-on-one father-son time and this was the start of a brilliant two and a half weeks together.

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As well as “mi casa su casa” it felt like “mi familia su familia” – they welcomed Jonesy senior as another member of the family before randomly taking us on a 40 minute drive to a roadside chorizo potato ball specialist.

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While our incredible welcome from this family was just one example it seems to be representative of Medellin and Paisas in general. The generosity and goodwill I have experienced in Medellin is unrivaled anywhere else.

From indescribable hostility 25 years ago to overwhelming hospitality today, the city has undergone a personality transplant. While the Paisa people are known throughout Colombia for their hospitality I can’t help thinking that Medellin’s current character is at least in part a backlash against its troubled past.

When we tentatively asked Eugenia about her memories of the bombs and murders during Pablo’s reign her face dropped and eyes glazed over as she said “Lo vivÍ” (“I lived it”). After the darkness of the Escobar days Medellin now has light, and its people are delighted to share it with the world.


Next Stop: Medellin Part II – Pablo Escobar

What is The Gump Method

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