I was expecting a handshake and I received a powerful, emotional hug – one that in my culture is normally reserved for close family or friends. I quickly learned being hugged with gusto was a normal greeting in in the Perez-Cuesta family home in the suburbs of Cartagena Colombia. Like mother, like daughters – each of the 4 daughters also hugged me appearing as if they were going to burst with excitement about the evening. Upon arrival in Cartagena, my first exposure to the local culture (besides hugs) was to actually set foot in a local’s house and be treated to one of the most genuine and heartwarming nights I can remember in my travels.
As Ruth was busy cooking dinner, the daughters entertained us showing us the small but lovely 3 bedroom home and answering my many questions about life in Cartagena. More family members and neighbors seemed to pour in like a moth to the flame. I was struck by the affection of the entire extended family and random neighbors, all hugging and greeting as if they hadn’t seen each other for ages. I love seeing the sights of a new destination, but I enjoy seeing the family cultures of destinations even more.
It was close to Christmas time and the whole neighborhood was twinkling in lights. One of the daughters asked me how we celebrate Christmas in America, and I talked about church services, big family dinners in front of the fireplace, and then all settling in to watch (insert classic Christmas movie title here) before bed. She looked at me in a horrified manner, “You watch a movie?” she asked in a confused tone as if she was trying to figure out if she had translated my response correctly.
“Yes” I answered sheepishly suddenly aware of how odd and sort of sad the movie tradition actually sounded. Especially in this neighborhood where it seemed as if no one was watching television but instead they were actually enjoying each other’s company and the constant music.
I could feel bass beat reverberate through my body and waft through the neighborhood as the night went on. The beat seemed to be as powerful as the hug I received when entering. The plantanos were frying in the kitchen as we shared beers in the living room, but all the while I was aware of the music in the background. The whole neighborhood had their doors and windows open and everyone seemed to be living to the beat. Thinking about all the times I wanted to scream at my neighbors for playing music too loud in their apartment, I asked if any of the neighbors ever complained about the music in the neighborhood. They looked at me surprised as if they didn’t even hear the music outside, and they had suddenly become aware of it now. “No, everyone loves the music” Ruth answered slightly confused at why I would even ask the question.
The Heartbeat of Cartagena
Cartagena Colombia is a symphony of sound more than any place I’ve ever been. The constant drumbeat you experience as you walk around is the city’s heartbeat. If it stopped, I think the whole city would just fizzle out and die. Musical scenes play out on every corner of Old Town, Getsemani, and even little beach towns like Manzanillo. People moved to the beat everywhere I went. Giant speakers in public were the norm as people spilled out of establishments and into the streets of Cartagena at all hours of the day. This music was the foundation to their bubbly free-flowing personalities.
“This was a culture with gusto and energy, they lived outwardly and because of that, I immediately loved Colombia.”
As I walked around the Old City, I watched a waitress move her hips to the beat and pump her arms up in the air for a moment as if everything else around her has disappeared. The barefoot man in Bazurto market walked among big pots of oil with furious flames lapping up beneath them, and in perfect beat to the music he’d plop a whole fish in the hot oil. As he moved on to the next big pot he shuffled his feet as if he was salsa dancing with a ghost and then plopped in another fish. All the while with a big smile on his face doing what seemed to me to be one of the hottest, hardest, and thankless jobs I had seen in the market. I rounded the corner and found a crowd around 3 men playing music. One had an accordion, one had an old pail for a drum, and one had what resembles a cheese grater; together they made beautiful high-energy music. The crowd of locals moved to the beat and clapped along. All I could do was stop and smile at this scene of pure music joy.
So You Think You Can Dance?
I needed to find a way to get more involved; I was tired of being on the outside of this music looking in. I wanted to feel the music like the locals, and Eduardo, my guide, suggested I take a private salsa lesson in the Old City.
It was a hot steamy night as I walked up the stairs into the dance studio and startled the tall man lounging on a metal chair. He didn’t speak English, but that was ok as all I had to do was follow his lead. He turned on the overhead fans, looked at me, smiled, and a barrage of Spanish started flowing. I just smiled and followed his steps living out my (insert dancing reality TV show here) fantasy in Old Town.
I learned the Colombian and Cuban salsa versions, which seemed to me to have subtle variations, but to the locals it was very clear delineations. My hips loosened up as the music grew louder. Finally after following his every movement in front of the class he took my hand and we danced together. I could hear the crowd outside starting to rev up for the night and I bid my instructor adios and went out to test out my newly learned skills.
As I rounded the corner near Plaza de la Coches you could hear the music. It was as if the Pied Piper were luring in the dancers around the Old City late into the night as the restaurants closed. I followed the music to the corner and found a lively colorful scene with women moving their hips like I never knew was possible. That certainly wasn’t covered in my beginning salsa class! But the Colombians made it look so easy and carefree, like they came out of the womb moving their hips and feet in a rhythmic fashion. But with music as your cultural heartbeat, of course dancing would come as naturally as walking to them.
I found myself in Donde Fidel’s Salsa bar and found the salsa scene I was looking for; lively, loud, crowded, and everyone just drunk enough to take pity on a beginning dancer. I sat at the bar content to watch the sites of young, old, tourist, and locals all intermix in salsa beat. There was no real dance floor, but no one cared, whatever space was available was used. People bumped into each other and no one minded, as eternal smiles seemed to be on their faces. It took exactly two songs before I was beckoned to join. I knew the locals wouldn’t let people sit around for long and just be a voyeur.
Suddenly I was hip to hip with strangers, smiling, laughing and moving to the beat produced by the giant sound system behind the bar. Instead of being on the outside, I was on the inside now, my inhibitions slipping away with each step. After the set of songs, I gave my new dancing partner a powerful, emotional hug like Ruth gave me when I arrived in Cartagena. I didn’t even care that he was a stranger, it just felt right – now I really was a part of the heartbeat of Colombia.
How You can Recreate My Experience:
Dance Lessons at Crazy Salsa in Cartagena – www.crazysalsa.net
Late Night Local Dancing – Donde Fidel’s Salsa Bar
Stay at Casa San Agustín Hotel – www.hotelcasasanagustin.com
Dine with Locals – Customized/Organized by Metropolitan Touring. Contact them directly and ask about their local dinners in Cartagena – this is a personalized experience and something that’s not offered on their website. www.metropolitan-touring.com/colombia