Good Vibes: Journey Through Colombia

When I flew into Bogotá, Colombia last June, my first stop on a trip down through South America, I was thrilled at the chance to finally practice the Spanish I’d studied for six years in school but had never had the chance to use in real-life situations.  I was pretty confident with my reading skills and my vocabulary; I’d been dutifully studying passages from Isabel Allende’s Eva Luna all winter, and so knew words like alucinante and demencial, but probably could not have said anything useful, like, “How do I get to my hotel?”  My speaking skills were rusty to the point of nonexistent, and I was disappointed at how I’d worked so hard and still couldn’t hold even the simplest conversation in Spanish.

What I needed, of course, was the chance to practice conversing, which I seized by making friends with a charming street artist of macramé jewelry and wire pendants.  He took it upon himself to teach me Spanish, dancing, and the Colombian way of life.  “Buenas ondas,” he told me, was the most important thing: good vibes.  People in Colombia were obsessed with living an easy, enjoyable life and being friendly with everyone.  As a foreigner, I was always having people come up to me to start chatting, curious about where I was from, where I was going, and how I liked Bogotá.

The street artist gave me an off-the-cuff tour of the city: the colonial labyrinth of La Candelaria, the miniature plaza El Chorro where all the hipsters hung out, plus salsa and reggae bars where we drank beers in a corner and chatted.  I talked nervously but persistently, carefully translating sentences in my head before I spoke.  Everything I said was peppered with pauses and um’s, but the street artist was a good teacher.  He spoke slowly and used hand gestures, correcting my mistakes and rewording sentences I didn’t understand with the patience of a champion.

He even tried to teach me salsa, despite my protests of, “Yo y bailando—desastre!”  My foray out onto the dance floor went exactly as I’d feared: I crashed into him and stumbled over my own feet.  He told me to relax, which made me tense up even more.  I glanced in anguish at the other women in the club, twirling and undulating with a sensuous grace that filled me with awe and regret.  “No hay nada puedes hacer,” I lamented at last.  “Bailaré como una gringa por siempre.

La salsa es,” said the street artist, once he conceded that I was beyond even his tutelage, and here he used two of his twenty odd words of English: “Something special.”  Walking me home he told me very seriously that I needed to practice Spanish as much as I could, every day, with him and with everyone I met.“No digas como, BOX-BOX-BOX-BOX-BOX!” he scolded, mimicking my uptight, robotic way of speaking.  And, in a musical, lilting tone, he demonstrated how it should be instead: “El españoool… es muy dificiiil.”  Basically, my problem with Spanish was the same as my problem with salsa; both were a language and a way of life that Colombians used to communicate with each other.  I would have to relax and just enjoy the buenas ondas of speaking and dancing before I’d ever really get it.

I never really got it.  The street artist accidentally let it slip that he was married, so instead of more salsa lessons I sat at home and watched Eat, Pray, Love with the hotel receptionist.  “You met a Colombian man?  Dios mio, NO!” she screamed, crossing herself dramatically, and then we ate an entire bucket of gummy candy.  I left Bogotá after that and continued to travel through Medellín, Cartagena, and then Ecuador.  My Spanish has been growing in leaps and bounds, and I’m thrilled to find that I can have spontaneous conversations with anyone I meet, and that I’m recognizing more words every day.  My salsa-dancing is still abysmal, but that’s fine with me.  After all, there’s always Argentina and tango.

What experiences do you have learning a foreign language and culture?

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