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Published: September 1st 2010
After the rum and coke ridden hostels of the coast I was keen to get out of the backpacker scene and into peoples' houses. I was feeling jaded when I arrived in Colombia: six months of travelling was gradually ebbing away my energy.
I easily found a CS host in my next stop, Bucaramanga. I stayed with Andres and his girlfriend Marta, who were very helpful and informative. I found that Bucaramanga doesn't have too much by way of regular sightseeing, which was just as well as I wasn't that way inclined. I preferred instead to soak in the culture, which my hosts dutifully obliged.
They gave me detailed advice on surrounding attractions, Youtube tutorials on Colombian music, and walking tours of the city. I discovered that the city is surprisingly big at over 1.5 million and the fifth largest in the country. We walked through the many parks and squares (the city is known as the city of parks) and the crowded streets full of shops and markets. We went several times to the main market where I tried many unfamiliar fruits and foods.
As far as I was aware, Colombia isn't famous for its cuisine, but
I found out that it has a tremendous diversity of culture, including food. Geographically, it makes sense - the bridge between Central and South America. The African influenced Caribbean culture, the indigenous Andean and Amazonian regions, and the overlaying influence of Spanish, German, and Italian immigrants.
I liked the ubiquitous Arepas - corn griddle cakes often with cheese, and a variety of different soups. Amongst the more unusual of the dishes I tried were Mondongo (cow's stomach), Pepian (blood soup), Pepitoria (a mince of blood, liver, other offal, boiled egg, and rice), and Hormigas (fried ants). I enjoyed Pepitora more than I expected; but the rest tasted as good as they sound...
My hosts spoke very little English so I had ample opportunity to practice my Spanish: with considerable difficulty. The language here is very different to Central America and I could barely understand a word. Partly due to the difference in pronunciation and vocabulary but also that locals appear to have less experience of talking to foreigners. The trick is to talk clearly, slowly, and to cut out the idioms and colloquialisms. My hosts certainly hadn't learnt this trick and added to the mix both talking at
the same time, missing out the object of the sentence, and changing conversational threads midway - a combination that gave me frequent brain ache. I have since found that this is common all over Colombia. Now, I have less difficulty, but it is still tricky.
During my stay Colombia celebrated 200 years of independence with a national holiday and performances of music and dance. It wasn't the party atmosphere I expected but I witnessed music, dancing and acrobatics on stilts, and dancing and cultural discussions from an indigenous group. I was pleased that the citizens of Bucaramanga appeared interested in the culture of the indigenous and asked many intelligent questions. I had heard that the people from the cities viewed the indigenous and campesino communities with contempt, but so far I haven't found any evidence of that.
In the evenings I met up with other Couch Surfers. I met up with Tania and a couple of her CS friends several times in a cafe imaginatively named "Coffee" in the affluent North of the city, which is filled with expensive and stylish bars and restaurants.
One evening Fransisco and Beatriz took me to a traditional music performance at
the university, UIS. A narrator told the story of the arrival of the Spanish in the 1500s, which was accompanied by traditional music.
I arranged to meet Marie and Pascal, the French/Canadian friends that Tina and I hitched with from Guatemala to Honduras, in a Salsa club called Calison. They were staying in the city in order to take a cheap 15 day course in Paragliding (c$750), for which the city is famous. I was tempted to join them, but my budget doesn't allow me to do every activity so I had to make sacrifices.
They brought along a couple of their friends and we had a drunken and amusing evening at the club, and it was my first experience of the complex and rapid footwork of Colombian Salsa. Over the evening I got chatting to the waitress, Jessica, and later that week we had a couple of fun nights out.
My stay in Bucaramanga was a fascinating insight into normal Colombian life. I was impressed by the diversity of culture - music, dance, food. I was touched by the friendliness and generosity of the people I met, something that Colombia is known for. At the coast,
however, the presence of tourists doesn't give a true reflection of the people. Here, I found it refreshing to meet local people in an environment untainted by tourism.
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