** Ten Minute Read***
Two days ago I decided to write a blog post about Cartagena, Colombia because it's been three weeks since we left and returned to San Miguel de Allende. I intended to title the post A Love Letter to Cartagena and use a music video (this one by Carlos Vives) to illustrate the cultural complexity of the Caribbean coast, with its unique African and musical heritage, breathtaking beaches, and talk about how, surprisingly, Cartagena felt like the safest and most welcoming city of its size I’ve visited.
However, when I sat down to write, I kept circling around specific interactions I had during my five months there, and pondering how often my cultural context got in the way of reaching correct conclusions.
Yesterday when I woke I was hit hard by Anthony Bourdain’s suicide.
On a tough day, I decided that even if I risk offending some, I should write that other article in my head, this one, in his honor.
If there was ever there was a patron saint of digital nomads like myself and my honey (those who live and work from different countries to broaden our experience of the world), it was Anthony Bourdain. He was the model of the humility, curiosity, kindness, and empathy it takes to bridge an uncommon background and find the common humanity with a person from a different place and culture.
Anthony Bourdain challenged our perceptions of places like Colombia, and Syria, and Lebanon, and Cambodia, and Congo; regions of the world that are so easy to write-off as war-torn, violent, stuck in the permanent strife of civil war or poverty. With the gifts of humility and optimism, he guided us through a different view, an insiders view.
Bourdain helped us see not the stereotype, but the hope, the optimism, the common reasons to eat good food, and laugh, and enjoy family that exist in us all, no matter how dire the surrounding circumstances. That’s why his choosing not to continue with his own life so affected me.
This was my first tweet, upon hearing the news.
I can't pretend to know what happened. What I do know is to me, the world feels especially cruel right now. In the last two years it has become acceptable to say online and in person things I would never have imagined hearing.
In the US, in the media and on twitter, we talk of immigrants from other nations as if they were ‘less than’, using (without much thought) words like alien and illegal to describe other humans. (This a good article on the impact of de-humanizing language in immigration and this article explains the impact of rhetoric on our actions). What those articles explain, and what terrifies mea bout where we're headed is de-humanizing language creates "a mental loophole that lets us harm other people".
The US is already treating asylum seekers as having less human rights than Americans. We lock mothers and their children in jail for nothing more than requesting their legal right to asylum from violence. (And yes, I realize I’m verging on political here, which I try to avoid on my writer social media accounts, but on this topic I don’t care.) I can't relate to a world where fellow humans are considered to have lesser rights than me, merely by fact of being born in a different location. (If you are not familiar with how the US is incarcerating legal asylum seekers including children this is a great educational article as is this).
So in the current climate, what can any of us learn from my tiny universe of interactions in Colombia over the last months? Let me give three examples of why sharing Anthony Bourdain’s humility gets you further than any pre-conceptions from our own history or culture-driven perceptions.
Example 1 Finding an apartment. Who exactly is on commission here?
I mentioned in my post on First Impressions of Cartagena that it seemed everyone in town was trying to help us find an apartment. After a week there, we had help from a stranger we met on a Facebook group (now a close friend- hi Jessie!), Edgar the taxi driver who drove us from the airport the first day, the cook in our guest house, and a random tour-seller we met on the street while searching for a certain building.
My initial assumption: Everyone saw dollar signs. The rich (AKA American) white folks are looking for somewhere to live and so there is money to be made. It didn't bother us, but the people showing us an apartment were being paid a commission.
The reality: No-one other than the landlord was making money on the transaction. So why were folks helping us? This was exactly the welcome that Bourdain referred to in this article.
For so long Colombia has held the reputation as a dangerous nation that when a US couple wants to experience the reality of living in this wonderful country with an open mind, Colombians are, as said by Anthony Bourdain with words better than I can find, "heartbreakingly welcoming and happy to see visitors who have come to their beautiful country for something other than to talk about narcos and violence."
Example 2 Sending status photos on WhatsApp (of everything!)
One day we messaged Edgar (same taxi driver as above) to see if he could drive us somewhere. He responded by explaining he could not drive that day (similar to Mexico City, Cartagena has traffic restrictions, based on registration number, controlling which days your car can be on the road). Our response: 'No problem, makes perfect sense'. A minute later Edgar sent us a photo of him washing his car, suds and all.
Another day we had an appointment with our land lady who had volunteered to take us in her SUV to the local Home Depot-like store to buy some desks. She explained that she needed to change our time because her doctor's appointment had been rescheduled, and we said 'no problem' (Don't forget she was doing us a favor!). Next thing I know she whips out her phone and is showing me the entire text interchange with her doctor’s office.
And it goes on—sending a photo of your location when you are running late, sending a photo of you under the bed covers when you are sick… I have countless examples!
My initial assumption: Here’s what I thought locals were thinking: “I don’t think those Americans trust me, so I’ll show a photo to prove that I’m not lying to them.” Which to be honest, I was both surprised and a little insulted by. Why would I assume someone I barely know is lying? Do they think all Americans assume the worst of others?
This isn’t something special that was being done for us, the gringos. In Colombia everyone does this ‘send a photo of where you are, right now’ thing. I’m willing to be debated on the why (my answer is only as good as the handful of people I asked), but the common answer was ‘it’s a way of letting people get close/ get into your life.
As opposed to not being trusted, we were being let into the inner circle of someone’s life and offered friendship.
Example 3 Blackface at Carnaval
This one is going to make some of my American and British friends squirm (and that’s the point folks, so stick with me). In February we were lucky enough to attend the Carnaval in Barranquilla (Amazing! Second largest in the world after Rio de Janeiro).As we watched the parade, groups of young boys in black face paint invaded the stands, running up and down the aisles, growling and bearing their teeth at the tourists. Was it scary? Yes, especially given the officials were chasing them away from us, as if we were at risk of harm.
My initial assumption:"Wow, blackface. This is so racist, and out of line in today's world, right?"
My context for blackface is US American history where it is so beyond “not ok”. It’s offensive, it’s demeaning, it’s born of white people painting their faces black for entertainment, creating a caricature of a black person.
I had a powerful emotional reaction to the hundreds of black kids running around dressed like this. It must be sign of a backward culture, of a respect for the other that has not yet caught up with the US, which is ahead in these matters of respecting black history and not being offensive, right?
The reality: Colombia's black history has similarities, but also diverges from the US. The similarity is a history of slavery (what is today the main square in Cartagena with the famous yellow clock tower was one of the largest slave markets in the world).
There’s a fascinating (and romanticized) history of how the diversity of music that exists only in Colombia is due to slaves being brought from many regions of Africa, with no common languages, and music filling the void.
The dance and character at Carnaval (referred to as Son de Negro) was created by the Afro-Caribbean community as an example of defiance of the Spanish. This costume, with the black face paint commemorates the greatest rebellion where the black enslaved community fought for their freedom. The grimaces on the faces of the men (now more often boys) are mocking the Spanish conquerors, after their escape.
So is blackface in Carnaval racist? If it is, then it’s institutionalized racism because Son de Negro is one of the official costumes of the Barranquilla Carnaval and one of the most popular. The carnaval website describes the costume as a cultural celebration of Afro-Caribbean identity and history and the teens running around at Carnaval wear it with pride.
This is a great example of what Anthony Bourdain taught us about humility and respect for the other. It’s not my job, as a white Brit-American with a different historical context, to bring my perspective and my history to the question. When something like this make me feel uncomfortable, that’s my challenge to overcome, not Colombia’s.
Thank you Mr Bourdain, for helping me understand that often the situations that fire up our discomfort circuits are the most valuable, if we can find the humility, curiosity and empathy that to ask the right questions.
If you're interested to read more about the gray line on blackface and Carnaval this is a well thought-out article. This article talks of how, of the 10-16 million Africans who survived the slave voyage, 60-70% ended up initially in the Caribbean and Brazil.Also – currently the Afro-Colombian population is far from having equal rights and opportunities. FEM in Cartagena is an organization that is fighting to right that inequality.