Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Sexual Assault in the Peace Corps

The front page of today's The New York Times: Peace Corps Volunteers Speak Out on Rape

This issue is of great personal importance to me not just as a female Returned Peace Corps Volunteer, but as a woman who suffered daily sexual harassment while on the job. As many of you may know, I was attacked once in a banana field. That was not the only incident. Thank God nothing more serious happened to me. Many of my fellow volunteers in Paraguay and other countries were not as lucky.

Please take a few minutes to sign the following petition asking that Peace Corps protect its volunteers and calling for anti-sexual violence legislation. Consider signing up for updates from the First Response Action blog to hear about other women who have suffered while serving as Peace Corps Volunteers abroad.

If you could take just two minutes from your day and sign the petition, me and hundreds of other women would be infinitely grateful.

Thank you.

Economic Development in the Peace Corps

Today a colleague of mine, Professor Miles Davis, invited me to appear on his monthly radio show about business social entrepreneurship. The topic for today was "Economic Development in the Peace Corps."

Check out the podcast of the radio interview (save the file and use any music software such as Winamp or iTunes to listen):

"Business" Today Live from Hilton Garden Inn with Miles Davis, professor at Shenandoah University

Friday, April 29, 2011

Mom, I can't talk now, I'm going to fly

“Mom, I’m just saying hi. I can’t talk now. I’m going to fly.” “Fly? Pooja, you know you’re flight is on Monday...” “No, I’m going to FLY. I’m going to hang glide. Talk to you later!”

So started my hang gliding adventures. To be honest, I didn’t know what I was getting myself into. I fell in love with paragliding after floating over mountain tops in Merida, Venezuela and was determined to “fly” again in Brazil. A friend suggested that I paraglide in Rio de Janeiro. I thought, “What better way to end my trip than by by floating over one of my favorite cities?” I headed to a travel agent and requested parapente schedules. “Parapente?” the travel agent repeated snidely. I thought that was the word...that’s what it is in Spanish...and I even used the correct Portuguese pronunciation of “chi” for the last syllable. “What you want is Asa Delta,” he told me. “Whatever.”

The scheduled date arrived. After a week of rain, a morning of sunshine appeared on the horizon. I headed to São Conrado, a beautiful beach next to Leblon, the richest neighborhood in Brazil. The guests at the Sheraton Hotel share the beach with the neighboring favela (slum) dwellers (next to every rich area and famous beach in Rio, there is a slum). From the beach, my pilot and his assistant drove us to our point of take-off, the peak of mountain Pedro Bonita. Suddenly I realized what was the difference between parapente and Asa Delta. I would be hang gliding, not paragliding. It may not seem like a huge difference from the ground, but from the air it involves one crucial, nerve-wracking fact. When I paraglided, a strong gust of wind lifted my pilot and I off the ground and up into the air. When it came time to hang glide, my pilot asked me if I was ready to jump. “Jump? Jump where?” I asked fearfully. “There,” he said as he pointed to a wooden ramp that looked like it was going to collapse any moment. I thought it might be too late to mention to him that I have, had, a fear of falling from heights. We practiced running before getting into position. “Ready?” he asked. I shut my eyes tight and did not open them until I was already hanging in the air. As I cannot describe the incredible feeling of flying in the air, I will have to show you.

Carnaval da Rua

As much as we don’t want to admit it, we all form impressions of certain people based on ethnic or cultural stereotypes. In less than a week, my 50+ year-old Japanese-Brazilian Couchsurfer in Curitiba successfully shattered several of my illusions. When I first perused her profile, I thought that she seemed animated. Upon meeting her, my first impression proved true. The woman did not just have energy, she had spunk! I could hardly keep up with her as she ran around her apartment performing one task after another, the whole while talking about one thing or another. She did not fit in at all with my cultural expectations of elder Japanese woman as quiet, reserved, and traditional.

She took me to watch the pre-Carnaval bloco of the samba school Garibaldis and Sacis. A bloco typically consists of musicians from a samba school performing samba marchinha – the fast-paced samba that is played during Carnaval – on the streets. Often, members of the crowd will join in the festivities by bringing their tambourines and drums from home and playing along with the band. One word usually defines the dress code, “ridiculous.” The men are dressed in what I like to call “their skivvies,” sungas or Brazilian speedos, along with masks and accessories. The women have pieces of flare that enliven even the most mundane clothing. At the head of the bloco is a truck carrying the main singers and directors of the samba school. Around the truck is a throng of people hopping, skipping, and dancing frenetically. As the truck drives through the streets at a record-breaking speed of 5 MPH, the crowd follows, pushing each other to keep up the pace while avoiding actually leaving the frenzied mass of people that is constantly in danger of being run over by the 18-wheeler behind them.

In the midst of this excitement where was my Couchsurfer? She was dancing in the middle of the bloco. One hand held a beer can while the other held the hand of the Brazilian man with whom she was dancing. She finished her beer, threw the can off to the side of the street, and pulled me into the fray with her now free hand. She twirled me and had me dancing in no town! The many times I dreamed about Brazil, I never pictured a Brazilian as a 50 year-old Japanese woman chugging a beer while shaking to samba.

Here’s the great thing about Brazil: everyone can be Brazilian. Brazil is like the United States of South America, it has people of all different colors, origins, and ancestries. When South Americans look at me, they don’t see an American, they see an Indian. I have to explain to them that after three years in South America, I feel more latina than Indian. I joke, “I’m a useless Indian, but I’m a great latina. I don’t speak Hindi, I don’t dance Indian dances well, but I speak Spanish, Portuguese, and even Guaraní, and I’m a terrific salsa and samba dancer!” I guess it’s the same with my Couchsurfer. When I looked at her, I saw a Japanese woman, but in her heart (and her samba-dancing hips) she was a Brazilian.

The bloco truck

Our friend joining in the musicians


The woman on my left was my Couchsurfer

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Pooja, You Had Me at Gender Reversal

I recently had an experience that shattered all preconceptions I had about the differences between men and women. Two of my girl friends and I accompanied our two guy friends in Salvador to go shopping for sungas, a.k.a. the mankini that men use in Brazil. A sunga isn’t quite a Speedo, but it’s definitely in the same family. Our male friends were a little nervous, yet excited to be purchasing their first sungas. At the first store, they stood rooted to the ground, perplexed, while the store assistant showed them the models. “Are they supposed to be that small? Pooja, can you ask him if they have any bigger models?” James said to me, clearly frightened by the prospect of putting on the tiny bathing suits. We girls helped out the best we could, picking out suits that would complement the boys skin colors and figures, but the boys didn’t seem happy. “Let’s go to another store,” my friend suggested.

Several stores later, the guys were starting to get into the whole shopping experience. Jason ran over to James’s dressing room so that they could look at each other in their sungas. “Oh boys,” we girls sighed. We were getting tired of being dragged around from store to store. When Jason asked for help at this store, my friend begrudgingly grabbed a suit and threw it into the changing room. “Are you ready yet?” we asked impatiently. “We’re still not sure. Let’s go back to the first store and double check the sungas there.” What, men comparing clothes at different stores?

We returned to the first store where Jason picked the sunga of his dreams. “Do you like it?” he asked, stepping out of the dressing room to the model it for us. “Whatever. Get whatever you like,” we replied. Meanwhile, James decided that he liked the swimsuit at the last store better. While he ran back upstairs, we girls left the store to get some a snack. When he returned, Jia complained, “Are you happy? Can we get some food now?” She was cranky from hunger and from having to wait for the boys to finish their shopping.

As we walked out of the mall, the boys walked with an extra spring in their steps. They had every reason to be proud of themselves, they had just bought sungas. I couldn’t help commenting, “All the differences that I thought existed between men and women were imaginary. This is definitely a case of gender reversal.” The boys acted like female stereotypes that day. They tried on different outfits, assessed each other in them, discussed how tight some models were and how uncomfortable others made them feel, browsed items at different stores, and probed us for our honest opinions. All the while, we acted like the “typical man,” impatient and bored of the opposite sex’s prolonged shopping expedition.

The next day the boys had a sunga model shoot. While one walked around the beach, the other took photos of him from every angle. A guy model shoot? Is that ok? I mean, Jia and I take photos of each other in bikinis all the time, but that’s expected of women. The guys even took pictures of themselves posing and skipping along the rocks near the beach. We girls couldn’t help snickering that they looked like the shots that husbands usually take of their wives during their honeymoons. My favorite was a picture of Jason posed sideways like Superman with the wind running through his hair. While they did this, we women sat on the couch and stared at the TV. So how different are men and women really?

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Baby, Baby Babylon

Brazilians refer to São Paulo as babilônia, meaning a metropolis with all of the problems of a large city: pollution, traffic, crowds, filth, etc. Now I know why. I took the bus from Curitiba on Wednesday as I had a dinner with a friend from the U.S. that night. I arrived early, at 2:30 PM, in order to have time to shower and get ready before my dinner. I went straight to my CouchSurfer’s apartment building, but encountered neither him nor the keys to the house there. I waited there until 7 PM and finally called my friend explaining to him my situation and telling him that I’d be late. He offered me the shower in the hotel. I figured that it’d take me an hour to reach the hotel, but the doorman told me that because of the traffic it would take two. Shit! I had gathered all my stuff together and was headed out the door when my CouchSurfer showed up. By the time he had shown me around the apartment and I had gotten ready, it was already 8 PM. My host had told me that it would be better to meet my friend closer to home, as my friend had a car and driver available.

I arrived at the metro station ten minutes late, stressed about having kept my friend waiting. I called the cellphone number he had given me and his driver responded, they were stuck in traffic. An hour later I called again, they were still stuck in traffic. I waited for what seemed like an eternity in the metro station, all the while cursing myself for not having left earlier and my CS host for showing up four hours late. It took my friend two hours to traverse a distance of less than 10 km! São Paulo, babilonia.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Os Vagabundos do Valagão

The house of the CouchSurfers I stayed with for two weeks in Floripa resided on a street called “Servidão do Valagão.” When I first arrived there, my host told me to “fica a vontade” (“make yourself at home”). I sure did. The next day, I wanted to heat up food but the house had run out of gas. The guys told me to walk up the street to the house of “os meninos” (“the boys,” a.k.a. the neighbors) and use the stove there. I knocked on the door but no one was there. Regardless, I let myself into the unlocked house, heated up my food, did the dishes, and left. When my hosts asked if there was anyone at home and I replied that there wasn’t, they were impressed. “You told me to ‘fica a vontade’!” I exclaimed. They couldn’t stop laughing at how quickly I had adopted the customs of their neighborhood.

I loved staying on Servidão do Valagão because the neighborhood functioned as a community. One house had a cook, one house had gas, and one house had a laundry machine. Usually, the guys prepared food at one house and everyone ate there. My hosts always left the doors wide open. Even when they weren’t at home, neighbors would come over to hang out. I remember one night when I wanted to go to bed early but two of the neighbors were over. We landed up talking until past 1 AM.

Life on Valagão was truly bohemian. Even though everyone was either employed or a student, I couldn’t help but mock them (all in good fun) for being a community of musicians, yoga instructors and practitioners, and beach bums. When one day I commented to one of my hosts, “This is a house of vagabundos” (vagabonds, nomads), he replied, “You primarily!” True, I was the principal vagabond of the houe.

When the guys were together, they would have jam sessions. The sessions would usually commence with one guitar and one singer. As more neighbors entered the house, they would grab an instrument and join in the music. One night, they played for five hours!

Having one friend on Valagão meant making a group of friends. It made cultural integration EASY. On a phone call with my parents, they grilled me, “Aren’t you going to take a Portuguese course there? Can’t you take a three hour-long break from the beach everyday to study Portuguese? Didn’t you tell us that your goal for Brazil was to learn Portuguese?” I guess I did say that. The truth is that even when I’m on the beach, I’m learning. I’ve made friends on my way to beach and spent afternoons chatting with them in Portuguese. Even when it rains and I’m stuck inside the mall, if I go with a Brazilian it is a chance to learn new vocabulary and practice my Portuguese. I had several lessons in “colloquial” (slang, curse words, and words to use while shooting the shit) at the house on Valagão. My friends commented, “You speak fast in Portuguese! You speak Portuguese perfectly, except for your accent.” This was the night that I learned how to say “cheesy pick-up line” and “Where the hell is my f***ing _______?” As my girl friend gave me word after word to describe Brazilian men, the guys couldn’t stop groaning. “Iso é uma conversa de meninas!” (“This is girl talk!”) we exclaimed and resumed our conversation. She was explaining a phrase to me in English, when my host entered and as usual shouted in English, “We don’t speak English in this f***ing house!” I yelled back in Portuguese, “Somente falamos em português em esa porra da casa!” (“We only speak Portuguese in this f***ing house!”). That had him rolling on the floor, laughing. When I headed off to bed later in the night, I bid the group goodnight, “Oi galera, boa noite.” The minute I closed the door my host burst out, “She’s sooooooo Brazilian!” Score, life goal fulfilled!!!

Another Reason Why I Should Move to Floripa

I was walking through the centrinho of Lagoa da Conceição when I heard a whistle behind me. It was my Colombian friend and samba buddy, Juan Carlos. “Oi menina. Que tá fazendo?” (“Hey girl? What are you up to?”) I replied, “Vou para a praia. Vai para samba amanhã?” (“I’m headed to the beach. You’ll be at samba tomorrow?”). He looked at me quizzically and then realized that the next day was Tuesday, which meant samba at Varandas. “Oh amanhã é terca-feira. Eu vou” (“Oh, tomorrow’s Tuesday. I’ll be there). Leave it to me to never forget a samba.

Minutes before, I had run into another friend from Varandas. We had exchanged the same series of questions and answers, ending our conversation with a “I’ll see you at samba tomorrow night.” As my friend waved goodbye he yelled, “Chaú querida” (“Bye, dear one”). I love how in Brazil it’s ok for guys who dress like American hip-hop artists to address their girl friends as “dear ones” and say “Beijos” (“kisses”) over the phone.

That day my cellphone had me preoccupied. In order to purchase a Brazilian SIM, you need a CPF, i.e. proof of Brazilian residency. I had managed to buy a chip without a CPF, but I could only text, not make phone calls. That would have been fine if I didn’t need to make a phone call in order to recharge the credit on my cell. I planned on begging Marcio, one of the boys whose house I was staying at, to “lend” me his CPF number. In the meantime, I wandered around Lagoa and searched for a cellphone store. After finally locating one, I entered and ran into (guess who) Marcio! “What are you doing here?” “I work here,” he responded. What a small world! I explained my phone situation to him. Without even needing to ask him, he turned to his boss and said, “Just register her phone with my CPF.” Thank God for amazing Brazilian hospitality!

Floripa is a city, but one that feels like a small town. Imagine living in a place as a foreigner and scarcely two weeks later, running into three friends on the same day. I love Floripa!

Another Reason Why I Should Move to Floripa

I was walking through the centrinho of Lagoa da Conceição when I heard a whistle behind me. It was my Colombian friend and samba buddy, Juan Carlos. “Oi menina. Que tá fazendo?” (“Hey girl? What are you up to?”) I replied, “Vou para a praia. Vai para samba amanhã?” (“I’m headed to the beach. You’ll be at samba tomorrow?”). He looked at me quizzically and then realized that the next day was Tuesday, which meant samba at Varandas. “Oh amanhã é terca-feira. Eu vou” (“Oh, tomorrow’s Tuesday. I’ll be there). Leave it to me to never forget a samba.

Minutes before, I had run into another friend from Varandas. We had exchanged the same series of questions and answers, ending our conversation with a “I’ll see you at samba tomorrow night.” As my friend waved goodbye he yelled, “Chaú querida” (“Bye, dear one”). I love how in Brazil it’s ok for guys who dress like American hip-hop artists to address their girl friends as “dear ones” and say “Beijos” (“kisses”) over the phone.

That day my cellphone had me preoccupied. In order to purchase a Brazilian SIM, you need a CPF, i.e. proof of Brazilian residency. I had managed to buy a chip without a CPF, but I could only text, not make phone calls. That would have been fine if I didn’t need to make a phone call in order to recharge the credit on my cell. I planned on begging Marcio, one of the boys whose house I was staying at, to “lend” me his CPF number. In the meantime, I wandered around Lagoa and searched for a cellphone store. After finally locating one, I entered and ran into (guess who) Marcio! “What are you doing here?” “I work here,” he responded. What a small world! I explained my phone situation to him. Without even needing to ask him, he turned to his boss and said, “Just register her phone with my CPF.” Thank God for amazing Brazilian hospitality!

Floripa is a city, but one that feels like a small town. Imagine living in a place as a foreigner and scarcely two weeks later, running into three friends on the same day. I love Floripa!

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Brazilian Beats

Above all other things, above the beach and the bikinis and the beach bodies, Brazil has come to mean music to me. Brazil has an incredible variety of different styles of music and I love it all: samba, samba rock, funk, sertanejo, axé, forró, pagoda, MPB. Thursday night I attended a live performance of a samba/ samba rock band. Dancing with my Colombian friend was helpful because he knew how to transform salsa steps into samba steps. Every time I moved my hips he said, “That’s salsa,” and next demonstrated “This is samba.”

After the samba rock band, a samba school performed. Rio de Janeiro made samba schools famous with its Sambodromo, the stadium where it holds Carnaval every year. Other cities, like Floripa, have copied it with their own samba schools and local Carnavals. Carnaval samba and “normal” samba, the samba that people dance in samba clubs, have little in common other than the basic footwork. Carnaval samba is characterized by the batukada, its frenzy of percussion that makes everyone listening want to dance, even if they don’t know how. As the drums beat an intense rhythm, my friend and I furiously moved our feet and the director jumped like a man possessed. The Carnaval beat is impossible to resist, your body moves without your volition.

The following night I met my friend at my favorite samba club, Varandas. A local band performs samba de raizes (“roots samba”) there twice a week. This time I finally started to get the basic steps down. I was pleased when a friend of mine told me that I was dancing well.

Saturday I attended a concert of Jorge Bens, samba rock legend. Most of his songs are from the 1960s and ’70s, but he’s still incredibly popular. My CouchSurfing hosts decided it was their duty to educate me the morning of the concert, and had me listen to several of his songs. The Brazilians I got a ride with continued my music education. By the time I saw Jorge Bens up on stage, I was singing along with the rest of the crowd, “Moro…no país tropical.” Now, every time my CouchSurfing host breaks out his guitar, I request songs by Jorge Bens.

The next day was a free concert at the beach by Zelía Duncan, a MPB (Brazilian Popular Music) singer. My friend described her as an artist of “doubtable quality.” Once I heard her songs, I had to agree. Still, I could feel the energy of the Brazilians in attendance who sang along with her songs.

On the way back home, we stopped by the main square of town to listen to the local samba school perform. It was the same group as Thursday night, but Sunday night the area was packed with people and Carnaval fever was in the air! I sang along like any local to their song, which tells the story of the Cuban Revolution. The fact that I knew the words surprised my friends. I explained that whenever I forgot a word I simply yelled out “Liberação,” “revolução,” or “igualdade” (liberation, revolution, and equality). They explained that, truth be told, regardless of their them, samba schools always used those same words (well, not revolution): “liberação,” “o povo,” “meu coração” (liberation, the people, and my heart). At that, they burst into a rousing reprisal of last year’s Carnaval song by the same samba school. I was astonished; they used almost the same words last year as this year.

On Tuesday, I returned to Varandas with my CS host and friends from his neighborhood. I greeted several people I had met during previous samba events around town. My integration into the local samba scene, far above and beyond anything my friends had achieved, astounded them. I danced with several of my friends that night and did surprisingly well. I finally felt like I could hold my own amongst the Floripa samba crowd. When my friend said flabbergasted, “I never though that a gringa could dance samba,” I retorted, “I’m not a gringa.” He corrected himself, “That’s right, you’re Brazilian.”

Finally, there was Wednesday night five-hour jam session of my CS hosts and the neighborhood boys. The guys sing everything from samba rock and MPB to American alternative music and rock to Brazilian funk and hip hop. I can’t decide whether my favorite moment of the night was them singing the samba classic by Jorge Bens “Mais de Nada” or my CS host crooning Britney Spear’s “Hit Me Baby One More Time.”

It was beyond a doubt, a fantastic week of music, music, and music. A majority of my cultural learning takes the form of music appreciation. For me, whenever I reminisce about Floripa, the music is what will come to my mind.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Days 12 & 13 in Paradise (?)

Summary: I had my ass handed to me by the waves (and just when I thought I was getting to be a deecent surfer), was stung on my ankle and butt by jellyfish, burned my leg on a motorcycle when my friend off-roaded and we fell, took the wrong bus turning my 1.5-hour commute to the beach into a 3-hour commute, lost my cellphone, waited an hour for another bus, and returned to the bus station and found my cellphone loooooong gone.

Details: The American guy I had met at the Creamfields concert over the weekend invited me to go on a hike with him on Monday. He picked me up early in the morning on his friend’s motorbike. Unfortunately, I didn’t realize how inexperienced he was at driving a motorcycle until I was already sitting on back of the bike. Despite his limited knowledge of Florianopolis and my inexistent direction sense, we managed to find our way to the trailhead. The problem was that to reach it we had to drive through a neighborhood marked by hill after hill after hill. Hills are scary, to say the least, when the driver doesn’t know what he is doing. We reached the end of the neighborhood and turned onto a dirt road. As we continued on, the road consisted of less dirt and more rocks. Just when I was at the point of telling my friend that I would get off and walk, we hit a rock and the bike, he, and I all went tumbling down. As my bare leg hit the exhaust pipe, I felt a sensation that is regrettably all too familiar, the feeling of burning flesh.

With my leg burning and my hand bleeding, I limped behind my friend most of the trail. The trail wasn’t so much a trail as a path of slippery rocks which we had to scramble over to reach our destination, Costa da Lagoa. Costa is located on the far side of the Lagoa da Conceiçao and is known for its overpriced seafood restaurants and nice views. It is only accessible by two modes of transportation, a two-hour trail and a boat. My friend had not properly calculated the time it would take us to reach Costa, thinking it would take 45 minutes maximum. I have never seen anyone rip off their clothes that fast before. My friend sprinted to the end of the dock and jumped into the water. I followed suit. As he had to catch a flight later that day, we barely had time to go for a dip, eat, and catch the boat back to the trailhead. I joked with my friend that only an East Coaster could manage to transform a relaxed day outing into a rushed adventure. I opted to take the boat all the way back to town. There was no way I was getting back on that bike!

After my morning mishap, I decided to hit the waves at Praia Mole. I didn’t realize that Praia Mole is where the professional surfers go. I was knocked down by wave after wave. I could hardly keep my board above the jagged water. I struggled to hang on but the waves threw my board in one direction while pushing me under the water. The only thing I managed to accomplish in an hour was swallow a gallon of sea water.

The next day I decided to return to the beginners’ beach, Barra da Lagoa. Little did I know that because of the rain, Barra was not going to be a picnic that day. The waves were similar to those at Praia Mole the day before. I managed to stand up on the board a couple of times but rapidly lost my balance on the bumpy water. Meanwhile, the freezing cold water had attracted jellyfish. I thrashed wildly as I felt my ankle burning. To add to that, the rain had filled the water with debris that pricked my skin like thousands of splinters. After an hour in the water, I felt awful.

I accidentally boarded the wrong bus on the way home. I had already taken the wrong bus that morning, doubling the time of my commute to the beach. I was exhausted and the only thing I wanted to do was go home. I got off the bus and realized that I didn’t have my cellphone. I had to wait for an hour for another bus. By the time I reached the bus station, my cellphone was long gone. It was a definitely a día de azar (day of bad luck). I’m still glad to be in Floripa though, because in spite of everything, I still got to spend two days at the beach sitting on the sand and staring at the waves.

Week 2 in Paradise

I didn’t realize how spoiled I was until I left my first CouchSurfer’s house. Everything in Florianopolis is a ten-minute drive by car, that is, if you have a car. If you are unfortunate enough not to have your own transportation, you must hitch a ride or rely on city buses which take forever. It took me 1.5 hours to reach the beach!

I decided that Floripa would be the place to learn samba and surfing. I went in search of an instructor at Barra da Lagoa, the novice surfers’ beach, and found André, a blond-hair, blue-eyed Brazilian who tossed out terms he had learned while surfing in Hawaii. He gave my Argentine classmate instructions in portunhol and me instructions in Portuguese with the occasional “Hang loose” thrown in there. He would position me on a wave and yell, “Rema, rema, rema! Sobe!” (“Paddle, paddle, paddle! Stand up!”). Unlike during my Peruvian surfing experience, this time I stood up several times on the board. It was an amazing feeling being able to ride the waves.

I returned home exhausted but exhilarated. I was proud of my success on the waves. Even though I was ready to hit the sack, I had to first spend some time with new CouchSurfer. Honestly, I was a bit weirded out by her. She had a thick carioca (Rio de Janeiro) accent, which made it difficult for me to understand her Portuguese. Worse, she didn’t understand a single word in either English or Spanish. We mostly just stared at each other during dinner.

A couple of days later, I was on a bus to Barra when I spotted a boy with purple hear with a cloth bag that said, “Seu consumo muda o mundo” (“Your consumption transforms the world”). He was busy chatting with an Argentine hippie with juggling pins in her backpack. I nudged myself into their conversation by asking the guy about his bag. The three of us had an interesting multilingual conversation, with the purple-haired guy trying to speak Spanish, the Argentine hippie trying to speak Portuguese, and me switching back and forth between the two languages. My head was about to explode from the effort!

We separated when we reached the beach. André, my surf instructor, taught me how to ride the waves in both directions. He would yell in his American surfer’s accent, “Front side!” and “Back side!” As I rode the waves to the shore I would whoop with delight. As I was doing so well, André let me have a chance surfing “sozinha” (“going solo”). I caught two waves by myself. Of course, when he left the water and gave me time to free surf, I didn’t pegar a single onda (catch a single wave). Surfing is much more difficult when you have to paddle for yourself.

As I was leaving the beach, I ran into Vinicius, the boy from the bus. Instead of waiting for the bus, he wanted to walk back to town. We started walking back together when we ran into Marisol, the Argentine hippie. This time all three of us spoke in Portuguese. For me, the fact that two Spanish-speakers were communicating with each other in Portuguese because neither of us could remember our Spanish amused me.

Friday, my CouchSurfer had planned on going for a boat-ride to Costa da Lagoa as she only had to work a half-day. Unfortunately, it started pouring that morning. She whined, “At least you got to go to the beach every day. I’ve been waiting all week to go to the beach!” Not having anything better to do, we went to the mall with the CouchSurfer I had met for lunch. That’s the downside of life in paradise; the only thing to do when it rains is go to the mall. I didn’t mind though, as I’ve spent little time during the past two years in malls (apart from the movie theaters and food courts in the Asunción malls). It was a typical girls’ outing at the mall. My new CS friend phrased it the best way, “We’re going SHOPPING!” Why is that you put a group of women together and eventually they will go clothes shopping?

Guess who I ran into in the mall? My new friend from the beach, Vinicius. He’s hard to miss with the purple hair. I said, “Isn’t this funny, running into each other at the mall?” “Not really,” he replied, “when he rains, everyone in Floripa goes to the mall.” True.

Sunday night, my CouchSurfer and I went out for a late-night pizza after a day at the beach. Over dinner, my CouchSurfer and I not only managed to communicate, but we had a decent conversation. After several days of staying in her house, my Portuguese had improved significantly to the point where I could now respond with complete sentences and even paragraphs.

Brazilian pizza is known for its weird toppings, like bananas and cinnamon, chocolate and strawberries, etc. My friend sweetly let me pick the flavors. We order a half-banana pizza, a half-who-knows-what pizza. The savory half reminded me of the Brazilian hot dog I had eaten, while the sweet side completely blew my mind. Sweet pizza, what an incredible idea! And what a great end to my first full week in paradise.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Day 2 in Paradise

I awoke feeling like I was in a Hindu household. The Ganesh tapestry on the wall, the incense “altar,” it reminded me of home. India is popular in Latin America, especially Brazil. One of Brazil’s latest big budget soap operas was “Caminho da India” (“The Path from India”). My first morning in Brazil I breakfasted on fresh fruit and granola prepared by my Couchsurfing host.

After showing me around Lagoa da Conçeica, a popular area on the eastern side of the island, we ate lunch at ShivaVeg. We ate an organic spinach salad, organic cabbage salad with fruits and raisins, brown rice, and a vegetable curry with shitake mushrooms and drank watermelon juice with coconut water. After I finished one of the most delectable meals I’d ever eaten in South America, the waitress asked if I wanted more. My friend explained that if I wanted more of anything, she would serve it to me for free. I almost cried out of joy.

As my friend had to meet her parents, she left me to wander around Lagoa. I, of course, had to cross of the first item on my agenda, “Buy a Brazilian bikini.” That was easier said than done. In Brazil, a bikini is more than an item of clothing to be used during the yearly summer beach trip. Brazil is replete with world-class bikini designers, rendering a person like me who has lived away from the beach for 12 years, confused and clueless. Luckily, my Brazilian friend was able to resolve my dilemma. Brazilians know their bikinis.

Shopping for a bikini was a fun language and cultural learning exercise my second day in Brazil. I had to speak in Portuguese to all the shopkeepers. I loved the fact that they considered me a fellow countrywoman; in Brazil, I’m Brazilian until I open my mouth. I learned lots of useful vocabulary as well, including causa (bikini bottom), tanga (bikini bottom), and bojo (bikini top), which are important words to know in Brazil!

In the cool of the evening, we walked the five minutes from my friend’s house to Praia Campeche. Living five minutes from the beach must be heaven! I went for a run, stretched, and did yoga because Floripa seems like a great place to get back in shape. I swam while my friend bodysurfed. Every Brazilian we passed on the way back to the house asked about the waves. My friend responded “As ondas sâo massa!” “Altos ondas!” and “Sâo legal!” (the waves were awesome, awesome, and awesome!). A community of surfers that use more than ten words for cool, was I in Brazil or Hawaii?

After the beach we showered and dressed up for samba. We went to a place called Varandas where every Friday night a group performs samba live. My friend explained to me the differences among samba, samba rock, and chorinho and taught me the choruses to the songs. I sang along in my beginning Portuguese attempting to be like any other Brazilian. As the night wore on, my tipsy friend grabbed me and started dancing samba with me. She scolded me repeatedly for shaking my hips. When I dance salsa I’m told that I don’t move my hips enough, but when I dance samba I’m told that I dance like a salsa dancer! I was surprised by how closely couples dance samba. Americans believe that latinos dance salsa too closely. They`ve never seen Brazilians dance samba before. After my friend instructed me several times, “Mais juntos” (“closer together”), I finally screamed, half-joking, “There’s no room for the Holy Ghost!”

The night ended at the barracinha de cachorros quentes (hotdog stand). After my friend had told me about the vegetarian hotdogs available in Floripa, I had bugged her all day that I wanted to eat them. She had replied, “Later, later. We’ll eat them at 2 AM.” Around 2 AM I told her, “Cara, tou vesga de fome! Tou morrendo de fome!” (“Dude, I’m so hungry I can’t see straight! I’m dying of hunger!). Brazilians put weird toppings on their hotdogs. In addition to the regular condiments, they add peas, potato sticks, mashed potatoes, and a whole host of other ingredients I can’t remember. After 15 years of not eating a hotdog, I dug into my bread covered with toppings. My friend was right about eating the hotdogs at that time of the morning. I had no clue what I was eating, I just knew that it was 2 AM and it was gooood.

The sand dunes of Praia Joaquina

Lagoa da Conceicao (which I am now living next to)

Hot dog toppings

My first hot dog after 15 years!

Day 1 in Paradise

I had hardly arrived in Florianópolis when my Couchsurfer started speaking to me in Portuguese. She took me to eat and then to her house. I thought I was going to have a chance to rest. Not at all. I didn’t even have a chance to lay down before she asked, “Que vamos fazer? Vamos andar de bicicleta uma hora para a Lagoa do Peri o vamos a praia? Mas vamos sambar amanha de noite então é melhor ir para a Lagoa hoje.” (“What are we going to do? Are we going to ride bikes for one hour to the lagoon or are we going to the beach? But we’re going to samba tomorrow night so it’s better to go to the lagoon today”). “The lagoon I guess…” I responded, not really having a choice in the matter. We rode for half-an-hour and relaxed at a viewpoint of two beaches, Morro das Pedras and Praia da Armaçao. They looked like the same beach to me, but my friend explained that even though beaches may be connected, in Floripa they receive different names depending on their characteristics. Floripa has 42 beaches! Although it would be impossible attempting to visit all of them, it is worth getting to know several of them. “Why? A beach is a beach,” you might think. Brazilians are with beaches what Alaskans are to snow (Alaskans have more than 50 words for different types of snow). As my friend explained, every beach has a different personality, like a human being. And every day, it’s different. Sometimes it’s calm, sometimes it’s angry, and sometimes it’s on its period.

We rode down a backstreet and entered the woods. It reminded me of my jungle expeditions to the local swimming hole in Paraguay. My friend told me that we were going to a part of the lagoon that only locals knew about. After a swim she took me to Nutri Lanches, a restaurant which in her opinion had the best açai in the world. Açai is a berry found in the Amazon which Brazilians eat in the form of juice or açai na tigela – frozen like icecream with fruits and granola. I was surprised to see empanadas integrais on the menu, empanadas with integral flour filled with vegetables instead of meat and baked instead of fried. They also had vegetarian sandwiches. All of their dishes are natural and organic. Healthy, organic, natural food in South America? Wow! My friend told me that Floripa is a vegetarian haven.

I expected to pass out the minute we arrived home. Instead, we stayed up chatting until late about Brazil, life in Paraguay, English, Portuguese, everything. My friend took one look at my itinerary and said, “Forget Lonely Planet, here’s where you need to go.” She planned out my entire trip for me.

When we had to restart Word and look for my document, I told her to open the one marked “Auto-recuperado.” At that moment, I knew I had officially left the Spanish-speaking world and arrived in Brazil, as I pronounced it auto-hecuperado. 24 hours before, I would have pronounced the r an r and not an h like in Portuguese.

By the time we finished, it was already 2 AM. She told me that if I was looking for one place to live in Brazil, Floripa would be it. I’m beginning to think that wouldn’t be a bad idea…

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Os Diários do Paraíso (The Paradise Diaries)


1. There are 42 beaches!
2. They speak Portuguese. Hence, I can practice Portuguese.
3. Florianopólis is a haven for vegetarians. Chappatis and ghee are a common food.
4. There is samba four times a week (and I’ve already been three times).
5. You can buy vegetarian hot dogs at 4 in the morning (after leaving the samba).
6. Floripolitanos love outdoor sports. Floripa is a great place to swim, kayak, surf, bodyboard, kitesurf, bike, trek, and hike. Floripolitanos also are into yoga and Pilates.
7. The beaches are great for surfing (and there are lots of place to learn how to surf).
8. Even though it’s a city, you can hitchhike campo-style (even at 3 in the morning).
9. There are monkeys (That means that I can have a pet monkey and I don’t even have to train or keep it in the house. I just have to leave food outside)!
10. You never have to wear real clothes. T-shirts, shorts, summer dresses, sarongs, flip-flops, and swimsuits all year-round!

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

The Other Side of Venezuela: America

Everyone told me not to go to Venezuela. Backpackers told me: “Skip it, it’s not worth it. Caracas is the worst city in the world. Go to Merida instead,” I went to Merida, a tourist town near the border with Colombia and wasn’t impressed. Colombians exclaimed: “Why would you want to go to Venezuela? Say ‘hi’ to Hugo Chavéz for me.” To tell you the truth, I wanted to go to Caracas and because of that exact reason, to find out about Hugo Chavéz. During college, I took a class called “Media Power in Latin America.” While learning about Venezuela’s forms of media communication, our teacher asked us to read a book which was slightly chavista (pro-Chavéz) to balance out the blatantly anti-Chavéz American media. The result? My friends and I became huge fans. Here was this radically left president criticizing Bush, calling out the U.S. for its erroneous foreign policy, supposedly redistributing oil wealth from the rich to the poor, and sending military out to educate the illiterate inhabitants in the countryside. How could a liberal not support him? Yet, liberals all over Latin America constantly criticize him. I took this class in 2007. I know things have changed since then. During the past few years I’ve been dying of curiosity about: a. what Venezuelans think of Chavéz b. the truth about Chavéz. By no means do I understand the complexity of Venezuelan politics after a mere week in Venezuela, but I did learn a great deal. Here is the other side of Venezuelan politics:

Politically speaking, the U.S. and Venezuela appear to sit on opposite sides of the spectrum. American politics are middle-right while Venezuelan ones are extreme left. The U.S. declares itself a capitalist nation while Venezuela deems itself a socialist one. Barack Obama is a democratic president while Hugo Chávez is a populist one. The more time I spent in Venezuela however, the more I became convinced that Venezuela is a mini-America. As my friends from Caracas put it, “Venezuela is America without rules.”

Let me clear up some myths. Venezuela is not a communist country nor is it a 100% socialist country. It is socialist in the sense that since Chávez became president in 1998, the economy has been moving in the direction of state control. The federal government initially expropriated the petroleum industry. Since then, it has taken control of several other industries including comestibles and banking. On the up side, the government’s actions redistributed the country’s oil wealth, which was controlled by 2-3% of the population. However, my friends explained to me that it had the nasty side effect of creating a new class, the nouveau riche, i.e. the government employees in control of the oil.

Venezuela is not a socialist country, although it has been moving increasingly in that direction. It has substantial capitalist activities. Nonetheless, signs all over the country champion the benefits of socialism stating productivity gains supposedly achieved by socialist means and featuring pictures of hearts with the words, “Hecho en socialismo” (“Made in socialism”). They appeared to me as blatant efforts to inculcate the people into a political doctrine. Even in China I never saw a sign declaring, “Communism is the way to go” (of course, if it existed I wouldn’t have been able to read it).

My friends view socialism as a myth. During the past eight years, despite the government’s claims of helping the poor, the low-income class has widened. One reason is the sky high rate of inflation. Officially, it is 27% per year! Unofficially, it could be much closer to 150%! I felt the impact of inflation on my wallet the one week I was in Venezuela as the official exchange rate of the bolívar fuerte to the dollar is 4.5 to 1 while the black market exchange rate is 8 to 1. As I had no cash with me, I was forced to take out money from the ATM at the official rate. The problem is that throughout the country prices are based on the black market rate. How the average Venezuelan could afford food confounded me. My friend explained that liquidity, the cash flow, is high. An enormous quantity of cash flows through the hands of Venezuelans. A large percentage of the money derives from black market activities.

That brings us to reason number two for the worsening economic situation of the population. While the government has created a number of programs targeting poverty, it has done little to ensure that the poor are recipients of these programs. One example is the creation of socialist stores that sell staples at lower prices. There are no restrictions on who can shop at these stores. A middle-class Venezuelan could buy goods there and then could resell them for 300% more in another location. Venezuelans constantly earn and spend large amounts of cash while retaining hardly any earnings as savings. In order to consider a business profitable in Venezuela, it must have a 100% profit margin, minimum!

My friend conjectured that were it not for the country’s oil wealth, Venezuela would have the same boat as Haiti. Five years ago, the bolívar was worth three times the Colombian peso. Now the situation is the reverse. While Colombia has progressed in the last ten years, because of investments in infrastructure, investments in health and education, expansions of security forces, and increases in economic production, in Venezuela things have worsened. Colombia’s coffee industry and tourism industry generate large economic gains. Venezuela, in contrast, produces absolutely nothing because the focus is entirely on oil extraction. The third largest income-generating industry in the world is the arms industry of which the U.S. is the number one producer. The first two income-generating industries are the petroleum industry and badly-administrated petroleum industry. These statistics imply that more money flows into Venezuela annually than the U.S.!

Accordingly, middle-class Venezuelans can afford to travel to other countries and buy luxury goods such as personal computers and specialized cameras. Being in Venezuela reminded me constantly of life in the U.S. Food products in the supermarkets were American, the clothes people wore were American, and the attitudes of the people seemed to me American. The restrictions on traveling to certain countries that Venezuelans are now starting to face reminded me of the obligatory visas for Americans and Canadians only that arose during Bush’s presidency. Unlike other countries in South America where motorcycles are the norm, the streets of Caracas are flooded with cars. I haven’t seen traffic like that since leaving the U.S. It’s easy for even a low-income person to own a car in Venezuela when gas is only 0.10 bolívares ($0.05) per liter. That’s $0.20 for a gallon of gas! A person can fill the eight-cylinder tank of their sports car or Hummer for less money than it costs to buy a 600-mL bottle of water. Presidents can only raise the price of gas at the cost of their presidency. I remember that until five years ago, gas used to be cheap in the U.S. as well because of government subsidies.

Venezuela at the end of the day, despite the socialist propaganda, appears to me a reflection of the U.S. The U.S. gets rich off of wars and selling arms, Venezuela makes money from oil. American politicians act in the name of spreading democracy and freedom throughout the world; Venezuelan politicians take steps to advance the cause of socialism and equality throughout the world. Middle-class Venezuelans have their own laptops, drive their own cars everywhere, eat at Wendy’s, travel, and grab bags of Doritos from the 24-hour pharmacy at 2 AM in the morning. So do middle-class Americans. How different really are Venezuelans and Americans?

23% increase in production of Café Fama since the government took control of the company. In the heart it says "Made in socialism"

Diana Industries, monthly record of tons produced

Socialist arepas

Milk made in socialism

Sunday, January 16, 2011

You know you're a backpacker when...

...these are your arms and feet

How a University Should Be

I had the opportunity to visit Universidad Simón Bolívar (USB), the university my friends in Caracas, Venezuela attend. Entering the university campus, I felt like I was leaving Caracas and entering California. The campus was an oasis of palm trees, green spaces, and well-constructed buildings. The university received a grant with the stipulation that it must always take care of the environment, a fact that was clearly noted walking around the campus. One grassy area was covered with a living art installation, foliage that changes colors with the seasons.

My friend showed me the cafeteria where students can eat for dirt cheap. True, there wasn’t a fantastic selection of food – a tuna fish sandwich, orange juice, and watermelon – but who can say that they genuinely enjoyed their college cafeteria’s food? Plus, the meals there are infinitely cheaper than the $10 meals they serve at American universities.

My friend explicated that USB is one of the best universities in the country. For many years, it contained the largest Internet center in the entire country. I was surprised that a school was the first place to embrace such a costly technological advance. My friend commented, “Isn’t that how a university should be, a center of learning and achievement?” I had to agree. The university set a precedent in Venezuela with its principles of academic integrity and honesty. My friend explained that unlike students in other schools in the country where students assist just to have fun, students at USB spend most of their time studying. Many of the students in fact receive job offers from other countries because of the reputation of their school. The university is truly a beacon of academic achievement and political freedom.

The cost of education at USB is only 55 bolivares fuertes. That’s $12 per year! For $30, a student can attend classes, eat, and use the ample physical fitness facilities. As I admired this haven within a city often described as hell, my friend proposed that I send my kids there: “It’s cheap and the education is good. All you need to do is pay to become a Venezuelan citizen.” Hey, that’s not a bad idea…

Why I Love Latin Americans

I was sitting on the Caracas metro during rush hour and it was packed. I had my luggage with me, a giant backpack and a smaller backpack, as I was on the way to the airport. There was no place to sit and people were pressed against each other. A woman and her daughter boarded the train. This girl was absolutely adorable, an eight year-old Venezuelan version of an American Girls Scout. The woman I was sitting next to sat the girl on her lap. A complete stranger. I had asked that same woman where my stop was located. Every stop she told me, “Don’t worry, we’re not there yet.” She made sure that I reached my destination safely.

The night before, I was taking a bus to my friends’ house and I was unsure of where to get down. The woman next to me started talking to me. I was thrilled because she actually thought I was Venezuelan for a few minutes. She asked me where I was traveling and suggested places I should visit within the city. She also ensured that I got down at the correct stop.

I honestly think that Latin Americans are the nicest people in the world. Complete strangers will strike up a conversation at the drop of a hat. Everyone wants to know your story and help you out. And it’s not just the poor people or the students; it is something that traverses economic and social class. I’ve had rich people, farmers, slum dwellers, old men, young girls, strangers on the street, and even the host of a sex talk show equally ready to help a hand to a foreigner. That’s why I love Latin Americans.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Up, Up, and Away

The last time I was strapped to a parachute I remember my friend commenting, “We’re just hanging out, having a conversation in the air.” Other than the initial part where the boat propelled us into the air, parasailing was smooth sailing. Paragliding yesterday (#7? on the list of adventures that haven’t yet killed me) was a much more exciting experience. I was still hanging out in the air, but this time I was hovering hundreds of feet above mountains and buildings, not just 50 feet above the ocean.

The idea of jumping off a cliff had my stomach in a knot. Luckily, as soon as my pilot strapped our harnesses together, a strong wind lifted us into the air. We floated out over the mountains carried by the powerful afternoon currents. We flew several miles away to a nearby town. I thought we were going to land in the town, but the pilot looped the parachute back around towards the mountains. Using the warm air currents coming off the rocks, we slowly rose higher and higher into the air. Finally, after about thirty minutes, we landed on the mountain from which we had taken off.

The ride was surprisingly calm and I had no fear of falling. I only experienced one brief moment of doubt and that occurred early in the flight when my pilot answered his cell phone midair: “Hello? I’m flying right now.”

Monday, January 3, 2011

The Other Side of Colombia

When you’re an American living in the U.S., the only things you hear about Colombia is narcotrafficking and the war against drugs. But Colombia is much more than that. It’s the country of Caribbean coasts, Cali, and cocaine; it’s the country of salsa, Pablo Escobar, plastic surgery.

Cartagena, la ciudad amurallada (the walled city), astounded me with its colonial architecture and Caribbean beaches. Walking along the fortress wall that surrounds the old town, with the orange and yellow buildings and view of the beach, reminded me of San Juan, Puerto Rico. The white-sand beaches with crystal-clear water rival those of Hawaii. I was thrilled to have the opportunity to see behind the façade of the beachside resorts and visit the town where the locals lived on one of the commercial islands. I even witnessed a Caribbean wedding on the beach with the whole wedding crowd immaculately dressed in white.

Then there’s Medellín, formerly the capital of the Cartel de Medellín, Pablo Escobar’s drug cartel, now the capital of fashion and plastic surgery. In Medellín, everyone dresses to impress. Watching the women walk by with their greatly enhanced breasts and butts is like watching fashion show meets freak show. Despite the obsession with fashion, Medellín was my favorite Colombian city. Its rare beauty, a combination of beauty colonial churches, modern government buildings, and high-rises against a background of mountains, had a certain charm to it that captivated me. It is definitely a city that I would like to get more in-depth.

Huila Palermo is a small town six hours south of Bogotá. It offered me a glimpse into small-town Colombian life and a view of the Colombian countryside. To reach the so-called “tourist” sites, we had to leave the beaten paths and discover them for ourselves. My friend described our adventures there in terms of those of Indiana Jones in search of hidden treasures. Even though I wasn’t with my family, celebrating Christmas there I felt like I was among close friends.

Let’s not forget Cali, salsa capital of the world (after New York)! There I attended the Fería de Cali, a weeklong festival where the highlights are performances by the dozens of salsa schools, parades, concerts (including Choc Quib Town, the Colombian group that won a Grammy), rodeos, and the Ciudad Salsa, a liquor factory that is converted into Salsa City for a week. The performances blew me away because of the dancers’ rapid movement of their feet, acrobats, and salsa on point. As I walked through Salsa City, I was overwhelmed by the caleñas passion for salsa. They sang and danced along to old videotapings of salsa performances, cheered on the Cuban salsa singers performing live, and marked out the clave (beat) with bells or their hands as they danced.

Finally, there’s Bogotá, the capital of Colombia. To me, it is a typical Latin American city with a bleak commercial center and a colorful historic center. The nice thing about Bogotá is that every Sunday they turn one of their major avenues into a ciclovía (bicycle path). As my Colombian friend and I rode through town yesterday, she pointed out the impressive architecture of the colonial churches and government buildings, and the quirky green dwarves that sit on terraces around town.
Colombia is not what I expected at all. I’ve realized that a month is way too little to cover this immense, varied, and beautiful country. I’m definitely coming back!

A New Year’s Message

This year finds me celebrating my third Christmas and third New Year’s in South America. After two scorching Decembers in Paraguay, Christmas in Colombia was a relief. It was far from a white Christmas, but at least I celebrated it in a country that takes Christmas, i.e. Christmas commercialism, as seriously as the U.S. Every street in this country is covered by Christmas lights and decorations, even in the middle of the Amazon. Those are the reminders of Christmas that I miss from the U.S. The town that outdoes all the rest in its celebration of Christmas is Medellín. It’s famous for the 3 km stretch along the river with light installations in every shape and form: nutcrackers, gingerbread houses, candy canes, the Rat King, Christmas trees, elves, etc. Walking through this grand spectacle, I was like a little kid in a candy shop. I even took a picture with a Santa!

I spent Christmas Eve and Day with friends of a friend (= my new friends!) in the small town of Huila Palermo. While its lights did not rival those of Medellín, its novena (9-day Christmas show) did. We spent the days hiking, walking the Camino Real (the famous trail Simon Bolívar used to travel to Ecuador), discovering non-touristy touristic sites, visiting a farm, and riding on the back of a pickup truck, not to mention dancing until 4 AM.

I went to Cali for New Year’s as I wanted to bring in the New Year dancing. During the week in Cali celebrated (its fair) the Fería de Cali, aka the biggest salsa festival in the world in the salsa capital of the world. Although the week was filled with performances, concerts, and revelry, New Year’s Eve itself was much more tranquilo.

I spent New Year’s with Andrés, the Colombian whose house I’d been Couchsurfing at and his girlfriend. We set out around 11 AM for a nearby neighborhood. Andrés told me we had to pay toll. Toll for what? We walked through an alley and then right through a house, pausing for a moment to hand the house owner change. He was serious about the toll! “Whyy didn’t we go around the house?” I asked. He explained that the entrance to the neighborhood was a good distance away so the majority of people used the same shortcut. Charging 100 pesos (5¢) per person, he said the house owners make up to 60,000 pesos ($33) a day!

After the “tollbooth,” Andrés’s girlfriend took off for her parents’ house and Andrés and I went to his cousins’ house. We hung out on the balcony of the house where there was a giant speaker blaring the radio countdown over the whole neighborhood. As I looked out onto the lights-covered street, all the neighbors were doing the same thing. There was a family grilling meat and children exploding fireworks. It was like a neighborhood block party for the Fourth of July. A few minutes before 12, we toasted and hugged each other. I could tell that it was an intimate annual ceremony reaffirming the bond between brothers in a family where the parents are no longer around. As I stared out over the balcony awaiting midnight, I realized I was content; not exuberant or depressed, simply content to be spending my New Year’s Eve with new friends and grateful to still be in Latin America.

This New Year finds me still on the road, still traveling. Last year I spent four months traveling through Argentina, Bolivia, Peru, and Colombia. This year I’ll be traveling to Venezuela and Brazil. I know the question on many of your minds is, “Pooja, when are you coming home?” The truth is, I don’t know, but I can promise it will be this year! Happy New Year’s everyone!

Pictures of Colombia!