Had a lovely relaxing Christmas in Bogota with lots of food on Christmas Eve then a trip to Choachi with Lorena where there are thermal springs on Christmas day.  All very nice but not quite the same as being at home!

After knocking myself out with 3 sleeping pills for the 12 hour bus drive down to Cali a few days after Christmas, I arrived a bit spaced out but refreshed and ready for the infamous ‘rumba’ (great Spanish word for ‘partying’) I’d heard so much about.  The people of Cali are effortlessly cool with the insuppressibly constant pulse of salsa coursing through their veins, they maintain nonchalant expressions as they completely annihilate dance floors across the city.  Salsa never stops in Cali.  Whether in cafes, bars, buses or people’s homes the sultry Latin music is the heartbeat of the city.  And during the Feria (week long carnival) it is even more pronounced.

I met some great people and danced solidly for so many hours that muscles I didn’t realise I had were aching.  We went to some fantastic free concerts and watched reams of dancers and performers in the famous parades that dominate great swathes of the Autopista (motoroway).  The Colombian lust for life is so tangible in carnivals making for an incredible atmosphere where people of all ages celebrate their health and lives together in this amazing country.  A highlight for me was a performance by the Gypsy Kumbia Orchestra in a small bar near our hostel.  They play a million instruments and their costumes and energy are amazing.  Equally some of the salsa bars that spill onto the street in the heat of Caleño evenings as everyone drips with sweat after having danced for ten hours non-stop will definitely stick in my memory.

One day I escaped the heat of Cali with a friend to a town a few hours away further up in the mountains called Silvia.  Such a tranquil place where you had the impression that everyone knew each other and lived a slow-paced but perfectly content life.  A re-inaction of the nativity was taking place in the central square with kings arriving on horses and angels appearing from behind the crowds of people on all sides.  The scene was peaceful and moving, only to be interrupted by the huge bang of flares every so often as there is known guerrilla presence in the surrounding areas.  Such a shocking reminder that the brunt of the conflict has been suffered by innocent areas and people who continue to exist in the fear that violence might again disrupt their lives.  Stunning scenery as ever however, it’s almost impossible to be bored on bus rides here.ImageImageImage

The carnival finished the day before New Year’s Eve and we had a party in our hostel on 31st, complete with the brilliant and bizarre traditions of Colombian New Year.  Driving to a nearby river on the afternoon of 31st for a swim, we passed masses of effigies – sort of Guy Fakes type models of men and women outside people’s houses across the city.  The site was eerie and strange but I was later told that these models were called ‘año viejos’ and represented the old year.  These models are burnt ceremoniously at midnight to represent leaving last year behind and beginning afresh.  Despite being quite a creepy site, especially when all that is left are very real looking legs with trainers on, for me this tradition sums up the Colombian optimism and ability to forget the bad and start afresh, a characteristic I very much hope to acquire whilst being here.  At midnight people run around the block with their suitcase – a tradition that’s supposed to bring good luck for the New Year along with wearing yellow underwear.  At midnight it is also custom to eat grapes – one for each wish or resolution, washed down by plenty of booze of course!

Moving on from Cali I caught a bus down to Pasto.  This sleepy town on the boarder of Ecuador turns into a scene of absolute carnage for the first week of January.  I met my friend Joe there who was a great carnival companion, although the two of us couldn‘t look much less Colombian so hardly ‘blended in’, resembling Alan Partridge type characters attempting to embrace the mayhem whilst at all times retaining British awkwardness!  The Carnaval de Blancos y Negros is a source of immense pride for the population of Pasto who are incredibly interested in and hospitable towards foreigners, plying them with incessant amounts of Aguardiente (very alcoholic Colombian spirit) and ensuring they are constantly covered with foam and paint.  The entire city transforms into a huge foam fight, everyone buying huge canisters and spraying shops, cars, children, policemen….no one is exempt!  On the second day paint was added to the equation – attackers from all angles spreading paint of various colours across your face and hair, which inadvertently eliminated the potential awkwardness of ‘blacking up’ I had feared.  Then came the talcum powder which ended up caking the streets of Pasto not to mention clothes and hair.

This complete mayhem is hard to picture from the comfort of your sofas in England, and sadly as there was so much foam not many photos were taken although this gives you a pretty good impression! 

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Suffice to say I had a fantastic few days watching more parades of hundreds of people in amazing outfits (including people dressed up as guinea pigs – a local culinary delicacy!), dancing to salsa groups made up of Policemen, singing Total Eclipse of the Heart at a karaoke bar (which went down surprisingly well despite Joe’s shaky Spanish MCing…better that Bonjovi later on anyway…!), salsa dancing at various people’s houses and on the streets, many a shot of Aguardiente amidst rousing choruses of ‘Que Viva Pasto Carajo!’ (Something like Long Live the Great Pasto!).  I missed the apparently best last few days at the end of the carnival as I had to get back to Bogota, but for anyone thinking of visiting next year, the Carnaval de Blancos y Negros is an absolute must.  Here’s a piece I wrote about carnivals for Embrace Bogota http://www.embracebogota.com/#!In-Colombia-its-Carnival-time-all-year-long/c23ok/52E16484-7AA1-4561-8859-022EC883DF32.  Also here’s the second article I wrote a while ago for the City Paper about coffee for anyone interested http://thecitypaperbogota.com/business/coffee-at-the-heart-of-devotion/.

Despite mounting nerves about the 18 hour bus drive that would take me back to Bogota, I had a fantastic trip with my own personal TV screen and Wifi!  I watched two Harry Potter’s and a couple of other films, slept a bit and arrived back in Bogota ready to greet my first visitor who is hopefully arriving in a couple of hours.  A great few weeks but very glad to be home and excited for what 2014 will bring…

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