by Sherry Ott, AFAR Ambassador

I could feel bass beat reverberate through my body and waft through the neighborhood as I stepped out of the car and walked through the open door twinkling with Christmas lights.  The beat seemed to be as powerful as the hug I received when entering the Perez-Cuesta family home in the suburbs of Cartagena, Colombia.  It was a welcome like no other for my first night in Colombia.  I was expecting a handshake and I received a powerful, emotional hug – one that in my culture is normally reserved for close family or friends.  I quickly learned being hugged with gusto was a normal greeting in Cartagena, as each of the four daughters came and did the same thing as they seemed to burst with excitement about the evening.

Upon arrival in Cartagena, my first exposure to the local culture was to actually set foot in a local’s house and be treated to one of the most genuine and heartwarming nights I can remember in my travels.  As Ruth, the mother, was busy cooking dinner the daughters entertained us showing us the small but lovely three bedroom home and answering my many questions about life in Cartagena.  More family members and neighbors seemed to pour in like a moth to the flame.  I was struck by the affection of the entire extended family and random neighbors, all hugging and greeting as if they hadn’t seen each other for ages.

The Perez-Cuesta family + cousins + neighbors + me = a bundle of energy!

The Perez-Cuesta family + cousins + neighbors + me = a bundle of energy!

The plantanos were frying as we shared beers in the living room, but all the while I was aware of the music in the background.  The whole neighborhood had their doors and windows open and everyone seemed to be living to the beat. Thinking about all the times I wanted to scream at my neighbors for playing music too loud in their apartment, I asked if any of the neighbors ever complained about the music in the neighborhood.  They looked at me surprised as if they didn’t even hear the music outside, and they had suddenly become aware of it now.  “No, everyone loves the music” Ruth answered slightly confused at why I would even ask the question.

Cartagena, Colombia is a symphony of sound more than any place I’ve ever been.  The constant drumbeat seems to be the heartbeat of the city.  Musical scenes play out on every corner of Old Town, Getsemani, and even little beach towns like Manzanillo.  Everywhere I went people were laughing and moving to the beat.  Giant speakers in public were the norm as people spilled out of establishments and into the streets of Cartagena at all hours of the day.  This music was the canvas to their overall bubbly free-flowing personalities.  This was a culture with gusto and energy, they lived outwardly and because of that, I immediately loved Colombia.

As I walked around the Old City, I watched a waitress move her hips to the beat and pump her arms up in the air for a moment as if everything else around her has disappeared.  The barefoot man in Bazurto market walking among a dozen big pots of oil with furious flames lapping up beneath them plops whole fish in the hot oil in perfect beat to the music.  As he moves on to the next big pot he shuffles his feet as if he’s salsa dancing with a ghost and then plops in another fish.  All the while with a big smile on his face doing what seems to me to be one of the hottest, hardest, and thankless jobs I’ve seen. I round a corner in the Getsemani neighborhood and find a crowd around three men playing music.  One has an accordion, one has an old pail for a drum, and one has what resembles a cheese grater; together they make beautiful high-energy music.  The crowd of locals moves to the beat and claps along.  All I could do was stop and smile at this scene of pure music joy.

Music and smiles found all over the streets

Music and smiles found all over the streets

I needed to find a way to get more involved; I was tired of being on the outside of this music looking in.  I wanted to feel the music like the locals, and Eduardo, my Avanti Destinations’ assigned guide, suggest I take a private salsa lesson in the Old City.  It was a hot steamy night as I walked up the stairs into the dance studio and startled the tall man lounging on a metal chair.  He didn’t speak English, but that was ok as all I had to do was follow his lead.  He turned on the overhead fans, looked at me, smiled, and a barrage of Spanish started flowing.  I just smiled and followed his steps.

Learning the 1, 2, 3, tap of the Salsa!

Learning the 1, 2, 3, tap of the Salsa!

I learned different salsa steps including the Colombian and Cuban versions which seemed to me to have subtle variations, but to the locals it was very clear delineations.  My hips seemed to loosen up as the music got louder and finally after following his every movement in front of the class he took my hand and we danced together.  I could hear the crowd outside starting to rev up for the night and I bid my instructor adios and went out to test out my newly learned skills.

Now I’m really dancing!

Now I’m really dancing!

Upon the recommendation of Eduardo, I found just what I was looking for at Donde Fidel’s Salsa bar.  As I rounded the corner near Plaza de la Coches you could hear the music.  It was as if the Pied Piper were luring in the dancers around the Old City late into the night as the restaurants closed.  I followed the music to the corner and found a lively colorful scene with women moving their hips like I never knew was possible.  That certainly wasn’t covered in my beginning salsa class; those were advanced movements for sure! But the Colombians made it look so easy and carefree, like they came out of the womb moving their hips and feet in a rhythmic fashion.  But after a lifetime of music, of course dancing would come as naturally as walking to them.

Looking in on Fidel’s Salsa Bar – a mix of people and music

Looking in on Fidel’s Salsa Bar – a mix of people and music

I sat at the bar content to watch the sites of young, old, tourist, and locals all intermix in salsa beat.  There was no real dance floor, but no one cared, whatever space was available was used.  People bumped into each other and no one minded, as eternal smiles seemed to be on their faces.  It took exactly two songs before I was beckoned to join.  I knew the locals wouldn’t let people sit around for long and just be a voyeur.

Locals feeling the beat at Fidel’s in the Old City Cartagena

Locals feeling the beat at Fidel’s in the Old City Cartagena

Soon someone had my hand and I was hip to hip with strangers, smiling, laughing and moving to the beat produced by the giant sound system behind the bar. Instead of being on the outside, I was on the inside now, my inhibitions slipping away with each step.  After the set of songs, I gave my new dancing partner a powerful, emotional hug like Ruth gave me when I arrived in Cartagena.  I didn’t even care that he was a stranger, it just felt right – now I really was a part of Colombia.