Edmonton, Canada, can be brutally cold in January. I managed to escape just before a particularly cold period in the second week. Having taken a one-year sabbatical, I was determined to relax and explore new ideas. Destination? Cartagena, Colombia. Beautiful, touristy, welcoming and the household of all things entertaining, Cartagena lived up to the hype. Accommodation was at the old town, a colonial relic with a fortress. Old but still in fashion and the indisputable hub of Cartagena’s bubbly tourism sector, the old town or Centro had it all: monuments, restaurants, museums, shopping areas, name it.
Tourists flew in from the Netherlands, US, Chile, Brazil, Poland, Canada, etc. There were all kinds of reasons why people were in Colombia. Some had just got married; others came to celebrate their anniversaries or birthdays. There were those who wanted a “me” time to make a major decision like send their spouses packing (yes, that was frightening!). Others were on routine vacation with family and friends. And there were a few of us on sabbatical, who came for a mix of vacation and writing.
The historic centre was full of street performers. You could have your picture drawn by an artist in less than an hour for a reasonable fee. My favourite performers were groups who reminded me of home. They were Afro-Colombians reprising West African dance at Centro. The dance, the music, the mannerism, the zest for life and the rhythm of the dance were recognisable to any African. The movement was mesmerising, inviting and engrossing. You could not take your eyes off it. The dexterity of the performers was top-notch. We couldn’t believe these were random street performances. The themes of the dances ranged from courtship ritual to realities of life on plantations in the slavery era.
Nigerian music was everywhere in Colombia. We were having dinner on my second day in Cartagena when I began to hear a familiar voice. I wanted to be sure and took out my phone, stepped out of the restaurant to use Shazam, an app for song recognition. I felt that pride you feel when your fellow citizens do well. The globalization of music also meant that there was hardly any pure salsa around centro except at a location called Cafe Havana. I met an American citizen who had dropped out of a PhD program to sell music. A huge fan of King Sunny Ade, Nico Mbarga and 1970s highlife, I was impressed by his mastery of Nigerian and the West African music oeuvre. He reminded me of an Italian colleague at Cambridge Massachusetts whose mastery of the Igbo language made me envious (and my big brother, Okey Ndibe, assured me the man’s Igbo fluency and his mastery of its origins and syntax were kosher).
I had friends in Peru and had booked Avianca flights for a brief visit to Lima, the capital city. I flew from Cartagena to Bogotá, Colombia’s capital. I got to Gate 47 for my connecting flight to Lima but no passengers were left. Three staff stood by the counter discussing in Spanish. Did I just miss the flight? The Nigerian in me felt like shouting: “Ha! Aye le o ibosi o. Village people.” It turned out I was late but had not missed the flight — boarding began early. We got to the Jorge Chávez International Airport, Lima on schedule. The 17 km drive from the airport to Miraflores took nearly one hour due to traffic. The airport taxi system was well organized. The driver was a Peruvian man with fair English. He played songs by Romeo Santos. The driver was pleasantly surprised that I recognized Romeo Santos. I told him I was reasonably familiar with contemporary Latino music and took salsa and bachata classes in graduate school (such good times before the jujitsu of the academic tenure clock in North America!). We hit it off from there. It’s interesting how people connect on the basis of such symbolic things. He told me about the people and where to go for good food in Miraflores Centro, Lima’s central business district.
You have to respect American capitalism. Its capacity to create markets for itself is incredible. Its interpenetration of the world is peerless: American cars, American music, American movies, American English (i.e. often grammatically murderous but the definition of “cool”) and American food (i.e. junk food but not the fine elaborate cuisine people devour during the US Thanksgiving though). One must not leave out American newscast (some might even add American bombs but I have no comments on military hardware and related merchandise while Oga Trump is president. I hear his anger management is a work in progress). In other words, anything that is marketable and can generate profit. Miraflores had a heavy presence of American brands.
The hotel receptionist, recommended a local restaurant. It was rather far and I weighed my options. There were five restaurants within a 400-metre radius of the hotel. One was Papa John’s Pizza. Pizza ke? Olorun maje (may God forbid). In Peru? Even my Lagos and Abuja friends have learned to take me for proper grilled fish or amala instead of making the strange pizza suggestion. Other options on my first night in Lima were Chili’s, Burger King, MacDonald’s and KFC. I decided to choose wisely. I was really hungry and didn’t have time for any chef’s experiment. Like every global citizen, naturally, I chose KFC. Therefore, I had perfectly made junk food. It was delicious.
The junk food thing is fascinating. Totally healthy middle class families in the developing world load themselves in vehicles and give themselves a “treat” at one of the global brands. It never ceases to amaze me why families that could afford fresh egusi stew and all kinds of organic meat (including the ones from cows flogged from Kano to Lagos) would consider junk food a treat for their children. I heard the children are little emperors. They have grown up to associate parental love with capacity to take them out for junk food.
The following day, I went to Larcomar, a mall by the Pacific Ocean in Lima. Larcomar was quite lovely and in excellent location. Its four floors were buried underground and the rooftop served as the ground level. Those guys defecating in Ogun River in Abeokuta should know they are ruining a really awesome space for tourist attraction. I ordered what seemed like an authentic Peruvian dish. It had the “catch of the day”, rice, etc. The waiter assured me it was not spicy. I requested hot sauce. He came with a small potion, saw me use it up and brought a larger bowl. Most Yoruba people really like their pepper!
On the sidelines of the glitz, there was a reality check. One man approached me, removed his hat and said he was hungry and needed money for food. I couldn’t say no. He removed his hat to point to his enormous grey hair. This might be the playground of Peru’s middle class but there was another reality out there. As a friend assured me the “tourist sees everything pretty. Life is hard in Peru”. I visited Lima’s historic centre to have Peru’s national dish, ceviche. The dish was a fine panoply of seafood served cold. It was delicious. At the Plaza San Martin, a group of women sang worship songs. The pastor emerged from the small group and began to preach. A pattern was unfolding in my travels, people in developing countries seemed more serious about the second coming of Jesus Christ. On the other side, a Marxist conspiracy theorist gathered a group of workers and began to analyze the plight of workers. I admired the harmony.
Overall, the power and hegemony of the English language in a non-English speaking context was evident. Which of the two countries do I like more? It’s like being asked to choose between Lagos and Abuja. Colombia is boisterous, worldly and enchanting. Peru is quiet, laid back but moderately fun. Peru is your Sunday morning; Colombia your Saturday evening. Sorry, (“Bling”) Lagosians, Abuja wins. I like Sunday mornings.