After spending a night in the middle of Parque Tayrona, a piece of Colombia's Sierra Nevada, we returned to Taganga, Colombia, a small town situated on a beautiful bahia. It was a town of humble people, fisherman and artisans, with family roots there that date back hundreds of years. Our hostel owners, natives of the town, informed us of a meeting happening that evening, a town hall. The mayor of the larger province of Santa Marta would be there. We didn't think much of it and didn't plan on attending.
Instead, we headed across the street to the park to watch some kids play soccer. When in Rome, of course. Across the field looked interesting, a full stage set up, chairs and people gathered. Unknowingly, we embodied the saying, "Do as the Romans do." We headed over and quite literally found ourselves right smack in the middle of that Town Hall they told us about. Once we realized what it was, we figured we should stay a bit, see what they discuss, see what it is like. What we didn't anticipate was that the whole crowd at one point would chant that they want the tourists out of town. Us being the privileged tourists and all, well, that was an odd place to be. But, we stepped into it, we listened to their why and understood.
That experienced changed the way we travel, the way we see ourselves and the potential impact we have on the communities we explore. It also helped us take a look inward in other ways. For that, we are thankful.
It isn't a usual bucket list item when you are hopping from town to town trying to experience a culture and country, but it absolutely is one of the most authentic and deepest ways to do so.
Check out Ep. 5 of the podcast to hear the full details of the Town Hall experience.
Where do we begin to explain how amazing it was to travel to Puerto Rico to participate in two festivals entirely dedicated to the afro Puerto Rican folkloric music, bomba. As novice practicioners of the music and eternal students, this opportunity in March 2019 to be part of Segunda Quimbamba's presentation in Libre Soberao as well as part of the diaspora's representation in El 9no Encuentro de Tambores was an incredibly important experience to us. We certainly didn't feel worthy of that level of access, but we did feel tremendously grateful to have it.
Our podcast episode "Libre y Encontrando" goes in depth on how amazing the weekend was from Friday evening's welcome party by bomberxs from Salinas to Sunday's Encuentro de Tambores afterparty in Trujillo Alto. To hear us talk about some of the highlights of this trip and our reflections, take a listen.
It was overwhelmingly emotional to be on the plane looking over the island as we approach San Juan airport and knowing that this trip's purpose is to sing, dance, and drum, what we understand to be resistance music. Music that has been passed down through generations of Puerto Ricans for hundreds of years. Music that makes us feel like we are connecting with those ancestors. Music that fills our internal cup over and over again. Music that carries our collective essence as a people. While we were there for Libre Soberao, and that's the main topic of our podcast episode regarding this trip, we want to take this moment to do a deep dive of what being a part of Encuentro de Tambores meant for us.
Friday morning we find ourselves in Taller Tambuye, surrounded by bomberxs from Washington, Florida, New York, New Jersey, California, Puerto Rico and probably some places in between. It is an unfamiliar space, we didn't know most of the people in the room, except for one or two of the New Yorkers and the New Jersey people from Segunda Quimbamba or by way of SQ. We feel like everyone in the room really knows their shit when it comes to this and immediately feel like retreating. But, kicking back and watching wasn't an option. See, we were there for a reason, to sing coro and in a music that is call and response, the chorus is a key element. All good, because we figure, certainly a lot of these people will be joining us on the mics to sing chorus as well... right? Wrong. It was four of us SQ people, and we were about to get started. None of this felt the same as the weeks on weeks we spent rehearsing with SQ. It all felt brand new. In a moment, we were in a song, there was no way for us to not move forward in full force as a chorus singers in front of 20+ people expecting us to do so. And so we did. We said F it, if it's super bad, someone will stop us, someone will correct us.
Sure enough, our lead singers started to tune us up and you know what? That wasn't a bad thing at all. In the couple of hours we spent, working our voices out, a to' lo que da, repeating and repeating and repeating the coros to the four songs we were to preform that Sunday, we learned such a tremendous amount: paying more attention to the sounds, fluctuations, tones and pitches of the other singers in new ways. By Sunday, we had taken advantage of every car ride to sync up and practice the coros. We had focused at every group rehearsal and at showtime, many of us, even though we were joined by so many others by that time to have a coro of something like 15 people, let the full force of our voices rock throughout those 10 minutes on stage.
It was growth and it was freeing.
Viannca: In 2010, we traveled to Jamaica to celebrate Hamlet's birthday which is in October. We set ourselves up for what we thought was going to be an amazing week of laying in these beautiful bungalow beach beds all day, soaking up the sun with cool tropical drinks in hand at a fancy all-inclusive resort. We read that the hotel included unlimited kayaking, we thought maybe we will do some of that. We thought we'd spend countless hours playing volleyball, laying out poolside or going a couple of excursions.
Well we thought completely wrong because, as novice travelers, we didn't think to check what season October is in Jamaica. We should have known, Hamlet being from the Dominican Republic and me knowing full well what Puerto Rico is like any time of the year. Not sure where our heads were because we only came to realize that October is rainy season when we arrived on the island and were greeted by a tropical storm, a full seven days of rain.
While at first, we were super down about how little sun we were getting and about how wet everything was, it didn't take long for us to adopt the spirit of 'Jamaica, No Problem.' This mindset that right then, in the moment and place in time we had, there was no problem. There could be no real or big enough problem to come in between a good time and us. And there wasn't.
In episode 3 of our podcast we talk about how we lost our canon camera the first night, with a fully loaded memory card of photos from another trip, we missed a birthday party that was organized for Hamlet by new friends we had made, I fell in front of the entire buffet line, and yet this trip was an amazingly good time. It was filled with camaraderie, friendships, bonding and seeing the beauty in fun without the sun.
Viannca: Getting to the hostel that literally sits on a stream, that is part of a larger river, where the main town of Livingstón is in Guatemala, was an experience. It was pretty fascinating to see the river community living their everyday lives. Everything involves getting in some form of boat, kayak, canoe. We saw people washing their clothes in the river, the front of their homes situated right on the water's edge. We saw children enjoying themselves, casually splashing around. When we weren't looking at houses or hostels on the river's edge, we were looking at green mountains and trees. An incredibly beautiful view.
When we got to this place, we were immediately in awe. A landing dock with a lifeguard ladder chair, no lifeguard though, a rope to throw yourself off the dock into the river with, and visible hammocks everywhere. As we entered we saw the beautiful set up. Wood everything. Small huts sat right on the rivers edge, I was only imagining what it would be like to sit outside of that hut on the hammock overlooking the water at night, in what I imagined would be pitch blackness. I thought to myself, "We definitely have to stay riverside." The common area was just rows of hammocks and swings, a beautiful dining hall to eat in, a pool table. As we continued walking around, the host showed us the options of where we could stay, all these different type of bungalows. A waste of time, I thought, since I had already decided riverside was the experience. Right? Why else would be at a hostel on the river, if not to fully experience the river both during the day and at night?
Wrong. Hamlet was convinced that the experience we had to have was staying as far into the jungla as possible. We were on two totally different pages. He won. We stood, literally as far away from the river as possible. It was in fact quite the experience walking up and down at night in, as I anticipated, pure darkness!
The next day we headed to Cueva del Tigre, our bungalow was so into the wilderness, I felt like getting there was half the hike to the Cueva. We went with Felipe and Nicolas, two guys also staying at the hostel, and a young man from the area who guided the way. We've since forgotten his name. Felipe and Nicolas ended up becoming two people we would travel further with and become friends with.
The point of trekking to Cueva del Tigre is to jump into darkness and into a natural pool waiting for you somewhere at the bottom of that darkness. It was crazy. We talk all about it in our second podcast episode. After we got our feet wet with the jump (literally), we went deeper in the cave to find ourselves in the type of darkness I never imagined possible. Where bats own the space and the water doesn't taste the sun. To realize that there are so many parts of the world like this, so much life happening in places we don't event know exist, was a life changing experience.
I left this cave braver, wiser, and with strangers who had become friends. That experience would lead the way to the rest of the night which was filled with good food, deep talk, games and strong bonds that I cherish.
Hamlet: Este viaje to Guatemala was a lot more to our regular wonderful backpack vacation like we usually take, it was in actually like a retreat for me because Mi Vieja had just passed away a few months previous to the trip and I couldn't find myself after her passing so V and I had the idea that such a trip would help me. This trip 100% helped me out so much that after the trip I found my center. The experience that I had in Guatemala was again life changing, It definitely humbled me and taught me that I AM part of the Universe, that I was wrong when I thought I was in It passing this very unfortunate experience. I learned that in fact I AM a lot more than that and saw that in all the colorful art, in all this wonderful and beautiful Indios that work day in and day out just to bring bread to their table, this really reminded me of how much of a provider Mi Vieja was and that She is still here as Energy every where, here, in Guatemala, PR, DR everywhere that I AM, She IS and always will be. What I had learn in this trip, I cant unlearn it even if I try to.
By: Viannca Velez
Bocas de Toro, Panama was paradise for us. It was by far one of the most diverse cities I had seen up to that point my life, with culture clashing and melding at its highest level. I found myself observing tourists, moving quickly through the town's center to make their way to their vacation homes, backpackers searching for, or already settled (some for weeks, others months) in hostels, backpackers-turned-residents, and residents. It was fascinating, at so many points I couldn't tell who was who.
The town had a mellow feel. It's an island that is part of an archipelago, situated a stone's throw away from the others. So close in fact, that the thing to do was take a lancha from the main island to the smaller islands at night to party. All night, boats would go back and forth. However, since we were there during the off-season, things were a little calmer. I'm glad that was the case. I'm not sure if I would have felt the same encanto had it been packed to the rim with wildness. Although, we did have a crazy fun night at a club that was co-owned by a Dominican. They had amazing music and a little cutout area dock where you could sit with your feet in the beautiful clear ocean water. Our hostel had something like $.50 shots and dollar drinks. You can imagine the buzz before we headed to the club.
In this town, we watched groups of kids come out of school together dancing to reggae as they walked. Some looked Asian, some indigenous, some black and others mestizo. I remember, to be fully transparent with you, the culture shock I experienced when I saw a young Panamanian-Asian boy dancing reggae with swag and skill. Right before I saw him hit his moves, I didn't imagine he could. It's like my mind didn't have space for his physical features to mix with reggae music. I felt like terrible when the shock hit me. It was a learning moment, I became a little more aware of the stereotypes that live in my subconscious and their ineffectiveness.
Our arrival to Bocas, by the way, was the second leg of our trip. We first arrived to the central mountains of Costa Rica, made our way down the country's west coast toward Panama. Once we crossed the border (this whole experience of getting their btw is another post worth reading, so, wait for it) we bussed it to the east. It was crazy to us how much we started to feel at home the closer we got to the east/Caribbean coast. The food was closer to our Puerto Rican/Dominican palettes and the people's vibes were punchier. We'd found ourselves in Central America.
It was interesting to me, the whole area had such a strong influence of Jamaican culture, an island I had visited just about a year before. It's something else that didn't fit in my head. I didn't imagine a Latin American country being influenced by another culture in such a strong way. Other than of course, the cultures that historically influenced and created what we know to be Latino. I learned from the people there that the area had been a major point of interest for neighboring countries, like Jamaica because of their banana plantations. Many people came looking for work to this coast and therefore the influence. I thought I knew Latin American culture. What I knew after this trip, is that I knew little.
One of the most important experiences to me was seeing their Etnia Negra festival. It was the first time I had experienced a Latin American community celebrating their black heritage in a direct way. Maybe I had experienced the celebration of Afro-Latinx heritage at a second degree, in that so much of our African descent created what we know to be Latinx culture, but not under a title like that... Etnia Negra. I felt like my eyes opened that day. A Black Latinx community celebrating their heritage directly, not under the umbrella of Panamanian culture or Latin American culture, but under their own.
This experience would inspire our first podcast episode.
Hamlet: In this trip I had two separate conversations with two local young men; one of them was the lancha driver who was very intrigued of the way we as Latinos live in USA, our way of life and all that, so when I told him how beautiful this island is, he said to me, "I am asking not because I like to go but just to know your point of view of the USA. I would never leave este Paraiso here I have EVERYTHING I want and need." The other convo I had was with one of the workers of the hostal we were staying in, this guy was so notoriously HAPPY that I had to talk to him and long story short, he told me that he was born, raised and he will died in Bocas, that he was indeed very happy and proud to be from Bocas. I really admire their love and pride for their community.
Another experience that I have never forgotten was a writing in one of the bathrooms that said "I came to the jungle to die and realized that I never lived." That quote personally touched me because of the wonderful experiences we were having in this small island in the middle of ocean and not rich at all, well not rich to the typical standard of luxury, but yet very rich in the love of their community and their culture.
This trip is our first backpacking trip and definitely was a mind blowing experience in so many different levels.
Thanks for reading.