Sunday, December 19, 2010

A Taste of Black Colombia

Visiting San Basilio de Palenque

The statue of Benko Bioho of Senegal, in the town Square of San Basilio de Palenque, Colombia. Bioho led a successful slave revolt in the 17th Century, making it the first free black town in the Americas, which maintained its African cultural tradition. 

The bus took me far as I could go from Cartagena, Colombia as I headed towards one of the nation´s proudest legacies, San Basilio de Palenque or simply Palenque. A town that was successful in doing what Nat Turner in the U.S. tried to do before he was sold out by uncle toms. The town led by Benko Bioho from Senegal led a successful slave uprising against the Spanish setting an example for the rest of Colombia in gaining her independence from Spain.

The bus driver told me if I was going to Palenque, this is where I needed to get off. Because of the limited public transportation into Palenque, there was a motorcyclist waiting and I had to ride the back.

It was a thirty minute ride into Palenque before I was dropped off at a restaurant across the street from Benko Bioho Square, containing the statue of the legendary liberator Benko Bioho. I had the traditional Palenque meal of fish, rice, and plantains before my tour guide Carlos entered.

Carlos and I walked about town as he explained to me the history of Palenque and the lifestyle of its residents, known as Palenqueros. Carlos himself was born and raised in Palenque before studying at a university in Cartagena. 

I could not help but notice how friendly the people were wanting to know where I was from. One woman kept looking at me and marveling as if she had never seen a black gringo before. The town itself is so peaceful that they don´t even have a police force as it is virtually crime free. Can't we all get along?

Every year on October 12 San Basilio de Palenque holds a Festival of Drums & Cultural Expressions.

How To Fool Pickpockets When Traveling

I wanted to use another “F” word besides ”fool” listed above, but I´m sure you get the message.

Upon entering Perú for the third time from neighboring Ecuador, I was accosted by a Peruvian National Police officer who wanted to see my documents. As I complied with his request, a couple of my expired credit cards and my old, expired passport fell from my back pocket. The cop asked me what those were about. He and my cab driver had a hearty, good laugh when I casually replied “son para los ratersos (they are for the pickpockets).” At a crowded bus station in Lima, a station attendant warned me about rateros. I laughed, pulled out my old, expired passport filled with fake Obama $44 bills, and everyone observing our conversation also joined in on the laughter.

During my five-nation trip to Latin America I had nice gifts for thieves and pickpockets, and souvenirs for the friends I made: Obama dollars sold by

It was through a published travel guide where I was warned about pickpockets targeting tourists. Naturally, after growing up in New York City, and having experienced travel to several other big cities in the U.S. and around the world, I've learned to hide cash in places I will not reveal here. I simply carry enough cash in my side pockets to get me through the day with a silk handkerchief directly on top in the event of a professional pickpocket making any attempt, and all that she/he would get is my silk handkerchief. And, yes, they got my silk handkerchiefs on two occasions. They also got one of my Barack Obama dollars that I purposely placed in my back pocket to see how good these pickpockets really were. I do not carry a wallet while traveling unless it is a wallet filled with funny money and old, expired credit cards.

In future travels I will make it a point to carry a wallet strictly for “rateros,” filled with funny-money and fake credit cards.

In Cartagena, Colombia, I placed my old, expired passport in my back pocket. It was gone in an hour. I never felt anything strange going on until I randomly reached for my back pocket. This to me was my biggest lesson as to how skilled these pickpockets are. My current passport and cash were stored in much safer places.

Pickpockets operate in places like crowded buses.

Pickpockets generally operate on crowded buses, bus stations, markets, or streets, such as Avenida Gamarra (Gamarra Avenue) in Lima, Perú. Peruvians warned me telling me that the pickpockets are highly skilled with hands of silk. The first time I was on Avenida Gamarra, I was in a cab. The streets were crowded with one store after another for blocks and blocks.

My front pocket is always in layers. My spending money at the bottom, a couple of handkerchiefs over the spending money, and at the very top, fake, funny money.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Passing Through Mexico City

Zócalo District Mexico City
Mexico City's Zócalo District.

On my way to Perú, I took advantage of an 11-hour flight layover in Mexico City and took the Metro (subway) into town. My first stop was in the Pino Suarez section of town, where I hung out, went shopping, ate some genuine tacos, then took the subway again into the famous Zócalo section of town.

Buying fresh OJ in Pino Suarez
Buying fresh-squeezed orange juice in the Pino Suarez District.

Keep in mind, the primary purpose of my Latin-American trips is to practice my Spanish among people who don´t speak English. That way, I cannot cheat. LOL. I was amazed at how well my Spanish went over with those whom I chatted. They did not believe that I´m an American. Many thought that I was one of the many Cubans who migrated to Mexico. I had to bust some English to convince them. I found this whole experience flattering.

Mexico City Metro
Catching the metro subway from the airport into town.

Also, I used proper Latin-American manners that I should have learned to use a long time ago, like saying buenos días/tardes before approaching someone and getting to your point. When you leave, you say “permiso” (exuse me, gotta go). I am learning from my travel experience that these little things go a long way when interacting with Latin Americans.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Latin Tribute to Dizzie Gillespie

Dizzy Gillespie October 21, 1917 – January 6, 1993

The music the world knows as salsa did not just evolvd from traditional Puerto Rican or Cuban music. Many jazz artists began interacting with Cuban music as far back as the early 1900's. Some of those interactions resulted in Dizzy Gillespie's famous piece, "Night in Tunisia." Dizzy Gillespie was an American jazz trumpet player, bandleader, singer, and composer dubbed "the sound of surprise"

Together with Charlie Parker, he was a major figure in the development of bebop and modern jazz. He taught and influenced many other musicians, including trumpeters Miles Davis, Fats Navarro, Clifford Brown, Arturo Sandoval, Lee Morgan, Jon Faddis, and Chuck Mangione. Arguably Gillespie is remembered, by both critics and fans alike, as one of the greatest jazz trumpeters of all time.

Dizzie Gillespie was also instrumental in founding Afro-Cuban jazz, the modern jazz version of what early-jazz pioneer Jelly Roll Morton referred to as the "Spanish Tinge." Gillespie was a trumpet virtuoso and gifted improviser, building on the virtuoso style of Roy Eldridge but adding layers of harmonic complexity previously unknown in jazz. Dizzy's beret and horn-rimmed spectacles, his scat singing, his bent horn, pouched cheeks and his light-hearted personality were essential in popularizing bebop.

Dizzy Gilespie also worked with the renown Latin music maestro Mario Bauza in New York jazz clubs on 52nd street and several famous dance clubs such as Palladium and the Apollo Theater in Harlem. They played together in the Chick Webb band and Cab Calloway's band, where Gillespie and Bauza became life-long friends.

Afro-Cuban jazz was considered bebop-oriented, and some musicians classified it as a modern style. Afro-Cuban jazz was successful because it never decreased in popularity and it always attracted people to dance to its unique rhythms. Gillespie's most famous contributions to Afro-Cuban music are the compositions "Manteca" and "Tin Tin Deo" (both co-written with Chano Pozo); he was responsible for commissioning George Russell's "Cubano Be, Cubano Bop", which featured the great but ill-fated Cuban conga player, Chano Pozo. Chano Pozo is one of a handful of famous Cuban percussionists who came to the United States in the 1940s and 50s. In September 1947 he featured with Dizzy Gillespie's Big Band at Carnegie Hall and subsequently on a European tour.