The Maestro — which simply means “master” — ambled into a poetry reading at Ambrosia, the restaurant that has become the cultural center of the barrio. His slouched shuffle was a combination of the weight of the saxophone he carried in a black box on his back, his bad posture and plain exhaustion that was written in his sunken eyes.
Maestro — so called because of his saxophone playing prowess — is how everyone greeted him. As he walked through the crowd people shook his hand and touched him on the arm. I’ve asked a number of people his name, but nobody knew. Mention Maestro, however, and everyone nodded.
Although his curly hair isn’t in dreadlocks, it hasn’t been combed in a long time and is loosely knotted so it falls down the back of his skinny body. The lines on his leathery face are ravine deep. Neither his body nor his clothes have been near much water for a considerable time.
The lyrics of Kris Kristofferson’s song “The Pilgrim” spring to mind: “See him wasted on the sidewalk, in his jacket and his jeans, wearin’ yesterday’s misfortunes like a smile.” While the Maestro wouldn’t know the song as it is in English, he lives it.
The Maestro’s saxophone is his lifeblood. When he takes it out of the case he lovingly polishes it with the special cloth he carries in the box. Then when he puts the instrument to his lips and starts to play, people wonder how such a powerful sound can come from such a shrunken body. The music fills the room and stops the conversations.
It is raw talent released; he comes to life to play.
When his performance at the poetry reading finished, I asked Yoly – who owns Ambrosia – to please give me 5,000 pesos – about $2.50CAD – and to put it on my bill. When she shot me a quizzical look, I told her it was for the Maestro, because he looked sick. She nodded in agreement.
Frankly, I haven’t got a clue. But finding out about the Maestro’s life is enough to inspire me to learn more Spanish. And I had better do it soon as he is fading. Quickly.
In the two or so years I have known who he is, and listened to his music, he has aged about 10 to 15. He has taken on that grey pallor that so many street people get before they check out. One factor could well be the constant sipping of aguardiente – the local hooch that makes Uncle Walter’s homebrew look user-friendly. Combine that with harsh street conditions, a bad diet and sheer poverty and it cuts down a life expectancy. How old is he? 40? 50? Maybe, but he looks 65 plus.
The Maestro and I have developed a relationship of sorts. He asks how I am; I tell him I enjoyed his music. Then I give him a kiss on the cheek, sip him a bit of money, and give him a hug across the back of his shoulders. The conversation is over until the next time we meet.
Hasta luego, Maestro. Meanwhile, keep playing because it keeps you alive.
“Brace yourself,” instructed Alvaro, “here comes Raul.”
Raul is an older man – somewhere between 67 and 92 years of age, depending on which day you ask him – who shuffles, drools and splutters.
“When you were away, every time Raul saw me he made a bee-line to ask when you were coming back. After four months, I learned Raul-speak and am about the only person in the barrio who can understand him.”
Alvaro sighed and continued,” It got so bad that when Johana – our friend who runs a street bar –saw him she would hiss “Here comes Raul.” I would grab my cane and head for the bathroom and she would hide behind the counter.”
I turned around and Raul’s eyes lit up.
Since I moved into the neighbourhood , it has become my custom to hug Raul, ask him how he has been and give him a kiss on the cheek or the top of his head – depending on which is closer.
People walking by stare at the weird red-headed foreigner who is up close and personal with a shrunken guy who stammers. Frankly, I couldn’t care less. It takes so little on my part.
Johana appeared with a plastic chair. Raul sat down and ordered an aguardiente – the local hooch which is his triple of choice. He took a sip and burst into tears. Alvaro translated for me, “He says he didn’t think that you were ever really coming back and that I was just telling him that you were to keep an old man happy.” I leaned over and dabbed the water from his eyes with my scarf. Johana appeared with some napkins.
Really, does a “welcome home” get any better?
Where to live?
I knew that if I couldn’t find a place in Boston, the same barrio where I lived before my “exile” to Peru, I wouldn’t be happy. The mere thought of living in El Poblado – the foreigner-infested suburb where the bourgeois hang out – makes Manta in Ecuador look like a viable option. Yoly — a friend who owns Ambrosia Café — insisted I stay with her and her partner, Eider until I found a place, as they had a spare bedroom.
A couple of days later she invited me to live with them. Really? I’m not sure I would want to share space with me as I am iconoclastic, eccentric and somewhat neurotic. Fortunately, they are so casual—and brave — that I thought it would work, so I jumped at the offer.
Brilliant move. We see each other early in the morning before they go to the restaurant.
By the time they come back at night I am either asleep or watching Spanish television in my room. Their bedroom has an ensuite, we don’t have to worry about bumping into each other in the middle of the night.
When I want to see Yoly and Eider, I go to the cafe. We have also divided the week into Monday, Wednesday, Friday speaking English as Yoly wants to learn the language and Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday in español. Sunday is whatever. Apparently, my Spanish has improved dramatically, even though I don’t really notice.
The apartment is about a 10-minute walk from where I used to live. The greasy fast-food place on the first floor isn’t exactly exciting as the smell wafts up. However, it beats the hell out of the dogs, the blaring music and the evangelicals that used to drive me to distraction in the other place.
Oh, and I should mention that the rent is $125CAD a month. Utilities are another $25 and the wi-fi is $45.
To marry or not to marry?
That was the question, because it was the easiest way to be able to stay in Colombia which has a 180-day per calendar year rule for a tourist visa. In retrospect, the 90-day visa trips in Morocco and Argentina were such an easy option.
While it was annoying to have to leave the country every three months, it could be done. When I lived in Casablanca, for example, I once walked across the border at Ceuta, turned around and headed back. It was about 15 minutes out of Morocco, but was good for another 90-days.
Since I want to stay in Medellin, I have to figure out how to do it and the big M-word looked like the best option.
And there was no shortage of offers. Alvaro would marry me in a heartbeat.
Now that same sex marriage is recognized in Colombia, Yoly offered to do the same. Fernando is back living with the woman he divorced years ago, but said she might not mind too much. And Gustavo – a street musician – said he was available. Tatiana – the ex-girlfriend of my high-school English teacher’s son – also offered.
But when she checked it with her father — who is an immigration lawyer — he cautioned that it would depend on the official processing the paper work given that she is 26 and I am 64.
The more I researched it, the more complicated it became. But it was a conversation with my mother who cautioned “I’m not sure it is a good idea” that did it as for me her advice is sage.
So now I have Jose – a poet friend – trying to get me an arts visa as a writer.
I’ve started looking at being a student again until January 2018, when a weekend trip to Panama would get me another six months. Whatever, something will happen.
Why do I want to stay?
Actually, the answer is simple: the people, the climate – close to perfect year around – and the culture. Vale – “okay” in English – so I have a bit of a problem with the food, but I carry a bottle of hot sauce in my handbag to get the spice hit I need.
What will happen next?
Damned if I know. But whatever, there are adventures waiting to happen.
My sister, Shelley, suggested I post some photos of my friends and my hangouts – so scroll down to see them.
Whale watching is an amazing experience which should not be missed if you have the opportunity. If you are living in Sydney or plan to visit it between May and November this year, you should definitely put the jaw-dropping whale watching experience on your list of things to do. Whales are wonderful creatures and display their awe inspiring majesty by jumping and breaching the surface of the ocean.
There are several whale watching summer boat cruise options in Sydney. So before you venture into whale watching there are certain things you need to prepare yourself for. They are as follows:
Know when the whale watching season is
This is the most important and obvious tip. You don’t want to get excited and find out at the last minute that there are no whale watching cruises available or even if you go, you don’t get your money’s worth by not seeing any whale. Whales are migrating mammals, so they are active during both summers and winters. This is one reason why you wouldn’t find any humpback whales near Sydney between December and April – it’s off season!
Find out where the best whale hangout is
Whales are social mammals and tend to swim together in groups or “schools” as they are called. They can also be found travelling separately with their offspring and like to socialize with other whales. Ask your local whale watching tourism guide or centre where they plan to take you.
Prep for the weather
You need to prepare yourself for any rough weather. Strong winds and high tides aren’t favourable for whale watching. Lucky for you, Sydney experiences rough seas during December and January, when the whales are halfway on their migration to Hawaii. That does not however mean that you skip out on checking the local weather forecast before making any plans for whale watching.
Your whale watching gear
Sydney gets a lot of sun during the summer and is famous for its beach culture and coastal life so always use a good SPF level sunscreen. Wear sunglasses and hats as well to protect yourself from any glaring sunlight.
Take a good camera which can zoom quite ahead so that you can take great pictures for your whale watching
Get good binoculars for some closer views.
Wear appropriate clothing, even though it might be summers but it can get windy or chilly at sea, so always take a jacket with you.
Pack some food for your hunger cravings. Most whale watching cruises offer food so you don’t have to bring any. It’s included in their package.
If you get seasick or don’t know if you are prone to sea sickness, it is always a good idea to bring your medicines with you.
Choose the best whale watching tour
It’s really important to do your research in order to get the best whale watching experience and your money’s worth. There are many great whale watching tours available in Sydney during summer, which offer attractive packages for everyone. So choose wisely and enjoy the experience.