You know those experiences you have that you just wish you could bottle up and save for later? Maybe you'd keep it in a small jar in your cubbard and add a pinch to your soup when you're
feeling down. Or maybe you'd keep it in your medicine cabinet, ready to sprinkle into the hot bathwater when you're feeling tense. Our time in Colombia has been filled with such
experiences. If we could preserve it, it would provide years worth of uplifting, tranquil, and beautiful extract.
Let me just start by saying that we did not partake in the two excursions that topped our to-do list in Ecuador: Galapagos and Amazon. That being said, when planning this trip I also
imagined myself reading oodles of books, working my way to enlightenment through daily meditation practices, writing religiously in my journal, and sculpting my body with morning yoga and workout
sessions. So far I have read one book, am just as far away from enlightenment as I was before departure, have a collection of scribbled notes outlining how my days were spent, and have lost
a good amount of the fitness I once had to white starches and cheap beer. Just as reality has made a mockery of my pre-trip naïveté, so did it with our Ecuadorian plans.
In the early morning of Friday, October 2nd Jay and I landed in La Paz, Bolivia after a long 18 hours of traveling. We marveled at the majestic mountains bordering the bowl that is La Paz
as we descended into the highest international airport in the world. Touching down, pangs of excitement replaced the groginess from my mind and we proceeded to immigration ready to get
stamped in and get on our way. Having experienced one border crossing into Bolivia already, we were prepared to pay the $55 fee in exchange for a 30 day visa. So when the official on the
other side of the glass requested $160 per person, we were thrown for a loop. After explaining that we previously had been charged much less, he let us know that we were let into the country
during some sort of provisional, trial period and that now, Americans must pay the full fee. He made it clear that they are only matching the price charged to Bolivians when they enter the
U.S. Fair enough, we forked over the cash.
The Argetinian pueblo of Concepcion is so small, quaint, and charming, it seems incapable of producing such an embarrassing moment. It is capable though precisely because the residents of
Concepcion are as beautiful and unassuming as the homes lining all four streets in town.
Our night there began shortly after 4:00pm, when we checked into a two-room hosteria (think rooms for rent by a family with some to spare) situated a stone's throw away from the town plaza. When
we overheard music and mic checks coming from that direction, we knew something was in the works so we asked our hosts what was happening. The owner's daughter Griselda informed us that the men
were preparing for a fiesta that was to occur later that evening around 9:00pm. Recognizing that we had arrived on a Friday, I got excited to think we may be able to partake and experience a bit
of true Argentinian culture in a place that seemed relatively tourist-free - besides us, that is.
To pass the time, we grabbed a tall bottle of beer and shared it on the porch of our hosteria. After a champions dinner of leftover carne milanesa, a fresh kiwi, and a PB&J on three-day-old
bread, it was 9:15 and time to see what the fuss was about in the plaza. As we left, so did Griselda and her 8-year old daughter. She motioned for us to walk with her, then guided us into the
plaza where she promptly introduced us to what we gathered was the town Mayor and, apparently, asked for permission to bring us to the event. Still not quite sure what was happening or what the
event entailed (because all our communications were in Argentinian Spanish which, it turns out, is quite different from the Spanish we've become accustomed to), we watched curiously as Griselda
motioned for us to stay put, then walked back toward the hosteria with a clan of young boys. While they were gone, Em and I walked deep enough into the plaza to notice a stage, a dance area, and
four long tables flanking each side filled with people - mostly women and girls - patiently waiting for something to begin. The more we saw, the more convinced we became that we didn't
Immediately after concluding that we should go back to our room to read our books and let the lovely people of Concepcion enjoy what was obviously intended to be an invitational affair, Griselda
and her daughter walked up holding two chairs and pointing at us. "It looks like you all are going to eat dinner," I said, hoping to communicate our astute observations of the scene and indicate
that we were headed back to our room. "Yes", she said in response, "and you are too." I looked at Em; Em looked at me - both thinking "oh geez, what have we gotten ourselves in to." There was no
obvious way out though. We had been invited and our host clearly intended to take us to whatever was about to happen.
She squeezed us into the center of an already-full table, assuring us that there was also room for her and her daughter, and introduced us to our table mates - her cousins Ramona and Rosita and
her Aunt Luisa. Then she left. We again analyzed the scene, now even more convinced that we didn't belong, but now in it for the long haul. It would be way too awkward and disrespectful to leave.
So we didn't. Instead we made conversation with Griselda's delightful cousin Ramona and her darling mother Luisa who insisted we were the only Americans to have ever visited Concepcion. Ever.
They asked questions, we answered. In the time between, we asked more about the event. It was a Mother's Day celebration for all the women in town. There would be BBQ, dancing, and a raffle.
People were clearly excited, but you wouldn't know it by the restrained looks on the faces at our table. Was it us? Or was the music just too loud to permit much conversation?
Around 10:15pm, the meat moved from the fires behind us onto platters delivered to our table by the men in town (leaving me as the only male enjoying the meal amongst the ladies). This, I knew,
would be the Argentinian BBQ we had read and heard so much about. Our guidebooks assured us that Argentinians had perfected the art of BBQ'ing, but we had yet to experience anything to write home
about. It didn't disappoint. The only thing that did were the plastic utensils that struggled to cut and often broke off into the meat itself. I pointed this out at one point to a cute little
girl outfitted in a nice dress and cartigan who was seated across from us and about to bite into the tine of a fork. She responded, however, with the grizzly look of a wild dog who had just been
interrupted from a tasty find - or at least the look of an annoyed and hungry adolescent who does not like being told what to do, especially by some gringo she has never met.
More meat came. And then some bread and potatoes. Then more meat and additional bottles of Coke. Moods brightened. They brightened even further when bottles of Branca Menta got delivered and
mixed with the Coke already on-hand. I had never had it before so I was surprised when I took my first sips. The strong, minty, Campari-like flavor, was so overwhelming (and, truthfully,
unpleasant) that I immediately understood why Ramona had encouraged me to add more soda. So I did.
The women at the table behind us got louder. They cheered almost-drunkenly as the band came on and admiringly as the lead singer descended from the stage and approached our tables singing a love
song. Several women started to dance on the oversized dance floor, as children darted in and out of the fog machine casting layers of harmless haze through the remarkably
sophisticated-for-the-setting light setup. A teenage couple cuddled on the retaining wall. A group of boys kicked a plastic bottle around. Other kids tried to rock each other off a 55-gallon
metal drum that had been elevated to mimic a rocking horse. A few more people danced, including a drunk older man whose shirt was unbuttoned far enough to show a large majority of his chest. He
danced with multiple women and appeared to make most feel uncomfortable before finally making his way around to Emily. I thought she'd decline having witnessed what I did. She did not, however,
apparently swayed by his persistence and the what-the-hellness that comes with being in a strange place with strange people and a dance floor.
I watched, giggled, and took pictures that do absolutely no justice to the entire scene. Then suddenly I was informed by Ramona that the woman looking enthusiastically at me from the table next
to us wanted to dance. I acquiesced. And just like that we found ourselves on the dance floor, with separate partners, stepping, twisting, and swinging to a tune that was faster than my feet and
hips wanted to move.
We sat down smiling afterward, feeling as though the night could now be complete. It was midnight and we were getting tired, but we weren't quite sure how to politely extricate ourselves from a
rather tight social situation. We asked Ramona how late the party would continue, thinking it couldn't be too much longer given the number of elderly women and young kids in the audience. We were
wrong. "Four in the morning," she said, "after the raffle." We looked at each other and silently communicated that there was no chance in hell we were staying 'til four in the morning. We
considered our options.
After whispered debate, we concluded that Em would go tell Griselda, who had long ago returned with two additional chairs and squeezed herself and her daughter in at the end of our table, that we
were getting tired and ask whether we should take our chairs back to the hosteria with us. As she talked with Griselda, I watched the band and Em's drunk dance partner who, at this point, had
begun begging women - any woman - to dance with him. When his pointing and prodding didn't elicit a positive response from one, he simply pointed and prodded her neighbor. Eventually someone
consistently relented and indulged him for a song.
I then overheard Em laughing behind me. I turned to see her chatting with Rosita who had apparently just informed her that we were not permitted to leave yet because "the people" wanted to see us
dance together. Hoping she might be joking, we tried to laugh it off. No success. She was serious and she had already sent her friend to inform the DJ and request an appropriate song from the
band. Em sat on my lap as we continued hoping they, the band, or the DJ would forget the silly suggestion, so we could sneak out and return to our room. They didn't.
After watching a mother and daughter perform a graceful slow dance with scarfs drifting softly through their hands, around their necks, and delicately between them, "Los Americanos" were summoned
to the dance floor to perform amid applause and prodding from Rosita, Ramona, and their friends. We assumed the band would play something slow, as they had for the mother and daughter who had
been summoned before us. Instead, we were invited to dance solo on a gigantic dance floor with fog, lights, and a curious audience of 150 or so onlookers to an instrumental, salsa-infused version
of Sweet Child O' Mine by Guns N' Roses!!!! I couldn't believe it. I was instantly mortified. If Em was, she disguised it well by immediately unleashing a massive air guitar move that proved to
be the only redeeming component of our entire performance. She felt my horror moments later when she excitedly motioned for others to join us and not a soul budged from their seats. We were in
this alone, together, for however long it lasted.
Mostly just wanting to curl up in bed and cry in my wife's arms, I pulled her closer as if to slow dance. I clasped her hand in mine and began swinging before recognizing that's not how you dance
to Sweet Child O' Mine, while remaining totally mystified how exactly you do dance to Sweet Child O' Mine. What then transpired was some train wreck of a performance that left us both completely
embarrassed - for ourselves and the peculiar impression we must have left with the perfectly kind crowd regarding U.S. dancing talent.
We exited the dance floor to a light, placating applause and returned to our seats, trying to hide embarrassment behind warm grins. Another hour passed, including the raffle, before we finally
felt we could leave without drawing any additional attention to ourselves. It was 2:15am.
We walked back to our hosteria, heads hanging low, trying to comprehend what had just happened. It felt like some wicked combination of euphoria and shame that could only have been produced by an
incredible night tainted by the most embarrassing moments Emily and I have ever shared together.
Fortunately, our time in Concepcion didn't end with our dance. The following morning we walked a mile down a dusty dirt road, past humble adobe houses and small horse pastures made green through
an open irrigation system, to the house where Ramona's mother Luisa lives. She had invited us the night before to eat breakfast with them and try our first cup of Mate - a traditional tea served
in a shared mug from a piping hot metal straw. We passed the morning post-embarrassment sipping and passing Mate, while chatting with Ramona's family and watching several women (including Emily
at one point) prepare hundreds of empanadas for the afternoon communion of 13 local boys.
All in all, our time in Concepcion was an unforgettable experience made both bearable and beautiful through the overwhelming warmth and kindness of our hosts. Muchas gracias Concepcion. We loved
you - despite the mild scars you left on our egos.