How I ended up in Colombia (or “Thank you, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles!”)

14 May

First off, don’t worry, the title will make sense eventually. I promise.

I moved to Colombia in September, 2011 arriving first in Bogota and then, after 3 days of rain and cold far too similar to Irish weather for my liking, taking the 12 hour bus through the Andes to Cali, the world capital of Salsa. My Mecca.

That off course neither explains why I went there nor the title of this post. For that we need to go back, way back to my chubby childhood. To a period lost in the annals of mediocrity. Back to the nineteen nineties!

I like many easily influenced kids at the time used to spend my evenings after school sat in front of the telly watching cartoons until the children’s programming ended and that waste of air-time known as “the news” started. One day, a new cartoon began that was to captivate me every subsequent Friday afternoon and affect me profoundly (albeit unknowingly, initially) for the rest of my life. That show was the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.

The show had everything; crime fighting, turtles, comedy, sci-fi and most importantly, martial arts. I was hooked. I managed to get my parents to buy me turtle video games and even a turtle costume complete with super-breakable plastic swords that I used with my younger brother who had a pair of super-breakable (although super-painful) plastic nunchuks. I didn’t manage to get them to buy me the pet turtles I wanted which in retrospect is probably a good thing, considering I would probably have tried to mutate them with something in an attempt to have my own mutant play friends (I loved science too which meant it was a genuine possibility).

However, I did manage to get them to send me to the local Shotokan Karate club so I too could be a crime fighter (I would have to try and work on the mutation stuff later). I imagine that many martial arts clubs at the time saw a jump in enrollment when the Turtles first aired, with so many kids wanting to emulate their heroes. A jump that was probably as short-lived as it was sudden.It was the first sport I ever really gave a go at and I did it for a couple of years, getting my purple belt after which I just stopped going, as children are wont to do.

The next stage of my journey with karate began in my 4th year of secondary school (1999-2000). I went through a lot of changes that year. I had decided that I no longer wanted to be the chubby kid who regularly got bullied by the other kids so I started to eat healthily, bought a cheap set of barbells and dumbbells and returned with a new passion to Karate. I practiced diligently and became relatively decent, winning a few trophies in competitions, getting my brown belt and gaining a new found confidence in myself that I never had before.

It was during secondary school that I started reading books about karate and other martial arts and this obviously led me to learning about the history and culture of Japan. I began to understand the origins of many of the things I did in my karate training and most importantly I learned and really came to appreciate the Japanese concept of “dou” (written in Japanese kanji as 道) which means road or way and is used as a suffix to signify the “the way of…” in numerous Japanese art forms such as sadou (茶道) “the way of tea” for the study of the Japanese tea ceremony or shodou (書道) “the way of writing” for Japanese calligraphy and of course in martial arts like karate-dou (空手道) “the way of the empty hand”.

I liked the fact that in Japan there was traditionally a correct process, a way, to do things and this left me with a strong desire to go there and experience it for myself. So strong in fact that I even asked the school guidance counselor about it and she let me know about a teaching programme called JET that paid university graduates to go to Japan and immerse themselves in Japanese cultures (this also happened to be the only time that the guidance counselor provided me with anything useful in my six years at that school). I was 16 years old and completely sold on the idea. Once I graduated from university, in 5 years, I was going to Japan.

When my final year of secondary school came around I decided to focus on my studies (as I was I good boy and deep-down, a total nerd) so I put Karate on hold. I did well in my final exams and got into the university I wanted, University College Cork, studying biological sciences (the sci-fi aspect of the Turtles leaving its mark in yet another way I believe. I also learned that mutation in real life was nowhere near as cool as it had been portrayed in the Turtles).

In college, I took the opportunity to try out the various clubs that were available; boxing, scuba-diving, gymnastics, break dancing and I even went to a couple of salsa classes thanks to their clever advertising campaign pointing out the shockingly large ratio of women to men (in my 2 classes I neither learned to dance nor met any girls, imagine that!). I did however become a pretty dedicated member of the kickboxing club and to a lesser extent, due to scheduling conflicts, of the karate club. I remained a brown belt throughout college, as I never took the opportunity to try and advance further while I was there (i.e. like many college students, I was just too lazy).

During my 4 years at college I had almost forgotten about going to Japan although the idea must have kept hold somewhere in the back of my mind. Luckily, at the careers exposition of my final year I stumbled across the JET information booth, remembered my teenage dream, applied and was eventually accepted (it was not quite as easy as I’ve made it sound and MAY have involved lots of scrambling for deadlines and a little bit of crying. MAY!)

So in late July of 2006 I was shipped out to Japan and to my final destination of Miyazaki prefecture (which I had never heard of in my life) where I would spend 4 of the best years of my life.

At this stage you’re probably wondering “What does any of this have to do with salsa or living in Colombia?”. It’s coming, bear with me.

In Japan, I did so many new things; learning Japanese, Japanese archery, calligraphy, surfing, organizing Irish cooking classes and phenomenal St. Patrick’s Day parties that I almost completely forgot about Karate until my final year there when I found a great club with some great people, started training again and finally got my black belt, almost 15 years after I started karate for the first time (never let it be said that I don’t get the job done… eventually).

While in Japan, one of my best friends, Nahoko, a very international girl who was very socially active invited me to a salsa party that she was hosting at a local bar. I went, a little reluctantly, with my girlfriend at the time. There was an introductory lesson given by two people who were to become very important in my life; Yano-papa and Yano-mama (as they like to call themselves).

Here’s the thing, I had always wanted to learn to dance as I always watched jealously whenever I saw a couple dancing on TV, moving in perfect unison and harmony with the music and pretty much just looking much cooler than I ever could with two-step, back and forth, Irishman sway. My girlfriend at the time had danced ballet when she was younger and so had no problem picking up the rhythm instantly during the lesson and I have to be honest, watching her dancing in front of me, smiling and gently swaying her hips with to the music was one of the most beautiful things I had ever seen (I, however, was a little less than coordinated).

We had a blast at the party, and “danced” (as well as an Irishman with no rhythm can) until the party ended. I made a pledge to myself that night that I was going to get better at salsa, dance well with my girlfriend and impress the hell out of her.

Now, as you can imagine, finding regular salsa classes in a rural prefecture in Japan is not the easiest of tasks but I managed to do a few classes, kept secret from my girlfriend, where I picked up a couple of new “moves” and some “dodgy” rhythm. Over the next year and a half, thanks to new found motivation and few journeys abroad for “training”, I improved a lot (how and why I’ll explain in some other posts) eventually organizing and teaching at a monthly salsa class and party in my city to try and promote salsa to the masses. I can proudly say that that party is still going strong in Miyazaki city thanks to the help of my Japanese salsa friends.

In my final year in Japan, after breaking up with my girlfriend, I began to look for new challenges (filling the void that develops after a breakup is something I’m sure many of you are aware of). I was pretty happy with how I had progressed with Japanese so I wanted to try a new language and Spanish was the obvious choice thanks to my desire to actually understand the lyrics of all the salsa songs I regularly listened to. I gave it a shot (without much dedication) and began to think about what I might do after I left Japan, where I would go etc. and all the signs (Salsa, Spanish and a desire to experience a culture completely different from Japan’s) pointed to South America.

Around the same time I met a very beautiful Colombian woman, living in the neighbouring prefecture, who I mentioned my idea to. She told me straight away that I had to go to her hometown, Cali, the world capital of salsa, to truly live the “cultura de la rumba”. After asking my reliable and knowledgeable friend, Wikipedia, all about Cali, my mind was made up. I was moving to Cali, to learn Spanish and real salsa (I also learned that Cali is apparently home to some of the most beautiful women in the world and that didn’t hurt either).

I finished my contract in Japan and moved back to Ireland where I worked for a year after managing to get a great job at the Japanese Embassy that I thought would look nice on my CV and would help me smoothly readjust to western culture. It did.

I was more than happy to discover, when I moved back, that there was a very healthy salsa scene in Dublin and I became a regular at the various events and parties around the city and was very lucky to befriend some amazing salseros and salseras, both from Ireland and abroad. I learned and improved my salsa a lot that year and really came to appreciate Dublin (as it was my first time living there). However, my mind had been made up and I made all the arrangements to travel to Colombia as soon as my one-year contract at the embassy finished.
And so, after a little holiday back to Japan to visit my friends and get my fill of sushi I returned back to the family farm for a couple of weeks to get my affairs in order and say goodbye to my family and friends once again.

After a week’s layover in New York, relishing the chance to reconnect with some old friends, enjoying good food and dancing salsa I arrived in Bogota and then made my way here, to Cali where I’ve been ever since, bailando, rumbeando y gozando all that this very special city has to offer.

There’s a great deal more to tell you about but I guess that’s what a blog is for. I can’t wait to write the next post. Stay tuned.

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7 Responses to “How I ended up in Colombia (or “Thank you, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles!”)”

  1. stephen murray September 24, 2012 at 9:25 am #

    I thought this was going to be about how mutagen turned your beard red, but a good story nonetheless.

    • The Dancing Irishman September 24, 2012 at 3:41 pm #

      Now that’s a story for another day. And it’s not red, it’s strawberry blond!

  2. DAO September 24, 2012 at 10:37 pm #

    Divertida historia, la parte mas bonita es la de las tortugas ninjas

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. The Sneaky Trick that Every Salsa Beginner Needs to Know (Better salsa in just 60 seconds) | The Dancing Irishman - June 19, 2013

    […] thing that made it worse for me was the fact that I learned salsa in Japan. That meant that if I went to a salsa club I stuck out big time (fair hair, pale skin and the […]

  2. What to do when you’re S#!T at Dancing (or anything else for that matter) | The Dancing Irishman - January 7, 2014

    […] two and a half years ago I left Ireland, moved to Colombia and started learning Cali-style salsa. While it’s not the most technical type of salsa (at […]

  3. The Salsa Community: All Warm and Fuzzy | The Dancing Irishman - March 5, 2014

    […] When I lived in Japan, during my final year, I started organizing salsa parties in an attempt to start building a community. I guess it worked because that community is still going strong in semi-rural Miyazaki and I’ve maintained my strongest links, amongst my Japanese friends, with those people whom I danced with. […]

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