Zulima, my Spanish reader and me-relaxing after the reading at Casa Museo Fernando González.
July 13, 2007- I flew from Pittsburgh with the usual pomp of special security check of me and my possessions, and then on to Cincinnati, through to Miami and then to Medellin, Colombia. I walked out the airport upon arrival, and saw my name displayed by a gentleman wearing the Festival t-shirt, and then there were warm greetings, hugs, kisses from Festival organizers, other poets from around the world and Festival volunteers. My fears of getting lost in a strange city disappeared at that moment.
At the Gran hotel, we met up with several other poets who had just come in too, then there was signing in, and up to Fernando’s suite where he was entertaining other poets. I met the group there who were so warm, but I was amazed at meeting Fernando, humble and true lover of poetry. There were more hugs, warm welcome and all my ice melted. I felt transported to Africa once again, to Liberia, where Liberian girls in Monrovia were usually all “cheek-kissing” all the time, but here, even the men kissed cheeks. I was now in this culture where people smile and compliment you with no strings attached. Sixteen years away from home had changed me, so I kept expecting someone to ask a favor whenever they told me how much they thought of me or my poetry. Then to bed that night, I collapsed, with one thing missing- I had not spoken to my husband since we took off at Miami, and my cell phone could not help me now. It was almost midnight in Medellin. There was no way of calling my husband as I would usually do, so I felt a little bit strange and lonely.
July 14, 2007- Breakfast in a large hotel restaurant where dozens of the other poets, translator, readers, guides were. We were about 72 poets from or representing 56 countries. There were also some husbands or wives of the poets to add to that number. I did not know what to expect, but I was glad to meet two poets I already knew. Everyone else was new to me. There were poets from all over the world, including Azerbaijan, Iran, Iraq, Syria, Egypt, Israel, Saudi Arabia, Nepal, Greenland, Iceland, Ireland, UK, The People’s Republic of China, Mali, Gambia, Togo, Cape Verde, Burkina Faso, South Africa, Mexico, Venezuela, Spain, Palestine, Lebanon, Uruguay, Germany, Panama, Granada, the Netherlands, Nicaragua, Argentina, Paraguay, Ecuador, Belgium, Lithuania, Switzerland, Cuba, Peru, Norway, Puerto Rico, Costa Rica, France, Alemania, Colombia, and of course, me, representing Liberia, West Africa. This diversity of selected 72 poets, most of them traveling across the world to get to the Festival was an amazing thing to know. The organizers of the festival were to me the most efficient I’d seen in a long time, bringing together nearly eighty strangers and keeping everyone safe and well fed and cared for for nearly two weeks. This was something I wanted to see, and of course, I saw how well they did.
The most interesting times were the first couple of days. There were dozens of us speaking mostly different languages at the same time, often struggling to communicate with the person next to us at breakfast or lunch or dinner. Soon, everyone began to find their group according to language, culture, philosophy of thinking, religion, or whatever. There were several poets who spoke both English and their home language. My Syrian friend, Lina spoke some English, and her English was great for someone from another part of the world. There was Amed from Egypt who also spoke English. My African poet friends, Fatou from Mali improved on her English day by day as we interacted, she and I, but I was too dump to want to take on French again after all the many years of studying French in Liberia.
There were a few who only spoke a distant language, and one could single those poets out. There were the two Chinese poets who spoke mostly a form of Chinese. One day, I greeted them in the only Chinese greeting I knew, and they smiled knowing how silly I was. There were the Spanish readers, some who did not speak any English. My reader was sweet, but if I said anything to her, she would run to find an English-Spanish translator before she could respond.
For the first time, I realized the importance of language, of knowing how to at least say hello in the language of a place. So I learned how to say “hola.” I also learned how to say “I love you Medellin” from hearing others say it at the readings. I would go around telling people “I love you,” just to speak Spanish, and of course, they’d look at me and think how silly I was.
In the streets, language was most relevant. Shopping was interesting. We often went in groups with one Spanish-English translator. One day, three of us women grabbed Sandra, a sweet young student from Bogota, and took her to the mall. Interestingly, we pulled her from store to store since we did not know the currency nor Spanish. I’d stray off shopping, and when I saw something I loved, I would realize I did not know any Spanish. I’d run back to where I’d left the group, and grab Sandra by the hand, running between the crowd with her. The others would have to wait for her to return. One day I bought a pack of gum when only Fatou and I were shopping near the hotel. The peddler did not tell me how much it cost, so I gave him two hundred pesos when the gum was really less than fifty pesos. He looked at me, and smiled. So I knew that he knew something I didn’t know, so I stretched my hand for change. He gave me a small coin, smiling. Later I discovered that I shouldn’t have given him two hundred pesos.
THE FOOD & THE POETS – We would form a line to be served mostly Colombian food. The diet was filled with fresh fruits and juices of every kind. There were guava juice, orange juice, lemon juice, papaya juice, soursap juice, and juices made from every fruit that grows in Colombia. The food was not much different from American foods except in the style of cooking. For me, this was a different diet. I usually eat mostly hot spicy African foods, so I had to start thinking of a way of finding hot pepper. I kept asking why there were no habenero peppers. Someone told me that Colombians are not like Mexicans. They do not eat hot foods. So, I learned how to pronounce hot sauce in Spanish, and after that, I got some hot sauce to eat with my meals. A girlfriend from Colombia decided to help me out, and prepared a big jar of hot spice sauce for me at her home. From then on, all was well with me.
I will stop here with my recording of the interesting time at the International Poetry Festival of Medellin, and continue with more interesting stories about the readings, the people, and the poets later. As I conclude here, what continues to stir up sweet memories of Colombia in me is the beautiful gathering of poets from all around the world. Our gathering unlike other gatherings of poets was one in which we were guests of the Festival, living in the same place, being fed on the same meals, and putting up with one another’s good and bad days. There was much time for laughing at ourselves and at one another. All of this was made possible by our patient translators who rescued us when something we were saying didn’t sound very Spanish or very civil. Ours was like a small world coming together around poetry.
copyright Patricia Jabbeh Wesleys-