I received a phone call this winter from my friend and outstanding caricature illustrator Ismael Roldan asking me if I would be interested in traveling to Colombia in early June to be a special guest speaker at a conference celebrating comics, caricature and illustration in South America called the 15 Sal??n Internacional de Historietas y Caricaturas Calicomix 2009 (15th Annual International Exhibition of Cartoons and Caricatures Calicomix 2009). I’d be doing a presentation of my artwork, a separate demonstration of my illustration techniques and there would be an exhibit of my artwork in a gallery at the Colombo Americano. In between I’d be attending presentations and workshops by the several other guests speakers/artists and participating in some artist “jams” where we sit about and draw for the public.
“Are you kidding?” I said. “When do I leave?”
Ismael is originally from Colombia, having relocated and lived in the United States for over 20 years. Last year he was a guest speaker at the same conference. He had nothing but wonderful things to say about the event, the people involved and the organization that would be sponsoring my participation, the Centro Cultural Colombo Americano. The Colombo would be taking care of my room and board, and providing translators for my presentations and official events. Good thing since my junior high Spanish classes are well behind me. I would not be provided a translator 24/7… most of the time I’d be on my own in that respect, but I would always be looked after by the organizers of the CaliComix event itself. What an incredible opportunity. How could I refuse? I just needed to sell it to the boss.
The Lovely Anna reacted to this invitation in two ways. First, she was proud and thrilled her husband would be asked to be a guest at such an international event. Second, she said “COLOMBIA?!?” followed by a bout of hyperventilating. Let’s face it, deserving or not, Colombia has a rough reputation involving drug cartels and violence.
There was some discussion about these issues, but Colombia is not the ultra-violent place it’s made out to be in the movies. Yes, there are areas of the country and the city of Cali it would be a bad idea to wander into, but that is true of any big city anywhere in the world. It’s largely populated by peaceful and friendly people going about their lives just like everywhere else in the world. The bad elements are just a tiny part of what is a rich, bustling culture and heritage. That said, it is a different world there and certain precautions need to be taken and followed for personal safety. By and large, though, as long as you are educated about these issues and observe the necessary precautions Colombia is safe enough to visit, and safer than many other places.
A Side Street in Cali
It’s not a place for the casual weekend tourist, however… at least not in Cali where I stayed. At the very least you should be able to speak the language and be very familiar with the area you are visiting, or have a local guide to take care of you like I did. Perhaps visiting the more cosmopolitan (and larger) city of Bogot?¬? one might find more languages spoken and more of a catering for tourists. That was not so in Cali, where I saw no other obvious foreign tourists or visitors. In fact I felt a bit like the Jolly Green Giant wandering around the streets of Cali… I was a head taller than most people and my blue eyes and pale complexion caused a lot of turned heads and stares. The local people I met were very nice and helped me as much as they could… they seemed genuinely pleased to see a foreign visitor and wanted me to feel welcome.
The two best parts of my trip were meeting and seeing the work of some fantastic cartoonists and illustrators from South America, and being able to see and experience first-hand a part of the world that is not easy to see and experience for someone from the U.S.
Arriving in Colombia
I arrived in Cali after a long day of travel with stops in Houston and Panama City. However the time zone Cali is the same as U.S. Eastern Standard Time, and due to our current observation of Daylight Savings Time there was no time change between home and Cali… 10 p.m. in Cali was also 10 p.m. in Minnesota. That made for an easy transition. Customs was quick and my meager Spanish was all I needed to get through security. I was picked up by a gentleman named Michael Cedena, who is a director at the Centro Cultural Colombo Americano and was the person who organized my trip and time in Colombia. It was quite late when I landed but he met me personally and briefed me on the trip into the city about some of the things I should be aware of while visiting Colombia. It’s much the same advice you might get visiting New York City… don’t carry a lot of cash, don’t go wandering down any dark alleys, etc. Common sense stuff. Mostly we went over my itinerary.
Some of the opening night group
After a stop at the Centro Colombo I was dropped off and introduced to a big group of attending CaliComix cartoonists… then Michael had to leave and I was standing there amid about 50 South American cartoonists without a translator. Talk about immersion! Fortunately a few there spoke some English, and one or two did so quite well, so they helped me communicate. Everyone was tremendously friendly and I was made to feel very welcome.
CaliComix organizer Jose Campo and myself
In retrospect that might not have been the best choice for a shirt
for me to wear when walking about in Colombia…
I would get to know several of these people much better over the next 4 days, but right then it was a little overwhelming. I got a taste of what it must be like to be a celebrity… I must have gotten my photo taken with various people several dozen times and signed tons of things. Don’t worry, it didn’t go to my head! It was a fun night but it got late and with an early morning coming the next day I eventually made it to my room.
The outside of my hotel
Casona la Merced lobby
The hotel I stayed at, which was also where the other visiting artists were staying, was the charming Hotel Casona la Merced, across the street from the historic church of the same name. It is a family owned place, and what it lacks in five star luxury it more than makes up for in hospitality. I was treated like a family member, including home cooked meals. I think the best way to experience the real culture and lifestyle of a place is through your stomach, and I had that opportunity in abundance. Every morning there was a knock on my door at 7:45 a.m. telling be breakfast had arrived. I got the following (with some variation) each morning:
This is very much a typical Colombian breakfast. The scrambled eggs with tomatoes and onions is called huevos pericos. The white, round biscuit looking things are called arepas, which are a sort of bread/buiscuit made from corn. The round, golden ball is a Bu?¬±uelo, which is a kind of fritter. In Colombia, it is made with a white cheese mixed with dough and then fried. The red drink is a fruit juice, (likely grape) but I had several different Colombian fruit juices including the local Lulo and Tomate de Arbol fruits. The white rice or arroz is an ever present side dish in almost any Colombian meal.
Tomorrow I’ll describe the Sal??n Internacional de Historietas y Caricaturas Calicomix itself, plus more about my experiences with the culture of Colombia.
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