Catholic imagery, out-of-body experiences, syncretism, and the significance of cycling

The first few months after my family moved to the United States were tough for all of us. The cultural shock was significant, in part because we moved from Bogota, to a small Midwestern city with one thirtieth the population (in case you're wondering, yes, I did the math). For me, not knowing how to speak English was only part of the problem. I was 12 at the time, and found myself utterly lost in a country whose culture I often didn't understand. This was only exacerbated by the size of the town in which we lived, a place that had apparently never seen immigrants, let alone Latinos, since….well, ever. My entire family was on edge, as the reality of our new financial hardships became clear. Over time, those financial hardships would only escalate, making matters worse. Through this, I tried my best to enjoy the small benefits that came with living in the United States, but they were hard to find. As the first winter came, and the joy of seeing snow for the first time wore off, a sudden sadness washed over me. Things in school were getting worse for me (the Colombian kid with a mullet is never well-received), though I continued to write glowing letters to my friends back in Colombia about how amazing living in the United States was. The thought of conveying an ounce of truth to them was far too much to bear.

It was around that first winter that I began having very unusual dreams. At first, I thought they were isolated incidents, but they soon started happening more often. Soon, they were a nightly occurrence. Every single night, they were the same. Because I didn't just miss Colombia, I longed for it, my dreams started to reflect this. The dreams were odd, but amazingly peaceful. In them, I would float over the streets of Bogota, looking down at the city during the night. The sensation was eerily realistic, as I could feel the wind in my hair, and the chill of the night's air. During these dreams, which I eventually came to have every single night for months, nothing happened except me gliding over the city at night. They were eternally long, almost as though they happened in real-time. A sensation only made stronger by the fact that they began as the city traffic died down at night, transitioning into the city's more quiet hours. Eventually the sun would come up with early morning traffic beginning once again. It was as though I was there during the very hours that I was sleeping.

In these dreams, I was able to control where I went and what I saw, though I never interacted with anyone, and no one seemed to see me. I flew above Carrera Septima, down 100th Street, up around the Circunvalar, and through the high apartment towers that cling to the mountainside in the eastern portion of the city. I flew over our old neighborhood, my school, and shops and parks I knew well.

These days, you can enjoy having a look around nearly every street in Bogota, through the magic of Streetview

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At first, these dreams brought me joy. They were so realistic and long that I felt like I was actually there, in Bogota once again, if only for a matter of hours. Eventually, however, that joy turned to melancholy. I would wake up after feeling like I had been in Bogota for hours, only to realize that I was still in the American midwest. The snow was still falling, my father still didn't have a job, and I would once again be terrorized in the school bus. The Colombian kid with the mullet was still not treated all that well.

After months of this, I eventually opened up to my mother about my dreams. This is something I would have done much earlier in Colombia, but once in the United States, I think we all began to keep to ourselves. My parents were stressed out to no end, so telling them about my life in school would only make matters worse. The good, the bad…along with weird dreams, I chose to keep almost everything to myself. But for whatever reason, I happened to mention these incessant and vivid dreams to my mother.

At this point of the story, I should tell you that my mother is a perfect product of Colombia, a deeply Catholic nation where (in actuality) not many people seem to be deeply religious in a way that I've seen manifested in the United States. This is in part because so many in Colombia believe in things that would make the Pope (yes, even this current one) contort in anger and disbelief. Colombia is, after all, a product of native and African beliefs, whitewashed with an often fragile coat of Catholicism. As such, new age mysticism, witchcraft, Santeria and native paganism all live comfortably in the same space, and my mom's mind was no different. As children we would often be made to bathe in water cooked with herbs, and rub sugar on ourselves, in order to prevent harm that may come our way (due to a curse that had been put on our family by a witch, on behalf of a fellow family member). There were magical pendants, crystals, Ekeko dolls, and potions. The list was endless.  

Las Lajas Cathedral in Nariño

I tell you this to explain that the moment I described these vivid dreams to my mother (in a rare moment of openness and full disclosure at the time), she nodded, agreed, and calmly said, "Right, you're having out-of-body experiences at night." She said it in the way that other mothers might tell a child, "Right, you'll be having a peanut butter and jelly sandwich for breakfast tomorrow." As my mother explained it, my soul (or something along those lines) was in such distress about being in the United States, that at night I was actually traveling to Colombia. I sat quietly taking all this in, much as I had when I had been forced to bathe in herbs and rub sugar on myself.

I saw things differently. My mind was in distress about being in the United States, that was clear. As a result, my brain was firing on all four cylinders at night, generating endless vivid dreams about the one thing I was obsessing over. But my mother disagreed. "You are actually there, in Colombia. It's not a dream at all. Because of this, you must keep an eye for a silver cord that is attached to you. That will be your indication that you are having an out-of-body experience. Whatever you do, make sure you don't let that silver cord snap. If it does, you will likely die in your sleep. That cord is connected to your physical body while your soul is floating. If the two are separated, the person can die."

This was said in a calm tone, but it put an unbelievable fear in me. With this newly introduced fear —that of dying in my sleep—I began to be weary of these dreams. I was 12 after all, and although this out-of-body stuff sounded like complete and utter garbage to me, I suppose having your mother warn you about dying in your sleep can get any young kid's attention. I was no different.

The kind of creepy imagery you find when you look up terms like "silver cord dreams"

Slowly, the dreams began to taper off. Eventually they went away all together. My family moved to Miami, where we hit financial rock bottom. At one point, we lived in a two bedroom apartment with another family. Up to twelve of us lived there at one point. But being around fellow Colombians, living in warm weather in a generally upbeat city in southern Florida did wonders for my mood. But this being me, I started to miss those dreams, but for an unusual reason. I began to worry that I was becoming too comfortable in the United States. That I wasn't missing Colombia enough. That my mind didn't long to be in Bogota any more.

Suddenly, that hypothetical silver cord thing that my mother talked about, the one that supposedly kept me tied to my physical body at night, became something I thought about often. Not because of dreams or anything of the sort, mind you, but because I started to realize that I was tied by a similarly imagined cord back to Colombia, its people, and its culture. I thought of my connection to the past, to my place of birth, as a cord of sorts, and I began to fear (as my mom had when I discussed my dreams) about it being severed. No, I wouldn't die if it was cut…but the mere fact that I wasn't dreaming about Colombia anymore made me panic. The stupid concept of the cord, imagined as it was, was now becoming real in my life. It represented my connection to Colombia. It was obvious that I had to keep that connection going, ideally in real life, and not simply through dreams. 

Anima Sola, an image and tradition popular in Colombia (as well as several other places with a strong Catholic tradition). It depicts a soul in purgatory, and is commonly used in Santeria. The Anima Sola is often conjured up as a way of tormenting another person into doing as you wish, and represents the link between Catholic imagery and seemingly contradictory popular beliefs that (according to some in the Catholic church) are well within the realm of witchcraft.

At this point, you may be wondering what on earth any of this has to do with cycling. And to be honest, I commend you for making it this far into the post to see if there is indeed a connection. Here it is:

In an episode of my brother's podcast a few weeks ago, he conducted an interview with Bill Strickland of Bicycling Magazine. In it, Bill was kind enough to reference me, and said something to the extent of me being someone who understands and appreciates the transformative effects that riding a bike can have on someone. I agree with this sentiment, though I find it interesting that cycling and riding a bike can mean so many different things to different people. To some, it's simply a sport to watch and enjoy. To others, riding a bike (or watching others do so) is a link to childhood, a link to foreign places, a way to connect with nature, an escape, a way to slay an inner demon, a path to fitness or any number of things. The meaning of cycling and riding a bike (as is the case with so many other activities) can at once be simple and profound. But this lead me to ask the question: what does cycling mean to me? I asked myself this out of pragmatic curiosity, since such conversations (ones about what one thing or another means to me or anyone) make me cringe for hours upon hours, and make me think of those awful corporate inspirational posters.

See, to be honest, I don't have the kind of deep relationship that others have with riding a bike, or watching the sport. I don't speak of riding a bike as a life source, or my reason for living. I hasn't saved my life, nor do I expect it to. But when I think about this, I realize that aside from the obvious (watching races is fun, it brings back childhood memories, while riding a bike is entertaining and I enjoy working on bikes as well), there is one over arching theme in my enjoyment of the sport. Simply put, cycling provides me with a strong and ongoing link to Colombia. It's a way to strengthen the connection to a place that I once feared I would loose touch with. Today, I love making friends in Colombia, talking to them in great detail about their lives, and what is happening there. I love the place where I was born in a way that may seem outlandish or downright foolish to some (even some Colombians, since it's at times based on an idealized version of that place), and cycling is a vehicle for it. This doesn't diminish the importance of the vehicle, but it puts things in perspective I thnk. With that in mind, who am I to say or comment on why others may enjoy one thing or another. I am, after all, a guy seeking to mend a potentially severed relationship with a place (not even a person) through sport. I'm aware of how flawed that may seem to some, and how cringe-worthy the whole concept may be.

In the end, there are other reasons why I enjoy riding bikes, or watching others do so. There's certainly a pseudo-ethnographic aspect to it (hence my urge to often look in places other than the podium), along with several others. But in the end, I keep coming back to the fact that as much as I might have giggled internally when my mom spoke of out-of-body experiences, or of a silver cord that should not snap since it could cause me to die…I've come to realize that cycling provides me with a connection to Colombia that I very much want and need (but it's far from being my reason for living or anything of the sort). I know that if this connection ever snaps or ceases to exist I won't die. But I still keep an eye on that imaginary cord, making sure that it's always there. Safe, secure, and connected to Colombia on the other end.

But if I start bathing in herbs again, and rubbing sugar on myself because someone put a curse on me, call the authorities. Please. I beg of you.


Once Bitten, Twice Shy

No, I'm not talking about the Great White song. I'm talking about Leonardo Duque's victory at the Gran Premio Bruno Beghelli. After a season where Ryder Hesjedal, Carlos Betancur and Pozzatto all celebrated winning a race that had in fact not won at all, it's not surprising to see someone like Leonardo Duque be a bit shy when it comes to celebrating. The Team Colombia rider didn't think he was winning the race at all, until he heard the race announcer say so meters from the line. He thought another rider had already won, hence the very slight victory salute. There's a certain charm to seeing a Colombian sprinter win.

Breakfast of champions
Today, Rigoberto Uran tweeted out a picture of the breakfast he was about to have (below). Great to see that the man sticks to a strict almost-all-arepa diet. If you are looking at this picture, wondering what this food is, you can read about it here.

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