The time is a little after 7 pm on Saturday 10th March 2012. The front doors to the Hotel Colonial on Calle 16 slide open with a squeak. Carrying the rings on a small cushion is 6-year-old Sophie. She walks very quickly but under the instructions of her grandmother, slows down. Karen begins her walk down the aisle, the marble floor scattered with red rose petals, accompanied by a very proud Farouk, one of her older brothers. At the altar stands a slightly nervous Piotr, dressed in an all white suit.  The congregation of around 60 people take their seats and the service – a civil ceremony – starts.

Piotr is Polish but had been living and working in Dublin. Karen is Elena’s youngest daughter. Whilst travelling around Colombia last year Piotr met Karen in Taganga, a small fishing village one bay to the east of Santa Marta. Despite the language barrier – Piotr speaks very basic Spanish and Karen basic English – they fell in love with one another.

On Monday 20th February Piotr had flown all the way from Dublin to Santa Marta, via Paris and Bogota, and got down on one knee at his own fiesta bienvenida, his welcoming party, and proposed to Karen.

Por favor, Charliecito, traduce lo que dice!” shouted Nadime, Karen’s older sister, in a burst of excitement. It was obvious what he was doing but nonetheless I replied, “El está pidiendo la mano de ella!

(Left to right) Elena, Piotr, Sophie and Karen.
(Left to right) Jamie, Deyder, Feito, Karen and Piotr.
(Left to right) Jennifer - another volunteer living with us - Piotr, Karen and moi.

Two weeks later there I was, dressed smartly  in my white guayavera, a typical male wedding outfit on the Caribbean coast, sharing a short dance with the bride.

Either side of a delicious and refreshing buffet dinner there was plenty of dancing – after all the Colombians do love to dance – but I can’t remember seeing an air guitar solo to Hi Ho Silver Lining.  Vallenato – music from the Caribbean Coast played with an accordion – and salsa rhythms, instead, filled the air and of course the unbelievably catchy song of Ai Se Eu Te Pego by the Brazilian, Michel Telo

All of the solteras, single women, in the room, also came together for Rifar el Ramo. This is a long-standing Colombian wedding tradition, but one that varies from wedding to wedding, where by each of the solteras  take off one of their shoes and put it underneath the chair the bride is sitting on. The groom, blindfolded, then picks one shoe out at a time and the girl whose shoe is last remaining is supposed to be the next one to get married. On a separate occasion, the solteros, single men, huddle together as a group while the blindfolded groom removes his bride’s garter using just his mouth. He then throws it into the group of eagerly awaiting men and the lucky one to catch it will be the next to get married.

Let Rifar el Ramo begin!

The clock struck midnight. The doors to the Hotel Colonial on Calle 16 slid open once again with a squeak. Four men banging on African style drums entered along with one man playing his heart out on the clarinet. La hora loca, the crazy hour, had begun.  Colourful, feathery masks and party whistles were handed out to everyone. The music grew louder and louder, the beat quicker and quicker, the temperature of the room hotter and hotter. Those that could keep up just kept on going and going. Those that couldn’t, sat down and used their mask as a temporary fan. Booooooooooooom! It had been a fitting finale.

But back to Elena’s house we went, not everyone, just close family, to continue the rumba, the party. Deyder, one of Karen’s brothers, parked his car outside the house, opened the doors, turned on his cd player and played a selection of vallenato and salsa songs at full volume. The neighbours must have found it difficult to sleep yet no one complained.  Shots of Johnny Walker Whisky flowed – “viva Polonia, viva Colombia!” – and people spontaneously got up and danced, using the pavement as a dance floor. At 4.30 am, with people showing signs of tiring and the Johnny Walker Whisky no longer, it was time to call it a day.

Jonathan passing on some salsa tips to Piotr at 4 am!

Before I stepped foot in Colombia I was memorized by images I had seen of the country; the beautifully preserved colonial buildings of Cartagena’s old town, the palm lined beaches of Tayrona National Park and the ancient ruins of Ciudad Perdida deep inside the Sierra Nevada. I wanted to see these places that every guide-book and practically every backpacker on the road raved about. Yet what happened on Saturday night wasn’t in a guide-book. Nor had another traveller recommended it to me. Not only was it a very special evening for the bride and groom, it was a very special evening for me. After 6 months living with Elena and her family I feel like one of the family. When I look back on my time in Colombia this will certainly be a moment that I will look back on with very fond memories.