I'd never been to Colombia before so when my friend asked me to attend his wedding at Valledupar, a city in the country's north-east, I seized the opportunity. The airport was the smallest I have ever seen, with the arrivals area consisting of a single room for passengers to receive their luggage. My brother, Ali, and I, along with two other guests were picked up from the airport by the wedding organiser. The other two guests were a couple visiting from New York, Giovanni and his girlfriend Yalissa. This couple was essential to our trip because they spoke English and Spanish fluently and they constantly made the effort to translate for us. Almost immediately, for example, I learnt through their gracious translation that there are approximately 45,000 mango trees in Valledupar and that every household has at least one in the garden. Who knew?
The drive from the airport helped me get a sense of the city. As I looked out of the car window I saw rows of brightly painted shacks, varying in colours from orange, light blue and pink, and stretching into the distance, separated by dusty roads. Then suddenly the scene changed and we drove through an area of large and expensive-looking houses, the walls of which were mostly fashioned of red brick or concrete.
We arrived at the Sonesta Hotel and checked into our rooms, which feature views of lush, green mountains. At the hotel we were greeted by the Emirati groom and his charming Colombian bride, who brought us to her flat for lunch. That evening, the groom's parents arrived and so did mine, and so we celebrated with a mini fiesta . The following day I visited a farmhouse owned by the bride's family and situated about a half hour's drive from the hotel. For security reasons we were accompanied by a police escort of several officers riding motorcycles. We arrived to an al fresco lunch accented with a live Colombian band. There were even a few horses on the lovely farm grounds that guests took turns riding. I was satisfied with the delicious food and perfect setting, however, especially after the crispy fried plantains arrived. In Colombia this popular side dish occupies the status enjoyed by chips in the UK, and for good reason.
That evening we dined at an exclusive, members-only club where we were treated to yet more Colombian music. I couldn't help but noticing how lovely Colombians are and how they share a similar penchant for showing hospitality and gratitude as the Arabs I know. The following day was the wedding itself. The traditional dress code at Colombian weddings is for the men to wear cream-coloured trousers with a white guayabera shirt tucked out. The women, as in much of the world, use weddings as occasions to don their most exotic dresses.
After the formalities were over and the bride and groom were declared husband and wife, a bunch of us grabbed a hearty buffet dinner. Then professional dancers showed off their moves and the rest of us did the best we could to dance to both Spanish and Arabic tunes. As was the case at the Greek wedding I attended a few months ago, I was impressed to see how quickly the Colombians picked up Arabic dance. I guess I've presumed it's harder than it is.
Live bands played through the night but everyone was looking forward to the final performer, Silvestre Dangond, who, in Colombia, is as well known as Shakira and definitely more popular. When the famous singer arrived the crowds stormed to the dance floor where they stayed till the early morning hours. At some point the bride and groom, as well as a few guests and I climbed onto the stage where we danced alongside Silvestre. Surely it was a night to remember and probably the best wedding I have ever been to.
Next week: Omar pays a visit to Cartagena, Colombia