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The Dancing Irishman in Barcelona

25 Sep
Just getting to know my new neighbourhood. That's just the local amphitheater, nothing special.

Just getting to know my new neighbourhood. That’s just the local ancient-Roman amphitheater, nothing special.

So… I live in Barcelona now!

Which means that in the last 4 years or so this is the fourth country I’ve “officially” lived in. After 4 years living and teaching in Japan I left in 2010, lived in Ireland for a year working at the Japanese embassy, moved to Colombia in 2011 working as a freelance translator, came back to Ireland via Cuba and the US at the end of 2013 and now, after all that, I am resident of one of Spain’s most famous cities.

I’m beginning to understand why my friends constantly tell me that they can never envision me settling down in one place. I’m not quite sure if I should be worried or not.

The Irish Diaspora
Since 2006/7 emigration out of Ireland (particularly of young people) has increased significantly; part of the great global economic depression. I was always secretly proud of the fact that I didn’t leave Ireland because I had to, because there was no work for me but because I wanted to experience life in other places. Hence my stays in Japan and Colombia.

This time is a little different
This time, I couldn’t find a job that I wanted to do. A job that I could actually see myself doing and importantly, enjoying, long-term. Anyone who has been following this blog will know from an article I posted a little over a year ago, when I left Colombia, that I left because I wanted to start thinking about what I wanted to do with my life.

Well, this year, living back home on the farm in the far south of Ireland, I had plenty of time to think. If we want to get all “touchy feely” about it, I wanted to do something that I loved. So I had a few options. The blog itself is actually a pretty decent window into the things that float my boat:

  • Dance: After all this blog isn’t called the “Administrating” Irishman. I do love dance and it is a huge part of my life. I’ve even taught dance before but it’s not what I see myself doing in the long term. I’m much happier working on my own dance and learning as much as I can fit in myself.
  • Languages: I’ve been working as a freelance Japanese translator for a few years now and while I enjoy the freedom it affords me, the work isn’t exactly regular. I may have “future” kids to think about and a “future” family to provide for so something a little more stable is called for. Also, my particular field of expertise, biosciences, while interesting, hardly makes for riveting translation.
  • Travel: I really don’t know how I could make a living just traveling the world. If you do, just drop me an email. That said, I think I’ve come to a point where I’m starting to want just one place to call home (other than my family home).
  • Fitness: I love researching fitness, putting it into practice and helping people get started in the gym or just exercising in general. That said, I don’t think I’d really make it as a personal trainer. I just don’t have the pecs for it.
  • Food: Now we’re getting somewhere. I do spend an unhealthy amount of time thinking about food; cooking it, eating it, rolling around in it. However, while I considered becoming a chef in secondary school I pretty much turned against the idea when I realized I would probably be working social hours. That, and Gordon Ramsay in “Hell’s Kitchen” scared the crap out of me.
    Which leaves us with…. Drumroll please
  • …Nutrition: I love being able to improve my health through the food I eat, I love reading up on the latest research in nutrition and I really love helping people with their diets. It genuinely makes me feel fulfilled. Add to that the fact of the western world’s expanding waistline and it looks like it may be a rather lucrative little industry too 😉

Sooooo… I am about to start a Masters degree in Nutrition and Metabolism at the University of Barcelona & the University Rovira I Virgilli. Further education is going to be my first stepping stone towards the career I really want.

Why so far away, Irish?
Firstly, it’s cheaper than living and studying in Ireland. Significantly so.

Secondly, it allows me to indulge some of my other loves at the same time (we wouldn’t want to neglect those now would we?):

  • Salsa: Barcelona is well known in Europe for having a spectacular latin dance scene
  • Language: I get to do my Masters through Spanish and maybe learn a little Catalan too
  • Food: it’s just sooooo good here

Presenting… The Nutritioning Irisman!!!!
Hmmm, doesn’t quite roll off the tongue, does it? Maybe I’ll hold off changing the blog title.

In any case, I’m going to do my best to keep updating the blog and providing you with as much helpful and mildly humorous info as I can… just from Barcelona.

If you have any tips on the salsa scene here I’d be very happy to hear from you.

Keep dancing folks.

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Salsa: You’re doing it wrong!

29 Apr

“If you don’t have African or at least Latino roots you will NEVER dance Salsa well”.
Did you know that?

Or did you know that “Studio Salsa (whatever that is) is watered-down Salsa that has lost its sabor”?

Or that “Puerto Rican street Salsa is the only real Salsa there is”?

Were you aware that “for Salsa to be good it has to have a multitude of turn patterns, acrobatics and footwork”?

No? Well, neither did I… but according to some of the angry comments that I received on last weeks hugely popular article, this is what some “Salseros” actually think (and very adamantly at that). All those ridiculous statements you’ve just read above were the opinions of people who wrote some rather unpleasant comments on my blog or Facebook page last week.

They were either deleted or never allowed past moderation (my house, my rules 😛 ).

Controversy
Last week’s article did exactly what I had hoped, just on a MUCH larger scale. It went viral and created one of the biggest international dialogues in Salsa that I’ve ever seen (although, in fairness, my Salsa history is pretty short).

People from the entire Salsa sphere gave their two cents; social dancers (like myself), performers, instructors, promoters, club owners… the whole shebang! It was like an international Salsa focus group 😀 . A massive array of opinions and ideas were shared and I couldn’t care less if people agreed with the article’s content or not. The simple fact was: It got people talking and that kind of dialogue is great for the salsa community and I really am proud that this blog was part of it.

The Killers Within
Unfortunately, there were some particularly vocal individuals (and I call them individuals because I’m certain they don’t represent the views of the groups they claim to speak for) who made me aware of the unfortunate way some people think of Salsa. The people who seem to be fighting to keep Salsa segregated.

Salsa-Factionists
Some people got REALLY upset at the article. After reading their comments I realized that the vast majority of them completely misunderstood what I was getting at. The title was intentionally misleading, most people got that, but some people decided to carry their anger from reading the title with them through the rest of the article (assuming they actually read it :/  ) and then took the wrong meaning from virtually everything I said. Also a lot of people completely misunderstood what I meant by a Bah! dancer (someone who, after years, doesn’t even manage the basics well but has no desire to even get their rhythm in order… it’s all about a Bah! attitude i.e. they don’t care about salsa!). People seemed to think I was demanding everyone train to be a performance level, fancy footworked, acrobatic Salsa wonderkid! Nothing could be further from the truth.Some people made some seriously inaccurate ASSUMPTIONS and that unfortunately led to the misunderstanding.

How I felt reading some of the comments! (that guy's almost as white as me!)

How I felt reading some of the comments! (that guy’s almost as white as me!)



Anyway, anger at the article turned into anger at me and that’s when I realized how segregated our Salsa community is. Some nasty comments directed at me opened my eyes wide open. There were even some people who were supporting my views but who had some completely ridiculous (elitist) ideas too which I would never be in favor of.

Our salsa is best
Basically, the gist of everyone’s blame throwing was this: Everyone considered their particular faction to be the best!

I had people telling me that the only way to dance Salsa is studio style (?) with as many crazy combos as possible. Nope, can’t agree with that!

Some said too many Latinos in clubs were the cause of Salsa’s decline. Really? The people who brought us Salsa? I didn’t know where to begin with that one!

Others said that people who “learned” Salsa in a classes couldn’t hold a candle to those on the street. A universal untruth in my experience.

Some told me that Cuban Salsa was the only authentic way to dance with sabor. Funny that I’ve seen people dancing every other style of Salsa with sabor too.

Some people told me that white people like me (I really am as white as you can get :/ ) would never be able to dance well. I know a lot of dancing albinos like myself who’d take offense to that lie.

Some commentors even suggested I should start refusing people dances based on their style or level. Can you believe that? I, for better or worse, just don’t say “No” to a dance. It’s one of my most important rules of Salsa etiquette.

Some people misinterpreted my comment about Cali (which I’ll gladly admit wasn’t worded well enough). Just to be clear, Salsa in cali is “Rica” but if you don’t know what that means look it up because, according to one angry commentor, if you don’t speak Spanish and understand Latin culture you will never dance with real sabor (I know, seriously, so many salseros are doomed).

Apparently we've all been completely mistaken about Salsa!

Apparently we’ve all been completely mistaken about Salsa!

 

***You know what, don’t even worry about what I said last week, these might be the attitudes that are actually damaging Salsa!***

And there I was worried about peoples skill level when there’s a whole heap of people spreading hate like that in the community!

I’ll stick with what works
After all those wonderfully “inclusive” suggestions I received I think I’m just gonna ignore them completely and keep doing exactly what I’ve been doing up until now:

  • I’ll continue dancing with everyone regardless of style or level (good thing I never suggested such an extremist approach in my article. I guess I’m a monster for wanting to encourage beginners 😛 )
  • I’ll continue dancing as many styles of Salsa as I can (there’s a reason I’ve traveled around the world dancing as much as I have {LA, Colombian, Cuban, NY} it allows me to dance with almost anyone I meet on the dance floor. Puerto Rico is on my list too, I’ll get there eventually 😀 )
  • I’ll continue trying to learn and improve whenever I can because I’m still convinced I’ll be able to shake this bright white booty with as much sabor as anyone with adequate melanin levels).
  • And you know what? I think I’ll continue encouraging people to do the same.

I‘m sorry for having such monstrous views. Clearly I’m an awful person

Be different
You know, people will always prefer and dance different styles of Salsa and that’s beautiful. It means we’ll always have the beauty of variety in the Salsa community.

It’s just not cool when people start promoting the idea that one style is better than the others and then ridiculing those who dance those different styles. That is most definitely NOT what I wrote about in my last article.

Thanks for everyone’s opinion
To those of you who wrote ridiculously angry comments to make your point, I’m sorry you’re so angry, the internet seems to bring that out in people. At least you provided the inspiration for everything I’ve written here. And to those of you who gave well rounded, mature comments with genuinely insightful suggestions I want to say thank you for contributing to our Salsa community… And it most certainly is “our” community (see my article on why), no matter what the angry comments say, no matter if your style is Cuban or Puerto Rican, NY, LA or Colombian… no matter if you’re African, Latino, European or Asian… or if you dance street or studio, technical or simple… We are all part of one big Salsa community. I’ll see you all on the dance floor.

Keep dancing folks.

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What to do when you’re S#!T at Dancing (or anything else for that matter)

7 Jan

I wrote this article last month, less than a week before I left New York. I’ve waited until now to publish it because January is a time of many, new (usually self-imposed) challenges for lots of people and I genuinely think that this could help a lot of people to break through their limitations and succeed where otherwise they might have given up. I got a little worked up writing it so please excuse the profanity. I hope you find it useful (the article, not the profanity).

Why they hell do I even bother? I’m just useless. Why have I been wasting my time for all these years? I have absolutely nothing to show for it.
I’m still an awful dancer. I should just give up already!

Things like this have been running through my head a lot lately. Some nights when I’m dancing I even let them get the better of me. Those are pretty shi##y nights.

Almost two and a half years ago I left Ireland, moved to Colombia and started learning Cali-style salsa. While it’s not the most technical type of salsa (at least in the form that it’s danced in the clubs there) I wanted to learn to loosen myself up when I dance, to dance more naturally and relaxed, to dance more “like a Latino”.

Many times I just wanted to give up. Who was I to think that I, an Irishman, could ever dance naturally… with “sabor”?

But I didn’t give up. I just kept going, as much as I kept telling myself to do otherwise.

Eventually, I loosened up. Now I dance salsa caleña.

About 3 and a half months ago I left Cali and landed in Cuba. I got straight into learning Cuban-style salsa, pretty intensively. I progressed quickly in the classes but as we all know, when it comes to dance, learning something in class is one thing, applying it on the dance floor is another.

On some of my first nights out dancing in La Habana I couldn’t remember any of what I had learned that very day and kept giving up and just reverting back to LA style. I kept a journal while in Cuba and I remember one particularly bad night at a club where I just slipped into a complete state of self loathing and wrote this while sitting outside the club:

“I’m just getting so pissed off with dancing.
I can barely remember the moves I learn let alone put them all together in fluid combinations. And then my body movement is awful, there is no sabor to my dance. I see other people dancing so well, making the dance their own doing incredible styling and I can’t go up and share the same dance floor with them. I feel too embarrassed to do it. I don’t know how I can have such highs and lows as this. Sometimes I feel like I wasted the last 2 years of my life in Cali…”

That night, the bad thoughts got the better of me and I left angry and disillusioned. However, the very next day I went right back into class and practiced again and again and again.

At the end of my 3 weeks there, I could dance salsa cubana and hold my own on the dance floor.

Sometimes it can seem easier just to give up.  Nothing was ever achieved that way!

Sometimes it can seem easier just to give up.
Nothing was ever achieved that way!

A little over a month and a half ago I found myself in New York city and about 2 weeks ago I started learning to dance On2. My first ever dance On2 was actually a three minute long shine as I didn’t even hold hands with my  partner. It wasn’t completely On2 but it was a start.

I’m writing this post, one week later, on the train ride home after another night of dancing in the same club where I danced that first “dance” On2. I had promised myself that I was going to try to dance On2 as much as possible.

I started off awfully. I was stopping and starting, messing up my timing, just making a general mess of things. I wanted to stop right there. I looked at the other dancers, at how well they danced, at how well they maintained their timing, at how much better they were then me.

I danced with someone else. Not much better. I was so close to just walking out, right there and then… But I didn’t. I danced with someone else. Terrible; I kept slipping off time and ended up apologizing to each of my partners at the end of each song.

Some of them were so nice, even saying they didn’t even realize I had slipped into On1 during the dance. I doubt that’s true but I appreciated the fallacy.

I would walk away, mentally face-palming myself, praying that no one had watched my pathetic attempt at New York style.

Then came the last dance. With pretty much the only girl remaining with whom I hadn’t already danced. I let her know in advance what she was in for, just as I had done with all the others, out of courtesy.

It was a relatively slow song, smooth… nice. I stepped back and started leading, frantically counting “1,2,3…5,6,7” in my head, applying the moves I knew from LA-style. 3 minutes later, the song was over, we were both still standing… and smiling. I had danced the entire song On2…

Tonight I won.

She thanked me and told me she had no idea why I warned her at the start of the song. I thanked her back.

Tonight, I didn’t let the voices in my head get the better of me. Tonight I ignored them. Tonight I won.

Learning to ignore the voices
Whenever we try something new, something that requires skill, we inevitably get to a point where we feel that we’re only wasting our time. The voices that tell us that we’re no good, that we’ll never be any good, get louder.

I’ve heard them many times with so many things that I’ve dedicated time to: dance, karate, surfing, cooking, languages etc. Sometimes I listen and that’s it for me with that endeavor… for that day!!! However, I come back the next, with a clear mind and I get right back to it.

And that’s how we win.

No matter what we do in life, the voices will always be there, we can either listen to them and give up or we can just get better at ignoring them.

We will have days when the voices win. Days when we concede defeat and go home, with our egos bruised and our heads hung low. It’s ok, everyone has days like that at times but the only way we will ever savor the sweet taste of victory, the only way way will enjoy the fruits of our labor is if we keep those days to a minimum.

And how do we do that? We stop listening to the voices. We will always hear them but we don’t have to listen. They might scream out “You Suck” but you can hit ’em right back with a “F@#K OFF!” and get back to what you were doing… winning.

At the end of the day it’s all in our heads. Seriously, in the VAST majority of cases the culprit behind our failures in life is that stupid part of our brains filled with self-doubt. That’s where the voices come from.

To enjoy victory, it’s just a matter of ignoring those voices and saying “You’re wrong, I can do this. Just watch me.”

I did just that tonight and it was hard. I wanted to throw in the towel after every awkward dance… but I didn’t. Tonight I won and victory, my friends, is sweet!

Success comes when you scream louder than the defeatist voices.

Success comes when you scream louder than the voices.

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Goodbye Cali, Hello Cuba!

29 Aug

It’s the end of an era!

Today, after almost 2 years living here, I have left my “Cali bella”. I’m leaving Colombia.

I’m writing this post in El Dorado Airport in Bogota (funnily enough this song was playing when I got off my flight from Cali) as I await my connecting flight that will take me, via San Salvador, to my next destination: La Habana, Cuba.

I’ve spent the last few weeks answering the same questions from my friends over and over again:
-Why are you leaving?
-Did you get bored of Cali?
-What’s are you going to do?

I probably should have written this post a lot sooner to preemptively answer those questions but, as a lot of my friends in Cali pointed out to me over the last few days, I seem to have taken to procrastination after spending so much time here. Better late than never, right!

Why am I leaving?
I’ll be brutally honest: I feel like I’ve stagnated here in Cali and I’ve felt that way for a while now.

I came here with the goals of learning Spanish and adding more “latin sabor” to my salsa. I now speak Spanish (far from perfect but enough for some Colombians who have been speaking to me for a few minutes to find it necessary to confirm that I’m not originally from Colombia) and I now dance very differently from how I danced before I came here.

So now I think it’s time to move on to another challenge (more on that in a moment).

I also feel I need some time outside of Cali to think seriously about what I want to with myself, long term. I was speaking with my mam a few weeks ago and she dropped the “You’re nearly 30” bomb on me. She’s entitled to do it; she’s my mam and she only wants the best for me and she wants to make sure I’m doing something with my life. It still hurt like a kick in the teeth, though.

I’m hoping a change of environment should help me to think and plan a little better. At least that’s the idea.

Did I get bored of Cali?
The best way to answer that is: No, I didn’t get bored of Cali BUT Yes I did get bored of the salsa here.

I’m the Dancing Irishman (yup, it looks like it’s gone to my head) and salsa is a huge part of my life. I’ve become far too comfortable in Cali (typical Irishman; thinks something’s wrong when things are going too smoothly). Dancing socially in Cali doesn’t challenge me the way I would like it too. Don’t get me wrong, I love going out with my friends and dancing into the wee hours but it has become quite repetitive for me. In general I can only use a limited amount of moves in salsa caleña.

I want to learn other styles. I want my own style to continue evolving. I want to get better.

This is why I feel I need to move on and find new challenges.

So what am I going to do?
Cali is known as the world capital of salsa but there a few other places around the world that would like to claim that title.

Hence my first stop: Cuba.

I arrive tomorrow… or this morning… or whatever, I’m tired from a week of going away parties. I’m going to spend 3 weeks there (very short I know but the length of my stay has been dictated by the pitiful-ness of my budget. The plan is to learn as much Cuban salsa as I can, dance my ass off, and get to know the country (and its people) that claims to be the birthplace of salsa.

And then, near the end of September, I arrive in Miami. The idea is to start there and slowly but surely dance my way up the east coast to my final destination: New York City.

Yes folks, it’s time the Dancing Irishman learned to dance “On2”.

And that’s my plan, in all it’s naive simplicity.

Mi nuevo camino
I’m looking at this like an adventure. I’m following my heart (can you say cliché?) and going where the dance takes me.

If you happen to live some where on or near the east coast of the US and you have some advice for me on places to visit (salsa or non-salsa related), if you want to meet up for a coffee or if you want to offer me a couch to sleep on during my travels 🙂 drop me an email: richie@dancingirishman.com

As I’m a big fan of Couchsurfing I’d be very happy to hear from you. Bear in mind that while I’m in Cuba (until September 20th) I won’t have much access to internet but I promise to reply once I arrive in the US. This means I probably won’t publish any new posts for a few weeks.

To my friends in Cali
I can’t finish this blog without mentioning that which became more important for me than anything in Cali: the beautiful people I got to know and the incredible friends I made.

In just two years I truly feel that I became part of Cali, that it opened its arms and accepted me as one of her own (albeit an exceptionally pale one). The people here made me an honorary caleño, ve!

They made me feel welcome, they thought me how to appreciate salsa on a level I never even knew existed, they helped me find my latin “sabor” (turns out I’m white chocolate) and when I was leaving they made sure to say goodbye in a way that would make me want to come back as soon as possible.

Las sonrisas bellas de mi gente linda! That was one hell of a Farewell Party!

Las sonrisas bellas de mi gente linda! That was one hell of a Farewell Party! Try and find the Irishman!

I love you Cali. I love you my Caleños. Les quiero mucho…e hasta pronto!

Cuba, here I come!

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The Cuisine of Colombia (The Good & The Bad…but mostly the good)

21 Aug

Life is nothing without passion.

They say that you need to live passionately to lead a fulfilling and happy life and I couldn’t agree more. I live for my passions and of all of them the one that is most evident to those around me in my day to day life is my almost carnal love for good food.

Eating is one of life’s simplest pleasures and that’s one of the reasons why I enjoy traveling so much. Going to a new country and trying new foods that I’ve never had before is a real pleasure for me (I have to confess that one of the first things I do when I get to a new country is go to a big supermarket so I can get a crash course introduction to how the locals eat).

I have to admit, I didn’t really know much about Colombian food before I came here. I ignorantly assumed (assuming is never a good idea) that it would be something similar to Mexican food, or at least to the Mexican food you get in California (which may not be the best representation). What I actually got was something different.

WARNING: I am about to give my opinion about Colombian food. I will write some good things and I will write some bad things. Before you do anything else, read through the article completely. Then take a deep breath and go for a walk, maybe grab yourself a coffee or even better, an ice-cream and then go back home and sit down before you even think of flying off the handle and starting an online storm of abuse!!!

Any foreigner who has lived in Colombia knows that Colombians are very proud… almost patriotic about their local cuisine. Any bad talk about it is almost considered a sin… or even… treason. That’s why I’m going to be figuratively walking on eggshells for this article and I’m going to be very careful about how I say things.

I’m going to word the next sentence very specifically: The food consumed regularly by the majority of average Colombians i.e. the food that is seen most often in common eating places in Colombia…is disappointing!

Let me clarify, in general, Irish food is nothing special (although it has improved by leaps and bounds in recent years) but I’m not comparing Colombian and Irish food. I’m speaking from a more international perspective. Generally speaking Colombian food is over-cooked, under-seasoned and a lot of it is deep fried (a lot like some Irish food when ya think about it).

BUT!!!!!
And it’s a “big butt” (teehee) ladies and gentlemen, Colombia still boasts an incredible repertoire of spectacular dishes that I have fallen in love with in my two years here. The thing is though, they are not “as” readily available (they’re generally more expensive and sold less commonly) as the poorer quality foods I mentioned above.

The great thing about living in a mountainous country that straddles the equator is that the varied climate zones here mean you can grow almost anything you want. Walking through the fruit and vegetable section of a Colombian supermarket is a true pleasure to the eyes (although it is a real pity that Colombians don’t take full advantage of all this produce; vegetable use is few a far between here). Add to this great produce the indigenous, European and African culinary influences and you end up with some truly memorable dishes.

For the rest of this article I’m going to haphazardly introduce you to some of “MY” FAVORITE Colombian foods. Enjoy!

Soups
When I first arrived in Cali (where midday temperatures hover around a sweaty 29°C) I found it unusual that lunch was always served with a piping hot bowl of soup. In the majority of places this caldo (broth) is nothing to write home about. However Colombia does have a few soups that I definitely think deserve a mention.

Ajiaco

There's a lot of eating in a bowl of Ajiaco

There’s a lot of eating in a bowl of Ajiaco

Ajiaco is a hearty soup made with no less than 3 different varieties of potatoes, chicken, corn and cream, seasoned with a local herb called guasca, topped with a handful of capers and served with slices of avocado. As an Irishman who knows his stuff when it comes to potatoes I have to say this is one of the finest potato soups I have ever tried. There’s eatin’ and drinkin’ in it!

Sancocho

Sancocho de pescado, I never thought I would fall in love with a fish soup!

Sancocho de pescado, I never thought I would fall in love with a fish soup!

This is a soup made with either chicken, beef or fish with big chunks of potato, plantain and cassava inside, seasoned with fresh coriander (cilantro) and lime. My favorite, by far, is the sancocho de pescado or fish version that is made extra creamy from the use of coconut milk. I never thought it would have been possible for me to like fish soup.

Pacifico Food
The western coast of Colombia is bordered by the Pacific Ocean and the region is mostly inhabited by the descendants of African slaves that arrived during colonial times. To this day, access to the area is difficult due to poor infrastructure and because of this the area has managed to retain a great deal of its unique culture, in particular music, dance and food.

The cuisine of the pacifico is heavily seafood and coconut based and has easily become my favorite regional cuisine in all of Colombia. Here in Cali I’m blessed to live near a neighbourhood called “La Alameda” which specializes in food from the pacifico. I’m further blessed in that the brother of one of my best friends happens to own one of the best restaurants in that neighbourhood (for those of you visiting Cali it’s called “Punta del Mar”).

Apart from the sancocho de pescado which I just mentioned a few other typical dishes include:

Cazuela de Mariscos

Creamy and delicious cazuela de mariscos

Creamy and delicious cazuela de mariscos

A casserole of mixed seafood cooked in an incredibly seasoned, creamy sauce, topped off with cheese and served in a heated clay dish. The extra weight you’ll gain from eating it is totally worth it.

Arroz  de Mariscos

This seafood rice (arroz de mariscos) is spectacular, especially when it's full of shrimp like this

This seafood rice (arroz de mariscos) is spectacular, especially when it’s full of shrimp like these babies!

A Colombian version of mixed seafood fried rice that would put any Chinese restaurant to shame.

Ají

The ubiquitous Colombian salsa, ají

The ubiquitous Colombian salsa, ají

Not so much a food as a sauce or condiment ubiquitous in Colombian restaurants. Ají is super easy to prepare (it’s just a mix of finely chopped scallions, tomatoes, chilly peppers, fresh coriander and vinegar) but it transforms boring foods into a taste explosion. You can often see Colombians eating empanadas (deep friend pastry parcels of rice, potatoes and meat) with one hand while spooning on generous dollops of ají with the other.

Lechona

The flavored rice and meat are cooked inside the skin of the pig which is served on top of the rice for a crispy treat

The flavored rice and meat are cooked inside the skin of the pig which is served on top of the rice for a crispy treat

Imagine a huge delicious pig hollowed out and then stuffed with a delicious combination of well seasoned rice, peas and pig meat roasting in an oven for 10 hours. Then imagine a portion of that rice-mix that has soaked up all those glorious juices from being roasted inside the pig, topped off with a square of crispy pig skin. That is pure piggy perfection right there.

Chorizo Santarosano

Nothing like a good Chorizo

Nothing like a good Chorizo

Chorizo is a type of sausage common in most latin countries. Chorizo, like most sausage, is good. Chorizo santarosano is simply spectacular. I have no idea what they season it with to make it so good but it has made the town of Santa Rosa famous for producing them. In fact you can walk around the town from stall to stall trying all the different versions of the famous chorizo just like the locals do; with a dash of lime juice.

Arepa
Arepas are cornmeal patties of indigenous origin, cooked on a griddle that are served alongside virtually every meal of the day in Colombia. They are the quintessential “Colombian” food and they take up whole sections in the supermarkets.
Uncooked and cold (just as they are often served with other foods)… they taste like Styrofoam. Heated up on the griddle or even spread with a little butter they begin to taste a little better but I honestly have no idea whey they’re so popular here.

However there are two types of arepa that I have come to love and that prevent the word “arepa” from falling from grace.

Arepa con Todo

Arepa con todo: the kebab of Colombia

Arepa con todo: the kebab of Colombia

Literally an arepa with everything. The contents can vary but generally its an arepa filled with pulled beef and chicken meat, pork-rinds, quail eggs, cheese and an assortment of sauces. It is in my opinion the pinacle of Colombian fast food and it’s my “Go-To” “I’m in a hurry” food in my neighbourhood.

Arepa de Choclo

I could eat arepa de choclo until they came out of my ears!

I could eat arepa de choclo until they came out of my ears!

Choclo is the word used for yellow sweet corn which is used to make these, the sweetest and most flavorful of arepas. A fun day out for me is to go up the mountains outside Cali to a place called “Kilometro 18” where it actually gets cold because of the altitude. Once there, I order a hot chocolate and an arepa de choclo smothered in butter and filled with fresh cheese (on my cheat-day of course). Heaven.

Fritanga
There are a whole host of foods in Colombia that fall under the umbrella of fritanga; basically battered and deep-fried. Some of them can be delicious (like the papa rellena; a battered and deepfried ball of seasoned potatoes, rice and meat. They “can be” amazing and “papa rellena” was actually the first word I learned after I arrived in Cali). However in general they are very “hit and miss” with most just tasting like an oily mess.

There is one however that I cannot leave unmentioned;

Maduro Aborrajado

Maduro aborrajado, it looks so good it's almost sexual.

Maduro aborrajado, it looks so good it’s almost sexual!

A maduro is a “mature” or ripe plantain (a member of the banana family) that is sweet and delicious, just like I like them. The plantain is split open along the middle and filled with cheese (mozzarella or doble crema is the best in my opinion). It is then battered and deep-fried to crispy perfection. Now that’s how you cook a plantain.

Almojabana

The best accompaniment to a coffee is a fresh almojabana

The best accompaniment to a coffee is a fresh almojabana

They only bakery product that you will find on this list as living here in Colombia has almost put me completely off eating breads. The almojabana is a special little guy though. When made right, they’re light, airy and moist with a very subtle sweetness and a mild cheesy taste. Amazing with your cup of coffee in the morning, when they’re fresh out of the oven.

Arequipe

Arequipe: Pure Caramel Sinfulness!

Arequipe: Pure Caramel Sinfulness!

Colombian desserts don’t really do it for me. I won’t get into it but there’s nothing special about them. Colombia does, however, have one little sweet trick up it’s sleeve. Arequipe, known as “Dulce de leche” in other parts of South America, is a thick caramel sauce that is hugely popular here… for good reason. You can put it on anything from fruit to biscuits to arepas. If there are any Colombians reading this try spreading some arequipe on a hot arepa de choclo with butter and cheese… you can thank me in the comments.

Fruits and Juices
No article on food in Colombia would be complete without mentioning the amazing fruits and fruit juices that this country is blessed with. On the corner of virtually every busy street you can find a cart or stall selling freshly cut fruit salads and a variety of juices made with water or milk. Pineapple, mango, papaya, blackberry, strawberry, orange, passion-fruit, guava, guanabana, lulo, curuba and a whole host of other fruits I had never heard of before. You haven’t lived until you’ve tried a passion-fruit juice in milk.

On top of that, Colombians have managed to come up with a great many “original” drinks too;

Salpicon

Salpicon, the liquid fruit salad!

Salpicon, the liquid fruit salad!

Chop up a whole variety of different fruits into small chunks and put them in a bowl. the juice seeps out from the fruit creating a liquid fruit salad. It’s one of my favorite on the go snacks.

Lulada

Another Cali favorite, the Lulada

Another Cali favorite, the Lulada

Coarsely chopped lulo mixed with sugar makes this strange looking green juice very popular in Cali.

Champus

Champus may look like vomit but it is paradise in a glass

Champus may look like vomit but it is paradise in a glass

A Cali classic and definitely my favorite drink. A fermented mix of corn, pineapple, lulo and panela (unpreocessed cane sugar) flavored with orange leaves, cloves and cinnamon. Paradise in a glass.

Cholado

Cali is famous for its snow-cone/fruitsalsad combination, the cholado

Cali is famous for its snow-cone/fruitsalsad combination, the cholado

The best way to describe this concoction is as a cross between a fruit salad and a snow-cone drenched in fruit syrup and condensed milk. The perfect way to celebrate a hot Sunday afternoon in Cali.

A Taste for Home
Any body who has lived in a foreign country knows that you eventually develop a taste for the local cuisine. I’ve lived outside of Ireland for 6 of the past 7 years and I’ve grown to love some of the foods in my “new homes” away from home. I have no doubt that in a few months I’ll be craving all sorts of delights from Colombia.

Colombia does have a rich food culture, you just have to look for it a little harder and ignore all the not so nice stuff on offer. I really do hope some of you reading this will get to try some of these dishes if you come to Colombia. I just hope that I’ll get to try them again sometime in the future.

SIDENOTE: It’s 7.30am here in Colombia and I’m just after finishing this article after working through the night since around midnight. I actually completed this article at about 4 am and lost everything with the click of a button. You have no idea how filled with rage I was when I realized what I had done. I simultaneously wanted to cry and to break everything in my vicinity. I’m pretty damn proud of managing to “play through the pain” and write out the whole article all over again. Moral of the story: “be careful how you save your work”.

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The World Games 2013, Cali: Proud to be Colombian!!!

23 Jul
The World Games 2013 is Cali's chance to shine!

The World Games 2013 is Cali’s chance to shine!

In just 2 days I’m going to be standing along with over 30,000 other people from all over the world in Pascual Guerrero Stadium in the heart of Cali.

We will be watching the performances of close to 500 salsa dancers, pacifico dancers, acrobats and musicians along with a gigantic firework’s display, all in celebration of the largest sporting event that this country has ever seen; the World Games 2013.

I will watch as Cali and Colombia celebrate this opportunity to show the world what this amazing city is really about and I’m pretty sure it will bring a tear to my eye.

A Fresh Start
This is Cali’s chance to celebrate its true identity as “The Capital of Salsa” and “The Sporting Capital of the Americas”. This is Cali’s chance to cast aside the stigmas of it’s past and the stereotyped images held by a poorly informed minority. This is Cali’s fresh start.

This will be the first time that the World Games, second in importance only to the Olympic Games, will be held in South America and it is Cali’s honor to play host.

Ask what you can do for your country!!
The world will see over 4000 athletes from over 120 countries compete in 30 different sporting disciplines in some of the finest sporting facilities in the world… and I’ll be doing my part.

I’ve been living here in Cali for almost two years now. When I heard that Cali would host the World Games I saw this as my chance to do something for and to give something back to my adopted city.

Cali has given me a great deal during my time here; a new language, a new culture, dance and above all, some incredible friends. The truth is that I won’t be here much longer and the thought of not being able to contribute something to my Colombian home wouldn’t sit well with me.

So I signed up as a volunteer. So far I’ve helped out with the English interview process for fellow volunteers (the official language of the games is English, so we need as many bilingual volunteers as possible) and I’ve been helping out a little with the training of the translators division, which I’m part of.

I’ve been selected to be the translator to the delegation of Japan, a huge responsibility and one which I intend to fulfill to the best of my ability. Over the past week I’ve been listening to nothing but Japanese podcasts and music in order to “get back in linguistic shape” and I’ve been familiarizing myself with the cities sporting venues, hotels and the members of the Japanese delegation (more than 80 people) that will be visiting. During the 11 days of the games I will be “on call” virtually around the clock, ready to go wherever I am asked whenever I am needed.

I AM EXCITED!

I know that that I am going to be incredibly busy and that at the end of it all I am probably going to need a vacation but I genuinely can’t wait to help Cali show the world what it’s made of.

The Irish Colombian
Over the past few weeks, the volunteers have been doing general training seminars in preparation for the games. The seminars were in relatively small, mixed groups and conducted completely in Spanish. This means that I was the only foreigner in a room full of Colombians, mostly Caleños learning how to be a better “Face of the city”.

We learned about everything that a tourist visiting for the games could possibly want to ask us about Cali and Colombia; its history, its achievements, its culture, its nature, its gastronomy. By the end of it all I have never felt so proud to be Caleño, to be Colombiano (even though I may be the palest, most blue-eyed Caleño in existence!).

I know 2 years seems like only a short time but I genuinely feel that I’ve become part of this city, that Cali, the city and its people, has accepted me into its arms and I can proudly say that I’m Caleño. I think you know your part of a city when something great happens, just like the World Games and you feel proud that it’s happening in your city. Just like I feel right now.

I am very proud to call myself Colombian and more importantly, Caleño

I am very proud to call myself Colombian and more importantly, Caleño

You can get all the information that you need about the games on The World Games website.

If you’re going to be in Cali for the World Games and you want some local guidance on what to do in and around the city, feel free to drop me an email. I hope you end up loving Cali as much as I do.

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The Most Famous Salsa Teacher in Cali, Colombia (and he’s Irish???)

8 Jul

As of last Wednesday, July 3rd, the Dancing Irishman is now probably the most well known salsa teacher in Cali, Colombia.

I was featured in an episode of the show, “Tiempo Real” which aired last week on the local Cali channel, Telepacifico. You can check out the clip below.

The whole thing came about when a journalist friend of mine (muchas gracias, Paola) mentioned my story to a a friend of hers who was looking for stories about foreigners doing things a little bit “different” in Cali. Apparently and Irishman teaching salsa in the “world capital of salsa” qualifies as different… (go figure).

In the clip you can hear some of my students talking about my teaching technique and a number of them mention a couple of things that have given me my own little niche here in the (as you can imagine) “saturated” market of salsa teachers in Cali. Those would be:

  • I speak English (which makes teaching a hell of a lot more efficient when your students don’t speak Spanish)
  • I break down the movements in a way that local teachers simply don’t do because that’s how I learned myself and that’s why my students, some of whom have never been able to dance in their lives, learn salsa so fast.

Another thing that I think has been helping my students is the fact that I only teach moves that they can use (in the “wild”) in salsa clubs in Cali. Most big dance schools here tend to teach a huge amount of complicated footwork which is fine if you eventually want to perform in a show or something like that but in general, you don’t see that out on the dance-floors in Cali and very few “untrained” girls can follow it.

On the other hand I stick to refining my students basics, body movements and turn patterns so they can use everything they learn on an average night out in Cali with the vast majority of dancers. It looks like that plan has been paying off.

Wouldn't you like a mild mannered, poorly accented, bearded Irishman as your salsa teacher???

Wouldn’t you like a mild mannered, poorly accented, bearded Irishman as your salsa teacher???

The Accented Irishman
In the video you also get to hear my spectacularly awful Spanish accent. I literally cried when I heard it for the first time :-(. Thankfully, some of my friends have assured me that I don’t speak that way normally so I’m going to put it down to being nervous in front of the cameras (I’m really very shy 😉 ). It has, however, given me the incentive to work more on my accent in Spanish, so I should have an article on that in a few weeks.

Anyway, since the show aired last week I’ve been getting a huge amount of emails from people (most of whom are Colombian) wanting to take salsa classes with me (Wuhoo for mass media). I guess with the World Salsa Championships just around the corner (August 5th) people want to learn what their city is famous for.

So there you have it, how an Irishman ended up teaching salsa in the World Capital of Salsa: Cali, Colombia.

Keep dancing folks.

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The Dancing Irishman’s First Birthday

5 Jun
The Dancing Irishman turns one today. All presents graciously accepted!

The Dancing Irishman turns one today.
All presents graciously accepted!

This day, one year ago I sent out a mass email to the majority of my facebook contacts asking them to check out my new blog, proudly titled “The Dancing Irishman”.

Since that day it has developed, haphazardly, into one of the most enjoyable endeavors I have ever undertaken.

At lot has changed in the past year; my goals, my dancing style, the focus of the blog and of course myself. The one thing that hasn’t changed is the excitement I feel every time I click “publish” on my latest post.

To celebrate the Dancing Irishman’s first birthday I’d like to share with you some of my thoughts on how the blog has evolved over the past 12 months. Despite having gained a lot of experience writing my articles I still sometimes find it hard to string my ideas together fluently so I decided to write this article using headings based on some of the questions I’m frequently asked by people I meet through the blog here in Cali or online, and some of the questions I’ve frequently been asking myself.

Where did the title come from?
Funnily enough I didn’t come up with it at all (I’m clearly not that creative). I’m Irish and I dance… in Colombia. I was ( and still am) a regular at some of the most popular salsa clubs here in Cali and I have a lot of friends in the international/traveler community here. I became known as the foreign guy who can dance (I am by no means the only dancing foreigner here but I think I just stuck out… it’s probably the beard… and the super paleness) and on more than a couple of occasions newcomers to Cali came up to me in clubs or blurted out during conversations with me “So YOU’RE The Dancing Irishman that I’ve heard about”!

A big thank you to all those unknowing passersby who helped name my alter-ego!

Is the actual writing process fun?
More than I can express in words. The truth is, if I don’t enjoy writing an article it never gets finished. I tend to find a topic that I’m particularly passionate about and end up getting sucked into it.

I write a lot on my phone while I’m using public transport or when I’m relaxing in a cafe. I know I’ve got something good when I can’t stop typing and I often ended up writing as late as 2 or 3 in the morning! When I have particularly strong feelings about a topic, that’s when everything really starts to flow and it feels almost cathartic to get things out of my head and onto paper.

I think one of the reasons I’ve loved writing the blog so much is that it’s encouraged me to genuinely put a lot of thought into what I do be it dance, exercise, languages or nutrition. I makes me study more and helps me verbalize why I love what I do so much.

Writing is pretty much the only creative thing I do and I never imagined how much pleasure I could get by putting my thoughts onto paper (or online at least). If you’ve never given writing a serious try before I highly recommend trying out blogging. Even if you have no intentions of developing a following it’s a great format to use as an outlet for that creative spark you have inside.

Has anything changed due to the blog?
Loads.

The first thing is that I now feel (almost) obligated to stay on top of my game dance-wise. Since I’ve chosen a name as assuming as The Dancing Irishman, I better make damn well sure that I can actually dance. It keeps me on my toes.

Something that I didn’t expect is that people sometimes come up to me in clubs telling me that they’ve read the blog. Often they’re travelers who were looking up information on dancing in Cali and I’ve gotten a lot of great feedback from them. I have to admit it actually feels pretty cool when people recognize me and say “Hey, you’re the Dancing Irishman”. Once again, the beard helps haha!

I also didn’t expect the blog to turn into a way to make friends but that’s exactly what happened. I’ve met some great people who are also bloggers and it’s been great interacting and learning from them and I’ve also met some great people through their comments on some of my articles.

As I write a lot about, Cali and life in Colombia I’ve also developed a lot of pride for my adopted city and I’m very proud to call myself Caleño.

Favourite articles?
I’ve published about 35 articles so far so it’s tough to pick a favorite so I’ll pic three instead.

I really enjoyed writing “How to be Great at Anything (Obliterating racial stereotypes in 10,000 hours)” because I really wanted to put an end to the idea that being able to dance was something you inherit in your blood. I think i made a pretty good point that it’s actually inherited through culture and therefore most people can learn to dance well regardless of their ethnic background.

I had a blast writing “The Etiquette of Salsa (All the stuff you need to worry about besides the dancing)” because it struck me as really important that newbies in the salsa world have a easy list of certain social rules to follow so they wouldn’t have to learn them the hard way i.e. trial and error. I also got pretty fired up writing that piece thinking about times when people have broken the rules e.g. when someone crowded up the dance-floor when it was already full and stole what little space I had (my blood boils just thinking about it now).

Finally I feel especially proud of writing “21 Things I F##KING HATE about Colombia!” which to date is the most popular article I’ve ever written (an exceptionally close second is “What I love about Cali, Colombia” ). I’m proud of it because I got to make some real social commentaries about life here in Colombia and the feedback I received was amazing. I knew that what I had to say wasn’t pleasant so I was expecting quite a backlash of angry comments from Colombians but the overwhelming majority of comments I received were positive and in agreement with what I had to say. One of the most aggressive, negative commentators actually contacted me a month later to tell me he had time to think about it and that he actually agreed with many of my points. He’s now a regular, positive commentator on the blog and I’m very proud to have him on board.

That article also reaffirmed one thing that I already knew; Colombians are very protective of their traditional cuisine (you won’t get far in an argument saying you don’t like it ;-)).

My Dance Goals
If anything, learning more about dance over the past year has shown me just how little I know and how far I still have to go to get better… and that feels amazing.

I’ve seen some spectacular dancers both in person and in videos who simply inspire me to get better and keep practicing. It’s some of the best motivation there is.

I’ve also come to terms that while I’ve not really taken to salsa caleña (the advanced moves are confined to choreographies and shows) I feel that my time here has really helped me feel comfortable when I dance and more willing to let myself go and actually move my body. As much as I loathe to say it, I definitely “feel the music” much more now.

I have some other, more definite goals lined up for the future which I should be revealing in the coming months, so stay tuned.

On Teaching
One unexpected side-effect of the blog is that a lot of people started contacting me for salsa lessons and that has now become a regular part of my life here in Cali. So much so that recently I created a page on the blog specifically dedicated to my lessons; “Learn Salsa in Cali”.

Teaching salsa has been an amazing experience for me as I simply enjoy teaching something I love so much. Especially, as I work mostly with beginners, I really get o see the “fruits of my labors” when I see my students who only a few hours earlier didn’t know the first thing about salsa, having a blast dancing in the clubs here in Cali. If they go on and develop a passion for salsa in the future, then I’m really happy.

I’ve been able to refine the way I teach and I feel I’ve really simplified teaching salsa caleña in a way that it generally isn’t taught here in many dance schools in Cali. That’s mostly thanks to the fact I’ve had some great teachers myself over the years and I’ve managed to hold on to and use the best methods that I found most effective when I was learning. So, thank you to all the teachers I’ve had over the years!

What I’ve learned about Blogging
You’ve got to give the people what they want.

Some of my most constantly viewed articles are those with the most practical information like “The Etiquette of Salsa (All the stuff you need to worry about besides the dancing)” and “How to find that goddamn “1″ beat in salsa” which deal with things that salsa learners really want to learn about. I’m going to try and focus more on developing more practical material for salsa learners in the future.

Also some of you may have noticed that while I say today is the blog’s birthday (June 5th), I have 5 or so articles published from May. This is because I wanted to have a number of articles ready for people to read when I finally launched the blog in June. I think it was a good move.

I’ve found that facebook has been my greatest promotional tool but within facebook, people actively linking to my articles has spread my blog much further than I actually expected. That was seen best in “21 Things I F##KING HATE about Colombia!“. That was probably the most strategic post I’ve published so far. I say strategic in that I worded the title specifically to get the most attention (use of expletives and a controversial topic) and it worked (even better than I expected). That got more hits in it’s first day than anything else I’ve published before or since and that was mostly due to “word of mouth” on facebook. Keep it up guys!

I’ve also learned that a good photo goes a long way towards catching peoples attention too, as seen with “The Women of Cali (Las caleñas son como las flores)” or “How to be stronger than you’ve ever been in your life!“. So just in case you’ve been wondering why I use so many images of scantily clad beauties, now you know that it’s for purely promotional purposes (teehee!).

The power of a fine bottom for promotional purposes should never be underestimated!

The power of a fine bottom for promotional purposes should never be underestimated!

Thank You!
Of everything that’s happened due to the blog, my proudest achievement by far is getting such a dedicated online following. You are the people who read my blog regularly and graciously promote my articles by liking and sharing them.

Without you, the blog would never have made it past it’s first month so I want you to know how grateful I am for your support.

I have plenty of changes planned for the blog in the coming months which I really hope you’ll enjoy. I am really looking forward to seeing where I can take this blog (World Domination anyone???) with your help in the future so keep on reading.

Thanks and keep dancing folks.

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Dancing Salsa like an Irishman

20 Mar
Dancing for truth, justice and good old St. Paddy

Dancing for truth, justice and good old St. Paddy

Last Sunday was St. Patrick’s Day, a celebration of everything Irish and a great excuse for a party. Never one to turn down an opportunity for a rumba (party) I held a “little” shindig in my apartment to celebrate St. Paddy (NOT St. Patty), Cali-style.

All in all I had about 70 guests and a great time was had by all with lots of great music, great dancing and a whole lot of sweating in the tropical heat.

Video Antics
As you know from previous posts like this one I’m a big fan of videoing oneself dancing in order to see where you need to improve and how you’re progressing.

So I got a friend of mine to grab a quick video of my dance-partner Kelli and I dancing a mixture of LA and salsa caleña. Check it out below.

First off, I know, I’m sweating like an animal. If people can sweat dancing salsa in Ireland in the winter, just imagine what it’s like dancing in the tropics.

For those of you unfamiliar with Cali-style salsa, you can recognize it here from the basic back step (side to side in some cases) and the more circular, cuban-style turns. The majority of stuff with complicated handwork is LA style.

Post Game Analysis
One thing that I’m finally starting to improve is my eye contact which is something that I’ve always had trouble with. It might just be the fact that I’m dancing with Kelli who I’m very comfortable with by I manage to get a nice amount of eye contact in during this dance.

One thing that annoyed the crap out of me is the fact that I still hold back from doing more complicated Cali-style moves and footwork when I social dance. I tend to stick with the safe stuff which doesn’t do me any good in the long run.

Help the Irishman Out
What do you think yourself? Where do you think I can improve or what do you think I need to work on? I thrive on constructive criticism so if you think you could offer me a little bit of advice please let me know in the comments.

Excellent New Song
The song we’re dancing to in the video is “Mother’s Delight” from the new Irish salsa group “Baile an Salsa”, check them out. It’s a mix of traditional Irish music and salsa and I really think it’s a fantastic song for dancing linear On1 or On2 salsa. It’s not the most appropriate song for dancing salsa-caleña, however, so that may explain why I didn’t do many Cali moves in the video.

Dancing Alone
You might want to know why Kelli and I are the only couple dancing in the video. I asked the same thing to a Caleño friend of mine that night and he told me it was because the locals weren’t familiar with the song (or the Irish-style music for that matter). He said that caleños tend to only dance to music they’re familiar with. I’ve noticed this when I’ve DJ-ed before, anytime I put on a song that isn’t heard regularly in the clubs in Cali, people tend to shy off the floor and get some conversation in instead. Just a little observation.

We had a great time here in Cali last weekend and I hope you all had a Happy St. Patrick’s Day too, wherever in the world you are.

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21 Things I F##KING HATE about Colombia!

12 Feb
Feel my Blogger's Wrath!

Where’s my bloody Christmas present?

Let’s get something straight right from the get-go: I love my life here in Cali and the great things about living here really do outweigh the bad. I consider Colombia like a second home and I have defended and will continue to defend this beautiful country whenever I hear somebody “intentionally insulting” Colombia or its people.

So BEFORE YOU READ THIS ARTICLE,  READ SOME OF MY OTHER POSTS:
Things I love about Cali
Proud to be Colombian
The Cuisine of Colombia

That said, as anyone who has lived in a foreign country knows, there will always be things that piss you off when comparing one place with another. I lived in Japan for four years and I can safely say they were four of the best years of my life. Despite that, there were a huge amount of things that annoyed the hell out of me about life in Japan or Japanese culture in general. It’s one of the reasons why it’s good to have a few expat friends to give you an outlet to vent some international rage.

Living in Colombia is no different and I’m going to consider this post a form of catharsis; a chance to blow off a little tropical steam. I often blow off lots of steam about my native Ireland’s MANY problems and the only reason I haven’t written an article about it is because if I started I don’t know if I’d be able to stop 😉

TO MY COLOMBIAN FRIENDS: This is not an attack on Colombians in general. Some of the things on this list will make you laugh but some touch on very deeply rooted social problems that I and many Colombians are very concerned about.

I AM ALSO AWARE THAT MANY OF THE POINTS I MENTION HERE ARE NOT UNIQUE TO COLOMBIA AND ARE, IN FACT, COMMON IN OTHER COUNTRIES. HOWEVER, THAT DOES NOT DIMINISH THEIR SIGNIFICANCE IN COLOMBIA, A PLACE I CALL HOME.

1. Safety
Colombia is (by international standards) not a safe country. In fact it is the most dangerous place I’ve ever lived in my life. I’ve been mugged twice here myself and I constantly hear of people getting murdered for their phones or jewelery, people getting drugged and coerced into emptying their bank accounts, kidnappings, hijackings of overnight buses… the list goes on. Add to that the threat of paramilitaries in rural areas and it doesn’t paint a nice picture.

With all that said, if you use your common sense and experience you can avoid most of the trouble that life in Colombia presents. Regardless, that doesn’t take anything away from the fact that it simply feels unpleasant to live in a place where you have to think so much about your personal safety. This apprehension comes from kind-hearted locals constantly reminding me to be careful in certain areas.

2. Worlds Slowest Cashiers
I love grocery shopping but I hate going to the cash register in Colombian supermarkets because the cashiers are probably the slowest in the world. One reason for this is people pay their bills (electricity, water etc.) at the cash register and something that should be incredibly quick and easy is drawn out to ridiculous lengths. The cashiers do everything slowly and even get up to find the price for products themselves even though there’s usually plenty of staff around to do it for them. What amazes me even more is that this doesn’t seem to phase Colombians at all; a culture of being late seems to have instilled the populace with the patience of saints.

3. Poverty
I have never seen (or felt) the gap between rich and poor as much as I have in Colombia. There are a huge amount of people in this country living below the poverty line and shanty towns are a common sight in big cities. In contrast there is a small but very visible class of super-rich that would make most well-off Europeans feel financially inadequate. The problem is that a lot of this is “new wealth” and the problem with families who come into new money is that often (but obviously not always) they can be very extravagant in their spending.

I know kids who barely bat an eyelid at breaking the screen of their iPad because they know that mommy or daddy will buy them a brand new one, or kids that show off their collection of Gucci belts and brag about how just one of them is even more expensive than buying a regular suit.

This poverty gap is what fuels social problems like crime and violence in Colombia and the more I become aware of it the more disappointed I feel about the world in general.

4. Phone service
Calling different mobile phone providers is so expensive that everywhere you go you find “minute sellers” on the street. They basically have a cell phone for each operator (usually attached to them by a small chain) and let you make calls to the operator of your choice and you pay after; like a pay phone for mobiles.So basically, people only use their own phone for receiving calls or calling people who use the same operator as themselves. Convenient, right!

This confused the hell out of me at first until I realized that my phone credit just didn’t last when I called other operators. Often you’ll see people who have two or more different phones with different service operators for “convenience”.

On top of that, the line connection is often really poor which isn’t fun if you’re not a master of the language yet and have to guess what the other person is saying (I will admit this has actually gotten me a few dates in the past from being frustrated at not understanding what’s going on on the phone and just asking the girl out so we can talk in person).

5. Postal Service
It’s mid February and I’m still waiting on my Christmas present from home… enough said!

6. Food
I’ve got a whole post coming on Colombian food but IN GENERAL, FOOD IN COLOMBIA LEAVES MUCH TO BE DESIRED and is one of the main reasons that I couldn’t live here long-term. Most readily available food here is uninteresting, unvaried and usually deep-fried. Good food can be found but you really have to look for it and it’s not cheap. There are some foods I love here but they are the exception and not the rule.

7. Inability to use Public Transport
A bus pulls into it’s station. The people outside wait in an orderly line while the people inside get off so there will be more room on the bus. Sounds logical, right? Not in Colombia.

Once a bus pulls into a station here it is a frenzied free for all with every man for himself. Before anyone on the bus can get off there is a chaotic mob pushing against them to get on. Forming a line is not a well understood concept here.

Even worse are the idiots who decide to stand in the middle of the station doorway with no intention of getting on and expect everyone else to go around them. There is a special place in hell for these people.

8. Driving
Many drivers here show virtually no consideration for other drivers as can be seen by people driving over the painted lines separating lanes, almost non-existent use of turn signals and drivers constantly cutting people off.

Even less respect is shown for cyclists (like me) and I have had plenty of close calls on my bike here to testify to that.

9. Time-keeping (or lack there of)
I once had to wait 3 days for a guy to come and install my oven. I had been told each day that he would arrive at a certain time and I waited like a an idiot until he finally came on the 3rd day. This generally doesn’t apply to big business (I honestly think Colombians can be very professional and hard working) but outside of work I have to talk in Colombian-time; the stated time with about an hour of leeway.  I lived in Japan for 4 years where being late means arriving 5 minutes EARLY so this bugs the hell out of me and what’s killing me is that it’s starting to rub off on me too.

10. Prices
OK, Colombia is technically a “developing country” so the cost of living is obviously much lower than in the “developed” (I’m not very happy with this description) world BUT for the wages that most people make here, things are expensive. Electronics are so expensive that rich Colombians often bring back electronics from vacations to the United States. Good food, nice clothes, mobile-phone plans and many more goods are ridiculously expensive and European produced foods are even more expensive than they are in Europe. This means that people are using credit cards more and more which is not good in the long run.

11. Common Courtesy
When you get to know them, Colombians are incredibly friendly and helpful but on the street there is a certain coldness that doesn’t sit well with me. My mam raised me well so I hold doors open for people and I yield when walking in narrow spaces to allow others to pass. One would expect a courteous “thank you” in return for these actions but it rarely comes here in Colombia.

Another thing that bugs me is that people will block narrow passages and even if they have seen you coming will not think of moving out of the way until you ask for permission to pass.

Nor will anyone ever call you to tell you they’ll be late, even if it’s more than an hour. Common courtesy is not all that common here!

12. Dishonesty in Business
This happens everywhere in the world but really pisses me off here just because I have to deal with it regularly. I am clearly not Colombian and a lot of store owners take advantage of that by charging me ridiculous “gringo-prices” when I ask about the cost of something. I’m good at haggling and enjoy it from time to time but when you have to do it regularly it’s just tiring.

13. Things Men say to Women
I have many times seen an attractive woman passing a man or group of men on the street only to hear those men say the rudest, most foul mouthed “compliments” to the woman in a deranged attempt to get her attention. It’s apparently common in all Latin cultures but it is disgusting and if I was a woman I’d be breaking guy’s jaws on every street corner here.

14. Racism
Colombia is a very racially mixed country and has been so for hundreds of years. People here are a mix of European, African and indigenous South American. Despite that I have heard some of the most racist comments of my life here in this country. As I mentioned earlier there is a small but very visible wealthy elite here, most of whom are amongst the “whitest” or most European in the country. In light conversation I have heard wealthy people say some terrible things about darker people and especially Afr0-descended people.

What’s worse is that they pretend everything is all hunky-dory and that Colombians all consider themselves equal. Afro-descendants and indigenous Colombians still occupy the lowest socioeconomic strata here and even if they are not discriminated against because of their skin colour, it’s because of how much money they have. Some of the upper elite really do seem to look down on the poorer classes here.

To make it worse, there is a saying amongst many darker skinned Colombians called “improving your blood” which means marrying someone with lighter skin so that your kids will be lighter and have better opportunities in life. The amount of times I have heard this here saddens me!

15. Guns
The police force in Ireland, called the Gardaí, is unarmed. The only time I saw guns in Ireland was when the military was escorting armored cars with deliveries of cash to banks. Here in Colombia I have the pleasure of seeing security guards walking around shopping centers carrying shotguns. This is something I will simply never, ever get used to especially since thy walk around with the muzzles of their guns pointing upwards, at head height of many people walking by. I’m not sure they even receive any training at all.

16. Potholes
Being from the Irish countryside I have a certain nostalgic affinity for potholes. Colombia, however, doesn’t just do potholes, oh no, Colombia has “craters”! The state of some of the roads, even in some of the nice neighbourhoods is shocking. And the sidewalks are even worse, so bad in my neighbourhood that I prefer to walk on the moon-like, cratered roads.

17. Big Bills
ATM machines almost always pay out in 50,000 peso bills. Unless you try to spend these in a large department store or supermarket the person at the cash register will probably just laugh at you and tell you to go find some change. Seriously.

18. Airing Dirty Laundry
Some Colombians don’t seem to have any problem shouting or arguing on the street. If they have something to say they will let the whole world know about it and it seems to be the national pass-time to stand around and watch as such altercations transpire.

19. Milk in a bag
I know….

20. Lack of Books
Books can be  found easily in Colombia but are unbelievably expensive; new hardback editions can cost more than half a days wages for some people here and that is contributing to a distancing of the youth of the Colombia from the written word which in my opinion is a crime against humanity. This country is trying to educate its populace to create a better future for themselves and yet the majority of people can’t even afford books to open their minds to new ideas.

The cost of literature has even contributed to a strong trade in counterfeit books of which I have had to become a customer. I simply can’t afford to buy original copies here.

21. Missing Toilet Seats
This is probably the greatest Colombian mystery there is. For some reason in men’s public toilets in Colombia the toilet seats are almost always missing. I have never heard an explanation for this and would love to hear why if anyone knows!

I'm convinced there's a flood of stolen toilet seats on the Colombian Back Market!

I’m convinced there’s a flood of stolen toilet seats on the Colombian Black Market!

And breath….

I may not have any Colombian friends left after this and I may have to watch my back for motorbike drive-bys for a while but it feels good to get that off my chest. And you know what? I love Colombia! This is one of the most beautiful and diverse countries on Earth and I am very proud to call it my home for now (despite the things I don’t like).

If you’re Colombian or you’ve been to Colombia before I’d love to hear what you think (no death-threats please).

Here’s a request: If you’re thinking of leaving a hate-filled comment (of which I’ve received many since this article was first published): Stop, read the this article again (CAREFULLY), read my other articles about Colombia and think about what I’ve written here. I wrote this article because I want people to be aware of these issues because it’s only when people are aware of issues that something gets done to solve them. I didn’t write this article to offend people, remember that.

Keep Dancing Folks!

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Fiona Uyema

Japanese Cookbook Author

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