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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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Fiona Uyema

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