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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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Help Out South Africa’s Mini-Dancers

12 Mar

Make South Africa’s Khayelitsha Kid’s dreams come true
After salsa-promotor Albert Torres watched the children from Khayelitsha (a township in Cape Town) dance, he decided to give them a platform to showcase their talents at the Los Angeles Salsa Festival in May 2013.

Help send these kids to the Los Angeles Salsa Festival.

Help send these kids to the Los Angeles Salsa Festival

My buddy Chilly, one of South Africa’s most well known salseros and bloggers told me all about their campaign to raise money to send these talented kids to Los Angeles to showcase their dancing talents.

You can find out more about the campaign for the Khayelistsha Kid’s here!

Salseros give something back
This is a fantastic opportunity for the international salsa community to band together and do something amazing for some fellow dancers.

Imagine you were one of these kids and how you would feel being able to travel to the other side of the planet to one of the world’s foremost dance events to show fellow dancers just what you can do.

How to help
You can support this very worthy cause by making a donation on AllOutSalsa.com

But you can help even more by letting more people know about this. Start promoting this project by sharing this article on Facebook, Twitter, Stumbleupon and whatever other social networking site you can think of. Use the links below to do just that. The more people who know about this the more money can be raised for these young dancers.

Do something special this week and help make the Khayelistsha Kids the first South African group ever to perform at the Los Angeles Salsa Festival in May.

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22 Ways Salsa Makes Life Better

19 Feb
You can quote me on that!

You can quote me on that!

My life has changed hugely since I started dancing salsa, unquestionably for the better and I’m certain that this is the case for everyone else who dances.

Whether you’re already reaping the benefits or you’re looking for a little motivation to start dancing, here’s a little list of the things that make salsa so popular and addictive.

1. New Friends: Getting into salsa opens up a whole new world of people from literally every walk of life who you otherwise wouldn’t have had the opportunity to meet. I’ve even made a lot of salsero friends through this blog, whom I haven’t met in person, yet! I am so grateful for the huge amount of great friends I have made through salsa.

2. Lose Weight: When I’m dancing 3 nights a week I’m at my leanest. If I ever go through a period when I’m not dancing for an extended period of time I really notice the weight pile on quickly! Dance and say goodbye to those love-handles.

3. Stay Healthy: Doctors recommend you get at least 30 minutes of exercise a day to keep your heart healthy. Salsa is a great way to up your heart rate and boost cardiovascular health and the fact that it’s so fun means you’ll stick with it. It’s definitely more entertaining than hitting a treadmill for 30 minutes. Social dance has also been shown to keep the mind sharper as we age, better than any other physical activity!

4. Improve Coordination: Salsa teaches you how to coordinate complex footwork with arm combinations. Countless studies and personal experience have shown that coordination gained in one physical activity is transferable to a whole range of others. So if you want to move well in general, dance!

5. Forget about Life’s Worries: I think one of the major reasons I fell in love with salsa was that it became a form of meditation for me. Dance allows you to focus all of your thoughts on the dance and forget about everything else for a few minutes (or more). Losing yourself in the moment when dancing is probably a therapy that a lot of people could use in this day and age!

6. Learn New Languages: Salsa communities the world over tend to be very international and that makes them a great place to learn or practice a new language especially Spanish (well, you may as well learn what all those songs are about: Short Answer = Lovey dovey crap).

7. New Cultures: For the same reason mentioned above you can learn so much about different cultures from meeting new people through salsa. This really helped me to learn more about the large Polish and Latin communities in Dublin.

8. Better Love Life: While salsa should never, ever be considered a dating service I can honestly say that it has done absolutely no harm to my love life.

9. Better Understanding of People: Salsa is social. You will meet all sorts of new people and form all sorts of new relationships and gain new insights into how people work. I can’t begin to explain how salsa will affect every interaction you will have with people in your life but it will, for the better.

10. Discover Passion: This was and is huge for me. Through salsa you discover the passion of dance, the passion created between a couple as they move together as one in harmony with music and then you begin to discover it in every other aspect of your life. And once you taste passion you will never want to look back at how your life was before.

11. Appreciate Music: I never really listened to music before I started dancing but ever since then it has become a huge part of my life. I pay attention to new music, not just what I can dance to, appreciate it, enjoy it and feel it.

12. Travel: I’ve lost count of the amount of countries and cities I’ve danced in. Salsa is truly international and if ever you’re in a big city where you don’t know anyone you can just google a salsa club, get dancing and start meeting the locals and maybe they’ll even show around their city too.

13. Learn to Relax: I’ve always found it tough to relax myself physically, so much so that a Japanese masseuse once described me as the tensest human being she had ever worked with. Losing yourself in the music and letting yourself flow with the rhythm is one incredibly effective way of relaxing your whole body, not to mention how well you’ll sleep after a great night of dancing.

14. Improve your Fashion Sense: While this doesn’t apply to everyone I’ve definitely noticed that when people enter the salsa community they become a lot more adventurous with their clothes, start to pay a little more attention to their appearance and basically “sex-up” their whole wardrobe. I know plenty of guys who have discovered the wonders of hats and waistcoats through salsa (you know who you are).

15. Boost Confidence: Probably the biggest difference most people experience with salsa is just the sheer confidence boost you feel once you get into. In salsa you have to step out of your comfort zone all the time; asking people to dance, trying new moves etc and this definitely transfers to other areas of your life. Sex, business, sports, you name it! An extra bit of confidence goes a long way in life.

16. Discover Other Dances: Once people start dancing salsa, they often don’t stop there. Salsa is like a “Gateway Dance” into a whole world of other dances like bachata, merengue, cha cha cha, kizomba, tango and a whole host more. What will your poison be?

What will your poison be?

What will your poison be?

17. Drink Less: This really applies in Ireland where we have a ridiculously alcohol-centered social culture. In my experience, salsa dancers don’t drink much (some of us not at all) and this may be why some people turn to salsa. It offers a social outlet that doesn’t revolve around booze which is a blessing in some countries.

18. Overcome Addictions: Salsa is addictive! Many people find themselves that the best way to get over one thing is to replace it with something else. Be it smoking, alcohol, drugs, food, popping bubble-wrap, an ex-relationship or whatever, salsa is a very healthy and rewarding alternative.

19. Dodge Pedestrians: This might (probably is) just be me but ever since I started dancing I’ve found I’ve become really good at skillfully dodging oncoming pedestrian traffic when walking on the sidewalk. I don’t walk around people anymore, I glide!

20. Physical Contact: This applies more to people in Asia and the English speaking world but dancing salsa makes you much more comfortable with human contact. Obviously when you dance you’re going to be in close physical contact with your partner but on top pf that, salsa communities, thanks to the Latin influence tend to be warmer and closer; people greet each other with kisses and hugs. The world needs more of this.

21. Meet Me: When I asked people on my facebook page about how salsa has made their lives better, a lot replied saying that it had helped them meet me 😉 So there you go: Dance salsa and meet The Dancing Irishman, what more could you ask for haha!

22. It’s Fun: I can’t believe I almost forgot to throw in the most obvious reason of them all. The more fun in our lives the better right! Dance passionately with countless beautiful people to fantastic music until the sun comes up. It’s the most fun you can have with your clothes on… the rest comes later.

What about you? How has salsa improved your life? Let me know in the comments.

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Cali: One year on!

5 Sep

Cali: the only risk is wanting to stay!

This September is a special month for me. On the 8th of this month I will celebrate one whole year in Colombia.

It’s been an amazing year, which doesn’t mean it’s been completely free of “downs” but it certainly has had an overwhelming majority of “ups”.

It’s very difficult for me to to summarize my experience here over the past 12 months but I feel the occasion merits a decent look at some of the many experiences that have been part of my life here in Cali.

Recent time restrictions (because of a new job) and my general lack of writing talent dictate that this will be a rather haphazard amalgamation of thoughts but hopefully I’ll be able to convey a little bit of my feelings to you, my avid (cough cough) readers.

I’ve already spoken about some of the things I love about Cali so you can check those out together with some of the things I have to say in this post.

La Capital Mundial de la Salsa
Seeing as Cali is the “World Capital of Salsa” I suppose the place where you all expect me to start is with salsa. So that’s exactly why I’m not going to… who am I kidding, that’s exactly where I’m gonna start.

Music is the life blood of this city and salsa is the vast quantity of red blood cells with bachata, merengue, regaeton, vallenato, cumbia, bolero and pacifico music filling less prominent though equally important roles like plasma, platelets and white blood cells (can you tell I’ve been teaching high school biology recently? Right, enough of that!).

Everywhere you go you can hear some form of Latin music, mostly salsa, playing. Taxis, shopping centers, bars, restaurants, restrooms, everywhere. Whereas in Europe or the states where you have to look for specific places that play salsa music, the reverse is true here. Here, salsa is the standard and you have to go to specific bars or clubs to hear pop, rock or anything else for that matter.

This ubiquity of salsa (and other latin music styles) is, in my opinion, the real reason why Cali is called the Capital of Salsa! Salsa is the No. 1 social activity here. If you go out with friends to a bar or club you are more than likely going spend the night (apart from drinking and talking) listening and dancing to salsa.

This, at first glance, is great news for a salsero like yours truly. However, certain discrepancies become apparent very quickly.

Going Out
As dancing is the social norm here people generally go out in groups so that they can dance amongst themselves. This means going out dancing solo somewhat of a challenge. In the non-Latin world, when people go out dancing they generally ask every Tom, Dick and Harry (or Harriet) for a dance. Here you usually stick to your group (normally seated at a their own table).

I learned this, much to my disappointment, on my very first night dancing salsa in Cali. It was a Tuesday night and having arrived in Cali early that morning I was raring to go and dance salsa in my Mecca. I arranged a small posse of foreigners (unfortunately none were dancers) in my hostel and asked the receptionist to recommend somewhere good on for a Tuesday night. Cali, just like anywhere else has clubs that are good on specific nights, so he told us to go to a place called “Siboney”

In I went, as excited as a 7 year old about to go to the zoo for the first time in his life. The first thing I noticed was the layout, the majority of the club was made up of booths with tables facing the relatively small dance floor. The club wasn’t empty but it was far from full and there was loads of room to dance, which I love.

When I looked at the clientele, I noticed that most tables consisted of only one or two men surrounded a bevy of beauties (what a great word eh, “bevy”!). The girls were impeccably dressed with near perfect hair and makeup and many were … er… em… enhanced in both the front and the back (to stop them tipping over I’d imagine).

I danced with the one girl from the hostel who I’d managed to convince to come out with us and despite her claims of being “able to dance salsa” I quickly realized that I probably wouldn’t be able to spend the whole night with her flailing around in my arms like a freshly caught fish.

I also realized that the layout of the club didn’t really make asking strangers for a dance all that easy. If I wanted to dance with a woman I would have to walk up to her booth and ask her in front of all the other people there and pray that the guys at the table didn’t take offense to me moving into their territory. That sensation was really overbearing and something kept telling me to bide my time.

I did. I decided to wait for the guy at one of the tables to take one of his girls out for a dance and leave the other girls unaccompanied. Then I pounced. I walked up to the table and asked one of the girls in my best Spanish (which was fairly awful) for a dance. Her reaction most certainly was not what I expected. She looked very surprised and immediately started looking to the two other girls at the table (yeah that’s right, this one guy had four girls), as if for advise. They quickly discussed what to do amongst themselves and the other two then encouraged her to dance with me.

We stepped out on the floor and danced. I could tell she was nervous but the dance was fine, nothing special, but it made me feel better to actually be dancing with someone who could follow (my few Cuban steps at least).

I had a one or two more dances with other girls from other tables deciding to ask the guys if I could dance with their girls, which felt very strange. The next day I confirmed my suspicions that the guys were probably drug dealers and the majority of the girls were prostitutes. Just as well I didn’t make a move on anyone.

So my first night dancing in Cali was a little bit of a let down. I’ve learned to deal with the seeming inaccessibility of other groups in a club by always trying to go out with a group of dancing friends and going to clubs where things are a little more relaxed (and where there’s less drug dealers and prostitutes).

The Dancing
The vast majority of people in Cali “dance” salsa. That does not mean they are good at it.

The majority of Caleños know at least the the Cali-basic back step. Most guys can through in a turn and most girls can follow one or two. For the majority, that’s it. People can spend entire songs repeating the basic step and one or two turns over and over again.

In all honesty and not intending any disrespect to Cali and my friends here… it’s really boring.

In non-latin countries we learn salsa in order to get good at it. We love adding new moves and combinations to our individual repertoires. I honestly expected that salsa in the World Capital of Salsa would be mind blowing and that most people would be able to put us non-latino dancers to shame. Not the case.

As I said, salsa is part of the social fabric here and as such, people don’t take it as “seriously” (for want of a much more appropriate word) here. What that means is that people generally don’t see any need to practice nor do they dance as much on a night out as dancers do back home. In Ireland or Japan, if I go out dancing I will spend the vast majority of my time doing just that. Here however people spend most of there time sitting down or standing at a bar drinking and talking and only go out to dance every now and then.

All this said, there are “some” spectacular dancers in Cali. Apparently there are more than 100 salsa academies here and according to some sources more than 7000 professional dancers here. And these people can dance!

The people who do know how to dance Salsa Celeño to it’s full potential really are amazing dancers. They speed at which they move their feet and the way in which they interpret the music is simply jaw-dropping. I’m very lucky too to have a great group of friends who are great dancers and really inspire me to learn more of the local style although I’m still pretty poor at dancing Caleño myself.

Check out this video of Cali’s most famous dance troupe, Swing Latino.

Dancing Close
Although I said that I find dancing the same moves over and over again a little boring I have to admit that this does not apply to the slow salsa that is danced here in Cali.

Slow salsa is, obviously enough, salsa danced to music with a slower tempo, a good example being Vente Negra by Havana con Kola. It is danced very close with the hips touching and arms around your partner, just like a close bachata. The movement too is very fluid and sensual too and people often dance without even moving their feet, just moving their hips together in time with the music.

With the right partner it’s a great way to dance!

The People
What can I say. Caleños are great. In the short amount of time I’ve been here I have made some incredible friends, people who I genuinely feel close to, some of whom have left Cali for other parts and I genuinely feel very sorry to see them go. They’re fun loving, happy and they always think of you when they go out, be it for a bite to eat or to dance.

I genuinely think that it’s because of Caleños that so many people decide to stay in Cali without being able to put their fingers on “why”. Cali doesn’t offer much in the line of tourist attractions, beautiful architecture or mouthwatering gastronomy but the people here are warm and friendly and caring and a hell of a lot of fun and that’s very important for me.

My Goals
I came to Cali eager to do many things but the most important of those were to improve my salsa and to learn Spanish.

Unfortunately, the best laid plans of mice and men often go awry and neither have improved the way I had hoped.

I spent a great deal of my time when I first arrived trying to settle into life here: finding work, finding an apartment, finding stuff to put in the apartment, meeting people and enjoying myself instead of focusing on what I came here to do.

I worked most of my time here as an English teacher working in the evenings when most salsa classes are held so that was my “excuse” for not taking more salsa classes and my job required that I spent a lot of my time speaking English and thus by default, not learning Spanish. To be honest I made far too many excuses to cover up my poor time management.

That said, I do speak Spanish now, not as well as I want but definitely a lot better than I should for the amount of time I’ve actually put into learning it. To give you an idea of where my level is, I have no problem with one on one conversations (if I don’t understand a word I can infer from context) and I can follow most group conversations amongst native speakers. I do have trouble with some movies and TV shows but have absolutely no problem with flirting in Spanish which is great because Caleños just like the Irish are serial-flirts.

My LA salsa has gone downhill considerably from lack of a consistent partner who can dance LA but I have picked up quite a few new moves from salsa caleña. Most importantly I feel that I’ve developed a much better appreciation for changes in the music allowing me to react much more naturally to it. My body movement too, I feel, has improved and I feel much freer to interpret music with the movement of my entire body. Which is nice.

All in all, despite the loss of some technical salsa (which I’m currently working on countering) I feel that my time here has rounded me out as a dancer, knocked off some of the rough edges so to speak (still plenty more to knock off though!)

Colombianization
I feel I’m quite good at adapting to new environments. In my four years in Japan I integrated well and took on many Japanese mannerisms that even now, more than two years since I left Japan, manifest whenever I’m around Japanese people.

I feel I’ve done a pretty good job adapting to life here in Cali too (although it may not have been the smoothest transition). When I decided to come here two and a half years ago I wanted to experience a culture completely different from Japan and that’s exactly what I got!

When people tell me a time to meet them I’m fairly certain that if I arrive on time I’ll be waiting a while. I’ve had to get used to that. Actually, on the night of my first date in Cali I was waiting almost 2 hours before she showed up. The next day I met the same girl for lunch and she had me waiting 2 hours again. Before you say “Well you’re a bit of an eejit for waiting that long” I have to say that she was worth every second of the wait! Nuff said!

Public transport is slow and usually overcrowded which in reality is the reason for most people being late so I understand but it doesn’t mean I don’t feel like punching someone’s internal organs when I get squeezed into a bus like a sardine every morning.

I’ve learned to let things happen knowing that I have much less control here. I think that’s a skill that everyone should try to acquire in their life.

I’ve become more cautious when I’m in the streets, something that I’ve learned to do from a couple of bad experiences that you can read about here and here. Colombia is definitely the most dangerous place I have ever lived but with a little experience, common sense and the advice of many locals I’ve learned how to avoid the danger as much as possible but I am always aware of it. Much like I’d imagine many Caleños are.

But I love it here
I know I’ve mentioned many negatives in this post but I think that only stresses how good the positives are. I’m having a great time here in Cali. I’m enjoying learning the language and the dance and the lifestyle. I love meeting the people here, spending my time with them and becoming more and more caleño myself.

I’ll be honest when I say that Cali is not what I expected before coming here but the unexpected can lead to some really great experiences and some amazing friends.

Gracias Cali!

P.S. this turned out a hell of a lot longer than expected, my apologies!

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Fiona Uyema

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