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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!)

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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Learning Languages made easy!

14 Aug

Learning a new language is easy when you know how!

Like almost every Irishman (and the vast majority of people on earth), I’ve been taught languages other than my native English since I was a child.

I started with Irish (Gaelic, for my non-Irish readers) in primary school. It was an academic journey that lasted 12 years (until I finished secondary school) and like the majority of Irish people (unfortunately) I hardly speak a lick of my ancestral language (much to my own shame).

The next language I had any academic exposure to was French. For my first three years in secondary school I didn’t really take it seriously but I studied enough to pass the tests although I could hardly speak it. That changed when I got a new french teacher for my last 2 years. She was a terrifying woman who ruled that classroom with an iron fist. I remember once she quizzed me on some vocabulary. I didn’t know the answer and was so scared that my vision blurred and the room felt as if it was shaking…seriously!

Fear is a great motivator and I did learn quite a bit of French in her class. More importantly she instilled me with a desire to learn the language and I’m very grateful to her for that (she was actually a really nice person, just terrifyingly strict). It was because of her that I decided to work in France for a summer to up my level.

The next and most important language I was exposed to was Japanese. I moved there to work in 2006 and lived there for 4 years. I was determined to get fluent and I was very lucky that my job afforded me a lot of free time to study Japanese and try lots of different methods.

Over my years in Japan I learned a lot about language acquisition from an excellent website called I still use a lot of the philosophies I learned from that site when I try to learn languages. It works; today I work part-time as a Japanese translator.

My current language challenge, while I live here in Colombia, is Spanish. For various reasons (mostly down to pure laziness on my part) I’m nowhere near as good at Spanish as I would like to be after 11 months here. However, I do think that I speak better Spanish than I should for the amount of work I’ve actually put in. For that I can thank the following tips that I’ve learned over the years.

*Please bear in mind that a lot of these tips are aimed at people living in a country where the target language is spoken but there are also plenty that are applicable regardless of your physical location.

Learning a new language opens up a whole new world of possibilities and people you can get to know!

Tips for success

Eliminate English (or whatever your native language is): avoid English whenever possible and use use the language you want to learn in it’s place. You should only resort to your native language when all else fails i.e. when you haven’t got a clue what is going on. It also gives you an excuse to avoid certain annoying friends who speak your native language… it’s for educational purposes.

Read everything (in the language you want to learn): I’m not just talking about books, magazines and comics (which are great by the way). Got a flier for restaurant in your mailbox? Read it. Cooking instructions on the back of a box of food? Read them. Toilet graffiti? Read it. Every opportunity you have to read the language you’re learning and increasing your exposure.

Get musical: load you’re MP3 player with as much music as you can get in your target language. Any chance you can get, have those ear-buds attached and just listen casually, you don’t need to focus on what they’re saying exactly. You can also download the lyrics and read them along as the song plays (do it on the bus like I do just to see everyone’s reaction to the crazy foreigner singing to himself).

Learn new things through your new language: if you need to look up a fact, look it up in the language you’re learning. If you want to learn how to make ice-cream from scratch, find a recipe in your target language. The fact that the subject matter is important to you means you’ll retain more information. Wikipedia in your target language is your new best friend.

Try podcasts: Pod casts are basically web-based, downloadable talk-shows or radio programs. The topics are always incredibly varied so you’re bound to find something that interests you (I usually listen to cooking shows). Again you listen to them passively, while you’re driving or walking etc. it’s the constant exposure to the sounds of the language that helps.

Make friends: you need to practice the language and it’s much easier to practice with people you feel comfortable with (you’ll hold back much less). Also, you can ask friends to correct your mistakes and they’re much more likely to do it than people you don’t know well. My Colombian friends correct my mistakes all the time… after laughing at me (but that’s ok, we’re friends).

Join clubs: basically mix with local people as much as possible. Join a gym or a local sports team, take group dance classes, sign up for a cooking class. You have the joints benefits of doing something that interests you and meeting lots of new people to speak with. Public noticeboards are great places to look for them.

Carry a notepad: I always carry a little notepad to write down new words and phrases I hear so I can study them later. Most mobile phones these days also have a memo program so you can just note it on your phone for review later. My friends here in Cali get a kick out of it when I write down what they say (especially since it’s mostly slang and obscenities).

Use an SRS: an SRS (spaced repetition system) is basically a computer program that helps you remember things better and faster. I use a free SRS program called Anki. You can find all the information you need on the anki homepage. I cannot stress enough how incredibly useful an SRS is for language acquisition. The SRS is a language learning game changer.

Watch movies: or TV or anything for that matter, in the language you want to learn. A great place to start is watching movies you’ve seen before dubbed into your target language. You already understand the basic plot so it helps you understand what’s going on. If you can get movies with subtitles in the language you’re learning (not in your native language), all the better.

Use a native dictionary: as you progress and you understand more and more of a language you can start using a dictionary completely in that language. That means you’ll be learning new vocab through your target language which means more exposure and better retention in my opinion. Use a children’s dictionary if you can (they usually come with nice pictures as a bonus).

Change your settings: change the settings of your computer, your phone, your, camera, your email account, your facebook to the language you’re learning. You already know how to navigate them well so it shouldn’t be a hindrance and you’ll learn a whole load of essential words. It also means your friends probably won’t be able to fool around with your settings when your not looking.

Keep it interesting: You retain much more of the language when you’re learning about something that interests you e.g. cooking, sport, celebrity gossip etc. (and you’re also much more likely to remain motivated and keep studying). If you have no interest in the history of turn of the century South American politics, avoid it. Don’t get bored. Boredom is death.

Make mistakes: one of the greatest obstacles that people have to making progress with new skills is being overly concerned with making mistakes and looking foolish (this is very applicable to language learning and dancing salsa). Stop worrying about looking stupid, we all look stupid anyway and get out there and make as many mistakes as you can. Making mistakes is one of the best ways to learn (at least that’s my excuse)

Practice: as I’ve said before in this article, practice makes perfect. The more time you put into actually speaking the language, the faster you’ll get better. Practice doesn’t have to formal either, just make friends and above all have fun with it and you’ll be speaking a new language in no time.

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Fiona Uyema

Japanese Cookbook Author

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