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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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How NOT to get mugged in Colombia (A Guide for idiots) Part 2

20 Jun
Robbery not allowed

We need more signs like this here

If you haven’t done so already you can read Part 1 of this article here.

My second mugging (May, 2012)
The second time I was mugged left me a lot more shaken up than the first time for reasons which I’ll explain a little later.

It was a Thursday night and almost every Thursday I go to a salsa bar near my house called “Tin Tin Deo” which is a bit of a salsa institution here in Cali. It is located on the one of the main transport arteries through the city, La 5 and about 2 km south of my house. I can walk there in less than 20 minutes but I normally go by bicycle because it’s much faster (and because I hate walking). I have never seen someone else go by bicycle, ever.

That week I had a couchsurfer staying with me and she wanted to experience some real Colombian salsa so I brought her along. We went together on my bike, again because it’s faster and because it’s fun with two people on one bike. I’ve done it many times before with other friends.

We had a great night of dancing and the club closed at 1am ( as it was Thursday). There is usually a very big group of people standing outside the club at that stage, chatting, waiting on taxis (of which there are plenty) etc. We said goodbye to our friends and hopped on my bike and I started pedaling up the street. Literally seconds later I heard a moto (a scooter) slowly coming up behind me and I heard the driver start to say something. Now, this has happened many times before when I’ve had someone else on my bike with me. Usually people find it funny and say some some sort of a joke about it. So it was natural that I thought that this was what the driver that night was going to say, so I started smiling and turned my head to the left to look at him.

It was at this stage that I actually “heard” what he was saying. I missed the first part but I heard him say “We want your money and your cellphones. Stop the bike”. I looked around and realized that we were surrounded by 3 motos on our left; one belonging to the guy who spoke to us, one a little bit in front of us with another male rider and one a little further to the left with a male and female riding it together. For some reason seeing woman riding the other moto phased me a little, it made the situation a little harder to accept (I don’t know why, but it did). The guy continued to say “stop the bike, stop the bike, stop the bike” each time his voice getting more and more frustrated/angry.

So what was my reaction? I kept pedaling. I was mentally frozen with shock and felt unable to do anything else. I had noticed that he hadn’t shown a gun which meant he “probably” didn’t have one because in the situation we were in it would have been to his advantage to show it. I knew that if I stopped they’d have us so I kept pedaling until I could think of something. It sounds like I was thinking logically but that couldn’t have been further from the truth. I was reacting and my reaction was for my body to continue doing what it was doing; pedal.

Up ahead on the right was a small dark side street (so dark in fact that a little salsa club there is called “El Escondite” (the hiding place)). I could see that the guy on the moto in front was trying to divert us down there by blocking the way ahead of us. All I could think was that if they got us down there they could do whatever they wanted with us and no one would see anything and I didn’t like the thought of that. I sped up and managed to avoid the side street and pull in front of the guy trying to divert us. I still don’t know how I managed to do it with someone else sitting on the back of my bike (the guy in front must have been totally incompetent).

Suddenly, the speaker ( who I assumed was the leader) shouted something and all 3 motos accelerated and took off ahead of us. I stopped the bike and shouted at my passenger to get off and run back the direction we came from, to Tin Tin Deo (this whole incident happened in the space of between 10 and 15 seconds so we were still very close to the club.

I stayed where I was, straddling my bike, filled with more adrenalin and fear than I have ever felt in my life. My eyes were fixed on the 3 motos driving into the distance. I wanted to see what direction they were doing and wanted to make sure they didn’t turn around and come back at us again. When I saw them round a corner and felt (somewhat) confident they weren’t coming back I turned around and saw my couchsurfer friend not far behind looking at me. She was scared and confused (although I think I was more so).  She told me how she initially thought they were friends of mine pulling up alongside us, just as I had done.

We continued to walk up the street to where I knew there was a CAI (a mini police station/police box) and I told the cop on duty what had happened. It was at that point that I realized that I hadn’t taken note of any of the license plates on the motos. In Colombia, if you drive a motorbike or scooter you also have to wear a luminous vest with the license  plate number printed on it but I hadn’t even noticed it. Everything happened so fast that I didn’t even think of noting their license plate numbers (I’m not even sure I’d have been able to remember it with that amount of adrenalin flowing through my veins). The cop said that I should have noted the plate number and I promised him I’d do it the next time it happened. We chuckled (which made me feel a bit better) and then we returned to my apartment. I was pretty shaken that night and somewhat the next day too. But the important thing was that we were both ok and they hadn’t taken anything from us.

Post Mugging Analysis
This, unlike my first mugging in January, was not simply a crime of opportunity. The 4 people on their 3 motos had clearly been waiting outside or near the club. Waiting for the right target to make its move. Unfortunately, that target was us. We were two obvious foreigners (the fair hair and light skin is a dead giveaway) and a lot of Colombians tend to associate foreigners with money. We were traveling alone on a slow moving bike when there were no other vehicles on the road. Even though I didn’t have a bag with me, my friend was carrying a small handbag which would be another attraction. We were sitting ducks.

This time, I most certainly did not take the right course of action. Fair enough, we got away with absolutely no harm but only because we were very, very lucky. I should have stopped the bike as soon as they demanded it and given them everything that we had. We were outnumbered and alone at night, they could have done anything to us. My only defense is that what I did was simply a reaction and I didn’t consciously decide to defy our assailants. I was in shock and my body just reacted and kept pedaling.

Even though we were both ok, I feel terrible for what happened (or for what could have happened). My actions put someone else in danger and that’s what shook me up so badly. It was my decision to cycle home together at that hour of the night (although I had done it many times before). If anything had happened to my friend I would never have forgiven myself.

Why did they just speed up and disappear?
To tell you the truth, I just don’t know for sure. All I can say is that we were very lucky that they did.

The only possible reason is that the whole incident took longer than they had planned on due to my refusing to stop the bike. They took the opportunity to rob us when they did because there were no other cars on the road at the time. I assume they felt that they had run out of time and that another car could have come up the road at any second. On top of that, I think that when I avoided the side street they tried to divert us down I basically robbed them of their best chance at getting us completely alone. Once that chance was gone they cut their losses and took off. At least that’s what I assume!

How I’m dealing with this now?
I don’t take my mobile phone with me when I go to Tin Tin Deo (TTD) anymore. I don’t need it because I know my friends will be there when or a little after I arrive and if I need to note someone’s phone number I can just write it down.

I only take enough cash to cover the entrance fee to the club. I don’t drink alcohol or soft drinks and waters free to I don’t need anymore.

I am planning on buying a dummy phone. I can just buy a small, cheap, second hand phone and hand it to a thief if it ever happens again in the future. It probably would assuage them better than if I tell them that I have nothing to give them.

If I ever travel with someone to TTD again, I’m going to go by taxi. It’s a hell of a lot safer.

If I walk back home I’ll do it in a group (luckily some of my dance friends live really close to me which makes this possible).

I used to take my laptop with me when I taught English classes in the evenings (I travel to my classes by bike). Obviously that has stopped!

This whole incident shook me up a lot and has really made me feel uneasy at night in Cali. I noticed this about a week later when I walked to a different club, at night, by myself (it’s ok, you can call me an idiot for doing it. I am). I kind of wanted to prove to myself that I could do it and while I went and came back safely, the whole time I was on the street I felt like something bad was going to happen. I was physically profiling every group of people I passed on the street and my body tensed whenever they got near. That’s not a good way to feel about the city you live in.

I even thought twice about taking my bike to TTD the next time I went, 2 weeks later. However I decided to follow the advice of my friend Tyler who lives in the same neighbourhood as me and shares some of my concerns for safety. I now cycle home in the Mio (bus) lane which is physically separated from the rest of the road with a small raised barrier (just big enough to keep cars and motos out). It’s well lit, provides a good view of my surroundings and the Mio doesn’t run that late at night so it’s all mine.

Thankfully I feel much better now but the incident has made me much more conscious of taking care of myself in Cali.

Do what I say, not what I do!
I do a lot of things which I wouldn’t consider to be the safest of options, just for the sake of convenience. This is downright stupid so I’m going to recommend some things that I may not actually always do myself but I think anyone concerned for there safety should. Underneath are a few general safety tips which I recommend anyone follow when traveling in a place where security is a little bit dodgy.

  • Travel in groups, especially at night. Muggers are much more likely to pick on people who are alone.
  • Ask locals where is safe and where isn’t, they know best. Also ask them the safest routes to get from one place to another.
  • “Don’t give papaya”. This is a Colombian saying that means don’t give someone a reason to rob you. Don’t wear fancy jewelery on the street, don’t walk around with a big fancy camera hung around your neck etc.
  • Don’t carry valuable objects in back pockets as these are much easier to pick-pocket. Tighter side pockets are better. Better yet, don’t carry valuable objects.
  • Only carry the amount of cash that you need while you’re out. Keep some in your pocket or purse and hide the rest somewhere else on your person (in your sock, bra etc.)
  • Don’t carry credit or ATM cards if you don’t need them. This gives muggers a reason to take you captive and clean out your accounts at a number of different ATMs.
  • Call taxis from reputable companies to come pick you up. Here in Colombia this is considered much safer than hailing a taxi on the street.
  • If you do get mugged, and there is no one around to help just hand over everything you have and don’t give the mugger a reason to hurt you.
  • Carry a cheap, crappy cell phone to handover straight away if you do get mugged.
  • Don’t look a mugger in the face. This seems to give them a reason to hurt you as you would be able to identify them to police.

As I’ve already said, I don’t mean to destroy the image of Colombia or Cali but you really do need to be careful here and I’d prefer you were a little scared and cautious here than being completely oblivious and careless. If you know the risks you have a much better chance of avoiding them.

Let me know if you think I should add anything else to this list, I’m sure there’s plenty I haven’t thought of.

Stay safe and keep dancing.

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Fiona Uyema

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