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How to travel the world cheap and have more fun than ever! (My first weeks in the US)

2 Oct

I’ve stayed in 5-star hotels and I’ve slept on bare stone floors. I’ve walked solo, visiting monuments around the streets of some of the biggest and most famous cities in the world and I’ve gone to tiny little bars with groups of locals who I’d just met hours before.

I’ve traveled in a lot of different ways and I’ve seen different places from many different perspectives accordingly.

While I like my “me time” (a lot), one thing that I have undeniably learned over the years is that travel (at least for me) is much more enjoyable when done together with others. I’m not sure exactly what it is, maybe it’s the fact that traveling and sharing experiences with someone else makes those experiences more real, more memorable, more lasting…better!

Whenever I travel alone (which is a lot) I always feel that I’d be having more fun if I were with someone else. A little over a month ago, for my first few days in Cuba I actually felt lonely as I wandered the streets of Havana. It was still amazing seeing the city but I wanted to talk about it with someone, tell them how I feel, hear how they feel, share cup of coffee in the quaint little cafes or grab a meal together in the lively local restaurants. Luckily I only felt “lonely” for my first few days. Once I made some local friends I was able to do just what I had wanted and learn things that no guidebook could ever have told me.

I’ve been here in the U.S. for about a week and a half now and I’m writing this article on the bus taking me from Orlando to Savannah, Georgia. I’ve just spent 4 days in a little town outside Orlando that I had never heard of before, staying with someone who 4 days ago I had never met and who now I consider to be a close friend. It’s been one of the best vacations of my life and probably one of the cheapest.

I’m a couchsurfer
When I say that to people, the vast majority has absolutely no idea what I’m talking about. Neither did I the first time I learned about it but Couchsurfing transformed the way I travel and allowed me to both save a huge amount of money doing so and experience things that otherwise I probably wouldn’t have had the opportunity to do.

I’ll keep the explication concise but the basic premise is that couchsurfing allows you to host travelers from all over the world who need a place to stay or it allows you to look for a host in the area where you want to visit. And it’s absolutely free. This allows you to meet new people, from different cultures and countries and share experiences with them as you (or they) travel. You can learn about all the hidden local gems that you’ll never find with a guidebook, spend time with locals and learn how they really live (so you’re not just getting to know a place through all the people that work in the tourist industry) and you get to enrich your travels by making some incredible friends along the way. For an example, check out this post from my friends Rebecca and Solomon who I  met through couchsurfing when they stayed with me.

My awesome host, Sherri made my time in Orlando unforgettable

My awesome host, Sherri made my time in Orlando unforgettable

It works like this:

  • You fill out a profile on Couchsurfing.org with some personal details and details about where you live.
  • You can mark your profile to indicate if you want to host or not or if you’re available to meet up for a coffee or to show people around your area.
  • You may then receive requests form surfers in your area or…
  • If you’re traveling you can look for and send couch requests to potential hosts in the area where you’re going.

It’s that simple.

So you stay with complete strangers? Are you insane?
Yes and Yes! The website allows hosts and surfers to leave a “review” of their respective experiences on each other’s page. This allows people to check out a potential host or surfer before hand. If someone has received a bad review you can simply opt out of surfing with them.

This system allows the Couchsurfing community (and it is most definitely a community with over 6 milllion active members worldwide and growing) to “police” itself, so to speak. I have been couchsurfing since 2009 and I have never had a bad experience and I only very rarely here of other couchsurfers having bad experiences. The system works.

My most recent Couchsurfing experience
My last 4 days in Orlando were a perfect example of just how good couchsurfing can be. I was hosted by Sherri, just outside Orlando, Florida who initially declined my request because she had an exceptionally busy weekend coming up and didn’t think she could manage a house guest too. However, five minutes after receiving her first message I received another from Sherri telling me that she hadn’t realized I was Irish and that she had to host me (I knew being Irish would pay off some day).

This is how my four days went:

  • Friday afternoon I arrive in Orlando and grab the bus to Sherri’s office
  • We go to her home, I meet her family and housemates, I shower up and we all go out for dinner at a popular local German restaurant and meet more of her friends
  • After dinner we walk around town chatting and I learn all about the area and get to know Sherri’s friends (who are all amazing)
  • The next day we get up early and go to college football game. We go tailgating and I see my first ever game of American Football with the rules explained to me by Sherri and her (insane) friends

    My first ever game of American Football. Go UCF!

    My first ever game of American Football. Go UCF!

  • That evening we scrub up and Sherri brings me along to a pre-party for her son’s “Home Coming” dance. I meet more locals and become the center of attention by being the only Irishman (only foreigner) present
  • Later we go to City Walk at Universal Studios, checking out the bars. I was as giddy as schoolgirl thanks to one of my most visual stimulating experiences in years
  • Sunday morning and afternoon, I get to help Sherri run some errands around town (driving around the neighborhood and picking up kids to drop them off at skate-parks etc.)
  • That afternoon I joined Sherri at “Gliding Stars”, a group of volunteers who take children with autism and other related conditions, ice-skating at the local ice-rink. I’m an awful skater but I had so much fun skating with my kid for the afternoon (and I only fell on my ass once)

    If not for Couchsurfing I wouldn't have had to chance to spend this awesome afternoon with these great kids

    If not for Couchsurfing I wouldn’t have had to chance to spend this awesome afternoon with these great kids

  • That evening I help Sherri and her friends prepare a sushi dinner to celebrate her housemate’s birthday. We had a blast and I created a new sushi roll “The Crazy Irishman”

    And here's the Crazy Irishman (I'm talking about the sushi roll folks)

    And here’s the Crazy Irishman (I’m talking about the sushi roll folks)

  • On Monday Sherri and I have lunch by one of the many beautiful lakes in the area and then do a boat tour where I learn all about the history of the incredible houses in the area and just how likely I am to get eaten by a “gator” if I fall in the water (I advise against swimming)
  • That night we have amazing slow-cooked “pulled pork” sandwiches followed by ice cream from the most famous Ice cream parlor in the city and then we go for a walk in beautiful downtown Orlando

Result…

BEST WEEKEND EVER!
Despite the fact that I had never met Sherri before she immediately made me feel like I was one of her friends and I can’t thank her enough for that. She allowed me to experience a real piece of American culture that I had never experienced before and that I otherwise would never have been able to.

That’s what Couchsurfing is all about. It’s about getting away from the “done to death” tourist traps (although there’s nothing wrong with those, by the way) and experiencing how life actually is in the place your visiting, doing what the locals do for fun and having much more fulfilling experiences.

Instant Community
Another benefit of Couchsurfing is that areas with a large number of couchsurfers (like big cities) tend to have “Couchsurfing Groups” or communities, which are groups of hosts and surfers that get together for social activities.

This can be a great way for people who have just moved to an area and who don’t know many people. You can check the scheduled activities of the couchsurfing groups in your new city, go along to one and meet a lot of like-minded locals really easily. This was really important for me when I first moved to Cali. I knew no one when I first arrived over two years ago but as soon as I started hanging out with the other couchsurfers I had an instant group of friends. It was also a huge plus that the group was very active in dancing (for anyone going to Cali, Thursday night in the club Tin Tin Deo is generally a great night to meet the couchsurfers). Say hi for me.

Where to next?
I’m really looking forward to experiencing some real “southern hospitality” over the next few days here in Savannah and later in Charleston, once I arrive there.

I’ll be couchsurfing all the way, saving money and having a hell of a lot more fun than I would if I was staying in hotels or hostels. If you’re in either of those areas and you’d like to meet up or if you have advice on salsa dancing or anything else to do, send me an email. I’d love to hear from you.

Keep dancing folks.

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My Cuban Salsa Adventure: 3 Weeks of Casino, Rumba & Sabor

24 Sep

In this article I’ll be giving some recommendations of salsa schools in Havana and also on places to go dancing. Next week I should have an article on general traveling tips for Havana, a city you should definitely consider visiting.

The car that was waiting for me at the airport. I knew this was going to be a good vacation!

The car that was waiting for me at the airport. I knew this was going to be a good vacation!

 

 I’m currently in the U.S. of A folks, I arrived in Miami last week after 3 weeks in the Mecca of salsa; Cuba. Here’s the article I started writing over there.

It’s been a few weeks of highs and lows.

I started writing this article in El Escorial, a beautiful café in the equally beautiful Plaza Vieja in Havana’s old town, one of the most architecturally stunning neighborhoods I have ever visited in my life. This is one of the highs.

However, I started writing this article because I physically can’t do anything else… I injured my neck this morning and can barely move without wincing in pain so it’s either sulk in the air-conditioned comfort of my “casa particular”… or write. I chose the more constructive latter. This is one of the lows.

We’ll get to my neck injury later.

In my last article, almost a month ago, I wrote about my challenge to learn Cuban-style salsa, casino, as well as learning as much about this country (or at least Havana) as I could in my short stay here.

Let’s be terribly unoriginal and summarize some of the more interesting points from this little adventure:

  • I took 27 hours of private lessons of salsa, rumba and a little reggaeton
  • I went out dancing a total of about 14 nights
  • I walked aimlessly around the streets of Havana enough to wear holes in my sandals
  • I discovered it’s actually possible to sweat more water than one consumes in a day  (some additional water may have been lost as tears)
  • I received countless offers of taxis, cigars and chicas
  • I went to a Cuban wedding party
  • I met some of the friendliest people I’ve ever encountered
  • I got to see a traditional Santería (Cuban religion of African origin) party in someone’s home
  • I learned that Cuba has some of the most beautiful women I have ever seen

Cuban Salsa from scratch (almost)
Let’s get down and dirty and talk about what people most want to hear about from that list (this site is, after all, mostly about dancing (or at least my attempts at it)).

My previous experience with casino had been a few sporadic classes in Miyazaki, Japan when I first started dancing salsa. I ended up forgetting most of what I had learned as I stuck with LA-style salsa but I regularly used one or two Cuban turns even when I danced LA and this helped me a lot when I started dancing Cali-style salsa.

To give you an idea of my “transformation”, I’ll explain things like this:

On my first night out (Friday) in Havana (before I had taken any classes here) I sat on a sofa in the bar of “Hotel Florida” with my jaw hanging somewhere around my ankles, staring in awe at some of the most intricate dancing I had seen in years.

I psyched myself up (this took a while) and finally worked up the courage to ask one of the local girls for a dance. Before we started I told her clearly that I didn’t know how to dance salsa cubana. The look of discomfort that I saw flashing in her eyes caused the flock of butterflies in my stomach to go on a rampage.

What happened next… was not pretty. I managed to pull off some basic turns from salsa caleña but in general things were sloppy. Let’s just leave it at that. I sat down disheartened after only one dance and thought to myself: I need to start classes soon.

Fast forward to the night before writing this article (Sunday, 16 days after that first night) and I danced Casino… all… night… long. I filled my dances with “dile que no”, “corona”, “habana loco”, “America”, “setenta y tres” and a whole host of other moves who’s names escape me. Now, it may not have been the most finely choreographed display of salsa cubana ever performed but I can definitely say that I now dance casino… and I love it.

How to dance Casino in under 3 weeks
First things first, I owe my progress entirely to the fantastic teachers in the school recommended to me by my friend Tanja from The Cuban Food Blog, who was my initial contact for all things Cuban (thanks for everything Tanja 😉 ).

The formula that worked for me was the following (and in my opinion it’s the best way to learn any social dance):

  • regular classes with good teachers
  • recording new movements learned
  • regular social dancing

I took about 25 hours of private classes with “La Casa del Son” (it would have been more had it not been for my neck injury calling a halt to everything that required… you know… movement!). The majority of the classes were of Cuban salsa but I also spent a good amount of time learning rumba (a traditional Cuban dance of African origin that heavily influenced salsa). Rumba is not easy, especially with my teacher Adrián the perfectionist but I think it can really enrich one’s salsa and especially one’s body movements (although don’t expect to see results quickly, the road to rumba is a long one).

At the end of every salsa class I took I a video of myself and the teacher dancing the combinations we had learned. This is vital for remembering not only the sequence required for each movement but also for just remembering the sheer volume of moves that you can learn in a couple of intensive weeks of salsa classes. Even on nights out dancing socially, if I couldn’t remember a particular move I would just take a quick look at the video on my phone to remind myself.

Finally I went out dancing very regularly. The great thing about the school is that the teachers go out as a group quite regularly so I was able to go out and practice what I had learned frequently and with great dancers. If I’ve said it once I’ve said it a thousand times “You learn the moves in class, you learn to dance on the floor!”. The more frequently one dances socially and with the greater the variety of partners the better one commits new moves and combinations to muscle memory, making them far easier to execute in the future.

Picking a Salsa School in Havana
If you go to a popular salsa club in Havana you’ll probably meet a whole host of amazing dancers who will offer you private classes. However, being a good dancer does not necessarily translate into being a good teacher so bear that in mind.

Luckily my school was recommended to me and I can gladly recommend it to you too. I took the grand majority of my classes at “La Casa del Son” and I was very happy that I did.

The school has 4 separate, mirrored practice-rooms and is located in the center of old Havana (the heart of the tourist area). The school has a team of 6 male and 7 female instructors who are not only great dancers and teachers but they are also one of the most fun groups of people I have ever had the pleasure of hanging out with. They really take you under their wing at the school and make you feel like one of the family. Going out dancing with these guys is an experience and a half.

They offer classes in Salsa, Son, Rumba, Afrocuban folkloric dances, Tango, Kizomba, Bachata and Reggaeton so I really recommend taking the opportunity to learn as much as you possibly can with them.

The school’s details are as follows:

  • Address: Empedrado No. 411 entre Aguacate and Compostela
  • Telephone: (53 7) 8671537  or  (53 6)2641047
  • Email: lacasadelson@bailarencuba.com

Ask for Ray when you visit or email them and tell him that Richie (the dancing Irishman with the beard) sent you. I hope to get a few favors out of sending them a little business (just so we’re clear).

To be honest you’re best off visiting the school as soon as you arrive in Havana so you can organize your class’ and so you can get information on where to go dancing every night of the week (they really helped me out with this). It’s also great because the teachers can become your social circle while you’re visiting the city and it’s always more fun going dancing with a group of friends than going solo (especially in a new city).

I also took classes with Maria Elena Hernandez, a teacher at the well know Marisuri Escuela de Bailes Cubanos. They classes I took were mostly on body movement but she also teaches Folklore, Rumba, Casino and Son.

  • Telephone: (05 2) 760194
  • Email: marielenala@carpusmail.com

I also can recommend a newly opened school called Salsabor a Cuba, which has a group of fantastic dancers teaching salsa, son, cha cha cha, rumba, folklore, and reueda del casino.

  • Address: Calle Oficio No. 18 (First floor, Apartment 5) entre Obispo and Obrapia
  • Telephone: (53 7) 8608982  or  (53 5) 3027501
  • Internet: www.salsaborcuba.com

Where to dance in Havana
You can only enjoy the salsa in any city if you actually know where to find it. This can be issue when you first arrive in Cuba. Luckily I just had to ask my teachers at the end of the day where they were going to go that night and I had an instant destination and a group of dance partners.

I’ve included a very basic night by night list here that can “help” you decide where to go. I’ve left out a huge amount of places that will no doubt enrage other Habana experts but I’ve decided to just include the safe bets that I visited myself. You will be able to find the directions to each venue by asking at any large hotel in Havana (i.e. I’m too lazy to look up the address/contact details).

  • Monday: Hotel Florida
  • Tuesday: Casa de la Musica (Miramar) for the matinee (5-9pm)
  • Wednesday: Casa de la Musica (Galiano) for the matinee (5-9pm)
  • Thursday: 1830 (pronounced “mil ochocientos treinta”) until 12pm (I loved dancing here)
  • Friday: Hotel Florida
  • Saturday: Hotel Florida or Casa de la Musica (either)
  • Sunday: 1830 and the secret club full of locals that I’m not going to reveal for fear of ruining it 😛

Remember this, when all else fails, Hotel Florida is a safe bet for dancing every night of the week all though I  didn’t really like the atmosphere in the place. It’s full of tourists and people trying to take advantage of them. That said, if you go anywhere with a group of friends you’ll have a good night.

I recommend the matinees in La Casa de la Musica because it’s cheaper and you tend to get more regular locals there dancing. The later shows tend to be frequented by people on the prowl for foreigners.

Feeling like a beginner again
The interesting thing about learning a new style of salsa is that it makes you feel like a complete dance beginner all over again… which really sucks.

I went from being totally confident in my environment in Cali where I know I dance well to a new environment with new rules and new standards that made me feel like I knew nothing. And you know what, that’s probably one of the best things that could have happened to me.

I think it’s great to feel like a beginner again, out of one’s depth. Obviously it sucks at the time as you lose confidence and you feel overly self-conscious about your dancing but you overcome it because you’re reminded of how you were when you started out with other styles. Then all you have to do is remember how much progress you made with those styles and it actually encourages you to drive forward.

On this trip to Cuba I experienced many moments where I felt like I didn’t want to dance in public because I felt I would look ridiculous around the people who had been dancing for years. My confidence hit a low and I would get frustrated (as I regularly do). However, all I had to do to get over it was remember that I’ve done it all before, with LA style salsa and salsa caleña. And thinking of that got me right back in the game.

With dance, the initial learning curve tends to be uncomfortable but just remember that all great dancers most likely had to go through a brief period where they “probably” sucked. That’s the price to pay to dance well and honestly it’s a bargain.

Loads more for another time
This article already is way too long and there’s a lot more that I want to write about dancing in Cuba but I’m going to have to save it for another article.

Note to self: when taking pictures of sunsets, ensure iPhone is pointing at the sun!

Note to self: when taking pictures of Cuban sunsets, ensure iPhone is pointing at the sun!

My adventure in North America is just starting so I’ve got lots to keep me occupied for the next few weeks. Remember, if you have any recommendations for dancing or places to visit along the east coast of the U.S. drop me an email. I’d love to hear from you.

Keep dancing folks.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I AM EXCITED!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

8 Jul

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Keep dancing folks.

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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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The Women of Cali (Las caleñas son como las flores)

3 Nov

Girl (at Spanish exchange): So why do you want to learn Spanish?
Me: Well, I’m planning on moving to Colombia next year.
Girl: Really, what part of Colombia?
Me: A city called Cali.
Girl: Really? Wow, I lived there a few years ago. You know, it has the most beautiful women in all of South America?
Me: Really? I hadn’t heard that at all 😉

Truth be told, it was virtually impossible NOT to hear about the famed beauty of the women of Cali. Once I started doing some research on the place, after I decided to move there to learn Spanish and salsa, virtually every website, blog and article about the city thoroughly emphasized Cali’s reputation as a veritable heaven of latin beauties.

Truth be told, even the Caleña (as the women of Cali are called) who first gave me the idea to move there when I lived in Japan, was stunningly beautiful.

The Spanish in the title of this post is the title of this song, which translates as “The women of Cali are like flowers”. There is whole host of songs dedicated to the city of Cali and none of them fail to mention the qualities of Latin America’s most adored women, their beauty and just as importantly, their skills on the dance floor.

An added benefit
Let me make one thing clear. I came to Cali to dance and learn Spanish, not because of its reputation for stunningly beautiful women…

…that said, it is virtually impossible to not notice how stunningly beautiful the women here are and it has been a nice little perk during my time in this great city because, surprise surprise, I love beautiful women. Go figure!

A Japanese buddy of mine once asked me what 3 things could I absolutely not live without (besides the obvious family, friends and all that other sentimental stuff) and I, without a moments hesitation, answered: great food, great dancing and beautiful women! My sentiments haven’t changed since then.

A little bit of this, a little bit of that!
One thing that makes the women of Cali so special is the sheer variety of women there are here.

Cali has a very eclectic ethnic background made up of the European (mostly Spanish) settlers, the Africans they brought over originally as slaves and the indigenous South Americans who were here before anyone else (which they are understandably very vocal about). What results is a city with a population of people ranging from white to black with every possible gradation in between. This gives Cali its blanquitas, negritas, indiginas, morenas, mulatas, canelas, trigueñas and a whole host of other “colorful” names thought up by the inventive latinos.

Add to that the whole variety of body shapes, eye colors, facial features and hair types from all these diverse backgrounds and you have one of the most physically diverse populations on earth.

The beautiful women of the pacifico region are just one of the many ethnicities in Cali.

The beautiful women of the pacifico region are just one of the many ethnicities in Cali.

All in the attitude
But for me, what really sets the Caleñas apart from other women I’ve met in my life is their attitude. I can’t talk about all latin women but I have to say that women here are a hell of a lot more confident than those from Europe, North America or East Asia. And I like confidence in women.

It’s pretty hard to sum up how I quantify that statement so I’m just going to list a few observations I’ve made:

  • The clothes Caleñas wear are generally very revealing (my life here in Cali clearly sucks, right?) even in professional environments where semi-transparent blouses and visible bras are not uncommon. Cleavage is almost universally on display and in a city where plastic surgery is so common that makes for near whiplash like head turning).
  • Caleñas have a much better body image than women in other places. Being slightly (or significantly) overweight doesn’t stop women here from flaunting what they’ve got by wearing very tight and revealing clothing (this clearly is not always a good thing). I do however have to admit it’s very refreshing to meet women who are so comfortable with their bodies as it has always bothered me how women in other parts of the world, who, despite having beautiful bodies, are almost ashamed to show any part of it because of poor body image. Further proof is to be seen in the fact that women don’t take offense if they’re called something like “gorda” (fatty). It’s not used as an insult nor is it taken as one. I can’t imagine a man surviving an encounter with a woman if he ever called her “fatty” back home.
  • Women here are much more forward when it comes to flirting and in my experience it’s not uncommon for women to come up and start conversations with men in clubs or even on the street. And before anyone comments, they are not working girls (at least not as far as I know, although I may not be the best at picking up on these things) . That has rarely happened to me in other parts of the world (maybe I’m just not attractive to women from other parts in which case I’d really appreciate a heads-up people… by private message 😦 ). Anyway the world could do with more women flirting (can I get a “Here, Here!” guys).
  • Women here also seem to be much more sexually liberated and don’t feel “ashamed” about sex in the way they do in places like Ireland (thanks to Catholic guilt) and Japan (thanks to a whole host of social stigmas I couldn’t possibly touch on here). Sex is a much more socially acceptable topic here, not the taboo that it is in other parts of the (mostly English speaking) world.
  • I also think that competition amongst women here makes them a little more forward and “aggressive”. From what I understand (literally what I’ve been” told” as I fail miserably in my “understanding” of women) there is competition amongst women to look good and I’ve seen women being very competitive around men they’re interested in and very protective of their partners around other women. This probably has a lot to do with Colombian men’s reputations as being slightly less that completely faithful.

One way this “self-confidence”, competition and pride in appearance comes to a pinacle is in two things that have really stood out to me here, “Reinadas” and women’s Facebook pictures.

Reinadas are basically beauty queen pageants and they are an exceptionally common occurrence here in Colombia. They have them for everything from queen of local agricultural festivals to “Best Ass in the Valley” contests. Unfortunately they have them for kids too which I think could really mess with a child’s moral compass from a young age. This is where Colombia’s reputation as a haven of Beauty Queens comes from.

As for the Facebook photos, well, let’s just say that some women here put a serious amount of effort into posing for their photo’s. Some of the poses are ridiculously over the top or even sexual but it’s almost considered normal here. In fact, once after just meeting a woman (in her late thirties) at a dance class, during a 5 minute break she asked me to add her on Facebook and proceeded to show me her pics so I could “find her better”. Her pics were all professionally taken shots of her in an exceptionally short skirt and high heels doing various provocative poses on top of a wooden stool (shudder).

Just one example of the many beautyr pageants here in Cali. Yup, life here is rough!

Just one example of the many beautyr pageants here in Cali. Yup, life here is rough!

Conquistadors
Another thing that makes interaction between the sexes here a little more interesting is the Spanish language itself.

You’ve probably heard it before and scoffed but Spanish is genuinely a much more romantic language than English which you can’t help but notice if you’ve ever listened to the lyrics of most salsa or bachata songs (I won’t even get into what they say in reggaeton).

The word for flirt in Spanish “coquetear” itself just sounds fun to say and I couldn’t believe the word that people here use to mean being successful with women or to win a woman’s heart which is “conquistar”. That’s right, men here “conquer” women and that’s a completely socially acceptable turn of phrase. If I used that with a European girl I’m fairly sure I’d be walking away with a black eye and maybe even a few teeth less.

Add to that all the pet-names that people use for each other like papasito (I melt when I hear this one ;-)), mamasita, guapo, hermosa, preciosa, mi reina etc. and the words used by couples for each other such as amor, corazón, mi vida etc. and you can see exactly why this language is just made for getting intimate.

Touchy Feely
This being a latin country, physical contact is much more common place than back in Northern Europe or the U.S. and I am very, very grateful for it.

Not that I’m some sexual deviant that gets off on the slightest touch from someone of the opposite sex… or anything like that. I just think that the world would be a much happier place if people just touched themsel… I mean each other a little bit more.

Caleñas are masters of this. Once you’ve befriended a girl here you can expect to always get greeted warmly with a hug and a kiss, to have them throw their arm over your shoulder when they’re standing next to you, to have them hold your hand or repeatedly touch your elbow or your knee during a conversation and basically just make you feel a warm, human contact that makes that moment feel ten times more special than it otherwise would.

It took me quite a while to get used to it (especially after 4 years in Japan) and some people thought I was quite cold here at first but now I am a devote believer in regular human contact and I’m very grateful for the caress of the Caleñas.

Viva the Surgeons Knife
Another thing that everyone notices as soon as they get here are the surgical, ahem, “enhancements” that are so common place in Cali.

My first night out dancing here, I was amazed by how many women in the club who had boob-jobs and ass-jobs too (I can only imagine that the ass balances out the boobs and stops them tipping over). I quickly realized why this city has such a reputation for plastic surgery.

Apparently, this fascination with surgical perfection stems from the days of the drug cartels when the big drug-dealers used to show off their wealth by having the girlfriends with the biggest “T & A”. It came to be seen as a sign of success and wealth and over the years, the accentuated hour glass figure has come to be something of an “ideal” amongst certain Caleños and plastic surgery to achieve this “ideal” has become a huge industry here. You can even pay for you’re new body in installments.

All that said, I think a lot of women go way overboard on the boob sizes they choose and I think the fake butts look just ridiculous (imagine a football sliced in half and stuck onto someones butt-cheeks and you’ll get a pretty accurate image). Looking natural here is most definitely not the goal amongst some women.

Tienen sabrosura, porque mueven la cintura
Finally I can’t leave out the famed skills of the Caleñas on the dance floor.

I’ve written about how people in Cali really dance and I still feel the same way. Technically, Caleños don’t really meet many expectations but one thing that the women here do have is “sabrosura” or flavor on the dance floor.

Caleñas, thanks to their confidence, really know how to move their bodies and don’t think twice about doing it. They appreciate the music and interpret it beautifully, they let it take them over and and they “flow” with the music better than a lot of social dancers in non-latin countries. What this means is that slow dancing, be it salsa, bachata, reggaeton or whatever, is a real pleasure here and is where Caleñas really shine.

The women of Cali are famed for both their beauty and their skills on the dance floor.

The women of Cali are famed for both their beauty and their skills on the dance floor.

True Flowers
I’ve been here in Cali over a year now and I’ve been truly blessed with the wonderful women I’ve come to know here. I have made wonderful friends and amazing dance partners and every one of them has made my time here in Cali memorable in their own special way.

Their friendliness, their beauty, their sensuality on the dance floor; all of these qualities are what make Caleñas so special and so famous in not just Colombia, but in South America and the world.

Reading about it really doesn’t even scratch the surface of the wonders of the Caleñas so the only thing to do is to come to Cali and meet them for yourself. And with the “Feria de Cali” coming at the end of December, timing couldn’t be better. Hopefully you’ll make it. Drop me a line if you do.

Keep dancing folks.

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The Dancing Irishman on TV

13 Sep

Hi all.

I don’t have much time to write a post this week but I wanted to share this little video which I managed to sneak into a few weeks back.

The show, “Nuestra Semana Nuestra Tele” is broadcast on Colombia’s national TV station “RCN”. The presenters were in Cali, filming some of the famous sites of the city and at the end of the day they visited one of Cali’s most famous salsa bars, Tin Tin Deo to get a glimpse of the city’s vibrant salsa scene.

A couple of buddies of mine were helping the crew with some of the logistics in the club and they asked me to be one of the background dancers (sounds like I should be in a Justin Timberlake video). So I said why not! The video shows some other great dancers here in Cali, namely Canelo and Dominika dancing the local salsa caleña (which you can learn a little more about here).


You can see me dancing in the back-right, with one of my favourite students, Mafe, a little after the presenters enter the club. It’s great to be able to see a video of myself dancing so I can see what I need to improve. From this video I can see that one thing I definitely need to improve is my awful haircut! I’ll get on it straight away!

Apparently, the presenters are big fans of mine (after reading this post I think) and spent the shoot talking about me while I was dancing behind them. The 100% official subtitles that I was in no way involved in translating and editing, reveal just that.

So yeah, I’m a Colombian superstar now. I will be signing autographs tonight in Tin Tin Deo and anytime you see me on the street.

Today Colombian national television, tomorrow the world!

Keep dancing folks.

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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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