Tag Archives: Cali

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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Be inspired!

23 Oct

Dancing with great partners really keeps you on your toes!

I dance well!

I am far from being a great dancer but I get by. I stay on the beat, I use a variety of moves to keep things interesting, I adapt my dance to the level and style of my partner, I avoid stepping on toes and probably most importantly I haven’t dropped anyone on their face in months!

What this adds up to is that at times I can begin to “believe” that I’m good. Don’t mistake me, there’s nothing wrong with confidence, in fact it’s essential for all aspects of dancing. From actually getting you out on the dance floor in the first place to allowing you to feel comfortable doing things outside of your comfort zone which is the only way to improve; confidence is essential.

Over-confidence on the other hand can be detrimental to your progression. Thinking you are the Shiz-nit (I’ve always wanted to use that word) may make you FEEL like a great dancer but it doesn’t MAKE you one at all.

Searching for Swing
Case in point: I recently took advantage of a 4-day weekend with a little trip to Bogota to give the salsa scene there another try after a mediocre experience there a few months back. I went out dancing two nights and had two very different experiences. Both nights I went out with some very talented Caleña dancers as partners (I’ll admit I didn’t hold out much hope for the local dancers) so for the experiments sake let’s say that that factor was fixed.

The first night we went out we strolled around a particular nightlife hot spot in Bogota looking for a little rumba. We tried two places, “Quiebra Canto” first and then “Salsa Camará”. In both places I can unfortunately say that I was the best dancer there. Now before everyone turns there nose’s up and scoffs at the cocky Irishman who’s full of himself, allow me to clarify. What I’m saying is that the standard was very low!

My dance partners and I were the main source of visual entertainment that night, both because we danced well and because we danced a lot, which can’t be said for the other couples there. I’m not criticizing the other couples though; they were social dancers and were content with having a little wiggle on the dance floor every 6 songs or so… and that’s fine!

I, however, am not interested in just “a little wiggle” on the dance floor. I want to be good! After some great dances with my partners we left the club and as we were doing so I thought to myself: “I really don’t want to be in a place where I’M the best dancer”. The next morning, all I could think was that Bogota is missing some “swing”, the word dancers use here to describe a combination of feeling, emotion, musicality and skill when dancing.

Eye Opener
The second night was a very different story. We went to “El Panteón de la Salsa” a place that had been recommended to me by an Italian salsera who had lived in Bogota. She told me it was the only place to get some real dancing in the capital. It’s in a slightly dodgy part of Bogota and I was advised by quite a few people not to go there but after coming all the way from Cali and for the sake of my “research”, I had to go!

I knew things were different as soon as I stepped through the door. The dance floor was full, the air was hot and humid and the atmosphere was alive with salsa. People were dancing salsa caleña, linear salsa and salsa cubana. There were people doing moves I’d never seen before, people sweating buckets in the heat and best of all everyone was having fun with the dance in there own unique way. There in that one little club with it’s two little dance floors was Bogota’s Swing!

I danced the night away and apparently got plenty of attention because I was the only foreigner there and I knew how to dance. However I was far from the best dancer there and that’s what made it so much fun. I could happily sit down and watch the other dancers, wishing I could do some of the things they could do. You couldn’t wipe the smile off my face the whole night!

Being around people that are better than us makes us want to improve. If you’re the best dancer in a certain club or certain city or even a certain country, what incentive do you have to improve?

Probably not much, right? This is one reason why the big international salsa congresses are so beneficial. They give people who have gotten used to a certain salsa scene the opportunity to see, dance with and learn from amazing dancers from all over the world! For example I’ve heard some great things about the recent Berlin salsa congress after a lot of my Irish salsa dancing friends attended it a few weeks back.

Finding Inspiration
To avoid developing a false sense of over-confidence we need to put ourselves in positions or places where it’s obvious that we’re “not all that”.

Try dancing with the the person you consider to be the best dancer in the club. Try going to a new club or class to learn from dancers you haven’t seen before. Try to keep yourself on your toes. There is nothing worse than becoming complacent.

I’m lucky to see amazing dancers every time I go dancing here in Cali. They are the minority but they exist and seeing this amazing minority is enough for me to want to make myself a better dancer.

Remember, confidence is a good thing as long as you temper it with the knowledge that there will always be someone better than you. This is what it’s all about, getting to see all those amazing dancers out there that are better than you and being inspired to better yourself.

If you can’t find anyone who inspires you in your current situation it’s time to shake things up, time to try new things, maybe even time to go somewhere new. Find that new source of inspiration. That’s how great dancers are made!

Keep dancing folks!

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The Greatest Salsa Playlist EVER!

10 Oct

YES I DO!

If you’re impatient you can go straight to the playlists here.

First off, my apologies for my lack of posts these last three weeks. It’s been kind of crazy at work during the day, which I’m not so happy about and I’ve been dancing a lot more in the evenings, which I’m very happy about.

Moving on, I’ve been spending a lot of time playing around with my latin music playlists and I think I’ve come up with something spectacular.

There are songs that, as soon as you hear them, make you want to get up and dance. It might be the chorus, the opening or the variation in the rhythms. It might be the lyrics, the percussion, the piano or the brass. What they all have in common is a certain magic that makes my body want to convert that music into pure dance energy. All of the songs on my new playlists have to meet this requirement.

Asking Around
Recently I’ve been asking a lot of friends and readers of this blog for their favourite songs for two reasons:

  1. to remind me of songs that I may have forgotten to include and …
  2. to introduce me to new songs which I hadn’t heard before.

What I’ve come up with is what I feel is an amazing mix of songs for dancing the 4 main styles of salsa: Linear On1, Linear On2, Cuban and Cali style.

Evolution
This list is by no means finished, it is going to constantly grow and evolve. I’m going to add more songs as I encounter more that I like and more importantly, my tastes are going to evolve themselves.

Since I moved to Cali, I’ve been exposed to to much more salsa music (and every other latin genre) than ever before. I’ve come to enjoy really fast salsas that I can really get my feet moving to. On the other end of the scale, I also now love slow salsas which are danced very close and sensually here.

And on top of that, I still love dancing linear (cross-body) salsa to the more medium paced songs that are popular in such salsa communities outside of Latin America.

Learning Spanish and finally understanding the lyrics of songs has affected my taste in music too and has given me great motivation for my Spanish practice.

The Playlists
You can see the lists here on the blog or you can check out all my songs on The Dancing Irishman’s YouTube page which is more up to date and you can also view the individual Salsa, Bachata and Latin Mix (very eclectic mix of very different latin music genres that equally, make me want to get up and dance in one form or another) lists.

It’s my list
You may love the songs I’ve chosen or you may hate them. This is my list and for me it is the Greatest Playlist Ever! If I mixed the salsa, bachata and latin mix lists together and used them in a party I would have the greatest night of dancing ever!

Thankfully, you’re different. You and your style are unique. I do want you to like my lists but more than that I hope this will give you the incentive to go and create your own, to discover more about your own tastes and to learn more about the incredible wealth of music out there. I guarantee it will make you much more complete, not just as a salsero or bachatero but as an all round rumbero.

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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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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How NOT to get mugged in Colombia (A Guide for idiots) Part 1

13 Jun
Robbery not allowed

The do’s and don’ts of muggery!

Important: to any of you who know my parents I beg, on bended knee, that you don’t tell them about the contents of this post nor even of  its existence. It’s not that I’m lying to them it’s just that I feel withholding the truth keeps them from worrying too much. PLEEEEEEEEEASE!

The title of this post has two intended meanings:
1: What NOT to do if you get mugged
2. How to AVOID getting mugged in the first place

An unfortunate stereotype that Colombia has is that it is a dangerous country. Obviously that reputation developed in the days of the drug cartels ala Pablo Escobar and by all accounts Colombia was an exceptionally dangerous place to live. Thankfully things have greatly improved and Colombia is probably safer now than it has been in the past 30 or 40 years.

That does not, however, mean that it is completely safe.

I have lived here in Cali for 9 months now and I have been “mugged” twice (mugged is written in inverted comas because the people who tried to mug me didn’t actually get anything, thanks to one occasion of quick thinking and another occasion of pure, frightened idiocy and luck on my part). I had never been mugged before coming here.

I have heard many of my friends tell me stories of how they were mugged at knife point or gun point; I have heard stories of people getting mugged by taxi drivers who take them down a side street where they and their friends take everything; I have heard stories of delivery men and people at ATM’s getting shot in the middle of the day; I have heard stories of what is called “El Paseo Millonario” (let’s translate that as “the millionaire’s roundabout”) where you get abducted and taken by your captors to numerous ATM machines until you’ve emptied your account; and actually I have heard of much worse.

I really want to stress that I’m not trying to demonize Cali or Colombia in this post. You can get mugged virtually anywhere, in any country in the world. I just, unfortunately, got the incentive to write this post and I think that some people will benefit from learning about this from my blog as opposed to learning it the hard and scary way like I did.

I’m going to tell you what happened to me both times I was mugged, why it happened, what I did, what I should (and shouldn’t) have done and what I do now to make sure it doesn’t happen again.

My first mugging (January, 2012)
I was having some repairs done in my apartment and my landlord told me I should go to Cali’s downtown district (El Centro) to get some materials. He gave me the address of a store and told me how to get there. I hopped of the Mio (Cali’s bus service) on a busy street (La 15) I had been on many times before. To the west of this busy street was a busy shopping district where I regularly go to buy clothes and stuff for my house. It is always bustling with people during the day. To the east of this street is an area I had never been to before. It’s made up of warehouses and smaller stores selling building supplies.

I was always cautious when I went to El Centro because everyone told me to do so. That day I dressed very casually, jeans and a T-shirt, I had a courrier-bag over my shoulder and I had my mobile phone (an iPhone 4) in my front pocket. I dressed casually so that I wouldn’t stick out too much, although being as white as I am that is next near to impossible here. The phone was in my front pocket because that pocket is very tight and even I have difficulty getting it out so a pickpocket wouldn’t have a chance of taking it unnoticed.

As I proceeded east down the side street, away from the main street, I noticed there were much less people and the further I went the less safe it felt (I can’t explain where the feeling came from but it had to do with the people I saw and the poor state of repair the area was in). As I walked down the street (on the left side) two young men (in their early 20’s) approached me and one held out his hand to shake mine. They were speaking fast and heavily accented and not only was my Spanish poor but I didn’t even want to understand what they were saying. I didn’t accept the handshake (something I had been advised on many years ago) and kept walking. They disappeared.

As I continued walking down the street (I was bout 3 blocks from the main street at this stage) I felt very uncomfortable due to the lack of activity and so crossed the street to the other side and started walking back towards the main street. The two men who had approached me previously reappeared and started speaking to me again but I tried to ignore them and kept walking. Then, one of them, from behind, put his hand on my shoulder. I wrenched my shoulder forward sharply to get lose his grip but he immediately put it back and with a lot more force. I span around. My back was facing a car and the two men were in front of me slightly to my left and right. I was effectively trapped. It was only then that I realized what was happening; I was getting mugged.

One of them launched his hand towards my front pocket (towards my phone) and I “reacted” by blocking his hand away with my forearm. I say reacted because I didn’t consciously think about it. Years of Karate training have made that movement automatic. He reached for my pocket again and once more I blocked him. They both were saying something to me but I think I was too frightened to understand.

I looked around and tried to take in the situation as best I could; it was broad daylight, there were other people on the street and there were people standing in the shop entrances nearby. I figured I needed to draw attention to what was going on so I started shouting, very loudly, in English (I had learned at a safety seminar for foreigners in Japan that shouting in a foreign language tends to draw much more attention than shouting in the local language). It had just the effect I was looking for; everyone nearby started looking in my direction and as soon as the two guys realized that they were the focus of everyone’s attention they turned around and took off in the other direction. I’ll never forget the look of one of them just before he turned around; pure pissed-off!

I turned and headed, shakily but quickly back towards the main street, checking over my shoulder every now and then to make sure I wasn’t being followed. Along the way one guy told he he saw what had happened and told me to be careful there. Back on the main street I looked around for a cop (there is a considerable police presence in Cali) but as luck would have it, couldn’t find one.

I quickly hopped back on the Mio, feeling very shaken up, got off at a shopping center near my house and proceeded to calm my nerves the only way I knew; Chocolate cake.

Post Mugging Analysis
This was a crime of opportunity. Those two guys saw a really white guy, looking slightly lost in a bad neighbourhood. My clothes were all Colombian but my physical appearance is clearly not. They saw a bag and possible the outline of my phone in my front pocket. They saw an opportunity and went for it. They didn’t show any weapons (which doesn’t mean they didn’t have any) so that gave me the incentive to do what I did.

In this case, I think my actions were pretty sound. It was broad daylight and their were other people around which meant these guys “probably” weren’t going to attempt anything crazy. Drawing attention to the situation by shouting saved my ass without me getting physical (which would just have made the situation much more dangerous). When everyone was looking at them they realized they had lost their prize of juicy little Irishman and they took off.

How I’m dealing with this now?
For one thing, I’m never going to that area alone again. I told my landlord what happened and we went back, together, a week later to pick up what I needed. I’m still pissed-off that he sent me there in the first place!

I carry much less money with me when I go to El Centro (and most places in general); just enough for what I think I need to get and I often hide most of it in my sock with just a little in my pocket (I hope the readers of this blog won’t use this information to rob my socks in the future).

IF they had had a gun, my actions (I hope) would have been very different. I would have shut the F@$K up and given them absolutely everything they asked for and prayed they wouldn’t shoot me. A gun is a game changer. You see one, you have already lost. Give them what they want and fast.

Next post
In Part 2 of this post I’ll talk about my second experience with the criminal underbelly of Cali. It was an experience that could very easily have gone, but thankfully didn’t go VERY, VERY BADLY!

I’ll talk a little more about the effect that experience has had on my current behaviour in my day to day life in Colombia and I’ll give a more detailed list of safety do’s and don’ts that I hope will keep you safer in the future.

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Fiona Uyema

Japanese Cookbook Author

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