Tag Archives: Colombia

The Cuisine of Colombia (The Good & The Bad…but mostly the good)

21 Aug

Life is nothing without passion.

They say that you need to live passionately to lead a fulfilling and happy life and I couldn’t agree more. I live for my passions and of all of them the one that is most evident to those around me in my day to day life is my almost carnal love for good food.

Eating is one of life’s simplest pleasures and that’s one of the reasons why I enjoy traveling so much. Going to a new country and trying new foods that I’ve never had before is a real pleasure for me (I have to confess that one of the first things I do when I get to a new country is go to a big supermarket so I can get a crash course introduction to how the locals eat).

I have to admit, I didn’t really know much about Colombian food before I came here. I ignorantly assumed (assuming is never a good idea) that it would be something similar to Mexican food, or at least to the Mexican food you get in California (which may not be the best representation). What I actually got was something different.

WARNING: I am about to give my opinion about Colombian food. I will write some good things and I will write some bad things. Before you do anything else, read through the article completely. Then take a deep breath and go for a walk, maybe grab yourself a coffee or even better, an ice-cream and then go back home and sit down before you even think of flying off the handle and starting an online storm of abuse!!!

Any foreigner who has lived in Colombia knows that Colombians are very proud… almost patriotic about their local cuisine. Any bad talk about it is almost considered a sin… or even… treason. That’s why I’m going to be figuratively walking on eggshells for this article and I’m going to be very careful about how I say things.

I’m going to word the next sentence very specifically: The food consumed regularly by the majority of average Colombians i.e. the food that is seen most often in common eating places in Colombia…is disappointing!

Let me clarify, in general, Irish food is nothing special (although it has improved by leaps and bounds in recent years) but I’m not comparing Colombian and Irish food. I’m speaking from a more international perspective. Generally speaking Colombian food is over-cooked, under-seasoned and a lot of it is deep fried (a lot like some Irish food when ya think about it).

BUT!!!!!
And it’s a “big butt” (teehee) ladies and gentlemen, Colombia still boasts an incredible repertoire of spectacular dishes that I have fallen in love with in my two years here. The thing is though, they are not “as” readily available (they’re generally more expensive and sold less commonly) as the poorer quality foods I mentioned above.

The great thing about living in a mountainous country that straddles the equator is that the varied climate zones here mean you can grow almost anything you want. Walking through the fruit and vegetable section of a Colombian supermarket is a true pleasure to the eyes (although it is a real pity that Colombians don’t take full advantage of all this produce; vegetable use is few a far between here). Add to this great produce the indigenous, European and African culinary influences and you end up with some truly memorable dishes.

For the rest of this article I’m going to haphazardly introduce you to some of “MY” FAVORITE Colombian foods. Enjoy!

Soups
When I first arrived in Cali (where midday temperatures hover around a sweaty 29°C) I found it unusual that lunch was always served with a piping hot bowl of soup. In the majority of places this caldo (broth) is nothing to write home about. However Colombia does have a few soups that I definitely think deserve a mention.

Ajiaco

There's a lot of eating in a bowl of Ajiaco

There’s a lot of eating in a bowl of Ajiaco

Ajiaco is a hearty soup made with no less than 3 different varieties of potatoes, chicken, corn and cream, seasoned with a local herb called guasca, topped with a handful of capers and served with slices of avocado. As an Irishman who knows his stuff when it comes to potatoes I have to say this is one of the finest potato soups I have ever tried. There’s eatin’ and drinkin’ in it!

Sancocho

Sancocho de pescado, I never thought I would fall in love with a fish soup!

Sancocho de pescado, I never thought I would fall in love with a fish soup!

This is a soup made with either chicken, beef or fish with big chunks of potato, plantain and cassava inside, seasoned with fresh coriander (cilantro) and lime. My favorite, by far, is the sancocho de pescado or fish version that is made extra creamy from the use of coconut milk. I never thought it would have been possible for me to like fish soup.

Pacifico Food
The western coast of Colombia is bordered by the Pacific Ocean and the region is mostly inhabited by the descendants of African slaves that arrived during colonial times. To this day, access to the area is difficult due to poor infrastructure and because of this the area has managed to retain a great deal of its unique culture, in particular music, dance and food.

The cuisine of the pacifico is heavily seafood and coconut based and has easily become my favorite regional cuisine in all of Colombia. Here in Cali I’m blessed to live near a neighbourhood called “La Alameda” which specializes in food from the pacifico. I’m further blessed in that the brother of one of my best friends happens to own one of the best restaurants in that neighbourhood (for those of you visiting Cali it’s called “Punta del Mar”).

Apart from the sancocho de pescado which I just mentioned a few other typical dishes include:

Cazuela de Mariscos

Creamy and delicious cazuela de mariscos

Creamy and delicious cazuela de mariscos

A casserole of mixed seafood cooked in an incredibly seasoned, creamy sauce, topped off with cheese and served in a heated clay dish. The extra weight you’ll gain from eating it is totally worth it.

Arroz  de Mariscos

This seafood rice (arroz de mariscos) is spectacular, especially when it's full of shrimp like this

This seafood rice (arroz de mariscos) is spectacular, especially when it’s full of shrimp like these babies!

A Colombian version of mixed seafood fried rice that would put any Chinese restaurant to shame.

Ají

The ubiquitous Colombian salsa, ají

The ubiquitous Colombian salsa, ají

Not so much a food as a sauce or condiment ubiquitous in Colombian restaurants. Ají is super easy to prepare (it’s just a mix of finely chopped scallions, tomatoes, chilly peppers, fresh coriander and vinegar) but it transforms boring foods into a taste explosion. You can often see Colombians eating empanadas (deep friend pastry parcels of rice, potatoes and meat) with one hand while spooning on generous dollops of ají with the other.

Lechona

The flavored rice and meat are cooked inside the skin of the pig which is served on top of the rice for a crispy treat

The flavored rice and meat are cooked inside the skin of the pig which is served on top of the rice for a crispy treat

Imagine a huge delicious pig hollowed out and then stuffed with a delicious combination of well seasoned rice, peas and pig meat roasting in an oven for 10 hours. Then imagine a portion of that rice-mix that has soaked up all those glorious juices from being roasted inside the pig, topped off with a square of crispy pig skin. That is pure piggy perfection right there.

Chorizo Santarosano

Nothing like a good Chorizo

Nothing like a good Chorizo

Chorizo is a type of sausage common in most latin countries. Chorizo, like most sausage, is good. Chorizo santarosano is simply spectacular. I have no idea what they season it with to make it so good but it has made the town of Santa Rosa famous for producing them. In fact you can walk around the town from stall to stall trying all the different versions of the famous chorizo just like the locals do; with a dash of lime juice.

Arepa
Arepas are cornmeal patties of indigenous origin, cooked on a griddle that are served alongside virtually every meal of the day in Colombia. They are the quintessential “Colombian” food and they take up whole sections in the supermarkets.
Uncooked and cold (just as they are often served with other foods)… they taste like Styrofoam. Heated up on the griddle or even spread with a little butter they begin to taste a little better but I honestly have no idea whey they’re so popular here.

However there are two types of arepa that I have come to love and that prevent the word “arepa” from falling from grace.

Arepa con Todo

Arepa con todo: the kebab of Colombia

Arepa con todo: the kebab of Colombia

Literally an arepa with everything. The contents can vary but generally its an arepa filled with pulled beef and chicken meat, pork-rinds, quail eggs, cheese and an assortment of sauces. It is in my opinion the pinacle of Colombian fast food and it’s my “Go-To” “I’m in a hurry” food in my neighbourhood.

Arepa de Choclo

I could eat arepa de choclo until they came out of my ears!

I could eat arepa de choclo until they came out of my ears!

Choclo is the word used for yellow sweet corn which is used to make these, the sweetest and most flavorful of arepas. A fun day out for me is to go up the mountains outside Cali to a place called “Kilometro 18” where it actually gets cold because of the altitude. Once there, I order a hot chocolate and an arepa de choclo smothered in butter and filled with fresh cheese (on my cheat-day of course). Heaven.

Fritanga
There are a whole host of foods in Colombia that fall under the umbrella of fritanga; basically battered and deep-fried. Some of them can be delicious (like the papa rellena; a battered and deepfried ball of seasoned potatoes, rice and meat. They “can be” amazing and “papa rellena” was actually the first word I learned after I arrived in Cali). However in general they are very “hit and miss” with most just tasting like an oily mess.

There is one however that I cannot leave unmentioned;

Maduro Aborrajado

Maduro aborrajado, it looks so good it's almost sexual.

Maduro aborrajado, it looks so good it’s almost sexual!

A maduro is a “mature” or ripe plantain (a member of the banana family) that is sweet and delicious, just like I like them. The plantain is split open along the middle and filled with cheese (mozzarella or doble crema is the best in my opinion). It is then battered and deep-fried to crispy perfection. Now that’s how you cook a plantain.

Almojabana

The best accompaniment to a coffee is a fresh almojabana

The best accompaniment to a coffee is a fresh almojabana

They only bakery product that you will find on this list as living here in Colombia has almost put me completely off eating breads. The almojabana is a special little guy though. When made right, they’re light, airy and moist with a very subtle sweetness and a mild cheesy taste. Amazing with your cup of coffee in the morning, when they’re fresh out of the oven.

Arequipe

Arequipe: Pure Caramel Sinfulness!

Arequipe: Pure Caramel Sinfulness!

Colombian desserts don’t really do it for me. I won’t get into it but there’s nothing special about them. Colombia does, however, have one little sweet trick up it’s sleeve. Arequipe, known as “Dulce de leche” in other parts of South America, is a thick caramel sauce that is hugely popular here… for good reason. You can put it on anything from fruit to biscuits to arepas. If there are any Colombians reading this try spreading some arequipe on a hot arepa de choclo with butter and cheese… you can thank me in the comments.

Fruits and Juices
No article on food in Colombia would be complete without mentioning the amazing fruits and fruit juices that this country is blessed with. On the corner of virtually every busy street you can find a cart or stall selling freshly cut fruit salads and a variety of juices made with water or milk. Pineapple, mango, papaya, blackberry, strawberry, orange, passion-fruit, guava, guanabana, lulo, curuba and a whole host of other fruits I had never heard of before. You haven’t lived until you’ve tried a passion-fruit juice in milk.

On top of that, Colombians have managed to come up with a great many “original” drinks too;

Salpicon

Salpicon, the liquid fruit salad!

Salpicon, the liquid fruit salad!

Chop up a whole variety of different fruits into small chunks and put them in a bowl. the juice seeps out from the fruit creating a liquid fruit salad. It’s one of my favorite on the go snacks.

Lulada

Another Cali favorite, the Lulada

Another Cali favorite, the Lulada

Coarsely chopped lulo mixed with sugar makes this strange looking green juice very popular in Cali.

Champus

Champus may look like vomit but it is paradise in a glass

Champus may look like vomit but it is paradise in a glass

A Cali classic and definitely my favorite drink. A fermented mix of corn, pineapple, lulo and panela (unpreocessed cane sugar) flavored with orange leaves, cloves and cinnamon. Paradise in a glass.

Cholado

Cali is famous for its snow-cone/fruitsalsad combination, the cholado

Cali is famous for its snow-cone/fruitsalsad combination, the cholado

The best way to describe this concoction is as a cross between a fruit salad and a snow-cone drenched in fruit syrup and condensed milk. The perfect way to celebrate a hot Sunday afternoon in Cali.

A Taste for Home
Any body who has lived in a foreign country knows that you eventually develop a taste for the local cuisine. I’ve lived outside of Ireland for 6 of the past 7 years and I’ve grown to love some of the foods in my “new homes” away from home. I have no doubt that in a few months I’ll be craving all sorts of delights from Colombia.

Colombia does have a rich food culture, you just have to look for it a little harder and ignore all the not so nice stuff on offer. I really do hope some of you reading this will get to try some of these dishes if you come to Colombia. I just hope that I’ll get to try them again sometime in the future.

SIDENOTE: It’s 7.30am here in Colombia and I’m just after finishing this article after working through the night since around midnight. I actually completed this article at about 4 am and lost everything with the click of a button. You have no idea how filled with rage I was when I realized what I had done. I simultaneously wanted to cry and to break everything in my vicinity. I’m pretty damn proud of managing to “play through the pain” and write out the whole article all over again. Moral of the story: “be careful how you save your work”.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I AM EXCITED!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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21 Things I F##KING HATE about Colombia!

12 Feb
Feel my Blogger's Wrath!

Where’s my bloody Christmas present?

Let’s get something straight right from the get-go: I love my life here in Cali and the great things about living here really do outweigh the bad. I consider Colombia like a second home and I have defended and will continue to defend this beautiful country whenever I hear somebody “intentionally insulting” Colombia or its people.

So BEFORE YOU READ THIS ARTICLE,  READ SOME OF MY OTHER POSTS:
Things I love about Cali
Proud to be Colombian
The Cuisine of Colombia

That said, as anyone who has lived in a foreign country knows, there will always be things that piss you off when comparing one place with another. I lived in Japan for four years and I can safely say they were four of the best years of my life. Despite that, there were a huge amount of things that annoyed the hell out of me about life in Japan or Japanese culture in general. It’s one of the reasons why it’s good to have a few expat friends to give you an outlet to vent some international rage.

Living in Colombia is no different and I’m going to consider this post a form of catharsis; a chance to blow off a little tropical steam. I often blow off lots of steam about my native Ireland’s MANY problems and the only reason I haven’t written an article about it is because if I started I don’t know if I’d be able to stop 😉

TO MY COLOMBIAN FRIENDS: This is not an attack on Colombians in general. Some of the things on this list will make you laugh but some touch on very deeply rooted social problems that I and many Colombians are very concerned about.

I AM ALSO AWARE THAT MANY OF THE POINTS I MENTION HERE ARE NOT UNIQUE TO COLOMBIA AND ARE, IN FACT, COMMON IN OTHER COUNTRIES. HOWEVER, THAT DOES NOT DIMINISH THEIR SIGNIFICANCE IN COLOMBIA, A PLACE I CALL HOME.

1. Safety
Colombia is (by international standards) not a safe country. In fact it is the most dangerous place I’ve ever lived in my life. I’ve been mugged twice here myself and I constantly hear of people getting murdered for their phones or jewelery, people getting drugged and coerced into emptying their bank accounts, kidnappings, hijackings of overnight buses… the list goes on. Add to that the threat of paramilitaries in rural areas and it doesn’t paint a nice picture.

With all that said, if you use your common sense and experience you can avoid most of the trouble that life in Colombia presents. Regardless, that doesn’t take anything away from the fact that it simply feels unpleasant to live in a place where you have to think so much about your personal safety. This apprehension comes from kind-hearted locals constantly reminding me to be careful in certain areas.

2. Worlds Slowest Cashiers
I love grocery shopping but I hate going to the cash register in Colombian supermarkets because the cashiers are probably the slowest in the world. One reason for this is people pay their bills (electricity, water etc.) at the cash register and something that should be incredibly quick and easy is drawn out to ridiculous lengths. The cashiers do everything slowly and even get up to find the price for products themselves even though there’s usually plenty of staff around to do it for them. What amazes me even more is that this doesn’t seem to phase Colombians at all; a culture of being late seems to have instilled the populace with the patience of saints.

3. Poverty
I have never seen (or felt) the gap between rich and poor as much as I have in Colombia. There are a huge amount of people in this country living below the poverty line and shanty towns are a common sight in big cities. In contrast there is a small but very visible class of super-rich that would make most well-off Europeans feel financially inadequate. The problem is that a lot of this is “new wealth” and the problem with families who come into new money is that often (but obviously not always) they can be very extravagant in their spending.

I know kids who barely bat an eyelid at breaking the screen of their iPad because they know that mommy or daddy will buy them a brand new one, or kids that show off their collection of Gucci belts and brag about how just one of them is even more expensive than buying a regular suit.

This poverty gap is what fuels social problems like crime and violence in Colombia and the more I become aware of it the more disappointed I feel about the world in general.

4. Phone service
Calling different mobile phone providers is so expensive that everywhere you go you find “minute sellers” on the street. They basically have a cell phone for each operator (usually attached to them by a small chain) and let you make calls to the operator of your choice and you pay after; like a pay phone for mobiles.So basically, people only use their own phone for receiving calls or calling people who use the same operator as themselves. Convenient, right!

This confused the hell out of me at first until I realized that my phone credit just didn’t last when I called other operators. Often you’ll see people who have two or more different phones with different service operators for “convenience”.

On top of that, the line connection is often really poor which isn’t fun if you’re not a master of the language yet and have to guess what the other person is saying (I will admit this has actually gotten me a few dates in the past from being frustrated at not understanding what’s going on on the phone and just asking the girl out so we can talk in person).

5. Postal Service
It’s mid February and I’m still waiting on my Christmas present from home… enough said!

6. Food
I’ve got a whole post coming on Colombian food but IN GENERAL, FOOD IN COLOMBIA LEAVES MUCH TO BE DESIRED and is one of the main reasons that I couldn’t live here long-term. Most readily available food here is uninteresting, unvaried and usually deep-fried. Good food can be found but you really have to look for it and it’s not cheap. There are some foods I love here but they are the exception and not the rule.

7. Inability to use Public Transport
A bus pulls into it’s station. The people outside wait in an orderly line while the people inside get off so there will be more room on the bus. Sounds logical, right? Not in Colombia.

Once a bus pulls into a station here it is a frenzied free for all with every man for himself. Before anyone on the bus can get off there is a chaotic mob pushing against them to get on. Forming a line is not a well understood concept here.

Even worse are the idiots who decide to stand in the middle of the station doorway with no intention of getting on and expect everyone else to go around them. There is a special place in hell for these people.

8. Driving
Many drivers here show virtually no consideration for other drivers as can be seen by people driving over the painted lines separating lanes, almost non-existent use of turn signals and drivers constantly cutting people off.

Even less respect is shown for cyclists (like me) and I have had plenty of close calls on my bike here to testify to that.

9. Time-keeping (or lack there of)
I once had to wait 3 days for a guy to come and install my oven. I had been told each day that he would arrive at a certain time and I waited like a an idiot until he finally came on the 3rd day. This generally doesn’t apply to big business (I honestly think Colombians can be very professional and hard working) but outside of work I have to talk in Colombian-time; the stated time with about an hour of leeway.  I lived in Japan for 4 years where being late means arriving 5 minutes EARLY so this bugs the hell out of me and what’s killing me is that it’s starting to rub off on me too.

10. Prices
OK, Colombia is technically a “developing country” so the cost of living is obviously much lower than in the “developed” (I’m not very happy with this description) world BUT for the wages that most people make here, things are expensive. Electronics are so expensive that rich Colombians often bring back electronics from vacations to the United States. Good food, nice clothes, mobile-phone plans and many more goods are ridiculously expensive and European produced foods are even more expensive than they are in Europe. This means that people are using credit cards more and more which is not good in the long run.

11. Common Courtesy
When you get to know them, Colombians are incredibly friendly and helpful but on the street there is a certain coldness that doesn’t sit well with me. My mam raised me well so I hold doors open for people and I yield when walking in narrow spaces to allow others to pass. One would expect a courteous “thank you” in return for these actions but it rarely comes here in Colombia.

Another thing that bugs me is that people will block narrow passages and even if they have seen you coming will not think of moving out of the way until you ask for permission to pass.

Nor will anyone ever call you to tell you they’ll be late, even if it’s more than an hour. Common courtesy is not all that common here!

12. Dishonesty in Business
This happens everywhere in the world but really pisses me off here just because I have to deal with it regularly. I am clearly not Colombian and a lot of store owners take advantage of that by charging me ridiculous “gringo-prices” when I ask about the cost of something. I’m good at haggling and enjoy it from time to time but when you have to do it regularly it’s just tiring.

13. Things Men say to Women
I have many times seen an attractive woman passing a man or group of men on the street only to hear those men say the rudest, most foul mouthed “compliments” to the woman in a deranged attempt to get her attention. It’s apparently common in all Latin cultures but it is disgusting and if I was a woman I’d be breaking guy’s jaws on every street corner here.

14. Racism
Colombia is a very racially mixed country and has been so for hundreds of years. People here are a mix of European, African and indigenous South American. Despite that I have heard some of the most racist comments of my life here in this country. As I mentioned earlier there is a small but very visible wealthy elite here, most of whom are amongst the “whitest” or most European in the country. In light conversation I have heard wealthy people say some terrible things about darker people and especially Afr0-descended people.

What’s worse is that they pretend everything is all hunky-dory and that Colombians all consider themselves equal. Afro-descendants and indigenous Colombians still occupy the lowest socioeconomic strata here and even if they are not discriminated against because of their skin colour, it’s because of how much money they have. Some of the upper elite really do seem to look down on the poorer classes here.

To make it worse, there is a saying amongst many darker skinned Colombians called “improving your blood” which means marrying someone with lighter skin so that your kids will be lighter and have better opportunities in life. The amount of times I have heard this here saddens me!

15. Guns
The police force in Ireland, called the Gardaí, is unarmed. The only time I saw guns in Ireland was when the military was escorting armored cars with deliveries of cash to banks. Here in Colombia I have the pleasure of seeing security guards walking around shopping centers carrying shotguns. This is something I will simply never, ever get used to especially since thy walk around with the muzzles of their guns pointing upwards, at head height of many people walking by. I’m not sure they even receive any training at all.

16. Potholes
Being from the Irish countryside I have a certain nostalgic affinity for potholes. Colombia, however, doesn’t just do potholes, oh no, Colombia has “craters”! The state of some of the roads, even in some of the nice neighbourhoods is shocking. And the sidewalks are even worse, so bad in my neighbourhood that I prefer to walk on the moon-like, cratered roads.

17. Big Bills
ATM machines almost always pay out in 50,000 peso bills. Unless you try to spend these in a large department store or supermarket the person at the cash register will probably just laugh at you and tell you to go find some change. Seriously.

18. Airing Dirty Laundry
Some Colombians don’t seem to have any problem shouting or arguing on the street. If they have something to say they will let the whole world know about it and it seems to be the national pass-time to stand around and watch as such altercations transpire.

19. Milk in a bag
I know….

20. Lack of Books
Books can be  found easily in Colombia but are unbelievably expensive; new hardback editions can cost more than half a days wages for some people here and that is contributing to a distancing of the youth of the Colombia from the written word which in my opinion is a crime against humanity. This country is trying to educate its populace to create a better future for themselves and yet the majority of people can’t even afford books to open their minds to new ideas.

The cost of literature has even contributed to a strong trade in counterfeit books of which I have had to become a customer. I simply can’t afford to buy original copies here.

21. Missing Toilet Seats
This is probably the greatest Colombian mystery there is. For some reason in men’s public toilets in Colombia the toilet seats are almost always missing. I have never heard an explanation for this and would love to hear why if anyone knows!

I'm convinced there's a flood of stolen toilet seats on the Colombian Back Market!

I’m convinced there’s a flood of stolen toilet seats on the Colombian Black Market!

And breath….

I may not have any Colombian friends left after this and I may have to watch my back for motorbike drive-bys for a while but it feels good to get that off my chest. And you know what? I love Colombia! This is one of the most beautiful and diverse countries on Earth and I am very proud to call it my home for now (despite the things I don’t like).

If you’re Colombian or you’ve been to Colombia before I’d love to hear what you think (no death-threats please).

Here’s a request: If you’re thinking of leaving a hate-filled comment (of which I’ve received many since this article was first published): Stop, read the this article again (CAREFULLY), read my other articles about Colombia and think about what I’ve written here. I wrote this article because I want people to be aware of these issues because it’s only when people are aware of issues that something gets done to solve them. I didn’t write this article to offend people, remember that.

Keep Dancing Folks!

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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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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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