My voyage to Colombia was an epic 10 hours, with 2 layovers in Houston and Panama City. My second layover in Panama City was made worthwhile by meeting one of my dear friend's mother, Alma Martinez. It was good luck, or fate perhaps, that she should be working that very day in the airport. As I made my way off the plane and down the corridor into the terminal, I was greeted by a young man holding up a sign with my name, who then escorted me to Alma’s mother. I knew it was her before she'd even stood up; I saw the same glow, and confident smile that I’ve gotten to appreciate over the past several years. We had a nice time chatting over coffee, and made phone calls to Alma, and even to her father. I was glad to be able to share the time with her, and to send Alma’s love to her mom, who she hasn't seen in many years. Our visit was brief, as she had to return to work, and me onward south.
I arrived in Cali in the evening, and immediately contacted my local friend, Catalina, who Alma had introduced me to in Boston a year prior. Catalina had done the tremendous favor of finding me an apartment to rent for my month in the city. She and her boyfriend drove me to my new home, which was located in the nicest and most modern part of the city, Chipichape. We were met at the building's reception by a professional looking woman who was the property manager for the apartment. We exchanged greetings and then scooted along to the elevator and up to the 3rd
floor. Just outside my apartment were flower beds dressed in a range of local flora, mostly tropical plants and vegetation. Through the tall ornate solid wood front door, the kitchen was decked out in stainless steel appliances and an island, complete with a gas powered range and hood. The living room was nicely furnished in glass and black leather. In the center was a rotating wall with an entertainment center on one side and artwork on the other. It revolved between the living room and adjacent bedroom. The bedroom was equipped with a queen size bed and wall to wall closets. The bathroom was well lit, and covered in black ceramic tile. The transparent walls into the shower revealed a handsome high flow shower that instantly drenches its patrons from head to toe. There was also a laundry room with a washing machine and rack to hang dry clothes. I had a private patio with a gorgeous view of the city at night. The rooftop had a a swimming pool and Jacuzzi, and an even more impressive view. It was luxurious living by my standards, and certainly by the standards of locals. I actually felt like it was too much for me, and because of it being in such a nice area of the city, it was away from the action that I was after. But then, I guess it was better than living in the ghetto downtown right?
Cali is by no means a beautiful city, but its colorful people and vibrant culture stand tall in front of the uglier side of the city. Near the center of the city, several street blocks are littered with garbage and tattered buildings with tin rooftops. This is home to many of the poorest of the city. Rumor has it that this is where much of the peddling of drugs occurs, and small time gang members intermingle. It’s a place seldom visited by the police, and from the sounds of it, not too much unlike the favelas of Rio de Janeiro. It’s an unfortunate realty for the lowest class of society within a country still struggling with poverty and where the “easy way out” is through drugs, prostitution, and violence. This is what we find in our American newspapers and on the television. A country riddled with violence, homicide, drugs, and all form of illegal activity. I have found over the years that news is very limiting, in the same way that nearly anything we hear or read about is limiting in its portrayal of reality. Even “Official Government Warnings” on overseas travel are enough to deter the majority from venturing into the unknown of countries such as Colombia. In a way its sad, because most will never get the wonderful experience of being in a place like this. On the other hand, perhaps many are not ready to step outside of their bubble and open up to the reality. The law of attraction dictates that we attract that which we exude. And if those traveling to places like Colombia do so with a wall of security around them, and a cynicism that prevents them from opening themselves up, they will indeed attract the kind of energy they’re “looking for”. This isn’t to say that one should step into the country and carelessly think they can go anywhere and do anything they want. Traveling throughout much of Latin America does require vigilance on the part of the traveler, but even more so, it requires the same common sense that one would exercise at home. For example, would you go walking around a big city like Chicago, LA, or Miami, without knowing where you are? Would you buy drugs on a street corner in a dodgy neighborhood? Would you give a stare, or try to take a girl from a random guy in an urban club? Would you get shitface drunk in a bar downtown at 3am with a bunch of people you hardly know? Certainly not, well at least for the majority not. But, wouldn't you know, there are those who take the liberty to do as they please when they travel to foreign lands, with a complete disregard for the code of the places they visit. No matter where you go in the world, you should always do your research. And I don’t mean just the research you find in the newspaper at home, or the official government websites. Take another step and venture out to find people who have been there, live there, or are from there. Check out travel forums on the internet, join couchsurfing and talk to locals, and most of all, be willing to step outside of your comfort zone. The rewards of traveling in places like this far outweigh the risks. I encourage everyone to get out and just do it. We no longer live in a capsule like we did years ago; the world is changing rapidly and the opportunities for adventure are ripe. I cannot emphasize enough the power of opening yourself up to new experiences, new cultures, and new people. I’ve met some of the most incredible people in my life doing just that. I won’t pretend to say that its easy. I still find a challenge in exploring the unknown, and yes, I have my fears just like every other human being, but I refuse to allow this to restrain me. It’s my sustenance for long term travel, and without it I would bore and find myself right back where I started at home.
In short, go to Colombia, it is without question one of the most incredible places on earth. Go discover for yourself why it tops the lists for the “happiest country in the world”.
Cali is often referred to as the “Salsa Capital of the World”, and for good reason. Every year, the city cranks out dozens of national and world champion salsa dancers for everything from couples, to cabaret, to group performances. I’d spent nearly a year in Boston taking biweekly salsa lessons, but it prepared me little for the intensity of Caleno Salsa. I had learned a New York style, which is performed in a line, and crossing of the couple within this line. The rhythm and steps follow a “1,2,3 5,6,7” pattern, with a pause at 4 and 8. In the Caleno style, there are no pauses, and the rhythm is sharp and intense. It requires a great deal of balance and precision, and of course a tremendous amount of training. Many of the dancers I met or were familiar with in Cali made it their sole purpose in life to excel in salsa dancing. It was rare to see a dancer over the age of 25, and most began at a young age, sometimes as young as 5 or 6. My private instructors, whom I was so incredibly lucky to find, were 18 and 19 years old. Kiko was my male instructor, and Xiomar my female instructor, from the studio Constelacion Latino. Both are incredibly talented and accomplished dancers. By now, they have already competed professionally for nearly 5 years, and have had various partners prior to teaming up together. They now compete as a duo in national and international competitions. They’ve placed 1st
, and always in the top 5 within Colombia. They performed in group competition with their team in Miami, and won! I had no need to feel intimidated by their accomplishments, for they took me in like a friend, and patiently cheered me on as I stumbled through the motions of becoming an amateur Salsero Caleno. We wasted no time from the beginning, working two consecutive hours a day, one with kiko and the other with xiomar. After my two hours from them, if I had anything left in me, I would go to another studio, Manicero, to take 2 more hours of group lessons. I had naively assumed that a month of this would make me into a real dancer. To my dismay, it was not to be. However, I did climb my way up from amateur to a respectable intermediate level dancer. I complemented my lessons with social dancing 2-3 times a week. I met a group of awesome couchsurfers, a mix of locals and foreigners, to party and dance the nights away. Fortunately almost all of them shared the same spirit of dance, and so we had no difficulty in enjoying the salsa scene of Cali. I quickly found out that what I was learning in my lessons could be scarcely practiced in the social scene, as most people are only familiar with a more easy-going, casual dance style. It didn’t stop me from trying, and I did in fact find several great partners to try out my new moves. The salsa experience of Cali left me without disappointment.
This was my second visit to Colombia, and once again, it has touched my heart and soul. If I were ready for the “big move”, this place is tops my list. Until then, my wanderlust continues.
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