Cali, capital of Valle province, is also the self-declared world capital of salsa…our hip-wiggling moment had arrived. Watch out Colombia! No, really, watch out. Our first foray into the world of salsa started in a local club in a small town just outside Cali, it ended when Sol, determined to impress, made an even bigger fool of himself than anticipated, when an enthusiastic pelvic thrust backfired and he clattered backwards into a thankfully empty chair. The pelvic thrust is not a salsa move.
Psychologically wounded from our first attempt on the dance floor, we re-assessed our standard and turned up at the weekly class for 8-10 year olds. There we met our new teacher, Fabio, who, after his initial surprise at how basic his ‘basics’ needed to be, got us a little more prepared for our outing with the big boys in Cali.
Or so we thought. (See us in our second lesson here). Cali was the next level. Our first host was Kelly, who, as well as impressing us with her Pacific-influenced salsa, also introduced us to some of the political tensions in Cali. Kelly is a student at the public university – a politically engaged institution with an anti-authoritarian culture. She took us to a student protest, provoked by the government shutting the university for a week to deter demonstrations during the Pacific Alliance, an economic meeting of South America’s right-wing countries, taking place down the road. It seems that freedom to protest is tolerated up to the point where it could have an impact. We had a further insight into her frustrations with authority when sitting in a park one evening and the police came and demanded ID from everyone. To be required to carry ID, produce it on demand and have it run through their system, a propos of nothing, seemed rather 1984. Our normal excellent interactions with the police were very different when in the company of Colombians.
So, back to the star of this blog, salsa. In a typical salsa club, you base yourself at a table with friends, chatting while slowly passing around a communal bottle, and dancing in a pair from time to time when a song you enjoy comes on. So far, we felt welcome in salsa clubs, but a little out of step.
Our second host in Cali, Richie, changed that. He happened to be a salsa instructor, who happened to be from Ireland, who happened to fall in love with it while living in the Japanese countryside, where approximately zero per cent of the population dance salsa. As you might imagine, Richie is a very interesting guy. We spent five fantastic days together, seeing another side of Cali, and getting one more toe in the door of the salsa world. The price? A fat lip for Rebs, when Sol spun her with too much gusto, prompted by Richie’s injunction to add a dash of flair.
Non-salsa related moments in Valle were few but significant.
– Colombia’s take on the house party: we’d experienced the night out, now it was the night in. All you need is an extension cable, a Hi-Fi, a lot of bass and the greatest hits of Shaggy, Bob Marley and UB40. Set up on the pavement outside your house and you’re good to go.
– Making ratatouille to mixed reception: some rave about it being the first time they’ve eaten or enjoyed vegetables, others poke at it dismissively, before finally ordering a take-out, explaining that they are ‘not accustomed to brown rice or vegetables and don’t want to risk trying them’.
– Catching the big game: no, not the Champions League Final, the Watford v Crystal Palace Championship playoffs, aka a right shambles. A bar owner offered to open up specially for us to watch the game but we had to refuse when it turned out not a single Colombian cable channel deemed it significant enough to broadcast, leaving us to stream it online.
– Trying coca leaves: the unprocessed plant manipulated to produce cocaine. Here a valued traditional custom, chewing the leaves helps with altitude, headaches and acts as a weak stimulant, much like caffeine. It’s definitely an acquired taste: the bitterness left Rebs gagging and unable to speak so Sol had to maintain conversation with the motorcyclist who appeared at that moment and accompanied us for the next 35 kms.
– Watching ‘In Time’ with our friend Carlos: an anti-capitalist protest at the vacuous consumerism and disgusting injustice of our modern age…ooor just a film?
– Javier’s birthday: Javier is a fireman we stayed with in December, who spent six months urging us to return for his birthday in May, with weekly Facebook prompts with the date. We made it in time and rustled up a banoffee pie birthday cake, containing the only white powder Colombians are actually addicted to: sugar.