Cali Born, La Girls

Tuesday, March 09, 2010

The day was Friday, the month February, and the hour nine. The story of Cali begins on a warm evening just outside the Iguana hostel where I am walking out the door to find Anabella in her Hondita and Phil already crossing the gap towards me. Press play and handshakes, hugs, and greetings are exchanged and before I know it I’m in the backseat zipping along the streets of Cali en route to her father’s condo up in the hills. They had stopped at her mother’s bakery prior to picking me up and I feasted as we drove on Cali’s finest empanadas and some pastries as well and we chatted all the way up to the condo. Phil had warned me before I arrived about the house... or should I say penthouse? You get to a big and solid wooden door with an olive tree growing in front of it. Inside, marble floors, large pieces of art, huge windowed doors to a deck looking out over Cali, a room with two beds for Phil and I, daresay, no need to use sandals in the whole place nevermind the shower. If I may indulge in understatement, it was a nice place especially for a backpacker. The weekend in Cali, at the very least, was going to be enjoyed thoroughly. Of course, that’s what Cali is famous for.

It was Friday night but by the time we got back to Anabella’s house and settled it was getting late but we hit the town anyway. The destination was a small strip of pubs and restaurants on or around Calle 18 and Avenida 9, where we met some of Anabella’s friends and had some of this Poker beer we’d been hearing so much about. Apparently it’s brewed by Miller and it’s not bad at all. From the pub, the next stop was a Colombian fast food chain called Super Mario’s (complete with copyright infringing corporate logos) that had a pretty interesting poutine-style dish with corn instead of fries and no gravy. It was tastier than I’ve described. Saturday morning their maid made us breakfast at around 10 which, again, was not something to be taken for granted. Anabella and her father had put together a bunch of cool activities for us to do but we didn’t really get around to them. While they sounded like pretty cool activities (and of the sort that you can only do with a car) we had a pretty good day regardless of whatever else we didn’t do. Anabella took us to Cali’s most famous mall, Chipichape (AKA Silicon Valley for the sheer number of ‘enhanced’ females strolling around) where we had a massive lunch of authentic Colombian food and then strolled around grabbing a few things we needed.

I can’t remember what exactly brought us in there – maybe it was Anabella’s need for unsweetened yogurt – but we went grocery shopping and wound up raiding their fruit department. If it was a Colombian fruit we bought one of two to try. Afterwards we stopped at a fruit stand for one of the “fruits” I had missed. That was what fate had intended. We spit in fate’s eye by purchasing the fruit anyway, and the punishment fell to me as I was the first to try it and it was up on the list of most terrifying things I have ever tasted. I went to the little coffee stand and ate bitter cinnamon powder to get rid of the taste but it wasn’t so easily bested. It didn’t help that I accidentally inhaled a bit of the powder and was not in a coughing fit. Luckily Anabella and Phil were there to laugh hysterically so my misery was not for naught. Time flies when you’re being poisoned. After that excursion, it was off to the airport to pick up Maria and the four of us were reunited again. We brought Maria back to their dad’s so they could visit for a while and divvied up the fruits plus packed up our things as we were to spend the night at their mom’s house.

Their dad came home as we were laying out the fruits to try and before we knew it there was a double shot of Aguardiente (surely by now I’ve told you about this local aniseed liquor) in front of us. A few shots later and he started cutting up the fruit for us and serving and explaining how to eat them. There were too many to remember but my favourite by far were these little orange cherry-tomato-sized fruits that were tart and delicious. Meanwhile, the girls were hard at work: Maria made a version of Lulo, a fruit punch that I spent the rest of my time in Colombia trying to find an equal to and Anabella went to work on her “Arab” style yogurt, cheesecloth bag and all. Phil and I, on the other hand, helped their father clear space in his cupboard one Aguardiente bottle at a time. The stuff’s not so bad if you don’t buy the cheapest: Blanco Sin Azucar was what he served and it was pretty good compared to others we’d tried previously. It was getting late, though, and their mom was waiting for us so we set out across the city to where their mom lives. If the apartment was nice, this place was beautiful. It’s a bit out of the way and in a neighbourhood that used to be occupied by Cali’s drug lords before the Colombian military cleaned them out. Now pretty much all the houses are empty and it’s a little dodgy as a result but inside these are some beautiful homes to be sitting abandoned.

Their mom was really nice as well, so I guess that between her and their father that explains the girls’ excellent attitudes. We were thinking of going out that evening but their mom lived so far away that we just stayed in and chatted. Sunday morning came and it was time for Phil to begin his circuitous journey home via Panama City, Miami, and finally Calgary. Well, a bit later that day. First, their maid made breakfast while their mom made a Colombian delicacy that I believe Ween made popular in North America entitled Chocolate and Cheese. Basically, chocolate melted in 2/3 hot water and 1/3 milk, a sprinkle of nutmeg and cinnamon, and lumps of soft melty mozzarella at the bottom. My second thought upon trying it, after “Yum!” was “This is something I’ll have to make Mariah when I get home.” We hung out at their mom’s for some time and their maid, who is also a pedicurist, insisted on taking a look at my ingrown toenail (I tried to cut but I couldn’t see where the problem was because it was so bad) which had been swollen and less attractive than Barbara Streisand for about a week already. She put it on ice and then hot water and then back again and poured vinegar all over it which was very nice of her but didn’t do anything.

Their mom owns, or rather owned, as that day was the day that she transferred ownership to new management, and we stopped in for some tasty treats then headed to Phil’s favourite Colombian burger joint, El Corral. From there it was all the way back to their father’s to get his backpack with Maria driving. Maria drove because she is a pretty aggressive driver (she reminded me of Nicole behind the wheel) and was making record time zipping us across Cali to catch Phil’s flight. Then from there all the way back to the airport where we arrived about an hour and a half before his flight was scheduled. There, security searched his backpack really really thoroughly because he is not Colombian, all the while the sniffer dog sat beside it in silence. Isn’t the point of a sniffer dog to smell these things out? Maybe he was on a Milkbone break. It took a while especially because we were already behind schedule and then it was time for Phil to check in. But the airline wouldn’t let him check in because he didn’t have proof of onward travel for Panama with him or even on his computer. So he and Maria went to find internet while I attempted to convince and then exhibit my frustration with the airline. Time was ticking by and no progress was being made. The American Airlines office behind us (which was the airline with his flight from Panama City to Miami) was closed but then Anabella spotted someone inside and I managed to get her attention, explain the situation, and get Phil’s ticket printed. Then we showed it to the Avianca agent who finally printed his boarding pass and we went to find Phil and Maria (who’d had no luck) and get him through security onto his plane.

It was weird sitting in the backseat of the car with Phil gone. The girls were talking about the next day: Anabella was going with her dad to their farm for the week and Maria had an early morning flight back to Bogota. The realization that I was on my own again and that by that time tomorrow I’d be alone checking into a hostel in Cali with no more travel friends to bump into or meet up with down the road except for, perhaps, some new ones I might meet from this point forward. That’s backpacking. Sometimes it’s great to be on your own and sometimes you realize that being on your own means being alone. Sitting in that car I was starting to feel depressed. Maria would be trying to get her work caught up so she was as good as gone already but at least I still had a day with Anabella. We wanted to stop to get some Oreo icecream but Maria needed to get back to the apartment and work (though we did stop for some Juan Valdez to go) so we put that on the todo pile. After dropping Maria off, Anabella and I decided her favourite ice cream shop was too far, so I suggested instead a quick trip to the closest grocer and maybe we could make our own. This, too, reminded me of Mariah.

The grocery was all it took to turn my mood back around. Not only did we find Oreos and vanilla icecream, but I discovered something I didn’t expect to see until I returned to Canada: Clamatto! The evening was unfolding before my eyes: get back to the apartment, start downloading the Canada vs USA Gold medal hockey game (being careful to stay away from anywhere that might reveal the outcome), make and eat Oreo Icecream, mix up some Caesars and pop the popcorn then consume both while watching the hockey game and hopefully Canada taking home gold. It didn’t go exactly as planned: their father was home and was making a handful of delicious snacks (grilled zucchini, Italian meat and cheese platters) which I decided would be complemented by a Caesar nicely. I’m happy to say that the Caesars were a hit although I had to use a picante sauce instead of tobacco and thus they were a bit too spicy for my Colombian friends. They had Worcestershire sauce, they had celery, and fresh ground pepper, not to mention ice cold vodka. After dinner, we mashed the oreos into the ice cream and ate far too much of it and then substituted a movie (“It’s Complicated”) for the hockey game as without Phil I was unable to convince them how amazing this would be.

It’s Complicated wasn’t a terrible movie, nor was it amazing. It was just entertaining in the end and it managed to keep the girls awake a couple hours longer which was all that I could ask for. However, at its end it was bed time. For them. For me, I had my Canadian duty ahead of me. I took my laptop into the kitchen, got a bowl of hot water for my toe, and put on the hockey game. I had heard nothing, so the fact that it wasn’t live meant nothing to me. It was as tense and dramatic as if I’d seen it at 3 PM, and perhaps more so because I was unable to shout, call out, or anything. I did all of those things anyway, but in an excited whisper, as Canada scored one and then two goals. The play where the USA tie came, I actually saw developing before they even crossed their blue line and I believe my face was also blue as I held my breath hoping not to somehow disturb the Canadian team or distract their goaltender, but alas. The worst part was watching Canada continue to dump the puck instead of control it, even when the US pulled their goalie, because that strategy just meant a lot of shots on net and sure enough, 20 seconds left and one of those shots went in.

Somewhere around the end of the second period I noticed that I was nowhere halfway through the file which meant that I was pretty sure there was an overtime coming up so I wasn’t as shocked as I could have been when that happened, but somewhere deep down I’d hoped that the file was so long because of a post-game show. Nope, overtime. The ten most tense minutes I’ve spent outside of Orange Walk, Belize. By the way, I never mentioned at the time that the hotel we were first brought to had had a tourist murder a few weeks prior and Phil found a knife in one of the sinks because I wasn’t sure if all of Belize and Central America would be this way and I didn’t want to scare anyone back home. Back on topic, though, that overtime period was without equivocation the best hockey I have ever had the privilege of seeing. When Sid “The Kid” Crosby dropped that puck in the net, I pumped my fists in the air and let out a raspy, whispered, but nonetheless emphatic “YEAH!!!!” and may or may not have jumped up and down, pumped my fists in the air, and done some sort of dance of the sort that I would never attempt, even alone, in my home country or continent.

The next morning we drove Maria to the airport and said goodbye to her and then Anabella drove me to the Iguana hostel where I would spend the rest of my time in Cali. It was March 1 and I wouldn’t leave until March 9, but don’t worry as I won’t be giving you a day by day account of the rest as it was mostly routine. I found a guy named Leandro to give me Spanish lessons for a week and he was excellent. He’s not a professional teacher, in fact, he’s a sociology student, but he was nonetheless extremely professional. He brought exercises, lessons, examples, and homework for me to do that fit with what I needed (past and future tenses) although he came with no knowledge of my current level. On top of that he was a lot of fun to converse with and I had a great time chatting with him not to mention some conversations about more serious issues like politics, the environment, and even religion that I wished my Spanish was better for. If anyone should find themselves in Cali and wanting to learn Spanish, let me know and I know you will be impressed. Generally, we’d start our class at 9 AM and work straight through until 1 PM. I also found some salsa classes and even managed to do 4-5 hours over the course of the week from a likewise professional and really affordable school. Cali is the home of salsa, or at least of Colombian salsa (as distinct from the Cuban variety) and this was the place to do it.

Iguana had some really great people so that my initial feelings of loneliness that day in the car had no chance of resurfacing. In fact, I was in need of some space by the time a week had passed. In addition to my fellow Iguanas, I met up one evening with Veronica, Maria and Anabella’s cousin whom you may recall I met in Bogota, and we went out for dinner. Another evening, which was in fact my final evening in Cali, a friend of my friend Nick in Bogota called me up to meet and we also went out for a snack on some ceviche. I definitely owe Nick some drinks when I go back to Bogota because he’s really been making sure that I have a good time here in Colombia and find great places and meet cool people. The one thing that could’ve been a problem was that Angela spoke almost no English or at least didn’t think she did (after a while of watching me screw up Spanish and not care she was more willing to try her English and realized, I think, that she’s got a pretty good grasp of it). But my Spanish was sharp after a week of lessons and the practice was great, too. I met a German girl in the hostel that was really nice though she didn’t understand that just because I was at the hostel didn’t mean I wanted to socialize around the clock. There were three English girls that were funny and a lot of fun. An American guy from Alaska that I got along with great. A Canadian-Australian couple that were so easy to talk to and came out for drinks with me a couple times. And more.

Aside from the Spanish and salsa, I didn't find much to do in Cali besides studying in the evenings and resting and visiting with the others in the hostel. I went one night to Avatar (again) because I wanted to see it one more time in theatres, there were several people going from the hostel (although it was my suggestion to be honest), and hey, there wasn’t much else to do. I meant to go to the zoo, the centre, and even the waterpark but my classes meant that when people I wanted to go with were going, I was studying and when I wanted to go I was on my own. Friday night, pretty much the whole hostel went to a bar called Fuente that is small and basically on a cloverleaf and as the bar gets busier the salsa spills onto the streets where most people are drinking anyway. I met a few locals there and hung around mostly with the English girls, Teresa, and an English guy named Ed that cracked me up. Some of them went to Menga, an area of town with more pubs and clubs, to go to Lola’s but a miscommunication (I thought Menga was a club not an area and so I didn't know if they’d gone to Lola’s or Menga) meant I didn’t head that way. I remedied that Saturday night (especially after hearing how many amazing girls were there) by going with the English girls, the Canadian-Aussie couple, and a few others.

And that’s pretty much it for Cali. I unfortunately didn’t see Anabella again nor Veronica, the former preparing for a year in France (she leaves in less than a week) and the latter having left for Miami for a wedding. Angela, Nick’s friend that took me out on my final day, gave me a parting gift that is sure to cement Cali in my mind for the rest of my life: a roll of two-ply toilet paper. She works for their marketing department and, I would guess, does a great job at it. Leandro and I went for lunch on my last day as well and visited a little ‘off the clock’ which was nice. I’ve had the good fortune of having two excellent Spanish teachers, one from Guatemala and the other here in Colombia. It’s no coincidence that these are my two favourite countries thus far. I finally decided to grab a bus to Popayan and as I was leaving the hostel, one of the guys came and handed me the phone. It was one of the girls that the two of us had met that night at Fuentes, wanting to do something that night. I almost turned around and stayed but the road is calling me and Cali has had a lot more time than most places get on a trip like this. It occurs to me, with as little as a few hours of hindsight, that Cali’s charm is very true of the country as a whole: it’s not the scenery, it’s the people. And in fear of reaching that Bocas del Toro state of entrapment, I said goodbye to her on the phone and walked through the door for Popayan.

Cali Photos

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