Cali. The city, which I have been thinking about for a long time, but somehow I didn’t manage to visit. Hostels and language schools which I was trying to contact did not bother to reply to my emails. Time for my next move to Apartado and then to Medellin was getting closer and I thought I will stay in Bogota until than. Well, but after all one of the the best parts of my adventure is the unpredictability. Therefore, one Friday evening together with my amigo from Soacha we came up with an idea to visit the salsa capital of the world and next morning we were already in Cali welcomed by super kind couchsurfing host.
Who are you Colombia?
Cali is exactly like Colombia. If Colombia could be represented as a city it would be the city of Cali. I already wrote about the difficult history of this country couple of times. Nearly seventy years of violent internal conflicts that started with the killing of one of the politicians in broad daylight, the conflicts that cannot finish until today. First it was the political conflict. Conservatives versus Liberals. Socialism versus capitalism. The right wing versus the left wing. After several decades of violence the third party joined the conflict. The party that made the conflict boiling hot because it added critical and destructive element to it – the money. I’m talking about the Narcos, the drug cartels that in the 80ties tortured the country, creating it’s infamous reputation all around the world and creating the stigma which Colombia will probably still need to carry for many more years. As soon as cartels with big money joined the game the conflict ceased to be ideological and became simply a war for influence and interests. Today, hardly anyone knows (or rather cares) which paramilitary groups are the right wing and which are the leftist. Danger zones in Colombia are mainly rural and suburban areas where guerrilla groups are fighting with the government in the worst possible way for the civilian population – land mines, which regularly make an unlucky farmer or a child lose a leg, an arm or a life (to learn more on this subject I recommend watching a strong story prepared by the Vice portal). In urban areas it is usually drug ghettos, where a person with a brain will simply never go. About one of those ghettos I already wrote when I was describing my unfortunate escapade to the borders of area called Bronx in Bogota (I wrote but I still need to translate:)). Thanks to this experience, I had become convinced that if you have brains and you are not looking for problems in Colombia, trouble will not look for you either.
Why such a long historical introduction to my post about Cali, the capital of salsa? To understand the situation and the mentality of the people here. Of all the cities I have visited in Colombia while Medellin is the city quickly rushing toward the future, there’s still a long way for Cali to get there. Now, I don’t want to be unfair. I’ve been in Cali only four days so there have to be a lot that I still didn’t see. Also, my first impression of Medellin was pretty bad – an that changed 180 degrees with time. But at this moment when I’m writing those words my subjective opinion tells me that Cali has a long way to go. The whole world has heard about “the famous criminal from Medellin”. His megalomania earned him an army of enemies all around the world and that eventually resulted in his assassination on the roof of his aunt’s house from which he tried to flee once again. Much less people have heard anything about the second most influencial Colombian cartel. Maybe it’s because the Cali cartel had chosen to lay low and focus on business rather than getting involved in politics. Maybe for this reason, Cali is still a city in which the security level is lower than in Bogota, Medellin and any other city that I have visited. Cali streets are full of homeless people and drug addicts. During the four days that we spent there it was difficult for me to tell where the business district or the wealthy neighbourhood was. And it had to be somewhere. The city is huge and inhabited by more than two million citizens. But still most of the people which I contacted through Couchsurfing were going to the same pizzeria and to the same salsa places. Hotel Intercontinental, one of the popular meeting points is located about 50 meters from the river bank where many homeless people built their shelters. A hundred steps from the Colombia’s largest bank other group of homeless people established their cardboard houses.
Looking for the Paradise
This image of the city that I created in my mind after strolling down the streets of Cali did not quite fit the image that I had in mind when I was talking with the citizens of Cali. “Cali is a paradise!” “You’re gonna love my amazing city!” Their enthusiasm, cheerfulness and optimism reminded me a story that I’ve heard couple weeks earlier when I was in Medellin. “The Colombian is a man who stands in the swamp, delving into it more and more. Up to the weist, the chest, the neck. By the time when the poor man almost sinks suddenly he notices the branch, which he grabs and pulls up with all his strength, hope and with no looking back.” Residents of Cali do not see, or try not to see the problems that the city has. Each of them will take you to the salsa club where the locals will invite you to dance and offer teaching basic steps. Each of them will tell you about the cats of the river, which I’ve probably seen fifteen times within four days. Every person will tell you about the local quisine and the marvelous weather. Yes, this is probably the biggest difference between the troubled post-Soviet countries in Eastern Europe and equally troubled countries of South America. The optimism. I read this story in one of my favorite books titled “Geography of Bliss” the book which by the way also pushed me to my big journey (so be careful if you decide to read it :)) The author describes his experience of staying in Moldova, one of the countries with the lowest level of nation’s happiness.
Likewise in other simmilar countries which cannot brag about the history, economy or culture Moldova emphasized its high quality of the food. However, in contrast to Peru and Colombia citizens of Moldova are lacking the optimism and the hope. From my plain historical knowledge I am tempted to say that this lack of optimism is due to post-communism scar, which effectively killed or drowned the hope of the people from Eastern Europe, but further discussion on this topic I leave to historians, political scientists and anthropologists. The unquestionable fact though is that optimism and well-arranged values allow Colombians to live their lifes at least a little bit better.