Cali es Cali

Maybe it’s called Cali because the people are so warm, “cálida” in Spanish. Or maybe it’s because the weather is “cálida”. Whatever the reason, “Cali es Cali… y lo demás es loma”. Cali’s slogan, taken from a famous salsa song (Cali Pachanguero), highlights that Cali is special – a little different from the rest. (The slogan reminds me of “Keep Austin Weird”.)

Its literal translation doesn’t translate well, but it would be something like “Cali is Cali and the rest are hills,” alluding to its physical geography and culture alike. Cali is geographically flat and warm compared to the surrounding hills and mountains (and also compared the other major Colombian cities), and it also claims a more relaxed, easy-going atmosphere.

Cali is most famously known for being the salsa capital of Colombia, and there’s even a genre of salsa specifically from Cali: Salsa Caleña. I was lucky enough to get to experience salsa at its max in Cali because I was there during the “Feria de Cali” – a weeklong festival of salsa and more, celebrating the culture of Cali, that takes place every year, December 25-30.

The festival kicked off with “Salsódromo”, a carnival-type parade on Christmas day, with groups of dancers performing 5-10 minute routines (mostly salsa) every few minutes as they advanced along the parade route. The music was booming and the dancers were incredible. Two friends of friends that live in Cali had actually made it through the selection process and performed in the parade. (They reported that their feet were completely torn up after so many hours of dancing on the street!)

Since I didn’t have tickets*, I walked along the parade route looking for a place to view it. I waded my way through crowds of people – vendors selling drinks and food, music blasting from shops along the side of the street, people dancing, drinking, and spraying foam from cans into the air (sometimes at each other). Everyone was really partying it up in the street! But I was confused because, I was on the parade route, but this wasn’t the parade. (Even if it was a great party!)

As I continued wading through the crowds, I finally found a vehicle overpass that crossed over the parade route, offering a view from above. Despite the fact that vehicle traffic continued to use the overpass (creeping along at 5 mph), pedestrians were filling the overpass to catch a view of the parade passing below.

I found a space between people and got a pretty great view of the parade.* Around me was a young couple in their early twenties, a 30-something couple with a bored 13-year-old that had resorted to sitting in one of the islands in the middle of the road hoping his parents would decide to leave soon, and a guy who had traveled from Medellin to enjoy the festival.

After a few hours I got tired of standing in one spot, and watching so much dancing made me want to dance! Though it was 10pm, I didn’t have to walk far to find a street cart selling some good food, and in a few more blocks I wandered upon salsa music coming from a club.

The music was popping and I was so ready to dance! But when I got inside, nobody was dancing. There were two different groups of 5 friends drinking and chatting, and I had just walked in, solo. Everyone there was Afro-Colombian, and as white foreigner. I might have looked a little out of place. (Maybe it was a good taste of how a black person feels walking into a club full of white people?)

It was only about 10:30pm, so I knew that it was early in club time and that people would eventually dance. But I wasn’t going to drink, so I couldn’t buy time by ordering a drink. I wasn’t going to just walk out because I had just walked in and I really liked the music. But I also wasn’t about to start dancing salsa alone in the middle of the club. So I approached one of the groups and asked if they were going to dance. The woman saved me from my awkwardness and told her guy friend to dance with me.

Later they invited me to sit at the table with them and every few songs, the guys in the group took turns dancing with me (or rather, teaching me to dance since I was pretty terrible). It was really fun to watch them cut a rug (yes, I threw in that Texas expression). I could tell that they had grown up on salsa, and it just ran through their veins. They sang along, clapped out beats, and danced when a song inspired them (all in a very cool and composed manner – this was the cool crowd, not the goofy or nerdy crowd that I tend to run in.)

It turned out to be a really fun night and was pretty indicative of my experience in Cali – everyone generally minds their own business, working but also taking time to enjoy life in their own way. But every time that I reached out to someone – started a conversation, asked to dance with someone – they were open, warm, and friendly, letting me into their world to enjoy life with them for a minute.

During the “Art and Salsa” free walking tour, our local guide pointed out a statue of a local woman, Jovita. The legend is that this woman believed that she was a queen, and would walk the streets of Cali greeting people as such. The wealthy women of Cali gifted her nice clothing, and though poor, she walked the streets dressed like a queen and even receiving famous visitors to the city. After her death, the city constructed a statue, memorializing her (and making a statement about the city’s culture of acceptance and treatment of people that are different from the majority.)

I left Cali feeling full of good energy, warmth, and joy. Maybe it was all the music, maybe it was all the dancing, maybe the sunshine and warm weather, or maybe it was the warmth of the people that made me feel like I was in a city full of friends. I hadn’t planned on visiting Cali in the first place,** and  now I could only convince myself to leave by promising that I would be back one day soon.


Famous Footnotes:
*Two different taxi drivers commented to me that the parade used to go through the entire city and everyone in the city could come out into the street to watch – it was literally a city-wide event. Those were the “good ol’ days”. Now the parades takes place only on one street, across 18 blocks, where they sell seats in temporary stadium seating that is constructed along the street. (Access is blocked off behind the stadium seating, and this is where I had found myself walking through the huge street party.)

Since there are limited places where one can view the parade for free and a ton of people wanting to see the parade, it can be tricky to find a good spot. That’s why there were people climbing the vehicle overpass to get a view of the parade, and it explains the rogue street party formed on the other side of the parade.

**Cali is third largest city in Colombia, and, like Medellin (the 2nd largest city in Colombia), I had planned to skip it because I tend to prefer the smaller towns to cities. But also like Medellin, Cali proved to be a warm and inviting city, and I can’t believe I almost missed it! Thanks to Adam and Adrienne for getting me to those wonderful cities and exploring them with me!

**Salsa is the star of the Feria de Cali festival but it is not the only show. There is music from the pacific coast, (where there is a predominantly black population), which has strong percussion beats. And for those who aren’t into salsa much, like one Caleña that I met, there are bars that play other types of music predominantly, like reguetón, with just a little salsa or bachata sprinkled in every now and then. Then there’s the option to just sit outside the liquor store and chat and drink all night, like I saw groups of people doing throughout the city as well!

San Agustín – Ancient History and Home Away from Home

At about the same time that the Greeks were building the Parthenon, here in hills of present-day Colombia (where all 5 of the country’s major rivers begin), the San Agustín culture emerged, evolved, developed over the centuries, and then disappeared. While we have hardly any evidence of the inner workings of their societies, hundreds of statues, some basic metal works, and tombs have been discovered and give us a tiny peek into their culture, leaving the rest up to our imagination.
Artwork in a museum in the nearby town of Obando where the oldest tombs (from 1000 BC) are found. Depicts the artists interpretation of some key elements from the San Agustin culture.
Some of the personified animals and figures depicted in their statues are similar to aspects of the cultures of many of the indigenous communities that still maintain their traditions today in Colombia. As such, many of the depictions are interpreted through the lens of the modern day indigenous communities’ beliefs and traditions.
In my opinion, these statues are signs that the Agustinians played baseball.
Many of these statues were found next to tombs, suggesting that just like we put gravestones at burial sites today, statues marked or guarded these burial sites, or maybe guided the deceased into the next life.
Some statues were painted with sap from trees, seeds, bark, and plants.
Seeing signs of creativity and human works from so long ago made me feel tiny and at the same time great – as I peeked into tombs from 1,100 BC and marveled at statues carved 2000 years ago (around 9-20 AD)., I could feel a tiny connection a with this far away past, with our American ancestors, little talked about in history class. These archeological sites are located in and around a small, rural farming town of about 11,000 people, called San Agustin. People come from all over the world to see the statues, which are located in many different sites dispersed throughout the region. You can see many statues and archaeological sites in the archaeological park just outside the city center, but many more sites are farther from the urban center, and are more commonly accessed by rides in van, jeep, or on horseback. When I was there, the majority of tourists were actually Colombians, (a change in the norm due to the holiday season when people have vacations). It was especially cool to hear so many different people excited to learn about the history and geography of their country. (And I was really impressed with the couple from Cúcuta,* who were there with their three year-old, doing the day tour to see the statues, tombs, and waterfalls.)
El Estrecho del Rio Magdelena is a channel where this major river of Colombia passes through a space only 2.2 meters wide between rock formations.
For me, San Agustín was a magical place. (I was even hesitant to write this blog because I don’t think I can convey in words how special of a place it was for me.) I fell in love with it, not only for its connection with its ancient past, but also because of its current vibe – the friendly and down-to-earth people and the familiar rural Latin American small-town feel. It resembles my Peace Corps Peru home of Oxapampa in many ways. It has a temperate climate and is surrounded by beautiful green hills, rivers, and waterfalls. A town of agriculture (mostly sugar cane, coffee, bananas) and tourism, the conversations between strangers in the car ride there were about the going prices of different crops and gossip about people they knew in common. The guy who took me to my hospedaje (lodging) just happened to be cousins with the owner and helped me negotiate a price within my budget for a very nice room. I happened to arrive just when the family was preparing to host the novena that night. And that is how I learned what a novena was. I arrived at the same time that  extended family members were arriving and gathering on the patio outside the kitchen. While cooking my dinner, I listened as they took turns reading passages and later singing along to (religious) Christmas songs from the stereo while adding some spice with maracas and shakers. After the extended family left, they invited me to eat my dinner at the table with them, and I learned that they celebrate novenas for the nine days leading up to Christmas, alternating houses that host it each night. Over the few days that I was there, the family became like my Colombian family. They invited me to one of the novenas, let me help milk a cow, and drove me around town to see the Christmas lights and the town’s annual nativity scene. (San Agustin boasts to have the largest pesibre, or nativity scene, in all of Colombia. (They say it used to be the biggest in the world.) It includes 20-50 different outdoor “rooms”, each with different scenes made of life-size mannequins. Some are a depiction of a part of the Christmas story from the bible, while others depict historic life in San Agustin, but most are a mixture of the two, sponsored by a local business promoting its products or services.) This was one of those really special places where I felt a real connection with the place and the people, so much so that it was kind of hard to leave. I had similar feelings about my experience in Amantaní, the island on Lake Titicaca, and coincidentally I had a similar mystical “despedida” (farewell) with nature. My last morning in Amantaní, a hummingbird came and hovered close my face looking at me for a few seconds, while here in San Agustin, just before I left, a butterfly landed on my face and remained for nearly a minute, giving me a goodbye hug and kiss.     Famous Footnotes: *Cuceta is a border town with Venezuela, located on the other side of country. This family of three (a lawyer and an engineer) had literally traveled across the country to visit San Agustin. **Fun fact: In San Agustin, I saw many guys sporting Mohawk-like haircuts- something I haven’t seen anywhere else in my South American travels so far.

New Year in Ecuador

Sometimes it helps to close the door on the past so that we can start fresh and fully immerse ourselves in the future. Or at least that’s the idea behind the New Years Eve (NYE) tradition in Ecuador (and many other Latin American countries).

Welcoming the new year is done by first burning the “año viejo” or old year – a symbol of burning away all the bad that happened in the previous year, and also scaring away the bad so it won’t come in the new year.

“Año viejo” is often represented by life-size dolls or dummies, often dressed in old clothes or adorned with symbols of bad things from the year before.

“Año Viejo” being sold on Dec. 31 in the streets of Cuenca, Ecuador

In some cases, “año viejo” is dressed as people, political figures, or even family members, in an attempt to burn the bad they caused the previous year.

The president of Ecuador and various figures representing major events that took place in Ecuador during the past year

It is a moment to combine art and self expression with hopes for better future. Some people go to great lengths and create entire displays. For example, this one depicts the 12-day strikes (“huelgas”) and protests that occurred in Ecuador in October of 2019, spurred by the government’s announcement that they would eliminate fuel subsidies.

In most cases, people create their own smaller, personal dolls or creations with items of personal significance and burn them bonfire-style in the street outside their house just before midnight. Sometimes a creative person will create a humorous testament, recounting things that happened to their friends or family members before lighting “año viejo” on fire.

From the “año viejo” tradition, grew the “viuda” (widow) tradition, which explained why I saw a bunch of guys dressed in drag when I crossed the border into Ecuador.

One of the first things I saw crossing the border into Ecuador, Dec. 30

As a humorous take on the tradition, some men dress as widows mourning the loss of their husband/boyfriend (themselves) who would be “burned” as part of the “año viejo” tradition.* They dress in drag and often ask for coins in the streets, usually while goofing off and having a good time.

Dancing with the “viudas”

Walking through the street after midnight, all the neighbors had fires smoldering in the streets, many playing music and celebrating with family members. I joined a couple of people dancing outside and made some new friends – an extended family that owned the restaurant where they were dancing, and lived in the same building.

I am happy to have started my new year off dancing and meeting new people, leaving behind fears, inhibitions, and self-consciousness smoldering in the past.

Famous Footnotes:

*If you didn’t follow the “viuda” tradition it’s because it is kind of confusing and takes some imagination. The men are assuming their partner will burn a figure of them (because they were the cause of problems during the previous year), so the men, pretending that they are actually dead from this symbolic burning and have therefore left their partners widowed, then dress as their partners and beg for coins in the streets.

**One source said the “año viejo” tradition came from the colonial times when many people died from yellow fever and their clothes would be burned at the end of the year for sanitary and spiritual purposes, to ward off the disease.