Colombia: Cali

The time had come to move on to Cali, the #3 city of Colombia. It now fell into my itinerary courtesy of being on the way to Popayán and points south more than anything else. From Salento, this entailed an hour hitch south to Armenia - followed by another three hours beyond on a second bus. Most of this second leg of the trip was through open land subjected to farming and ranches; the Andes lay off to the left (east) not quite at arm's length, either. There wouldn't be obvious entry into the big city per se, but when the traffic crunched up and the high rises began I guessed I was there.

A rivalry had always existed between the three biggest cities of Colombia, namely Bogotá, Medellín, and Cali. The latter were particularly known for their drug history abroad, giving them international fame (or infamy) of sorts, but locally they had quite different personalities. Of the three, Bogotá stood out as the largest by far, the capital. Its proud perch by design deemed it a condescending onlooker of the rest of the country, regardless of whether it felt true or not. Somewhat unmanageable because of its size - and constant immigration from the countryside of those seeking opportunity - it stood apart if only via scale alone.

Medellín meanwhile suffered from second child syndrome, as might be expected. In that sense perhaps it was the (former) Chicago of the country. Just as Chicago became the windy city for its bragging, insecure ways, Medellín had a similar reputation with its Paisa pride. Its act was almost completely together as an over-achieving-to-compensate consequence. This was best highlighted by the country's only Metro that was an actual train system (as opposed to glorified buses found in Bogotá and Cali.) A city always trying hard to catch up, it culturally offered more for its size than would be expected, with even trash on the street often seeming rare (however deceiving in cleanliness.)

This left Cali in the sibling rivalry of the nation, particularly if one ignored the secondary trinity of big cities lying on the Caribbean - which was generally the case. (The cities of Barranquilla, Cartagena, and Santa Marta were all smaller than the big three, but also a world away on the flat coast.) Still, being the forgotten child of the nation did not entail being unhappily so. Calinos were known for just that, actually - not caring what others thought. Indeed, perhaps being third meant not having a care in the world, like a youngest child spared the rivalries of elder siblings.

Perhaps, too, it was no mystery then that salsa reigned supreme in hot Cali like nowhere else in Colombia. Fun first! Salsatecas existed in Cali strictly for dancing, too, not for picking up like elsewhere - serious business, dancing! Even in day-to-day affairs, it seemed like any woman (not that the guys were notably slack) might bust out some moves to emphasize a point - if not simply for the joy of it.

The streets had more of an African flavor again in the faces I'd see, too, a legacy of the region's much-more-African, Pacific Coast-based slavery of the past. Cali was by no means a lookalike to the Caribbean coast's citizens, though, predominantly African-rooted. No, Cali had a more melting pot persona, with ethnic blends of many a sort competing and (more likely) harmonizing.

For my part I'd find Cali a more than reasonable place to stay for five nights. I had heard about a French-based hostel, located in the ancient San Antonio neighborhood, that had its own café and cultural leanings - sounded good to me! It'd immediately be a good homebase to make my way around town and get a look see.

Having just spent over two weeks in small town Salento, I was ready for some variety in my cuisine, too. On that score I'd find no shortage of interesting grub again, particularly in the zona rosa (nightlife district.) Also going hand-in-hand with a big town, though, I'd not want to wander around there after 9p.m., either - all the nicer, older parts of town had a sketchy rep after dark for crime.

A walkabout of the downtown area revealed a nice collection of impressively-ancient, architecturally-interesting buildings to top Medellín - colonialwise, anyway. A handsome river project, too, had left the Cali river relatively clean (-looking) as it passed through; large central parks welcomed me as places to read relatively hassle-free, too. Relaxed youngest child, indeed.

While it was true that Cali offered fewer cultural offerings than Medellí in volume and per capita, it was by no means culturally-bereft. Culture merely started and ended in salsa, that's all - just how they liked it. Then again, perhaps it was no coincidence that Cali was the #1 place in Colombia noted for plastic surgery, particularly on rear ends needing a little lift... to look properly salsa-worthy.

As I'd come to find was usually the case, visiting a big city often incurred a feeling of more isolation, too. While the staff at the hostel was unquestionably friendly, as were some of my fellow travelers, it was hard to find a homey groove in Cali. I had more down time in the evening than expected, in other words - the salsa clubs didn't call my lone name.

Effectively this meant that, via television, I realized that the Winter Olympics in Vancouver were beginning. Oh yeah, that! Probably exciting stuff if I was back in my former home of Seattle, only a few hours away, but here I only bemusedly caught some of the opening ceremonies showing on a TV blaring away to an empty couch. Was this the same planet?

Mesmerized momentarily, I couldn't exactly make out the point of watching each team enter the stadium, dressed alike among their contigent and waving their country's flags. Just as likely they filmed themselves and the crowds, too. Living in the moment, anyone? Still, I became intrigued enough to be drawn in to watch the entire thing somehow. Talk about sloth... or inertia. Under the TV's watchful, luring gaze, I thus started with Ghana standing... to eventually slouch like a blob at the end of the alphabet, followed by Canada's belated grand entry.

The Canadian and American teams easily were the largest, giving rise to the reason that they would likely haul home significant piles of medallions (minus the savory sauces.) Contrastingly, I became piqued noticing that Pakistan and San Martin both had similarly-sized groups of only about four competitors, odd given the massive difference in their sizes... or more importantly, their per capita wealth. They'd not be taking any metalled ribbons home.

San Martin unconsciously presented themselves as several rich and spoiled kids, while it seemed Pakistan was surprised to even be there. Then again, Pakistan's representatives could just as easily have been even richer when compared with their fellow citizens than San Martin's. Whatever - given that these were the WINTER Olympics and Pakistan hosted this wee range called the HIMA-FUCKING-LAYAS, the contrast was just that much greater. Weird.

A movie would provide a better cultural offering, when I took in La Teta Asustada (the frightened tit) at the cultural center adjacent to the modern art museum. Peruvian to the hilt, this was perhaps the best - however odd - rendering of indigenous mountain (Andes) culture I had viewed on screen to date. For all the many quechua-speaking people I had seen over the years, they remained enigmas to me as well.

Near the end of my time in Cali, my new friends Matt and Kate arrived from Salento (where I had met them.) With friendly faces to spend time with, soon I found myself ushering them through my highlight tour of the downtown. On another day we wandered over to the main marketplace, somewhat shuttered for a weekday. Huh - at least the pig skin stuffed with rice was something to behold, life-sized and styled for consumption. More interestingly, we all decided on a nice outing from town to check out the Rio Pance area, about an hour out of town. Hiking - that was more like it!

At Rio Pance we unsuspectingly ending up doing an eight kilometer hike slowly uphill - with the downhill return waiting for us in the end. This worked - the Rio Pance area was a well-known resort area for Cali, a weekend getaway with all the attendant partying available. Being a Friday for us, though, the place was completely dead - with all the pluses and minuses implied.

For one thing, it was impossible to get a bite outside of the meager offerings of a few convenience stores... even as a woman whose house typically served as a restaurant had time otherwise unavailable to pleasantly agree to serving lemonade. This came with no shortage of smalltalk about the area, plus some recountings of her time spent living in Miami and Los Angeles.

On the big plus side, we were able to enjoy views of distant peaks, mist, colorful birds and flowers, and a trickling river with crude bridge crossings in peace and quiet. I well knew the other scene of partying Colombians, with the requisite mood to make it work. No, this was just fine - and it served as a nice punctuation mark for a short time in Cali. Salsa, it would turn out, would have to wait.

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