The following is a guest post by Tommy.
Do not go to Cali!
That’s what I hear from people and read online. But is it possible the benefits can outweigh the risk of traveling there?
You can see the statistics here, and it’s scary, but at least you know which areas to stay away from.
So why visit Cali?
I asked myself this several times while living in Medellín among other smaller cities for several months. It wasn’t until I began to learn salsa and experienced the warmth of Caleños (people from Cali) in other cities that I realized Cali is different!
When I asked other travelers about Cali, they couldn’t persuade me to go, and Colombians didn’t have much to say besides “go for the salsa.”
I had doubts, until my third day in Cali when I was invited to dinner at a family’s home. Note that I hadn’t been invited to dinner in my two months in Medellín, although I had been offered drinks at bars.
I did a few of the touristy things like a city tour, and checked out a few restaurants and salsa clubs. The first thing you notice is the large percentage of African descendants, who make up approximately half of the population, mixed people included.
Cali is also a place where I got called “mono” (slang for foreigner) enough, as much as I tried to blend in with my short pointy hair style, jeans, and stylish Polo t-shirt. I still don’t get the whole origin of “mono” and I’m not going to respond to it.
Now, back to the dinner invitation. I visited a basic restaurant next door to the hostel where I stayed. The Colombian lunch plate, which goes for $4,000 to 7,000 pesos ($2 to $3.50) in Cali, includes meat, rice, beans, plantains, and literally a tablespoon of salad.
For dinner, you won’t be able to find the same deal and you always have to pay more. When I asked them what time it closes, the response was 3 PM. I told the family-owned restaurant there food was so good, it was a shame I couldn’t get dinner too.
“But you can, just follow me and you can come to our house to eat, just ring this doorbell” was the lady’s response – in Spanish of course.
I always feel strange following someone I just met to their home, but their house and restaurant were in the adjacent building, which is typical for Colombian family restaurants.
Later that evening, I rang the doorbell and was allowed in by the teenage daughter dressed in her school girl outfit. This was the same girl who served me at the restaurant after school, so you could tell they were a hard-working family.
The next day I changed hostels to discover another area, Granada and St. Vincente, north of the center. That area has access to the hill of the three crosses, shopping centers, bars and nicer restaurants so it’s more diverse than San Antonio.
While I was in the hostel, I noticed a Colombian lady recording a video on her tablet of two girls describing their Spanish lessons. It was a testimonial.
The first thing I thought was that the video quality is going to turn out terrible, so I immediately suggested she use my microphone and lamp. She looked baffled at first, so I told her, “your English is good, and so too should the quality of your video testimonials so you can get more students.”
I dread poor quality videos as they lower the value of your service. This lady quickly became interested, and complimented my Spanish. I’d only been studying it for four months.
I described how I’m spending months at a time in different cities to learn the cultural differences, local economy, people and wanting to go beyond my gringo level of salsa. She was glad to hear that and offered to help.
To my surprise, she later provided me with a list of salsa schools. This was a unique opportunity to pay it forward and construct an online directory for salsa lessons. Hopefully, I can help other people and travelers find instructors more easily.
Why waste two to three days looking for the right teacher, when you can already be taking lessons?
Another Colombian in the hostel was very talkative, cooking something interesting and asking about me. I told the same story as to the Spanish teacher and asked him about the salsa scene. This guy was also helpful and offered to show me around the neighborhood.
I was fascinated because this Colombian introduced me to so many people, including restaurant owners, bar owners and a guy that runs a modeling school. That never happened in other cities I stayed in, although most Colombians are polite and a bit helpful.
You might say that oh… “perhaps you didn’t have that much to say or offer in other cities,” but I did.
In Manizales, I started a weekly language exchange meeting and only a handful of people showed up every time.
In Medellín, I translated a restaurant’s menu into English because they wanted to print a bilingual version.
To be honest, the guy I met cooking wasn’t somebody famous or rich. I’m almost sure he was a salesman and a good samaritan. Wherever he took me, I would receive a free drink or appetizer, without saying much besides “hello, it’s nice to meet you and be in Cali.”
I hadn’t felt the warmth of Colombians until I’d met people in Cali.
The most recent occurrence of a warm invitation was from a couple I met at a store where I printed cards for my salsa directory. Before I mention what happened, finding a good printer wasn’t easy and also took two to three days.
In fact, while I was looking for digital laser printing, the staff at one printer would direct me to next closest one, not knowing if they had laser printers. This went on until I visited every printer in the neighborhood.
When I finally found the good one, they printed them for me instantly, and even included cutting. A local couple was also in the print shop. I asked the employee how can I get to another neighborhood by walking and they weren’t sure, but the couple offered to take me since they said it was on the way.
I didn’t immediately jump on the offer, but with a bit of small talk the couple was genuinely excited to find out what brought me to Cali without trying to rob me. I repeated the my story during the car ride and we were equally delighted.
It is like the theory of the ying and the yang. The presence of said evil propaganda is reciprocated by the good. Thankfully, I haven’t experienced any evil and Cali is the only city where I haven’t had a single girl ask me to pay for her food, drinks or taxi.
At a language exchange, I met one girl that was excited to practice her beginner’s level of English with me, so much that she invited me for lunch the next day.
She was so sweet that she actually hand-wrote me a paper note with drawings of the places I could visit.
The Caleñas also call and use their own minutes without that “I-ring-you-once-and-you-call-me-trick”. The ladies here are definitely more down-to-earth, without the overblown egos.
About the Author: Tommy is a traveling web developer who likes to promote tourism. He speaks four languages and has lived in US, Europe, and South America. Take his word and learn some salsa by finding an instructor at http://Bailar.co. You can also check out his travel videos at RateTourGuides.com.