I sometimes wonder if I am travelling and viewing the world through rose tinted glasses. I am constantly amazed by the sights and the people that I meet but I do worry that I am portraying a skewed image for you. I know that I am a ‘glass-half-full’ sort of a person and I long ago decided that I would live every day looking at things with my holiday goggles on. By that I mean that I go around with my eyes wide open and REALLY look. Yes, that might be a dustbin lorry crawling along the road in front of me but check out the ballet of the bin men as they coordinate the rubbish collections with the dumper truck and watch the banter between them as they work. Check out the fancy tile work on some of the ordinary suburban houses or snoop over a wall and see what funky furniture some people have in their gardens.
Do you remember the story about Pollyanna? She was an infuriating little individual who always saw the good in everybody but she was a happy little soul and ultimately she lit up the lives of everybody that she came upon. I can bitch with the best of them (although lately I don’t do this very much at all), but I am far calmer now than I ever was and quite simply, I am happy to try to find the good in things. I may be accused of sitting on the fence but there are always two sides to every story and with human nature as it is, there will always be widely differing opinions on everything and everywhere, so who am I to find fault with anything?
So – to Cali. I really want to say that this city was amazing and beautiful and cultural and friendly but I am struggling. There were plenty of things to see and I stayed with a great family and I also spent a few days in a fantastic hostel but Cali is not in my top ten of places to visit. It is however, in the top ten (or seven, or five, depending on which report you read) of the most dangerous cities in the world but I don’t think that that has distorted my opinion either.
I initially came into Cali because I had arranged to live with a family and teach/chat in English with Alej the daughter who is at university, but unfortunately my visit coincided with her important exams so most of the time she had her head in her books. I spent a lot of time with her mum Alba who was determined to feed me up on traditional Colombian grub and I have to say, was a very good cook. I had my own room in the modern apartment which was in a purpose-built block within a secure gated complex in the sprawling suburbs of the massive city. Cali is huge and hot and swelters in humidity, so much so that some evenings everybody would just take to the streets and sit outside on benches or under trees to get some respite from the heat inside apartments with few air con units.
Together me and Alba visited Cali zoo which is actually not too bad at all as far as zoos go. There they are doing a lot of work to ensure that the enclosures are as animal friendly as possible and steadily upgrading them. The highlight for me was a white tiger with her three six month old (orange) tiger cubs. They were so naughty and were causing their mum no end of trouble but my camera battery chose to die just as we found them. Just like a domestic cat she would occasionally round them up from the field where they were exploring and box their ears or carry them and dump them unceremoniously in a corner, before they would climb over her or romp off again as soon as her attention was fixed on another of her disobedient offspring.
On another day we visited the city centre where we saw the pretty little church of La Ermita and we walked around some of the parks and then went inside the small gold museum. The collection here was pretty impressive, and like many other museums in South America it was set inside a bank. I also travelled around on the Mio system – it was similar to the public transport in Lima and Quito but I never quite got to grips with it as the maps never matched up to the route that I took, so maybe this added to my feeling of disquiet.
While in Cali I also spent a few days in a fantastic backpackers hostel where I had a salsa lesson from a professional dancer. Well, wow! I learned more in that hour than in nearly a year of trampling around in my class in the UK. What a difference a strong lead can make! Although since that lesson I have been out on several occasions and I have found that most latino men can dance and can make me, who has two left feet, look as if I sort of know what I am doing, that lesson was magical and I really DID feel like Baby in Dirty Dancing.
On my first night in Cali at the hostel I went out for some food after dark but I turned back within ten minutes, shocked by the number of homeless people who were sleeping on the street. I was literally stepping over bodies, sleeping, not in doorways but sprawled on the pavements. Most were snoozing quietly but I didn’t feel safe at all, so grabbed a couple of packets of crisps from a small shop and fled for my hostel. I met up with M on the Sunday and together we went into the city centre. It was deserted apart from tramps, beggars and drunks and we very soon made our way back to the safety of my hostel where we could sit and chat in the shade. I later found out that the city centre is a bit of a no-go area on a Sunday when all the shops are closed and the homeless take it over.
In the hostel, which had hammocks, a swimming pool and a good bar and was an oasis of calm in a crazy city, I bumped into a traveller that I had met the previous month in Ecuador. It always tickles me when I find somebody else that I know – this continent is so huge and whilst there is a recognised ‘back-packer circuit’ many travellers criss-cross and design their own bespoke route, so it is odd to find somebody by accident again.
At my hostel I also met a travel blogger who was in Cali with her Colombian fiance and a friend. Both ladies have teaching jobs in a school in a nearby town and they were visiting Cali for the weekend. The Open Minded Traveler was the first real-life travel blogger that I had met and I was really excited to chat to her and to find out about how she was making the nomadic lifestyle work for her. Check out her blog here and discover how she also turned her back on normality to embrace a life of travel, uncertainty and happiness. Subsequent to our meeting I have found out that she and her fiance are now expecting a baby so maybe she will not be quite so nomadic as she once was, but she has a real gem of a partner and I know that she will be more than happy to settle down with him in Colombia although I hope that she will continue to write.
So how can I sum up Cali? Well, if you like salsa you should certainly visit but I personally found the city to to be edgy and scary and I am a lot happier going out in the evening in other cities and towns in Colombia. The zoo is worth a visit and the town centre and the parks which could be done in a day (but not on a Sunday) – but then personally I would jump on a bus and go south to Popayan or north to Medellin, both of which I loved. I don’t like to admit that I don’t like a place as there are so many facets and my philosophy is to see the best in everything if I can (like Pollyanna). I liked the hostel and my home and host family in the suburbs and I am so pleased that I met the Open Minded Traveler and her fiance and friend. Medellin has its share of problems (more of these later) but the homeless, drug addicts and drunks in Cali were so very visible – even bathing and washing their clothes in city centre fountains that I personally found it quite disturbing.
As a side note, I have been to India where the poverty is off the scale and whole families live and sleep on the pavements but I never found it as unsettling as in Cali. Maybe that was because there were whole families on the streets in India with women and children in family groups who were there because of the grinding poverty. In Cali I suspect that the majority of the bedraggled, unkempt men (there were women on the streets in Cali too but they were more discreet) were there as a result of drink or drug abuse and they seemed to take an unhealthy interest in two women strolling around.