I was nervous to visit Cali for a bunch of reasons.
My crappy Christmas period, which I spent alone and sad in Medellin, was supposed to have been spent with a friend in Cali – before it got cancelled it at the last second. Christmas alone left a nasty bruise. I get all sentimental about things like that, and for weeks after, even hearing the word ‘Cali’ made my stomach twist with emotion.
In addition to this, in Cali I knew I would have to confront my confusion over Colombian culture. As somebody who has previously had issues with alcohol, to the point where it has messed up relationships and caused me lasting social problems, and as somebody who has now dealt with those issues and is happy to be well shot of those days – Colombia is a tricky one. Colombians live to party, and they love drinking. They come out into the street, family and all, passing round bottles of spirits with little plastic glasses, offering you shot after shot after shot, cheering as you drain your cup, all dancing, all whooping, all hollering.
It’s cool and I’m happy for them, but often on my trip up to that point, I hadn’t felt completely at ease around it. I spent 2021 in London reading ‘get sober’ books and blogs and all of that stuff, slowly rewiring my brain to view alcohol in a different light. It’s not easy to switch that off. But then – I dunno. Colombian parties are so joyous that you can’t help wanting to get involved. Ahead of Cali, I decided to let go of all these worries and get stuck in – to do whatever the locals do.
The last reason I was anxious ahead of arriving in Cali is that, in terms of violent crime, it’s one of the most dangerous cities on the planet. Statistically it was much worse than anywhere I’d been on my trip so far, and I’d heard many stories of backpackers being robbed there with knives and guns.
Certain areas of the city are total no-go zones for tourists. I read a travel advisory site about it that said something like ‘Crime can occur anywhere, but tourist areas are safer generally. DO NOT EVER GO to Communas 13, 14 or 15 . Worse things can happen to you there than robbery.’ Eesh.
Anyway. I decided to push myself, everything else be damned. The fact that Cali had hurt me and the fact it scared me is why I needed to go. I needed to confront everything – to understand it, at last. I would embrace the city and its mad dancing culture, despite the monstrous wave of fret this unleashed within me. Guns and public dancing: two of my biggest fears.
I was a freak in the taxi from the airport. I’d heard a story about someone being robbed with a gun in a taxi in Cali. When my Uber arrived the driver had a good rating and looked friendly, but I couldn’t shake that feeling of: what if? I talked to my driver in bad Spanish as we drove, and a couple of times I glanced across at him to satisfy myself that he was okay. Unfortunately he noticed me doing this, which seemed to freak him out in turn; we spent 30 minutes giving each other paranoid side-eye. The journey was comically tense and I was relieved to be dropped at the hostel.
The hostel, La Palmera, is beautiful. I don’t know if it’s a purpose built place or a converted palatial home or what, but the layout is spacious and airy, windows and doors open all day so the warm Pacific breeze rolls through. From the roof you can view the whole city, and at night the lights twinkle between silhouettes of palm trees. It’s not a party hostel, but it’s not a sleepy place either. People go out almost every night, but the nights here aren’t a deluge of pointless lager lager lager – going out is all about the joy of dancing. People actually avoid drinking, purely so they can stay sharp for dancing. Salsa clubs, cabaret shows, dance circles – there’s something every night.
Cali is a dance city – music everywhere, dance studios all around. In fact, there’s not much outside dancing to do here, and it makes for an interesting rhythm of life. Each day begins with a slow, relaxed morning – chat, coffee, cake – and then in the afternoon everybody goes for salsa lessons. Then it’s back for showers and food and talking on the terrace until the sun sets, and then it’s time for a salsa club – or a reggaeton club, or a dance school social, or a cabaret, or a street party. Anything you want.
My first dance lesson was a free group class on the hostel rooftop. Salsa Caleña is a specific style of salsa local to Cali, with fast steps that go side to side rather forward and back. I’ve done group dance classes before, in Cuba, Mexico and Nicaragua. I love them. Everybody’s shy at first, but after a gentle induction people loosen up. They laugh, they trip over, they balls it up and try again. And the exercise and the music and the laughter releases so many endorphins that by the end, you don’t want it to end.
The day after my rooftop lesson, I decided to take a private class. It’s about £8 for a one-to-one class, and I took my first hour in the hostel. They have a garage on the side of the building that’s been converted into a dance studio, and you book a slot on any given day and a local dance teacher comes over. My teacher was called Ivonne, and she was very bubbly and laughed a lot and she taught me basic steps and one spin that I loved. There’s something so gorgeous about it – of taking two clumpy human bodies, muscle and bone and meat, and making them twirl around each other, using each other’s weight and momentum to spin and spin, before falling back into perfect step together with a big grin. It’s beautiful.
Encouraged, I booked five hours of lessons at a salsa school across town. I have my fifth lesson starting in one hour, so I need to stop writing and go soon. But I could talk for hours about the sensation of dancing. Tania, my teacher, is sweet and talented. Every day I arrive at the salsa studio – a small place with a smooth dancefloor and mirrors on the walls – and watch the other teachers dance with their pupils before my own lesson begins. Then Tania comes over, kisses me on the cheek, and we take our places and she gives me her hands. The music starts, and I take my left foot and swing it back behind my right, and she does the opposite, mirroring me, and then our arms swing and I spin her around and I fuck it up a lot but we just laugh and try again. She doesn’t speak any English, so it’s all done in Spanish except for a few words she asked me to teach her – ‘left, right, more or less, faster, a bit slower, very good’. It gives me a tremendous feeling of satisfaction when I get it right and she yells ‘very good!’ and high fives me with both hands.
As a male, you have to lead the dance. This means that girls learn easier. I’ve seen girls in salsa clubs here who’ve never had a single lesson suddenly get asked to dance by the right man, and next minute they’re spinning back and forth, dress and hair twirling, face flushed, tumbling through a complex sequence of steps and dances. As a guy, I can’t do this – I’m this one tasked with setting up the spins and steps and deciding what happens when. You do this by indicating with your hands which way you want the girl to turn, big spin small spin, spin together, spin into each other close and then spiral back out. It’s not easy, but it’s fun.
In the evenings, after rest and food, everybody in the hostel goes out to salsa clubs – El Rincon, La Topa, Mala Maña. There’s always a good mix of Colombians and tourists, and you dance with anybody who asks, or you ask. A chance to practice what you learned during the day. Last night I went to La Topa for the first time. A few of us took an Uber there: me, an Irish girl, a Swiss girl, an English guy (a Royal Marine, actually), and a well-spoken English lady who left her elderly husband and came out with us in a blue and white dress.
Out of the taxi you step under the name of the club in big lights. Head inside, pay a ticket (£1.70), and the bouncer frisks you and you hear the music already, and you step through the black double doors. A red dance hall opens up before you as the music becomes a roar, and jazz trumpets squeal and cymbals crash, and it’s all movement everywhere – dresses flying and limbs and torsos rolling, arms raised for spinning twirls and big smiles and frenetic feet. I stepped inside and thought ‘oh shit’, fearful, and then I bought a beer, drank the neck, put it on a table and asked the Swiss girl to dance. She’d never danced before and she copied me and we laughed the whole time and span around – hira! – and then at the end we hugged, caught our breath, sipped our drinks, and switched partners for a new dance – again and again, for hours.
The Marine made me laugh. After I’d enjoyed a couple of dances, I headed for the bar and found him sitting with a Corona on the sidelines, staring out at the lilting mob, wild-eyed.
“Have you danced yet?” I asked.
“No,” he replied, looking harrowed. “It’s terrifying, isn’t it?”
“You’ve literally gone into war,” I reminded him. “You can dance.”
He laughed and drained his beer.
Dancing is a conversation: you feel somebody’s entire personality. You get a sense of their confidence, their fear, the limits of their insecurities. You sense their humour, their pride, their patience, their empathy, compassion, intelligence – everything. Every dance is completely different. Some people stick to the steps they know, while others go off piste and improvise – and when they cock it up they roll with it and make it work. Some hold your hands gently and move their arms like water, others are firm, while some are janky and awkward. Some are wet spaghetti. Some laugh and some talk and some are gravely serious. Some stare right into your eyes, while others look anywhere but. My favourites are the ones who laugh, who don’t care so much about getting everything right or looking good, who are just happy to be there – because that’s me, too.
And sometimes when I’m dancing – when it’s a good dance and I’m leading well, in sync, intuitive, having fun, and I notice in my periphery the posters and the colour and the rich red trimmings, the crowd of couples in time, the oily heat of night near the earth’s equator – sometimes then, I can’t help but think: Really? Me?
And I answer: Yes – you!