I spent three weeks in Cali, in total. I didn’t leave for home on the 5th of February as planned; for reasons I can’t be bothered to get into (I’m a knob), I moved my flight home back a week, to the 12th of February out of Bogota.
My last week in Colombia – my last week of this nine-and-a-half-month trip around a good chunk of the world – was calm. A younger me would have wanted to go out with a bang, to self-destruct one last time with a blinding flash and leave a blast mark shadow of my profile on the walls and pavements of Cali. But ah – I’d had plenty of fun over the last year. I’d had my fill. I didn’t care about partying – but I wanted to practice dancing as much as possible before I left the city.
I had 16 hours of dance lessons in total, I think. I want a thousand more. I spent a lot of my time in Cali philosophising about salsa and dancing to anybody who’d listen. I felt I’d discovered something as vital to my wellbeing as eating or sleeping – something I’d not known about for 29 years. Imagine living three decades and wondering why you often feel pretty crumby, and then one day somebody says “Hey have you heard of food?” It’s a real forehead-smacker of a realisation.
In a world where rising numbers of young people feel isolated and lonely, where nobody can afford the lifestyle they want, where making new friends is hard, where people struggle with their mental health and understanding their place in the world – doesn’t dancing just make sense?
As an adult male, there have been many periods in my life where I have gone months – months – without a hug, without so much as an affectionate hair ruffle. And that’s so bad for you. Look at dogs, look at apes; they’re social and they touch one another and bond. We were never meant to sit all day in isolated tower blocks and office cubicles. We are designed to move, to touch one another, to socialise.
Skin to skin contact with another human releases oxytocin in our bodies. Oxytocin counteracts the effects of cortisol, which is the hormone secreted when we are stressed that damages many bodily processes in the long term. Oxytocin is the chemical responsible for that warm, fuzzy feeling you get when someone tickles your back. It helps you sleep better, it calms you down, it makes you feel happy. Something as innocuous as holding hands can stimulate the release of oxytocin. And when you dance salsa, of course, you hold hands the whole time.
Then there’s the fact that you’re constantly learning new things. Learning is good for your brain. I don’t know the science but I’m sure of it, because whenever I learn something new I’m happy for the rest of the day. Piano lessons, language classes, a new caleña spin, whatever. Learning is good for you; it’s euphoric.
Laughing is good for you as well – and when you dance and you muck it up, you laugh. Everybody laughs to see their body get all confused and their legs tangled up, it’s fun and ridiculous. Laughing from your belly makes you feel happy and alive.
Exercise makes you happy too: burning calories, sweat on your brow and darkening the front of your t-shirt. Joggers talk about the ‘runner’s high’ and weight-lifters talk about the ‘pump’: the euphoria that sweeps over you in the wake of intense exercise. Our bodies like to move. They want to move. And when we move them, they thank us.
And there’s another thing I like about dancing: you make friends. You chat while you learn, you bond with teachers and dance partners. You all have something in common immediately, and you can cheerlead one another’s progress as you go. It’s warm and it’s real, and the people you meet out there will be just like you: a little nervous, but brave and excited to try something new. People who don’t only talk about things, but make them happen. And aren’t those just the sort of people you ought to be meeting?
Anyway, my friends in the hostel soon got used to my endless theorising about dancing. It became a joke.
“Stay away from that guy,” my friend Precious used to warn new arrivals, “unless you want to hear about oxytocin for the next two hours.”
I went out in Cali most nights of the week. It wasn’t a strain because I never drank to excess. There was no need – I was enjoying myself enough without alcohol and I didn’t want to numb myself or dull the experience. One of my favourite events was the indigenous dance circle. This took place every Thursday in a park on a hilltop, from 7 to 9pm, and there were always hundreds of people in attendance.
The first time I went with a few hostel friends, I imagined from the name of it that we’d be watching a show. When we arrived, we instead found a real free-for-all. In the park there’s a sunken stone circle – an ampitheatre with only two rows of steps – and around the outside are gigantic speakers playing jaunty indigenous music with lots of panpipes. In the centre of the circle are a dozen indigenous people, all dancing round and round, facing inwards towards one another. They hop left and right and backwards and forwards in a variety of different step patterns, all of them high-energy, high-spirited.
These dozen people are the leaders of the dance. As more people arrive in the park, they step into the stone circle and join the dance in rows upon rows, creating wheels of people of increasing size that turn together around the central hub in the circle. Nobody knows what the moves are – you simply watch the leaders in the centre and copy them. Or, as is the case further back in the circle, if you can’t see the leaders you just copy the people around you. It’s all hopping-mad laughter, hand raises to the sky, knee-jerk bouncing on one leg. Everybody gets stuck in eventually, and each time I went I danced around like a loon, laughing as the sweat ran down my forehead. You bump into each other, you step on toes, you all go ‘whoop!’ together, and at the end of each song everybody claps and pats their friends on the back, shattered. It’s intense cardio but it feels effortless, because you’re having so much fun. Those ingenious indigenous folks.
I had many other fun evenings in Cali, but that was several weeks ago now so we’ll leave those tales there – sitting cozily in the haze of memory.
The 11th of February was my last evening in Colombia, and to mark this occasion I did nothing at all. Everybody was piling out to a reggaeton club and asked me to join, but I didn’t fancy it: as far as I was concerned, I’d made it through five months in Latin America without a hiccup. Well – one instance of some money being pinched from my wallet just after arriving in Mexico and one instance of mild food poisoning in Salento – and that’s it. All things considered, I’d been monumentally lucky. It didn’t make sense to head out on one last boozy night when I was so close to a victorious end, miraculously untarnished. It felt like those gangster films where the protagonist goes back for ‘one last job’. They always end up shot to bits, don’t they – lying there at the end of the film, bleeding and going “Whyyyy did i do this one last jobbbbb what a knob head I ammmm”.
So no. I got a tasty burger delivered and drank a couple of beers with Precious. She was volunteering at the hostel, working reception on my last night, and nobody was around so we put Michael Jackson over the speakers and had a daft little dance party in the foyer. Simple, silly fun. All I could have hoped for on the last evening of my adventure.
I’d spent most of the week preparing myself for the pain of leaving. I’ve done it enough times over the years to be acutely aware of the hurt that lay beyond the horizon. I knew going home would be strange and difficult. Seeing family is wonderful, of course, but there’s everything that comes with it: returning home in winter, a fading tan, an empty bank account, the whiplash loss of momentum, the wet slap of joblessness.
“It’s weird,” I remember telling Precious, a few days before leaving Cali, “I’m here now, talking to you, looking around this beautiful hostel. It’s warm, there are palm trees outside, posters on the walls, beers in the fridge. I’m here, you’re here. But I can already feel that this will be a memory one day. It almost feels like this already is a memory – as though I’m not really living it, but just looking back on it as the future me.”
She understood. People always understand in hostels.
I’ve written many times about a sensation I like to call pre-nostalgia: the painful awareness that what you’re living will one day be the distant past, and being powerless to do anything about that beyond simply opening up your senses as much as you can – taking snapshots with your eyes, remembering smells and textures and the way your friends made you feel. Remembering how brave you felt, and how everything seemed so very doable. For ten months, nothing was off the table. Everything was an option. Absolute freedom.
On my last morning in Cali I had a coffee and a slice of cake in the hostel, then did the rounds saying bye to everybody. Many of my favourite people had already moved on, but I said goodbye to those who remained and hugged them all. Then I called an Uber and went to the airport.
I watched the tropical greens of the countryside from the open window. I’ll miss this place, I sighed in my heart. My driver spoke to me in Spanish all the way, and I was happy to chat with him in his own language. He spoke slowly and clearly for me, and I found I could understand everything he was chatting about. When I arrived in Mexico five months before, I gave myself two goals for Latin America: to learn Spanish, and to learn salsa. Well, I may not be an expert in either, but I took a damn good crack at it. I’m proud.
From Cali I flew to Bogota. I had 10 hours in the airport, and I passed the time drinking coffee and writing these diaries. It was strange to think that in just a few hours I would no longer stand out in any crowd as the only blonde head; that I would no longer have to fumble for words in Spanish upon entering any shop or cafe; that danger would no longer fill the streets after sunset. Goodbye warmth. Goodbye colour. Goodbye danger. Goodbye palms.
Finally, I said my hardest goodbye: a farewell to that bold, free, adventurous version of myself that I love so deeply; the pirate, the explorer, the one that nobody back home has ever seen, the one that can only exist on the road. Saying goodbye to him always hurts. He is the person I most want to be, and yet I spend such precious little time inhabiting his form. Sometimes I feel like everything else in life is just waiting – waiting until I can be him again. One day I’ll be too old, and I worry he’ll be gone forever. I’ll find you again, I tell him as we part ways for the umpteenth time in the last decade. I will find a way back to you. I promise.
I sigh in the departure lounge. I don’t want to go home. I do want to go home. I want both and neither. Opposites and none of it. I want security and stability and a base, and I want to nuke the base and ride off into a red sunset to never be seen again. With a pang of sorrow I even think of the music I’ll miss – the ever-present bass-throb of reggaeton that infuriated me so much upon my arrival in Colombia two months before. Home will seem so quiet without it.
Two months? Jesus. Where does all the time go?
I don’t know. But my time is up.
Wrapped in a strange, pensive quiet, I board an aeroplane bound for London, bound for winter, bound for family, bound for whatever life has in store next.