Any extra loyal readers who have been following this blog since it’s inception, and remember the very first post which explained the meaning of “rutasurreal,” know that I love good word play in Spanish. Which I why I immediately fell in love with Cali’s city “motto”- Calida, which translates in a couple ways. Calida means “warm” which is a very apt word to describe this city. Cali-da can also mean “cali gives” which is another perfect description. In the last 48 hours I have fallen in love with this city. It’s tropical, balmy, educated, sexy, and most of all full of some of the warmest people I have ever met- and that’s just a first impression.
My first two days were shared with the lovely Elena, who is an ETA from Maine and will be teaching English at the Universidad de Valle, which is also my University of affiliation for my project. We were met at the airport by a giant hand painted sign and a group of adorable and excited 22 year old boys.
The Universidad del Valle (U de Valle from now on) started a brand new “parcero” (“buddy”) program this year at the suggestion of a French international student who felt lost upon arrival in Cali. Many of the parceros have studied abroad themselves or hope to in the future. Andres Felipe (“Feli”) is my parcero- and he is wonderful! I can’t imagine life without him and his buddy David. Elena is paired with Omar. Feli, David, and Omar have taken complete responsibility for Elena and I since we arrived. From our airport welcome party to a full city tour to evening entertainment. We have looked at apartments, bought cell phones, figured out how to use the Mio (the public bus system), and memorized the barrios of the entire city. We know where to go and where not to go, and we have a nice new Caleño vocabulary (Caleño is what you call someone from Cali). In fact, as I write this I am sitting in Feli’s living room, as he is graciously hosting us until we find out own places to live. And yes, that means that he and his brother are sharing a twin bed so that we can have the room with two beds.
Right now it is 7 pm and it just got dark (near the equator it stays light for about 12 hours year round). I’m sitting on the 4th floor balcony (the highest you are allowed to construct without elevator) and it’s a
beautiful Sunday night. The streets are full of kids running and playing- enjoying the evening breeze. Cali tends to be humid and about 80-90 degrees during the day- just the upper edge of bearable for me (once I accept that I am going to be sweaty and there is nothing to do about it!). But every evening around 4 pm a delicious breeze comes through the valley from the pacific coast (about 2 hours away).
Yesterday Omar and David accompanied us to find a room for Elena to rent. The Universities around here don’t have dormitories since it’s normal for young people to live with their families until marriage. The students for whom the commute is too far tend to rent rooms in family houses, similar to a boarding house. Around the university nearly every house rents out rooms. Elena, Omar, and I looked at 4 before we found one she liked, all within 4 blocks of each other. The rooms are simple, tile floor, white walls, a shelf on the wall, a shared bathroom.
The kitchen is about as basic as it gets- a two burner gas stove-top (think camping style). Bring your own plate and pot. Once we got Elena set up with basic furnishings (a mattress, a white plastic chair, and a fan), we headed out to explore the city by public transit. We got a fabulous tour and at least the beginnings of a basic understanding of how to manage the complex Mio routes. There are so many little things that are hard to figure out, and that’s where the boys have been invaluable. For example:
- To buy a cell phone: Pick your basic phone body (mine is a $25 plastic rectangle- think 2001), and then pick your provider- you get a sim card from that provider which has your phone number in it. The main options are Claro, Tigo, or Movistar. This is important because although I can make a call to Movistar from Claro, it costs more, so NO ONE does it. You ONLY call other cell phones (not landlines) of the same provider. If you need to call a landline or someone with a different provider, you have to go walk to the corner where you will likely find a woman with a green vest on and multiple cell phones chained to her. You pay her a few cents in order to use one of her phones with the appropriate provider in order to get a best rate for your call. All your minutes are prepaid, so when you run low, you have to find a place to reload minutes. In order to save minutes and money, it is advisable to keep your phone calls as short as possible and not leave voice messages (don’t worry, the phone will warn you when the voicemail is about to pick up so you can hang up and avoid the charge). It is free to receive calls. In order to buy the actual phone from the store, you pick out the phone package you want and the saleswoman gives you two little barcodes (one for the phone, one for the sim card). Take the barcodes to the register and pay. They carry your receipt across the store to the photo copy center where you pay for a photocopy of your receipt. Take the receipt and the photocopy back across the store to the phone counter and finally you will receive the phone. Then you use the sample phone to call yourself in order to make sure it’s all in working order. NOW you are the proud owner of a Colombian cell phone.
- In order to visit one of the dozens of ‘centros comerciales’ or malls in Cali, if you are lucky enough to have a friend with a car (Thank’s David!) you will first drive past a guard gate where you will get a little piece of paper with the time and your license plate printed on it. You might think this means you will have to pay to park, but this is not so. Upon exiting the mall, you simple hand the piece of paper to the guard and off you go. Why on earth, then, does one need the slip of paper? Obviously, it’s to make sure you are the actual owner of the car and not a car jacker stealing cars from the shopping mall.
- Want to take a taxi? Great- the streets are completely filled with official looking taxis. As I mentioned before, I’d guess at a 3:1 ratio of taxis to private cars. You should have no problem flagging one down. Unfortunately, it’s not that simple. During the day, it should be fine to grab a taxi off the street, but in general and always at night you have to follow a very special procedure. First you call the taxi from your cell phone at one of the following numbers: 3111111, 3222222, 3333333 etc. I haven’t figured out the difference between all the numbers yet…You request a taxi and they will give you the license plate of the taxi being sent your way as well as a secret password which is the last two digits of the phone you are using. Once the taxi shows up, you’ll see that every taxi has their license plate painted in giant letters on the passenger doors. Compare and make sure this is YOUR taxi. When you climb in the driver will ask for your secret code, and now, you are on your way! This is the Colombian solution to taxi-robbers. I think it’s an awesome system and have definitely used it- especially now that I have my cell phone. =)
Which actually leads me to the last theme I want to touch on today. I’ve gotten a lot of questions about safety and security. I know I made fun of the US Embassy guy and the security briefing. But it’s true that safety is a legit concern. The truth of the matter is that there are parts of Colombia that are not safe. I am posting a map of Colombia on the “Map” tab. You will notice that the entire west half of Colombia is mountains and the SE is a very flat plain. I will do a post soon with a quick Colombian history review so that you can all better understand the current situation. But the reality right now is that FARC holds a minority of the country and in all rural, less populated areas such as the SE plain and a jungle area near the Panama border. You may have heard of an American ex-military guy who was kidnapped recently. He disregarded ALL American and Colombian government warning not to enter the area he was in, signed an actual waiver with the police, bought a machete and walked into the sunset. Avoid that situation and you will be fine. In the major cities, the worry is more about petty theft. Think New York or DC subway. Keep your bag under your arm, don’t walk deserted streets at night, don’t carry hundreds of dollars on you at one time. Follow simple common sense rules, avoid obvious areas of the country, and don’t flash fancy cameras/ipods around (that ipod would pay for 2 months rent for someone…) and you will be gifted the opportunity to be blown away by the generosity, openness, sincerity, and ‘calida’ of the Colombian people. Colombians are very aware of the image the world holds of them and are eager to be part of changing that image. As an American traveler (who often claims to be Canadian!) I have felt more welcomed in Colombia than in many parts of Latin America. Colombians are excited that I am here and excited to show me who they are and what it means to be Colombian. I am sure that I will advocate until the end for the beauty and warmness of the Colombian people.