When I told people in the United States that I would be living in Colombia for 6 months I got asked about cocaine. When I told people in Colombia that I would be staying in Cali for 6 months, I got asked about Salsa. Any Colombian person who learns that I am a foreigner voluntarily living in a city without a beach, assumes that if I didn’t come to Colombia for the beaches, I came for the salsa.
“Y tu bailas salsa?” So, do you dance salsa? The answer was usually a light shake of my head and a smile-shrug. I don’t consider myself a dancer but the man who helped me carry my bags at the airport and the woman who gave me my first Colombian coffee, convinced me that if I didn’t come for the salsa, I should’ve just studied at Princeton.
I stayed with my best friend Laura in Palmira for the week leading up to the start of CET. Palmira is about an hour bus ride from the center of Cali. It has everything that a small suburb of LA needs to be a small suburb of LA: outdoor malls, burger and pizza joints, palm trees, and pet dogs.
The city is clean. The houses were painted white with flat clay tile roofs and balconies through which pedestrians could view the entire upper level of the home. I’m not sure what that kind of architecture is called, but I felt like I was in what I imagine to be California. Most notable about the city was the abundance of flowers. Even the patches of dry grass that grow between sidewalk tiles were blooming with red and purple flowers.
The streets were empty, but the businesses were crowded, and the taxis were full. On my 3rd day in Palmira Laura took me to the city for what I thought was a 30-minute surgery consultation. In addition to the consultation, I ended up having a sweet taste of Colombian culture. More specifically, life in Cali.
After her consultation (for which we had to leave at 6am), I had my first pan de bono and Colombian buñuelo. Pan de bono is a small ring of bread baked with cheese inside, and here, buñuelos are just fried balls of dough. Both foods are typical breakfast treats and go great with a side of avena (oatmeal made with so much milk and sugar that it is basically a milkshake) or of course, coffee.
We visited a couple of book shops to look through children’s books as a form of inspiration for an interactive project that she was working on at her job. We met up with her partner Robert and rode in an Uber up into the mountaintops of Cali to a more touristy area called San Antonio. There, we visited the Dog Plaza and the Cat Plaza, and I tried for the first some of Cali’s most popular foods and drinks. Robert was my personal tour guide and I was grateful to have had such an intense and diverse tour of my new city Cali. Cali is Cali is how Caleños describe the capital of salsa.
I wasn’t ready for what came next. The Sun had set, and I was full of marranitas and aborrajados ready to catch the next Uber back to Palmira. Instead, I found myself panting as we walked up and down San Antonio’s hills to find a small door attached to a restaurant. More steps awaited behind the door and I panted my way up not knowing that I was in for an even bigger workout. I wrote my name and email in an excel spreadsheet as I wiped sweat and dirt off of my face. My nails were dirty and the sweat stains on my bright yellow shirt had come and gone all day long. By this time, we had met up with one of Laura’s high school friends Nicole and her friend Alejandra. Next, a piece of paper stamped with the number 35 was attached to my shirt with a safety pin, and a small young man in heels began to shout. “Welcome all and thank you for coming out tonight. We’re so excited to have you all here and I hope you are ready to DANCE SALSA WITH ME!”
I slowly scanned the room for anyone as out of place as I was. I found a white woman. She had a lanky figure with a shabby ponytail that swept the end of her crop top. Each time she turned her head to scan the room, her hair rested on the shoulder opposite the direction she was facing. She had a friend who also seemed to be a foreigner. Next, I found black women straight out of somebody’s modelling agency. They were statuesque and graceful in their small salsa heels as we all waited for the speakers to be connected. Each of them stood directly in front of the mirror with their eyes glued to their waist and to the point of their toes. One in particular placed her palms on her spine, threw her neck back and extended her seemingly endless torso as she gave polite chuckles to the dance instructor. Those women were beautiful and clearly were masters at salsa.
“Danced” is too strong of a word to describe what went on for the next two hours. I bounced around the dance studio spinning in circles and trying to move my hips and neck as dramatically as everyone else. It took us about half of that time to realize that we had accidentally signed up for an advanced salsa class. I was still learning the difference between salsa and all of the other Latin American dance genres I had experienced while ordering a breakfast sandwich in any bodega back home. Laura and I, in our sneakers and t-shirts, eventually re-imagined ourselves in a ballet course and began twirling and kicking our legs in the air. Most people stared at us, but the women in the front still had their eyes locked on their hips. Nicole and Alejandra had publicly dissociated from us within the first 30 minutes because it was clear we didn’t come to compete or to be good at salsa. Surprisingly, it felt really good to be embarrassingly bad at salsa in an advanced dance class.
My hips moved where they wanted to, and the occasional crash into one of the models, I described earlier was manageable. After all, distinguishing between left and right in Spanish with an award-winning salsa teacher was harder than I imagined.