She took one look at my boarding card and said in English “Ah no, this flight goes from a different airport”. Airport! You can imagine how my heart sank. She said not to worry she would get me on a bus to it and ring over to the departure desk there.
I was hurried down the stairs below the pier and boarded a large empty bus. The driver circled around the piers underneath all the airliners from the US and elsewhere, and we sped across the tarmac. I thought no way could I ever make the other airport in the fifteen minutes I had left, but almost immediately we stopped and I realised that with the lady’s English as bad as my Spanish, she had meant to say Terminal not Airport. My mistake had been that PA did not mean porta, but Puene Aérea, the second terminal of the airport from where several shuttle flights leave. I was escorted in through a doorway to where people were having their boarding cards ripped apart. I had seconds to thank my driver, have my card torn and I was back on the tarmac. The propellers of this little Fokker plane were already turning as I ran up the steps. They closed the door immediately behind me and the plane was taxiing before I had tightened my seat belt.
All sorts of embarrassment and relief passed over me as we took off from Bogota. The flight started uneventfully as clouds obscured any view, but when they did break I was amazed at the rugged mountaintops we were now passing over, so different from my flight in the morning. After an hour or so, the plane started to descend, and the clouds broke and I realised we were falling off the edge of a large cordillera into a wide valley. Because the sides of the valley were nearly sheer, the plane lost height by circling twice over wide sugar cane fields. To one side a dark grey factory belched smoke high into the air and in the middle distance the towers of a large city stuck up into the sky.
We landed and taxied into the terminal area. As it was a domestic flight I was relieved of some of the hassled of arrival, and met Angela and Mauro on the other side of the desk – the first friendly faces after two days of travel. They drove me into the city.
My first days in Cali were rather lazy. Not only had I the travel to contend with, as well as getting acclimatised to this bustling city, but I had come away from a very stressful time at work and was really looking forward to a rest. In fact it took me nearly a week to get going. But in that time I did get to see a lot of Cali, one of those cities that weaves a rich tapestry of life in amongst grime, crime and neglect. In the two weeks that followed I saw a lot of angles of the city, but rarely did I get the most publicised angle, that of the drugs. It was all there, but there was so much else life in the city that it did not dominate in the way you might expect.
Cali was huge and sprawling, by the time I reached it had surpassed Medellin as the country’s second largest city. Conservative estimates put the population at 1.4 million, but the countless barrios and shanty towns held many immigrants from the nearby countryside, looking to the city as a way out of poverty, but finding instead a new form of intense poorness. The centre of the city lay under the long wall of the Western Cordillera, a western arm of the Andes. The Rio Cali topples down a winding valley and opens out onto the wide plain that contains the Rio Cauca, the second river of Colombia. The Cali and Cauca join some eight miles north east of the city, the centre of which was formed around the first bridgeable point on the Cali beyond the Cordillera. I only passed through the old centre of the city twice; Angela thought it was too dangerous for me, Mauro just said there was nothing much to see there. Wide boulevards line the river through the centre and we tended to drive through this place, past the wedding cake like church of La Ermita and the wide bridge across the river that led to the Paseo Bolivar and the avenues.
Like many American cities, the roads are so new that they were arranged grid-iron style very early on. In Cali, to the south of the rio, Carreras ran west to east while Calle’s ran south, all numbered sequentially from the north west corner. On the north side of the rio, the north-west to south east streets were also Calle’s , distinguished from the southern cousins by the letter N, and running south west to north east were 9 Avenues, or Avenidas. Just north of the city centre, in an area sometimes called Granada, was the Avenida Sexta (i.e. the sixth avenue) and this had become fashionable with shops, restaurants, night clubs and bars. It was lively enough in the day; it was riotous at night. The main transport hub was way out of the city on the north side of the Rio Cali, and indeed an amount of activity seemed to occur in this part of the city, even though it was less than a quarter the size of the south side. On the south side, were a couple of Calle’s major routes; the Quinta (Calle 5) and Calle 10 two of the biggest. Mauro lived in the area around Calle Treize, Carrera Cinquientitres called Primero de Mayo. It contained a mixture of apartments and low houses. Mauro’s block had a security guard at the front, and there were several 6 storey blocks inside. A children’s play area and pool were scattered in amongst the buildings, and I spent much of my first few days hanging out in the pool area.
Much of the central parts of the south side were like this, mixtures of housing, industrial, institutional and commercial. A few parks and sports facilities were scattered around, and it was quite dispiriting to see how this stretched off for several miles in each direction. If you went further south, beyond the main university campus, the houses grew in size and stature. Many of the estates on the north side around the avenues were also much more substantial, and often more established. But the best areas were in a small area to the west of the city centre, near where Mauro worked. Much older estates of housing were not built in the rush of the current expansion of the city, but were planned with proper sidewalks, lined with trees and a bit of thought. Hugging the sides of the valley of the Cali, a series of very classy skyscrapers grew from the flanks of the Cordillera. Each one had a cluster of massive satellite dishes atop, and they were dubbed Narcoville, as many were known to be the city dwellings of the drug cartels of Cali.
The east side of the city, which sprawled out towards the Cauca river, was an area I only went through once, to reach a finca on the far side of the valley. The true extent of the recent population explosion in Cali was abundantly clear here, mile after mile of sub-standard housing, opportunistic, superficially planned but where the utilities and amenities were struggling to get established. The map I bought in Cali did not keep apace of this expansion and gave out several Calle’s before the new houses I saw. But even these housing areas were suitable compared to some of the barrios. I never really ventured closer than the outskirts of these informal settlements, but they were visible both day and night – in the evening the haphazard and weaker houselights of the barrios stood out against the regular grid pattern of streets in the rest of the city. In the day time, the square structures gave way to a jumble of house materials; tin, concrete, wood, iron, steel.