Time in Cali – Caught up in the corrida

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Football was not the only sport which Colombians followed.  As in many Latin American countries, bullfighting still holds an attraction especially in rural areas.  A great horse festival was taking place in a small mountain town called Darien, about twenty miles north of Cali. Graeme, Chris, myself and a Colombian friend of Chris decided to go up to it, and take in the bullfight happening on the Saturday afternoon.  Mauro steadfastly refused to go, there were a few things which he objected to in his country’s culture, and he was quite upset that we considered supporting the event.  We talked it through and I said that I did not really understand what happened at a bullfight.



He thought that since I knew the bulls suffered and were killed at the end of each bout that was reason enough not to go, but I wanted to see why it was so attractive to so many people.  Graeme drove us up towards Buga and then up into the cloud forests of the western Cordillera.  The swirling clouds obscured the mountaintops and we circled a small reservoir perched high in the mountains and arrived in Darien, which sat on a slightly sloping plateau near the lake.  It was cold and grey up here.  As we sat in a bar having lunch, a bunch of cowboys arrived on horseback, huge beasts with flowing manes, and the horses were similar.

Darien - Before the fight

Darien – Before the fight

Wearing their dressy spurs, jeans, jackets and hats they looked like the worst excesses of a Las Vegas dance show.  They let off a couple of pistols in the air and headed back into the village.  So, I realised, we were now truly in the Wild West.  We saw many more horses dolled up with fancy cowboys, most of them drunk on Aguadiente, and struggling to control their fiery charges.

 We headed to the edge of the village to where the bullring was situated.  It was a surprising place, not fully enclosed like the bullrings I had seen in movies, it was a rather rustic wooden construction.  About two thirds of the ring had concrete seating, the other side had a series of pens for the horses and bulls.  The central ring was neatly raked sand, and directly opposite our seats a long wooden channel staggered up the hill to where a series of lorries stood, the six bulls who were going to die stood inside one apiece.  In the other pens, you could see the preparations going on for the horsemen or Picadors.  The stadium filled up in the following half hour, we took swipes of Aguadiente from Chris’s Leather water bottle and waited in anticipation for the festival to start.

 No one had ever bothered to explain the ritual of bullfighting to me before, I had a load of piecemeal images of people on horseback, big swirling mats and a man in a Deputy Dog outfit trying to pierce the back of a bull’s skull.  Nothing coherent about it.  Once shown the sequence of activity it made it all the more obvious why it was done that way, and why no bull ever got a second chance.  First a series of four matadors came into the ring with large capes, pink on one side, yellow on the other.  They took their bows in front of the mayor and the audience, and then stabled themselves around the ring facing the wooden channel.


 With a clatter, the doors on the lorry at the top of the channel opened and the first bull stomped down the ramp.  From our position we could see its progress down the long channel, occasionally stopping to sniff the people on either side watching him go down, at other times hurtling headlong down towards the ring.  On its entrance, it would almost always get bullish, trying to take in the curious surroundings, a screaming crowd above him, this wide open sand and these curious men in funny suits waving huge capes at him.  Since they were the only things he could vent his anger on, he would start chasing them around.  And of course, this is what the bullfighters want.  This bull, fresh from his pen and bursting with energy, needs to be tired sufficiently before the matador can do his fancy work.  So the four sub-matadors run around the pen, alternating between teasing and distracting the bull.  If the bull gets too close to one matador, another will charge past to make sure he does not injure the man.  And so it goes on for a few minutes, the bull racing around after these guys.  The bull does not get very tired running around like this, so the matadors have to find some other way of wearing him out.  They bleed him.  Reaching out of the ring they can be handed these long metal spears, bandilleras, adorned with coloured bands that flutter in the wind.  While one matador is distracting the bull, another can run up to it and spear the back of the neck of the bull.  If he gets a firm purchase, the barbed bandillera lodges in the nape of his neck and flaps around as the bull runs.  If it does not get good purchase then it glances off with little ill effect.  The bull does not get away with it for long, though, as another spear is lodged in, then another.  By the end of this segment, he may have half a dozen of these bandilleras in his back. Each one rubs on the others as he moves around, aggravating the gash and further enraging the bull.  However, now he is also losing blood and is injured, which does slow him down from his initial bravado.

 Sometime around now, the matadors head off to one side of the ring and the picadors take their place centre stage.  Riding on large horses, they look like medieval knights, covered head to toe in protective clothing, the horses themselves heavily shielded in a strong cloak from hoof to head.  The picadors carry a sort of lance, rather blunt after the spears.  Their role is to plug the centre of the back of the bull from atop their horses.  The matadors stay around in case they get into trouble, but the action is all the picadors now.  They try to come alongside the bull and jab the lance straight down into the back.  The bull has other ideas and turns to face the horse, thinking it is this creature that is trying to harm him.  Using the fierce horns, I saw one bull able to turn a horse about thirty degrees from the vertical but the sure footedness of the horse ensured it stayed balanced.  Of course, while the bull was turning its attention to the horse, the rider was able to get a close shot with his lance.  Several times the bull would be punctured with the lance, and the damage was far more severe than before.  On some occasions, I though they may have found an artery as the spurt of blood was visible from the other side of the ring.  Thick lines of blood matted the dark skin of the bull and dried black on brown.  Fresh blood, like a lava flow, gushed down the side of the beast over the older leak.

 Only the strongest bull would have been able to put up with the torture without diminishing his power.  The bull occasionally staggered, and found it difficult to run for more than a few seconds at a time.  It was at this point that the master matador would come out into the ring to show off his artistry.  The six matadors for the day helped out in the ring to start with, but each one in turn got to show off his skills at the end of the kill.  They showed off much more than that in their tight sequined suits.  Either it was true that these men were testosterone filled machos or the sock trade in Bogota got a roaring trade from them.  They certainly attracted a lot of admiration and wolf whistles from the women in the audience.  I was a little surprised how old some of them appeared, about half seemed to be over fifty, but perhaps having to face half a ton of raging bull aged you considerably.

 When the single matador entered the ring, the brutal damage had already been completed.  The tired, injured and dazed creature in front of the man was not the defiant bull that had come out into the ring.  Only capable of short spurts of running, the matador was only of danger from the bull if he took his eye of the bull for too long.  The matador took up a small red mat, hardly enough room to write “Welcome” on it, and enticed the bull past his torso to within a few inches.  Inevitably, the bull, once the momentum was running could not change direction quickly and the matador just had to step to one side at the appropriate moment to avoid being gored.  Now knowing what had gone before, most of my respect for the skill of the matador had gone out of the window – he was toying with an animal on its last legs, not bravely fighting a fierce wild creature.  The band would strike up a tune while he danced around the bull and the crowd sang along and cheered every time the bull made another confused lunge.

 One of the matador’s tricks was to theoretically hypnotise the bull.  He would come up in front of the bull’s head and stare directly into his face.  The bull would often go down on one leg and stay almost completely mesmerized by the sight of the matador.  In reality again, I think it was done at the moment when the bull had lost its consciousness and was acting like a sluggish automaton.  But the crowd thought it was wonderful and all cheered.  After much playing with the bull, the matador finally became merciful, and taking a thin sharp silver sword, walked directly up to the bull, found the point where the skull met the neck and plunged the sword into the creature’s spinal cord.  Death was almost always instantaneous and the only delay was in the bull’s legs crumpling and the body falling sideways into the dust.

 I watched this ceremony six times in the course of the day.  The bulls varied in their ability to put up with the punishment, and the matadors varied in their skill at playing the audience. As with Gladiators in Rome, the best matadors were not the best killers, they were the ones who knew the tricks to keep the audience entertained, the apparent lack of control when a bull gets within two inches of the matador, the hypnotism trick.  If the mayor thought the matador had performed particularly well for his people, he would offer him an ear off the bull, more exceptional performances guaranteed two ears, and the ultimate (one ultimate during the day seemed to be the norm) gave the victor both ears and the tail.

 Although rather disgusted at the one-sidedness of the competition (not one of the matadors got as much as a scratch during the day), and the goriness of the different stages to wear the bull down, I was morbidly fascinated with the whole theatre of the day and the incredibly important ceremonial nature of the whole event, even in this small provincial town.  The matadors themselves were highly revered by the crowd, heroes who slayed the livid beast.  I do not think many Colombians took the ceremony quite as seriously as I seemed to have done, as evident when the biggest cheer was given to three busty girls who came in late and made sure they were seen sidling around the seats to a vantage point in the centre of the stadium.

 We headed home. Graeme and I, who had never seen a bull fight before, had mixed emotions, although I concluded that I would not be seeing another bull fight out of choice.  But I could not deny that I had been mesmerized by the whole affair, and caught up in the crowd spirit.  Several times I had found myself cheering a particularly clever more by the matador, or wondering at the play off between him and the bull out there on the sand.

 In the end, it was just another part of the rich tapestry of the people who lived in and around Cali, a city that does not accommodate you, you have to keep up with it or else get left by the wayside.  Although I enjoyed my first two weeks in the city, I thought it was time I saw another side to Colombia.

Time in Cali – living with the Colombians

Graeme’s health improved dramatically while I was there – I think I was beginning to give him some purpose in life again.  He invited me out one afternoon to see the huge statue of Christ which overlooked Cali from the Western Cordillera.  Always interested in views, I jumped at the chance and we emerged from Cali up the steep escarpment that was the main road towards the Pacific.  Once behind the front ridge, we turned off and passed through a deeply incised set of valleys with fincas dotted all over the place.  The road lost its tarmac and we continued up the dirt track towards the statue.  At one point, an army road block stopped us and asked for Graeme’s driver’s license.  He spoke to them in his hesitant Spanish and they let us past.  When we were around the next corner, Graeme turned to me and said “Did you notice they were all wearing different coloured uniforms?”  It had not really clocked with me that it seemed that these were not regular army, but a patrol from one of the drug cartels who owned many of these country fincas.

 Having brushed with the narcotics trade, we were quite sober when we reached the statue, but the awesome view on this bright afternoon soon blew that away.  Above the parked cars, a four hundred foot statue of Christ towered above us, his arms stretched out horizontally in a welcoming pose.  He faced out over the city, and for the first time I could really see the sprawling nature of this groaning metropolis.  To the north east the high rise flats and offices around the centre, to the south, the long miles of suburbs, occasionally punctuated with a sports stadium, park or school.  The grid iron streets stretched in all directions, only broken when they reached the hillsides close below us.  I could still see the edge of the city and beyond to the east the green swathes of cane fields dominated the countryside.  A few fires were burning where the stubble was being taken off.  In the haze beyond, I got a glimpse of the Central Cordillera on the far side of the Cauca valley.

 We came back into town and had a drink in the Avenida Sexta.  Graeme told me he was so relieved to have another Englishman to share his humour with.  He liked a lot of Colombians and the other expats from various nations that were around but found it difficult to be himself with them.  We realised what he meant when two very large Colombian girls passed by our café wearing leather skirts that stopped mid thigh, big busty T shirts, hair that went everywhere and birdcage earrings and high heels.  Once out of earshot, both of us turned to each other and said “It’s Cali’s version of the Fat Slags”.  After that we knew we understood each other’s sense of humour; puerile and schoolboy.

On the Avenida Sexta

On the Avenida Sexta

 Graeme told me that often the way some Colombian women dressed made it hard to know whether they were being fashion conscious or just trying to sell themselves on the street.  He warned me that there were even more perils to finding members of the Oldest Profession.  The Avenidas Sexta, Siete and Ocho were the usual pick up points for prostitutes in the city, and the girls hung around on street corners.  But woe betide you if you were not careful in your choice.  Colombian women may be beautiful but there were some Colombian men who could dress up and look just as pretty.  These Travesties, as they were known, were so good at dieting, padding, dressing and make up that they could look as good as any girl.  Unfortunately when you got them to some sleazy motel room and started to disrobe you might find a few surprises you weren’t expecting.  And, so I was told, these travesties were not into rolling over and playing girl for you once you got them to yourself, quite the reverse.  Kerb crawlers had become turned off by driving up and down this red light district as you were never sure what you were getting, it being too dark to check for Adam’s Apples.  In response the true girls had to resort to proving to their clients that they were genuine, which involved pulling up their t-shirts and pushing down their panties to give the full game away.  I found all this hard to believe until I saw about twenty girls doing this on a dozen street corners on our way back from a bar in the Sexta one night.

 The Colombians I met were a mixed bunch of people, mainly Mauro’s and Angela’s friends going right back to school days, also a few of Mauro’s work colleagues.  They were all particularly civil with me but especially during the first few days my Spanish was so awful that not only could I not tell them about myself, I could never understand what they were talking about.  It got better over the few weeks I was around, but it meant that if I went to some of their houses, I would end up sitting quietly contemplating the bottom of a beer bottle while the rest of the party was in deep mirth.  There was one running joke about “The Helicopter Method” which, even with hand movements, took Mauro ages to dissect in English and by then it was no longer funny.  Several of Mauro’s friends played with him in a band and I got to see a rehearsal one night in a grand house above where Graeme and Debbie lived.  It was an incredible din as they practised in a small attic room and insisted on Heavy Metal sounds, polluting most of the Barrio with sound.

Camillo, Me and Mauro

Camillo, Me and Mauro

 Although I loved many of the Colombians I met and enjoyed their hospitality immensely, I did find they had two problems; a series of quirky behaviours, and a very high opinion of themselves.  Angela in particular would say outrageous things like “ we are the healthiest eating nation in the world” at the same time a plate of chips, fried plantain, rice, eggs and ham were put in front of you.  “We are the most beautiful people in the world”, but when I looked at the layers of make up so many women were wearing I wondered what they had to hide.  One of the most bizarre of their quirkinesses was their protection of their car doors.  In Britain I am used to slamming car doors to make them shut, anything less leaves them ajar.  I don’t mean slamming them hard, but with enough of a clunk that you know that latch has fallen into place.  But in Colombia if you shut a car door with anything more than a whisper you are soundly chastised.  At first I thought it was just over protective taxi drivers who wanted no more of their rust to fall off their battered chassis.  But people in their private cars would also tell me off, even when I thought my slam met their noise abatement requirements.  In one case, the man who was giving me a lift got out and patronisingly showed me (on my side of the car) how I should close the door.  I tried to do it as softly as I could but he still winced.

Time in Cali – Football mania

They loved their football.  I’m not mad keen on football to watch, but growing up in the glory days of the 70’s with Liverpool winning every bit of silverware they could get their hands on, I could hardly avoid being caught up with it.  America de Cali, one of the two teams in the city, was the Liverpool of the Colombian league at the time.  Their stadium was a few miles from Lucy’s apartment, and an English friend of Graeme’s called Chris asked me if I wanted to go to a game one night.  What the hell, I thought.  My previous match had been a rather dull draw between England and France at Wembley a year before.  I could never could get excited about International football but the prospect of seeing a real club game in Colombia was an opportunity not to be missed.  America were playing Barranquilla from the north of the country.  I almost didn’t get there due to Mauro deciding to inflict Colombian time keeping on me.  I had come back early to be ready to go out for the match starting at 7:30 but Mauro and the rest of his family did not turn up till half six.  Dinner was a slow affair and since Mauro was dropping me off at the ground, I was dependent on him moving forward.  He insisted on fiddling around in the apartment for ages and then saying I had plenty of time.  About ten past seven I reminded him that the game started at 7:30 and  I was due to meet this guy at 7:15 as he hadn’t got any tickets.  Mauro then blamed me for not telling me before (I had explained it all to him in the morning) and we went on.  I know it was nothing malicious on Mauro’s part, he was just operating on Colombian time, which is different from African time where nothing happens, or Caribbean time where they know what time it is but they won’t do anything till it is too late.  Colombian time seemed to consist of not knowing what the time was or what schedule you were supposed to be keeping to.  As a novice traveller in those days it irritated me enormously.  I have learnt to be patient and realise that non-English cultures seem to have a much better grasp of Einstein’s principles of time, that is it is flexible.

For all my useless fretting, Mauro got me to the entrance to the stadium and Chris was there.  He was your middle class aficionado of football, straight from the Nick Hornby mould.  Tall and rather gaunt, he had been living in Cali for several years and was at ease with its foibles, so he found it quite funny when I apologised for my lateness (it was twenty past seven).  We got seats above the centre line and watched a thoroughly entertaining game.  Although the football was good enough, the atmosphere in the enormous stadium was electric, and this was a routine mid week league match against an indifferent side.  All over the stadium, big bass drums beat out the chants, firecrackers were let off around the ground, and thousands of men, women and children all shouted for Cali.  Of the 50,000 crowd, about 120 percent were America supporters, Barranquilla supporters having either too far to travel or having been surreptitiously murdered before entering the ground.  America de Cali were owned by one of the big drug cartels in the city, which paid for the high wages and ensured a level of fear amongst the players to play their edgy best at all times.  Referees in the country were given armed escorts, although that didn’t always protect them sufficiently.  The chant in Spanish of “Who’s the Bastard in the Black Coffin” would occasionally go around the ground.

Despite the hostile undertones, the vast majority of spectators were in family groups and in between the moments of high drama on the pitch there was a lot of chit chat around us.  I got talking to the people behind me about how Liverpool had done in the previous season (unfortunately it was not one of their better years), and whether Colombia would get into the World Cup in the USA this time around.

The sound of banging drums, bands playing and cheering still echoed in my ears as we headed back to Chris’s car.  Everyone was happy, America de Cali had won 2-2.  I got to thinking that Latin American matches were a lot more fun than European ones.  Absolutely everyone was in to football in Cali.  At the weekends, whole hoards of people would turn up at a house and watch the match.  Bottles of Aguadiente would come out, a Colombian spirit with an aniseed aftertaste, and every time there was a shot on goal, not necessarily a goal itself, there was a round of shots of spirit downed in one.  I must have taken 40 shots in one match.  The mass commercialism of football came in earlier in Latin America than in the UK, the matches were peppered with advertisements.  Instead of waiting for half time or the end of the match, though, they managed to squeeze in ten second commercials for cars, cleaning fluid and hamburgers every time the ball went out of play.  And if the ball was in play, a floating square would show an advert in one corner of the screen while you watched the play in another corner.  If the ball fell down behind the advert, the square was moved to another corner.  In this way you got extremely irritated that you could neither make head or tale of the advert, nor watch the football match with any concentration.  When a goal was scored, the inevitable scream from the commentator still held that no matter how poor the build up was, he needed to shout “Goooooooooooooooooooooooaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaalllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllll” for as long as his breathe would hold out.  The celebrations in the house were incredible, no matter who had scored.  Aguadiente all round, kiss your mother, kiss your sister, kiss the bambino, throw the bambino in the air, scrape the bambino off the ceiling, dance up and down, tread on the dog’s toes, chastise the dog for bighting the bambino.  It usually took five minutes for the household to calm down again.

Time in Cali – Town and Country

 This massive mixture of styles, riches, structures and ages throbbed together in a unison that defined the city.  There were few areas where I felt calm, a few back streets in the better suburbs perhaps, but although I rarely felt insecure in any part of the city I ventured into, the pulse of the place was always beating around me.  Mauro tried to show me how to get in tune with this beat, and it started to work, once I had lost some of the jet lag.  We went to various restaurants, the best of which was the Old Cali restaurant up in the hills to the west of the city.  Built like an old fashioned finca it had waitresses in traditional costumes, fine Colombian food (I had something which was identical to black pudding), and oodles of sangria.  There was the opening of a bar owned by one of Mauro’s friends.  It was a strange affair, for some reason, the bar had none of the finishing touches put to it, indeed apart from a glass fronted door and a concrete block that was due to be the bar, there was little else there.  But despite that, everyone brought along their own beer and had the party out on the street.  There was another great bar in the back of the city centre that was run by a man from West Kirby.  We went along one night and I had far too much scotch.  When the owner and I got talking about various places back home, he said he hadn’t been back to Liverpool for 15 years.  He just loved Colombian women too much.  He said if he went swimming in the local pools, he had to be careful, as his love for women would stand out too much when he was at the water side….if you get my drift.  I agreed with him to a certain extent, Colombian women are gorgeous, to that there is no doubt, but I had to admit that the Venezuelans I saw seemed to have a more natural beauty.  Many Colombian women decided they had to plaster themselves in make up, and I often wondered what was underneath that thick veneer.

 I wandered the streets alone during the first couple of days; Graeme was still recovering from the latest effects of the typhoid and was not up for chauffeuring me around; most of Mauro’s family were out at work during the day, so I was left to my own devices.  I relaxed by the pool and read a great deal.  The heat outside was often too much and I ended up watching the Spanish TV in the apartment.  Lucy, Mauro’s mother, was so welcoming and easy to understand that I never felt I was getting in the way, even though the apartment was quite small for all the activity in there.  As well as Mauro, his sister and young child were staying there, and of course, Lucy.  Various other relatives were often passing through so it was difficult to keep track of who lived there and who was visiting.

 One afternoon  I went out onto Calle 13 and caught a taxi into the city, but rather than go around the city centre, I visited the rather mangy zoo up the valley.  I spent a quiet hour or so up there and then walked down through Narcoville into town.  High security around these villas, cameras (which in those days were rare anywhere), razor wire on rooves, high solid walls and steel doors revealed they had something to hide.  In a small grassy area close to the city centre, I rested and waited for Graeme.  Although still pale he had arranged to meet up for a drink in the late afternoon.  We wandered down the Sexta and enjoyed a long chat.  We caught up on news; Graeme and Debbie I had known in Chatham for a couple of years.  He gave me the ins and outs of Cali from an expat point of view, we watched the street life and made rude comments in English about the women walking up and down the Sexta.  He invited me back to the house and we continued to talk long after Debbie came home from her work place in CIAT (an International Agricultural Institute on the edge of town).  In the end Mauro rang to find out if I was still there.  He came by in his car to take me home.

 Early on in my visit, I got out of Cali and saw some of the local countryside.  Mauro’s small institute was based in the city, but had a remarkable field station about thirty miles north in Buga.  His PhD supervisor, David Speedy from Oxford University, was doing one of his noted South American tours and wanted to visit Mauro’s field trials at this field station, so I was invited along for the day out.  A rather gorgeous Venezuelan scientist, Sephe,  was also on this trip (certainly more gorgeous than the three of us).

 We hired a taxi in Cali that took us out on the back road through the little town of Yumba, dominated by the huge industrial plant I had seen from the air as we landed.  Beyond here the road hugged the foot of the Western Cordillera and passed through several villages.  To the left, the scrubby land was occasionally farmed, to the right, the fertile plain was coated in large plantation fields of sugar, corn or vegetable.  We arrived at the centre near lunch time.  A quiet well ordered group of buildings laid out in neat gardens and surrounded by small plots of farmed land, just like the fifty or so other agricultural stations I have seen across the world.  We were given a tour of the facilities, I watched as buffalo helped carry the sugar harvest to a roundhouse where a press squeezed every drop of juice from the cane.  We saw Mauro’s test plots, in an area so pastoral, only the dark outline of both western and central Cordillera’s hinted at the outback nature of the land.  I had to sit through an hour of debate between Mauro and his supervisor on where he went from here, not really understanding the subtlety of why he needed to plant diagonally as opposed to criss cross.

Ox and Cart at CIPAV in Buga

Ox and Cart at CIPAV in Buga

Sugar Cane Crushing

Sugar Cane Crushing

Eventually, about three o’clock, the deliberations were over and we went into the centre of Buga to find something to eat.  The solid basilica of Buga lay at the end of the main street.  Its pinkish stonework and large silver domes looked rather out of place in the town, but Roman Catholicism never worries about that as long as it appears richer than any one else in these rural towns.  About half way along the street, a small café serving large roast lunches suited us fine and we sat on a streetside table munching on peri-peri chicken and salad.  I could hardly finish half of mine, the portions were so large.  A handicapped teenager, about 16 I would guess but incredibly undernourished, came up to the restaurant.  Mauro at first tried to ignore him, but then found himself talking at length with the boy, who lived out on the streets of Buga.  Although bent in many directions, the kilter of his crutches adding to his awkward stance, you could see he was quite tall and given the chance, could stand quite proud.  His face was youthful, but his teeth were misshapen and he talked with a cracked high pitched whine like he had a permanently dry throat.  He was well known to the restaurateur, who was embarrassed to have him begging to his foreign clientele.  Eventually Mauro found the perfect solution, he gave the boy his half finished meal; he took it across to the furthest table and while we continued to talk, I kept glancing over at him wolfing down the chicken as if he had eaten nothing for several days.  The café owner was horrified at this, but Mauro persuaded him that it was a decent act of charity.

Basillica in Buga - with Sephe, Andrew and Mauro

Basillica in Buga – with Sephe, Andrew and Mauro

Time in Cali – Working out the layout

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.

Western Cordillera from Mauro's apartment block

Western Cordillera from Mauro’s apartment block

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.

Cali Map

Cali Map

 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.

Time In Cali – Wishing I had more spanish

Controlling the rising fear in my stomach, I asked whether I could get to Cali that day, as Mauro and Angela were to meet me at their airport about 3 in the afternoon.  She checked and found a flight to Bogota leaving in two hours, and a connection four hours later to Cali.  I purchased the tickets, she gave me boarding cards for both legs of the journey, and I passed through to the domestic departure lounge.  Open on one side, the room was airy, the bright sun reflecting off the concrete everywhere lightened the space.  I was the first in the lounge and sat reading till my flight was called.

 Avianca, the national airline, has one of the worst safety records in the world.  Not only do planes crash into mountainsides in bad weather, or run out of fuel, but they were subject to hijacking by government opposition and drug barons, had been shot at from the ground and blown up by on-board bombs.  I was very surprised when I got on board that the interior was one of the nicest I had seen, comfy seat, lots of leg room and everything bright, clean and working.  Now on a domestic flight, the signs were all in Spanish, the instructions were in Spanish and the intercom was all Spanish.  I was now to start learning my Spanish the hard way.  The flight to Bogota was wonderful, about an hour of crossing lush green agricultural lands, wide brown rivers and woody sections.  Towards the end of the flight, the terrain became more mountainous and the clouds obscured the ground.  I got some glimpses of greenhouses in amongst the mist as we came into land, and large modern housing estates leading to the skyscrapers in the middle of the city, set against a backdrop of large dark mountains.  This was Santa Fe de Bogota.

 The airport was fairly modern, but like so many, wearing around the edges.  I looked at my ticket.  I had about four hours to kill here before my flight to Cali left from gate 4.  I wandered around the airport to get my bearings.  I wandered down one of the piers and found my gate but there was no activity there.  I then settled in the central area and watched the action.  It was a very busy space.  Families, old men in peasant like outfits, slick young businessmen, the older style of business men with stripy shirts and suits, their cigar ash smattering their trousers.  Women, young and old, trying to amuse children everywhere and anyhow.  A couple of nuns passing through.  The occasional back packer – white as a sheet as they had just arrived or dirty tan from weeks in the sun.   A group of small men in their fifties, dressed in jackets and trousers that were respectable if a little shabby, wandered up and down the rows of seats shoe-shining where they could.  People gobbled down sandwiches and burgers from a greasy café at the back of the airport, or thumbed through the magazines on the rack.  It could have been any airport in the world.

 I took several more walks in between reading the first couple of hundred pages of the Complete Sherlock Holmes.  I watched the screen for my flight watched it creep up to the top.  It was listed as PA 4, PA I assumed meant porta or gate.  I took another walk over to Gate 4, still no action there, although there was more going on at a couple of nearby gates.  I sat down and started to get concerned something was wrong.  I tried the airport information desk but no-one was around.  None of the staff walking around seemed to want to talk, and with my hesitant Spanish I was concerned I wouldn’t make myself understood anyway.  Things were getting desperate – there was only twenty minutes to the flight and I had not been called.  I went over to gate 4 for one last time, but nothing was happening.  In desperation I apologised to a nearby staff member for my terrible Spanish and asked where the flight to Cali was.  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.

Time in Cali – When paranoia turns to reality.

Taxi drivers crowded around, looking for custom.  A man had his hand on my suitcase and forcibly dragged it towards a car.  I followed closely while others clammered in Spanish that I should go with them.  The case in the boot of a car, my other hand luggage hugged closely in the back of this low taxi, I realised that the man who had moved my case was not the driver but another.  He asked for money; all I had were a few pesos from a friend of mine who had visited some months before and a few straggly US Dollars left over from my time in Zimbabwe.  I gave him a ragged dollar, to which he was supremely insulted.  I tried to say “no change” in Spanish but fortunately my taxi driver sped me away.

 I had half expected there to be some sort of crowd outside the airport looking for my business (nowhere near as bad as I got), so I had prepared a Spanish speech about where I wanted to go.  I had a travel book on South America and had picked a hotel from it near the airport.  I had to get back for the 9 o’clock flight to Bogota next morning, so did not want to go too far away.  I announced this to the driver who turned the car towards the beach and the old town of Cartegena and we sped on.  Even in the late evening and with my tiredness, the low stone walls of the old town along the coast looked wonderful.  The Bellavista Hotel I was looking for was along this road into town and the taxi driver asked me to wait while he checked on availability.  In my state I never thought of disbelieving him, but accepted that the hotel was full when he came back out.  He said in broken English not to worry, he knew of another hotel in town.  Part relieved that I had an alternative, part terrified by the fact I was driving into the unknown of a city in one of the most dangerous countries in the world, I had no options to take that would give me anything better, so we drove on.  We passed by the still floodlit centre of the city and along a narrow causeway.  We entered another part of town with modern skyscrapers everywhere.  The main street was neon-lit from restaurants and bars, and we stopped in the centre of this.  Wedged between two restaurants was an open reception area.  I was brought in by the driver and given a room.  I paid the taxi man and asked him to pick me up early next morning to get me back to the airport.  I went into my room which was small and dark.  There were no outside windows, only a glass panel above the door which meant the hall lights came glaring into the room all night.  There was simply a bed and a few bits of ill-made furniture.  At one end of the room was a brick lip that led into a shower and toilet area.  The shower dribbled freezing water.  The air conditioning unit shuddered above the bed.

 I went out and across the road to a restaurant where I finally started to relax a little, had a beer and a little food.  I could not work this area out.  The driver had said something about being in Boca Grande.  With the traffic coming up and down the road, I wrongly assumed that this was the main road out of town.  In fact I was in the grand holiday area of Cartegena where hundreds of modern hotels had sprung up over the previous twenty years.  Boca Grande was merely a peninsula protecting the lagoons behind the city – it was a dead end, but the amount of activity made it feel more like the centre of the city than the old town itself.

 I carefully crossed back over the road to the hotel and tried to get some rest.  It was past 11 o clock local time and five hours behind UK time.  I had to be back at the airport by 8 so there was not much time.  But that night seemed like an eternity.  Firstly the noise of the air conditioning kept me awake.  The thought of being in the middle of the journey, stranded between family and friends, was not conducive to restful sleep.  And the bed itself was remarkably uncomfortable, the smell of fifty other people on the blankets and the slight grease mark on the sheet where others had lain was unsanitary.  I tried to rest without the air conditioning but my feeble temperate body could not control the sweating in that claustrophobic room.  So back it went on and I seemed to listen for hour after hour of its range of motor noises.  The light through the gap in the window above me was never extinguished and there was no way I could get up there to block it out.  So I lay there miserable counting every second that went by.  Just when I started to doze, a noise in the corner of the room made me start.  Thinking it might be a rat, I reached for my small torch that I had on top of my hand luggage and shone it in the corner.  The creature seemed almost as large as a rat as it cowered against the skirting board but in fact was my first (and still the largest) cockroach that I had come across.  Browny red and glistening, its ugly features were immediately repulsive.  It continued to cower for a moment and then scuttled behind the bedside cabinet.

 All thoughts of sleep were lost from my head by this stage and I was so glad when six o clock came around and I could do something constructive like have a shower.  Drip, drip, drip.  It was too early for breakfast when I woke up, so I waited parched and hungry in the lobby for my taxi man (the room was too depressing to stay in any longer).

 The taxi was on time and we sped through the streets in the bright early morning.  Seeing the city pass by made me look forward to the end of my holiday when I planned to spend more time here, as long as I found a better hotel.  The airport was completely transformed from the clambering hell hole of the previous night, now it was a quiet provincial terminal, open on one side for departures.  I walked up to the desk, no queue in the way, and asked the girl there whether she had my tickets.  Mauro had promised to arrange this for me.  But they were not there and there was no record that I was meant to be travelling anywhere.

Time In Cali – Proposition on the kitchen table


Caracas Airport

Mauricio was a house mate of mine in Rochester in the early nineties.  The first Colombian I had ever met, and despite his rock star appearance, and his love of bikes and heavy metal, he was an incredible scientist.  He had worked for a foundation in Cali, his home city, on better feed methods for stock in Colombian farms.  He had come over to the UK to work for NRI while completing a Phd.  He was offered the smallest room in the large house I lived in, as it was all he could afford.  Right next to my palatial room (I had the master bedroom in the front of the house) he packed his few belongings in and had enough room just about to turn round to switch the light off before retiring.  It was even worse when his wife, Angela, came to visit.

 The house had a lot of character; warm wooden panels in most of the rooms, a cosy atmosphere in the winter, a country feel in the summer.  I stayed there for over two years, longer than most of the inmates, and its character changed a great deal over those years.  Some of the best times were when Mauro was staying.  We would sit around the large table in the dining room (there was no living room) and eat, drink, some would smoke, and talk at length.  Mauro filled me with stories about Colombia.  I had remarkably few preconceptions of the place; I knew Bogota was the capital, I knew drugs in Medellin were a big problem, and there were jungles and mountains.  And that was about it.  Mauro would rave about its beauty and life as most of us do about our home regions.  He had a few glossy photos showing some of the features, these huge thin palm trees that existed high in the mountains, some dry desert shots with cactus in the foreground, and the greenest jungle you could ever imagine.  He said to me that one day I should visit.

 I thought seriously about this.  Two things triggered in my mind.  I had been with NRI over two years now and for all the promise of overseas trips I had managed to spend five days in Rotterdam so far and that was it.  Despite complaining to the boss, I was nowhere nearer getting away.  I was perpetually told that to be allowed to go overseas I had to have experience, and I took no delight in explaining back that to get experience I had to go overseas.  The second trigger was that for the past two years I had been on holiday in Europe, and enjoyed it immensely, but I thought before I got too much older I should try a longer distance package.  Colombia seemed to fit the bill so Mauro was a little taken aback when I said I wanted to visit that summer.

 I decided to take most of my annual leave that year in Colombia, and looked around for the cheapest flight.  Mauro was spending August with his mother in Cali while doing some field trials for his research work, so he would be able to show me around a little.  Some friends from NRI were also out there, Graeme and Debbie, but Graeme had been in and out of hospital with typhoid since their honeymoon in southern Africa earlier in the year.

 Blow me while I am trying to make arrangements for my holiday, do I not get permission to travel with a colleague to Zimbabwe!  My first proper overseas assignment.  Fortunately it was in June and did not clash with Colombia.  But I was also preparing to head off to London University for my master’s degree when I got back.  It was going to be a time of change and upheaval.

 My route to Cali was circuitous, but turned out to be advantageous.  I found a cheap return on Viasa, the Venezuelan carrier, through Caracas.  I was then to travel on with Viasa to Cartegena, in Colombia, stay overnight and then move on to Cali via Bogota with their national carrier, Avianca.  It would take me two days to get there but it meant on my return route, I could spend a few days in Cartagena and get my first experience of the Caribbean and the Colombian coast.

 I stopped with Robert, my brother, the night before and spent a near sleepless night worrying about what on earth I had let myself in for, and uncomfortable lying on a chair and stool, both of whom were on casters and split apart every time you moved.  He took me from his flat in Twickenham to Heathrow 3 and I went inside.  This was only my second time on a long distance flight, and after my previous calm check in at the relatively new Heathrow 4 terminal, Heathrow 3 came as a shock.  So much bustle, so many airlines, so many people in different clothes, of different creeds and colours and speaking so many languages.  I have grown to like Terminal 3, there is so much excitement at seeing airlines from all over the world gathering up or spilling out their burdens in one small place.  But I must admit I was very confused first time and it took me a good thirty minutes to find my way to the relative calm of the departure lounge.  It was a mid morning flight to Caracas and I saw a lot of activity going on before I was finally called.  Once on board it was an uneventful flight.  A dreadful film with Angela Lansbury , Dianna Rigg and Omar Sharif called “Mrs ‘arris goes to Paris” (I kid you not) was shown.  I thought at first it was a 1960’s production but finally deduced from the age of the actors that it was very recent.  Full of clichés of east end London living, it was obviously well suited to how South American’s want to see England.  I read most of “A Room with a View” on the way down, only disturbed by a bored teenager who was obviously in the midst of angst ridden growing pains which at certain intervals would be released by him thumping the chair in front where his long-suffering father sat.  The flight was uneventful as for most of the way there was cloud, and no land to see.  In fact we had touched down before I saw any land, a fact very scary when you are descending fast towards the tops of waves.

 My stopover in Caracas was five weary hours.  I passed it wandering up and down the long dreary concourse, reading the whole of Jane Eyre and listening to “I’m Sorry I’ll Read That Again” tapes.  With the time difference, it was very late when I boarded my plane to Cartegena.  A flight of little more than an hour, I was so glad when we touched down.  But the heat struck me as we descended out of the plane.  Caracas had had a breeze blowing, but here in Cartegena the air was still and the sweat emerged and stuck to my shirt instantaneously.  I ended up at the back of the immigration queue and waited twenty minutes to reach the front.  There were no problems and I went and retrieved the baggage, which was circling round on the carousel.  When I turned to go, a scary sight greeted me.  Beyond the low tables where customs officers were checking the baggage was no corridor or partition.  Instead, a metal fence faced us, and through it the arms of a hundred people were beckoning.  One security officer on a flimsy gate kept these hoards out, but they watched intently as you were checked by customs.  And then as soon as I was through the gate I was at the mercy of the crowd.