Thursday, August 13, 2009

Bienvenidos a Cali!

I have been in this city for less than a week. In that time I have felt both incredible excitement and points of solitude and lonliness that I haven´t experienced in years. Tuesday, as I was sitting on campus journaling, I realized that this first week in Cali has been a little bit like starting college all over again. All at once there seem to be 1,001 things I could be doing and absolutely nothing to occupy my time. Until Wednesday afternoon, I was in this odd place where nothing had really started yet — no teaching, no volunteering, no classes — and yet I was here, in a place I had come specifically to do those things. I want not to dwell too much on those harder couple of days, but must acknowledge that they were there...the roller coaster days. Wednesday, however, I got my teaching schedule, picked two classes to sit in on, signed up for some dance classes, ran into my fellow Fulbrighter in Cali at the visa office, and made my first Colombian friends. Yes, Wednesday was a good day. Before talking about post—Wednesday thought I will talk about pre—Wednesday, the good parts. There were plenty, I promise.

First, I will describe my living situation. Until October, I will be living in an Apartahotel located on campus with my two fellow language assistants (Servane, the française, and Dave the Brit) as well as five Mexican students studying abroad here at the Universidad Santiago de Cali for the semester. It has come to be quite the cheery group, especially around dinner time when we are all cooking dishes from our native lands (well, I´ve been cooking a lot of pasta, but I pull it off by claiming my Italian heritage) as well as attempting some Colombian culinary masterpieces such as juices of various tropical fruits and fried plantains. I am becoming especially good friends with Servane and think we will be doing quite a bit together in the months to come. After two months, the other language assistans and I have to find our own housing, so I will most likely rent a room in a home near the university or get an apartment in the area. In the pre—Wednesday world which I have referenced (meaning primarily Monday and Tuesday, although I promise it seemed like more than two days), my days were filled with running around attaining the essentials (e.g., a cell phone) and documents in order to apply for my ID card (e.g., certified blood type...don´t ask my why they need to know that) as well as observing classes of some of the English professors here which proved to be quite fun!

Both more entertaining and more informative than actually observing the classes was talking to the students during breaks and after class. They all had questions about the States, what I was doing in Cali, my political ideals (asked by a freshman girl with jet black hair and a lip ring who you knew right way was all about anarchy), if I was single, and my favorite, if I had children! Many wanted me to come back for their next class and I got quite a postivie response in terms of interest in the conversation clubs I´m going to be running. Just from one day of observing classes, I have run into quite a few students over the past few days who have stopped to have little five minute chats which has been quite nice and made me feel more a part of the university. The most interesting conversation I have had with Colombian students thus far has been about nationalism and regionalism in Colombia. The topic was touched on quite frequently during my orientation week in Bogotá and it began to really pique my interest after talking to my fellow caleño Fulbrighter about it for a while. Colombia is a country that by its very geography is broken into pieces. The three cordilleras of the Andes that shoot through the nation up from Ecuador have historically created distinct spaces between which there has been limited connectivity. Today all of these spaces find themselves in the modern nation of Colombia. You have the caleño from the Valle de Cauca, those who hail from Bogotá and its surroundings, and the paisas of Antioquia. Each of these groups hails from one of the three cordilleras. In addition, you have costeños who are in many ways more connected to the Caribbean world than the interior of their own nation as well as the people of the pacific such as the Chocó, a largely Afro—descendant population that lately has been on the move due to increased paramilitary and guerilla activity in the region, drawn by wealth in natural resources. Historically, areas such as Pasto (by the Ecuadorian border) and even Popyán (south of Cali) were linked to Quito rather than Bogotá in colonial times and attempted to reassociate themselves with the new Ecuador after independence and Simón Bolívar´s failed attempt at creating a Gran Colombia made up of the modern day nations of Colombia, Venezuela, Ecuador, and Panama. All this has contributed to this academic idea that Colombians hold highly regional sentiments and identities. Colombian national identity it seems can perhaps only be based in its diversity. From every Colombian over the age of thirty I have heard some mark of pride for his or her region, generally at the expense of another; however, what I have found intersting thus far is that when I have asked students if they identify first as Colombian, caleño, or perhaps a racial—identity, as there is a large Afro—Colombian presence in the city that is reflected in the university, they have almost all said they consider their identity to be more wrapped up in their country, Colombia, than their region. When I began asking this question, I was larely expecting the answer I used to receive in Québec, that without a doubt Jean or Valerie was Quebécois before Canadien, but thus far this has not been the case. This theme as well as that of race are two topics I will be talking about quite a bit in Conversation Club, relating the Colombian experience to that of the United States, the anglophone world, and perhaps the rest of the planet as well!

Before all this chatting began, I took a day to wonder through Cali with my trusty Lonely Planet guide inconspicuously tucked in my messagner bag, but always close by my side. I hopped on the Mio (a series of bus lines running through the city, using exclusive lanes and in essence masquerading as a metro) and headed downtown. What struck me most about my first day of exploration was how the city would be congested and dirty for blocks and blocks with everything from baby chicks to pirated High School Musical DVDs being sold on the street, and then out of nowhere I would find myself in a lovely Spanish colonial mission, tranquilly walking through gardens and discovering old Catholic chapels. I would walk through ten more blocks of dirty urban hubbub and then be in a wonderful museum of Pre—Colombian artifacts, or, my favorite find, an adorable café with jazz music playing and delicious coffee. The café was called Macondo, the name of the fictitious city in Gabriel Garcia Márquez´s One Hundred Years of Solitude. I have certainly not seen all Cali has to offer. I have only driven through the nicest parts of town as well as the hottest row of salsa clubs downtown (although apparently there are better farther south near my university). There is much more exploring to do, without a doubt, but what my first day out taught me was that one has to sift through the grit of the city to find the pearls. I only found the most obvious, but I am sure that there is much more beauty of all kinds to be found.

Now you´ve had your fill of pre—Wednesday. Post—Wednesday in the short term is going to be filled with the Music Festival of the Pacific, taking place right up the road at the Plaza de Torros. There are tons of musical groups that have come from the Pacific coastal region to perform as well as some international acts including (drum roll please) Gilberto Gil! Gilberto was playing while I was in Stockhoom, but my bank account filled with U.S. dollars couldn´t quite foot the bill. This time around, the concert is free and I am going to be there tonight singing along in my best Portuguese. I attended the first evening of the festival last night and was really wowed. I have a feeling there will be a post in the future devoted solely to the festival because I´m planning on being there for the next three nights. You can check out a live stream by going to In the long term, I will be busy leading conversation clubs for both students and professors as well as working in a local primary school on Thursdays. I am also going to start sitting in on two classes, one on the Colombian constitution and the other on human rights in Colombia, both in the law department, as well as attend salsa and merengue classes at the university. This all leaves my Monday and Tuesday afternoons totally clear, so that is when I am hoping to volunteer. I will be sure to keep you all updated on how all these projects are going as well as any travels I begin to plan! Keep in touch as always. I love hearing from all of you!

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