There is something invigorating about meeting someone new. You never know what to expect. At times, you aren´t even expecting to meet anyone at all. Simple tasks here in Cali such as a visit to the office of this or that here at the university have resulted in conversations that have lasted half an hour chatting with a secretary or the director of a department. I´m not sure what this says about caleños in terms of efficiency in the work place, but they are certainly warm and welcoming which I have so greatly appreciated.
My favorite first meeting as of late was with Migali. Tuesday, I decided the mop on my head had to go and that I wasn´t going to begin down my old Chilean road of some odd Beatles, 70´s, retro-not-quite-chic coiffure. Thus I asked around and set off to have a haircut just down the road from the university after, of course, consulting my dictionary for some haircut vocab I thought might be vital in describing what I wanted done with my locks. After a few minutes of describing my desired -do and basic chat, I got the question that usually comes up after two to five minutes. ¨You´re not from here, are you?¨ Blame it on the blue eyes or the oddly accented occasionaly flustered Spanish, but no matter how you slice it, it´s pretty obviously that I´m a foreigner. The declaration of my nationality attracted the manicure ladies, who at the time had no customers, to draw near and begin to ask questions. One question I generally ask is what someone´s favorite place in Colombia is. Rather than the usual Cartagena and Medellín answer, I got two Buenaventuras and a Tumaco, both cities on the Pacific coast west and southwest of Cali. These cities were where these women were from. After the manicurists returned to their posts, Migali, the woman cutting my hair, began to really tell me about Tumaco. Tumaco is a town just north of the Ecuadorian border on the Pacific, beautiful but very poor as Migali described it. She continued explaining that she had moved to Cali ten years ago, but that her mother and son were still in her home town. It is a place to which she would prefer to never return. The old people are really the only ones left, she told me. Eight, nine, ten people get killed every day. She explained that her mother lives at a sort of crossroads between paramilitary and guerilla stomping ground and that one has to be very careful to whom one talks and how they talk to them or it could be their life. She wants to get her son out. After he graduates from high school this year, she´s bringing him to Cali. I prodded and asked who she blamed more, the paras or the guerillas. Neither of them. That was her reply. It´s all just a mess and everyone is caught in between. You can´t just blame one side or the other. It isn´t that simple. That was not the easiest conversation to segway out of, but after a minute of two of silence, the two of us found our way back to more standard topics such as salsa and snow. I greatly look forward to getting my ears lowered again for another chat with Migali.
Last night, I had a slightly more planned first meeting with the minister of a small Presbyterian church here in Cali. Javier picked me up from work at seven and we went and sipped on some coffee and talked life for a while before heading to the house of some church members for supper. All the conversation was pleasant and the people, again, so warm and so hospitable. Nothing that happened nor nothing that was said was especially out of the ordinary, but what was so nice was being able to have real social interaction in the home of people in no way affiliated with the university. It is nice to branch out. I can´t wait to get to know the church community and I hope I will both find what I´m looking for and be able to be of some service. Only time will tell, but I´m feeling quite good about it.
Of course there have been many other first meetings and fun conversations these past few days - a trendy barista at a euro-chic contemporary art museum café, a multitude of children from the pooere neighborhoods of Cali up on the mountainside to whom, every Thursday from today forward, I will be teaching English and playing to hour of soccer that is their reward for good behavior after class, Alex, a seemingly brilliant man who has psyciatric troubles, but loves learning English and has come to all my conversation clubs thus far, and so on - and there will be many more to come. What I can also look forward to is continuing the friendships with students I have already started. Tomorrow night, the university is having a concert on campus and I will be there with my favorite foreign language majors, ready for a good time. More on classes and such soon. For now, chao chao y nos vemos!