Saturday, 21 April 2012

Salsa in Medellin

I know it is a sweeping generalisation but I am coming to the view that although many young Colombians profess to be salsa dancers and to love dance they do it in a distinctive and somewhat pedestrian way. At the salsa school that I attend' Baila Latino there are some very good teachers who can dance and teach well but in the 2 clubs I have been to dancing seems to follow the form of a rhythmic battle with ample hip movements, short indistinct steps and few if any turn moves. Most women don't know how to be led and resist moves or worse confuse mistake one's intentions and attempt to lead and execute what they think you had in mind! I have seen a few well practised Salsa Caleña style but little cross-body or as the call it here, 'en linea'. But that said, I have yet to visit the more well known salsa venues and maybe there is more good stuff to come.

It has been a pretty active salsa week:
Monday, en linear lesson with Dahlia – we perfected some moves and added a few more – she is encouraging and positive and and I can integrate some of my own favourite moves. Her style tends towards more circular patterns but this suits the club environment and is potentially very helpful.

Tuesday – Free lesson with Ana at the Wandering Paisa Hostel. I feel for Ana because each week she has a mainly new batch of rhythmically challenged travellers and she also has to overcome the language barriers in a ground hog day repeat of the week before. This week she chose me as 'el modelo' to demonstrate the steps and the big plus for me is I get to dance with her and practise some of my newly acquired skills. She is a very able dancer and can boogaloo really well, a challenging step which I hope to master in Cali.
Wednesday – back with Dahlia for salsa Caleña. This week we spent a lot of time just trying to perfect a simple but elusive step pattern requires simultaneous foot step and lift on opposing feet – more work needed here!

Afterwards I started level 2 SalsaCasino with Yamile. An indication of her great teaching style almost everybody re booked for level 2 and we perfected the moves we had learnt in level 1 and added a few more. It is hard for me to remember all of them and at times my concentration ebbs but the rueda form throws a new partner at me around every 10 seconds so needs must! The moves I can recall include: guapeo, dile que no, dar me una, dar me una para abajo, tourniquet, prima, prima con hermana, sombrero, yoghurt, princepe bueno, princepe malo, vacunala etc…....................

Thursday – Sebastian, my new Congas teacher invited me to go to Sinko Bar where his group, Gauntanamo SonCubano y Salsa were playing live – I teamed up with Merille newly arrived from Miami and now adding the female dimension to our apartment. Bar Sinko is kind of a posh sports bar/restaurant with other stuff going on. When we arrived we couldn't get seated due I think to an ongoing game between Chile and National Athletico. Once seated we had some very agreeable mohitos and eventually band came on – they were pretty good but nobody seemed to want to dance and in any case there wasn't really any floor space, just tables. We had a couple of dances and had our photo taken by the club photographer.
With Merille
After the first set we headed off for the club Son Havana hoping for better dance prospects. Here too there was a live band and the contrasts between the clubs couldn’t have been greater – with much more character and a fun atmosphere we both liked it better. Flatteringly I was taken for Merille's boy friend but when this was explained away she began to receive quite a bit of attention for dances. We left after a couple of beers and walked home getting back around 2 – a fun evening in good company.

Friday - More clubbing – I had previously posted a message on CouchSurfers asking if anyone knew where I could hear live cumbia music. There wasn't much response but Elizabeth an optrometrist kindly invited me to a dancing event that include cumbia at libreria la anticuaria in El Centro. We met up and I was intrigued by this tea party style event. People danced mainly in a style called porro but also cumbia, waltz, pasa doble, bachata and a few more. I was able to join in for a little of the cumbia and bachata but it was clear that these dancers were in the main well rehearsed and expert. 
Elizabeth and friend

Elizabeth's friend
It was an entirely civilised get together with a pretty mixed bunch of friendly people of all ages. After a while it became clear that Elizabeth needed to leave to be with her young son and also that she had further arranged that I join up with another group of friends for an evening of salsa and a live band at a club in Poblado called Cuchitril. She left me with them sheltering from a tropical style downpour in Poblado and about 8 of us travelled the remainder in 2 taxis. We arrived quite early and there was rock and pop musica and people were bagging tables. We bought a bottle of rum and mixers between us and someone else had a bottle of tequila. They then proceeded to imbibe pretty quickly and me less so – by the time the band set up, an 10 piece called group son Guajiro they were all pretty fired up. We danced quite a bit of the rest of the evening and I stayed until the end of the second set, around 3am, returning by taxi to be somewhat hung over the next morning. By the end they all looked tired if not a little drunk!

So ended a week of salsa among other stuff – I still have around 3 weeks of lessons to come and I plan to pass 4 or 5 days in Cali where I will try and set up a programme of lessons in Caleña style salsa. All pretty good so far and very welcoming and enjoyable if somewhat frustrating social dancing.

Just as a postscript I am publishing below a photo of my sala casino group - nice guys and good fun to be with - many thanks one and all.
Salsa Casino - end of level 2 and my goodbye

Sunday, 15 April 2012

People watching in Sabaneta, Medellin

I am sitting outside a bar in Sabaneta, a small and developing community just beyond the city of Medellin but within its boundaries. It is Saturday afternoon, people are drinking, eating and passing by. I am on my second beer, one Club Colombia Roja and the second I haven't tried before called Costeña, each accompanied by bowl of salty free popcorn, called here crispetas. I have also eaten a plastic bag fully of slightly unripe mango laced with salt and vinigaret. People are drinking a wide variety of beverages including Coca Colas, tequila and beer. There is bottle service for rum and aguardiente, half a bottle in an ice bucket costing about £10. This is Colombia and it is the weekend, for some this can mean fairly hard drinking but generally people here just seem to chatting with families and friends and taking the edge off. 

There is much to take in. Pavement culture and people watching abide and even in the early evening, at an altitude of more than 5000 feet, it is nevertheless pleasant to be sitting out without a jacket. The music is predominantly male crooners, songs of romance with some Mark Anthony thrown in. Near me there is a man selling balloons and another passing through with several fists full of campecino hats. A young man just tried to sell me a lottery ticket and realising I was English proceeded to practise his english by asking me what I thought about our position on the Falkland islands - hmmmm.... Bachata music has just started up and all  is well here,  just another rather pleasant afternoon proving, if I didn't know it already, that quiet uncomplicated enjoyment is readily available here in Medellin Colombia. 

Thursday, 12 April 2012

Cycle ride to remember

Following 4 days of getting up at 5am and setting off for long rides between 6 and 7 I find I am still waking at the crack of dawn – in Spanish there are verbs to cover it, 'madrugar' or maybe more loosely 'amanecer' to break dawn and one is asked “como amenecido?” how did you break dawn? which I think sounds rather nice.

On the Wednesday before Semana Santa (Easter) I was collected from my apartment by 'Medico' – this is his nickname due to him being a doctor – dah!. He guided me to the rendezvous which was at the side of the road of one of the main arteries that run the length of the valley in which Medellin is situated. We quickly loaded rucksacks onto our support car and set off for the first leg of a 4 day ride of 372 miles and probably more importantly 2 major climbs, Las Letras and Alto de Minas.

We left Medellin heading roughly South east on the road towards Bogota aiming for Doradal, a distance of 109 miles. This is a 2 lane each way autopista and our first challenge was was the 10 mile climb out of Medellin via a tunnel and up onto a high plateau after which the ride was flat and then down for a long way until we had 2 further 5 mile climbs. After a while the road narrowed to just 2 lanes and one was occasionally faced with oncoming overtaking lorries and buses completely on the wrong side of the road forcing you into the margin and requiring more than a little nerve to stay in the saddle. I don't recall too much of the ride – there were some punctures and some of us carried on to get ahead of the main group and we maintained a slower but steady pace. In total we climbed 8,630 feet. Along the way the support car would pass offering water and encouragement – it was a tough ride and by its end I was depleted and questioning my sanity for undertaking this trip. 

Doradal isn't much more than a road stop but our hotel had a nice pool and at this lower hotter altitude people were enjoying the water accompanied by regaton beats up to midnight One guy offered me my first shot of aguardiente - tasting of aniseed but quite pleasant I thought it might be quite a reviving beverage. My cyclist friends cavorted in the pool and as you can see posed more than willingly for my camera.

We couldn't leave Doradal without paying our respects to Pablo Escobar, the notorious drug cartel chief at his Hacienda Napoles. Now owned by the government he built here an enormous complex including roads, a zoo, a bull ring and other amenities which now comprise a theme park!
Hacienda Napoles
The next days's ride was to Mariquita - this was a shorter flatter route heading South but very hot. After Juan Carlos punctured our small group carried on made good time rotating to the front every 500m in order to conserve energy. We crossed the Rio Magdelena, probably the width of 3 football fields and Colombia's greatest river. Eventually the faster group caught up and because it was flat we were able to hang in but my discomfort grew with the heat which was hitting 38C and my feet were red hot and very painful – but we arrived together and I cooled down with a couple of batidos.
Rio Magdelena
From Maraquita we headed back in a Westerly direction faced with the prospect of Las Letras an iconic 80km in length. The starting elevation is 490 meters and it finishes at 3,677 meters (12,063 ft)! This is the climb profile:

Clearly the most demanding climb of my life, I was hopeful but not certain to stay the course. Leaving Marquita the climb begins almost immediately and we were welcomed by views of snow capped mountains in the distance. A group of 5 of us set off half an hour before the rest. I felt OK – keeping a steady pace and the time went quickly as we headed up through the clouds curve after curve – you could never see your ultimate objective due to the vegetation but there were some great views.

I just settled back to suffer a little – well a lot and watched my heart rate which was only around 70% maximum. The rest of the team came through us small groups over the course of the morning and 3 of our 5 abandoned leaving Jose and quiet tall and reserved man of 69 years and and myself fighting for the lantern rouge – about two thirds of the way up I felt very strong and raised my game a little pulling away from Jose but I fast faded and he eventually passed me with a few miles to go. ! Not withstanding this at the top I was greeted with much cheer – cries of 'berraco', 'guapo' and 'tiene cojones' made me feel that I had earned the respect of my Paisa cyclist friends.
Letras 12,067 feet
Taking a couple of photos I left somewhat after the rest and it had started to rain. At this height the rain was very cold and I soon began to shiver. The descent was treacherous because in many places the road had been washed away or parts were under reconstruction and in order to reduce wind chill and not fall off on the bends I had to stay on the brakes at no more than 18mph. reassuringly the support car stayed with me but by this time it was full with abandoned riders so I had no option but to continue my solo descent. About half way down I had to stop to recover a little under the cover of a small army post where the sergeant told me rather unkindly that my feeling of cold was probably psychological! I retorted that it was most certainly very real and told him he had no idea and his young colleagues laughed at my rightful indignation. Eventually we reached Manizales and and the group reformed cold and wet but in high sprits, several like me having accomplished for the first time the most demanding climb of their cycling history.

You might have thought that the next day's ride would be an easy affair – some hopes. We needed to return the Medellin around 125 miles including a climb to Alto de Minas of 25 miles and coming near the end of the ride. 5 of us set off half an hour early and 2 were to abandon before the end – leaving myself, Jose and an amusing guy nicknamed Chavela who was riding a heavy mountain bike but with narrow smooth wheels. 

Much of the first part of the ride was descent and I was warned to take it easy and conserve energy for the end, but after around 25 miles, mainly descending the profile became longish undulations and we rode well following the Rio Cauca to La Pintada a busy town at the base of the climb. Here I had a fish soup with avocados and we stocked up on drinks. I think Alto de Minas  was my toughest climb, mainly due to my general fatigue but I was pleased that we arrived before all the followers had passed – I felt completely depleted and downed 3 coffees, a coca cola and 2 carton of liquid oatmeal and admired the view.
view from Alto de Minas
Revived we headed at speed down the hill and were met at the base by one of the non-participating club members kindly offering us cold drinks and cakes. After some hanging around waiting for our luggage we made it home as it was getting dark.