It's Sunday morning, and we’re sitting around the breakfast table drinking fresh hot chocolate, speaking a medley of Spanglish, laughing at stories of the antics we pulled as children. We are getting caught up in the loves and heartbreaks and flings and passions of our recent past. We are decoding the differences of our two distinct cultures. We are being introduced to new fruits and new foods with silly names and stranger compositions. We walk the patio and marvel at the color of the gorgeous tropical plants. We meet ALL the family dogs, Arnold (the giant black lab), Yoyo (the troublemaker beagle) and Lolo (the chi-chi monster yorkie that hates people other than Carmenza and Juliana). We talk about school, university programs, work, businesses started and failed and soon to start with assured success. We talk about music and dancing and the culture of “rumba” in Cali.
We finish eating breakfast ans they ask us what we want for lunch. Lunch? Already?
It’s a sunny day so we take advantage of it to sit buy the pool. Stephen needs to work on his tan bad-like and we don’t really have anything we need to do. So we all migrate outside…and we talk, and we talk, and we talk, and we talk, and we eat, because that is what family does and this is family.
|Stephen exposing himself to some much needed sun. I've had a little bit of a head start :)
|Cast from left to right: Juliana, Alvaro, Stephen, Carmenza, me
In all honesty talking and eating constituted most of what we did in Cali. I may be halfway around the world, but this really does feel like home. I admit that nothing outside the gates of the house is familiar, but the warmth, this love, this…this I know. I keep finding it, I keep rediscovering it, I keep learning it with everywhere I go and everyone I meet. This fullness isn’t just in my belly, it’s an overflowing hospitality that’s wrapped it’s arms right around me like the long lost daughter I never knew I was. This is latin culture. This is that amazing thing my mother was willing to leave behind but was determined to recreate in her new life in the states. This is that thing I think I was trying to find….and all of a sudden things that I never understood start making sense. Maybe I’m not a total gringa after all.
But we can’t just gorge ourselves and marinade in the comfort of this house. There is some exploring we have to do. So we create an itinerary for ourselves to get to know Cali a bit, to reunite with Amparo on her little ranchito, to head back down to Popayan. We have a few days to play with and pack those full in the company of wonderful friend and family. I get to wrap my arms around my adoptive grandmother…it’s been a long 10 years since we saw each other last. She looks wonderful, so glad to see my brother and I that happy tears roll down her painted cheeks. She lives in a small town in a rustic little house surrounded by lush vegetation…edible vegetation: corn, gigantic avocados, coconuts, fruits I don’t know. We sit together and talk well into the night, laughing, crying and laughing more. But it is a short visit, too short after so much time apart, but we drink in every moment and I promise to come back again, soon. 10 years is too long and she is too important and this place is too beautiful. In a bittersweet embrace it’s time to go. Time is playing those evil tricks again and it’s managed to steal a day…but we have to go. We bus all day to get to Popayan to really only have 1 day there. That too is kept short because we have to be back to Cali on Friday night with enough time to make ourselves look respectable. We have been invited by Alvaro and Carmenza to a salsa/circus show…where I was told that I will be expected to dance.
Let’s be honest, I have overcome a lot of my fears on this trip. I’ve faced some bragworthy challenges head on. I’ve grit my teeth through cold and wet and painful. I’ve blinked back tears of sadness and frustration. I’ve taken big bites of “regional delicacies”. I’ve woken up with a roach inches from my face. I’ve got lost, been burned, tired, hungry and scared…but nothing, I mean nothing is more terrifying to me than the thought of being expected to salsa dance in Cali. Nothing…I’d rather face those jellyfish in Ecuador again.
This isn’t just salsa and this isn’t just any town. This is Cali, Colombia, the world famous and rightfully so. The capital of rumba and of beautiful people who make sweating look sexy. If salsa wasn’t born here, nobody would ever guess it. This is where babies start that fancy footwork with diapers on. It’s where women AND men shake their hips like they’ve been disconnected from the rest of their bodies and manage to look good while doing it. And you want me to what? Dance, in front of these people…in 5” heels and micro-mini to boot?
I take back what I said; maybe I am a total gringa. That’s not soooo bad. At least then I’ll have an excuse to look like a dying fish or a robot. In the back of my mind I keep thinking maybe I’ll be able to get out of dancing if I politely refuse. Worse case worse I can fake a cramps.
But before all that I have to make myself look respectable. Not just any kind of respectable either, we’re talking Colombia nightlife respectable. I could see the look of despair on Carmenza and Juliana’s faces. I’m a backpacker for crying out loud, whose “nice” clothes mean anything that is mostly clean. I don’t have a party dress in there, or heels, or hair straightener, or make-up or jewelry or magic body scrub that can legitimately clean 10 months of travel off my skin. At least I got that pedicure in Quito…at least all my toenails have grown back.
However I was in the company of two beautiful Colombian women with a good sense of style and they were up for the challenge. It must have been like playing dress up… I would get hangers and hangers and hangers of dresses, pants, skirts (if you want to call them that) handed to me to try. Each combination was paired with different shiny, strappy, very high heels that would then coordinate with some dangly earrings and bracelets. They were going to make me Colombia pretty if it took everything in the closet to do it and succeed they did. Unfortunately the outfit didn’t automatically make me a dancer. For that I was going to be left to my own devices and hopefully a very, very good partner.
Stephen got cleaned up pretty good too. At the end of the night we were quite the handsome crew, all 8 of us all spiffy for a night on the town. What a treat it was. The show was incredible, the costumes, the music, the dancing…all of it. Stephen was quick to find his way to the floor rotating between Carmenza, Juliana, Susie(Carmenza’s sister) and Laura. It seemed like he’d never forgotten the practice he got in his year spend living down here. I got mostly through the night before the pressure was really turned on. If Stephen can dance, then clearly I can too. But that was where they were wrong. All my modesty, all my hesitation could only resist for so long…when Stephen came and asked me to dance I was about ready to kidney punch him for selling me out like that. Even if I said no it wouldn’t have mattered; you can’t really say no.
So reluctantly I let myself get pulled to the dance floor, with eyes wide with fear and far more of my legs exposed than would be considered appropriate back home.
The music pretty much moves you, and even if you don’t want to, you can’t stop a little wiggle in the hips. He kept it basic for me, avoiding the turns and twists that were guaranteed to trip me up, and we had a great time. Brother and sister, in borrowed clothes, re-united after a few years of absence to a place of one of our most significant childhood memories, with our new family, dancing salsa in Cali…and I liked it.
And just when I think I’ve seen it all, life school gives me this.