Day 294 – England vs Colombia in Cali, Colombia

When writing my last post after being robbed in Buenos Aires I failed to appreciate how hard it is to update a blog without a laptop (one of the many things that was stolen from me that day). While I could have borrowed someone else’s machine or tortured my thumbs with some mobile phone-based updates I kind of just lost my blogging mojo.

After leaving the tax-heavy, and sadly inflation-ridden Argentina I browsed a couple of shopping malls in Chile and Ecuador before finally purchasing a shiny new Colombian laptop last week. I still have no idea, and may never find out, what half of the keys do.

Still, after a whole 80 days without a blog post I knew it would take something special to spur me into action. Watching Colombia play England in the World Cup from Cali, Colombia was exactly that – a unique and emotional experience that I will never forget.

Over a period of more than 3 months travelling in the country I have fallen in love with Colombia and particularly with its third largest city – Cali. Made notorious by the cartel wars which peaked in the 90’s, Cali still features in the Top 20 most dangerous cities in the world but is rapidly falling down that list as, like Medellin did so successfully before it, the city cleans itself up.

With most of the crime confined to distant suburbs the Cali I know – Cali, the World Capital of Salsa – is a special and very happy place. While I will save my thoughts on salsa and the unique Caleño culture for another post it is impossible to write anything about Cali without mentioning its people – warm, open and passionate, proud Caleños and proud Colombians.

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Football Crazy, Fútbol Loco

I strategically timed my second visit to Colombia on this trip to coincide with the World Cup knowing that the people’s passion for football, perhaps only rivaled by Brazil and Argentina, would make it one of the best countries in the continent from which to view the tournament. Despite the 8 hour time difference to Moscow and my viewing location of choice being a shopping mall, my decision has absolutely been vindicated.

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Colombia’s journey to the round of 16 (or the ‘Octavos’ as they call it – a much better name) was a roller coaster ride, with a shock loss to Japan followed by a triumphant 3-0 thrashing of Poland and a late win against Senegal. Watching these games unfold in Colombia, surrounded by Colombians, was a real privilege as they immediately welcomed me as one of their own (wearing my number 10 Colombia shirt probably helped).

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As the group stage progressed I felt the inevitability of an England versus Colombia tie in the Octavos. While many people at home assumed that I would be delighted with this match-up I felt the complete opposite. It might have made for the perfect semi-final but I neither looked forward to the game nor to one of England or Colombia being eliminated at this stage.

In advance of match day I did what I thought was the obvious thing to do and bought a couple of knock-off shirts (it’s genuinely a struggle to find an original team shirt here, although I did buy my first Colombia shirt from the Adidas shop like a good boy), found a tailor and asked her to do a “cut ‘n shut” job – half England half Colombia. Deisy absolutely smashed it.

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I made sure to have England on the left hand side to position the Three Lions over my heart; despite being Colombia’s number one foreign fan there was never any doubt which team I wanted to win.

While I was counselled by a number of people not to even think about wearing that shirt in public I trusted my instinct and walked through Cali’s busy city centre, only to be met by laughter, high fives and cries of “Que gane el mejor!” (May the best team win).

On arrival at the viewing location I was a mini-celebrity, posing for photos and discussing my fashion choice with the locals who all loved the 50-50 shirt. I knew this overwhelmingly positive sentiment could change at any moment so made sure to keep both a plain black t-shirt and a Colombia shirt in my bag in case of emergencies.

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I would guess there were well over 500 people in that shopping centre atrium, and the noise as the teams came out was already deafening. I stood up as the Colombians blared out their national anthem, and then stayed on my feet as everyone else sat down.

My intention was to quietly sing a couple of bars of God Save The Queen and film the awkwardness before taking my seat (if you want to watch the awkward part the story is saved in Instagram highlights @odjuns). What happened after that was genuinely unexpected and very moving – when they heard me singing my solo people started clapping and encouraged me to continue. I gained confidence and blared out the last few bars to a huge round of applause, cheers and laughter from all sides.

El Partido

The game was not pretty, with England playing the better football in the first half as Colombia took a very physical approach. As the half time whistle blew I was already tired from the stress of it all, making sure not to give any hint that I might be enjoying England’s attacking play.

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Shortly into the second half England were awarded what seemed to me a fairly soft penalty which Harry Kane comfortably slotted away. The room went extremely quiet and I noticed a few people turning around to judge my reaction as I sat there in silence, eyes down and suppressing all inner urges.

England looked to be progressing to the quarter finals in normal time until the 93rd minute when Colombia scored from a corner and everyone around me, unsurprisingly, went absolutely bonkers.

It was an incredible moment as the sudden change in volume felt like a power surge in my brain. As I stood there filming the ensuing celebration a middle-aged man two rows ahead (white shirt and grey hair in the video above) who had been politely chatting to me before the game let the emotion get to him and started hurling abuse at me. I stared at him blankly as he unleashed his tirade. Sadly it was too noisy to hear what he said but I could see from his maniacal eyes and frothing mouth that he wasn’t being nice.

As the game went into extra time I started pondering the potential negative reaction I might receive if England were to score and win the game. While the frothy-mouthed man was an isolated example of hostility I was aware that I had effectively put a big red and white arrow above my head after singing the British national anthem in the middle of the room, just in case anyone did feel like taking out their frustrations. It had been a hard-fought and ill-tempered match with the Colombians around me convinced that the ref was a British implant, although they were arguably lucky still to have 11 men on the pitch.

During the second half of extra time the frothy-mouthed man boiled over again and launched his second assault in perfect English (something about England and/or the referee being racist). This time I told him to turn around and shut up (also in perfect English) as I eyed up my exit route, feeling very alone and very English for the first time that day. A couple of Colombians in the row behind tapped me on the shoulder, smiled and told me not to worry.

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And of course it went to a penalty shootout. The inevitability of England’s impending exit slapped me in the face, but at least it might save me from the potentially less appealing consequences of an England win.

As I filmed every penalty I strained to keep my emotions in check. After the miss at 3-2, which we all assumed would signal the end of England’s campaign, the last four penalties – two England goals and two Colombia misses – passed by in a blur and suddenly, somehow, out of nowhere, England had won.

When the ball hit the back of the net for the winning penalty I sat there quietly with an ice cold facial expression and filmed the scene around me. The silence wasn’t broken until three girls behind patted me on the back and started clapping. I was then hugged, high-fived and congratulated by many Colombian well-wishers as I realised (although really I had known it all along) that everything was going to be just fine.

Happy but sad, emotionally drained and extremely thirsty I stood there in disbelief as a TV reporter asked if he could interview me. This was not my first time in front of the Colombian TV cameras; after their game against Japan I made a horrible attempt to answer questions in Spanish, but this time I did a surprisingly good job, maintaining positive intercontinental relations by explaining how much I loved Cali and Colombia.

I decided to play it safe and wear the black t-shirt for my trip home, during which I enjoyed a quiet celebratory beer with my group of non-Colombian friends. I trawled the internet for news and reports related to the England win but now wish I’d turned on the the television as I was later informed by a Colombian friend that not only had I made it onto the TV but they did a full segment on me, interview and all. I am tracking down the footage which I am told will soon be uploaded to Youtube but here is a sneak preview…

After such a ridiculous game of football and so much time spent personally under the spotlight (which I’m fully aware I brought upon myself with the peacocking) I was exhausted by the end of the day and fell into a deep sleep.

It’s Coming Home (even if I’m not)

While I was pleased to see England progress I am disappointed that I won’t get to experience any more Colombia games in this World Cup. Moreover, apart from one frothy-mouthed exception to prove the rule, I was overwhelmed by the warmth, sportsmanship and all-round great attitude the Caleños showed towards me.

Despite losing a large piece of my heart to Colombia during my travels this game confirmed that the majority still resides some 9,000km away. I am what the locals refer to as a Pitaya Amarilla (yellow dragonfruit) – yellow on the outside, white in the middle, a little bit seedy but delicious (yes I added the last two parts myself).

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While football may finally be coming home I, on the other hand, am not (at least not for long). The journey goes on.


 

Day 136 – Every Day’s a Learning Day – Salsa and Spanish Lessons in Colombia

When I finished university finals I naively assumed that completing my formal education would mean I would never again need to study.

Just a few years later I realised an accountancy qualification would be a necessary evil if I was going to get the job I wanted. Sacrificing countless summer evenings and long weekends to sit in sweaty little classrooms was miserable, although the euphoria upon finishing each round of exams almost made the pain worthwhile.

Looking back, it wasn’t the studying per se that was the problem – it was the topic. I didn’t particularly want to be an accountant, and even when I understood my debits and credits I took very little pleasure from balancing balance sheets or building financial models.

Who’d have thought that by changing the topic to something you actually enjoy and want to be good at, studying gets a lot easier and maybe…even…fun?

Well, in recent weeks I have been an extremely diligent and well behaved little Spanish and salsa student, completing somewhere in the region of 25-30 hours of personal and group salsa lessons, and at least the same again in Spanish classes and homework time. Am I too old for a gold star?

Doing ‘home’ work while travelling is a bit of an oxymoron, the last thing you would expect from a fun-seeking backpacker, and really the last thing I expected from myself, but for the first time in years I have felt really engaged and motivated by studying.
Salsa Update 

My salsa quest started at DanceFree, a brilliant little dance studio in Medellin popular with both gringos and locals, who take cheap private lessons during the day before practicing their new skills at evening group classes. It’s a great model and the atmosphere at DanceFree is always fun and welcoming.

With mirrors everywhere the school was intimidating at first but after a couple of sessions my inhibitions were gone and I was bouncing around like an extra in Glee. Warm-ups for the group sessions tended to involve a lot of hip thrusting which I found very natural.

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My first instructor was Felix, an amazing dancer with a smile that could melt icebergs (I know what you’re thinking mum, but I’m still not gay). It helps to dance with both male and female instructors to understand both sides of the partnership.

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The man always leads, so regardless of how many moves you have in theory, if the woman can’t read from your hands, body and face what it is you’re trying to do you’re more likely to give her a dislocated shoulder than a good time.

After learning various moves with Felix I tried them out on a number of female instructors with varying levels of success. I twisted a few arms into knots and got one of the smaller instructors into what could only be described as a headlock, but am pleased to report no hospitalizations thus far.

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From dancing with teachers in what was effectively a controlled environment it was a huge step up to dancing with strangers, with much faster music, in actual salsa clubs. El Tibiri in Medellin was a baptism of fire; being surrounded by people who were salsa dancing in the womb is unnerving, but more often than not the locals are pleasantly surprised and impressed when you can pull out a few basic moves. Even Jonesy senior did well, despite his reluctance to be photographed.

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The etiquette in salsa clubs seems to be that if a man politely asks a woman to dance, she is generally expected to join him for a song. As a result you see all manner of unlikely partnerships on the dancefloor. A grandad spinning around a 21 year old is standard practice, and usually great to watch as the old boys can really dance.

I have grown to love the atmosphere in salsa clubs – the ‘asking a girl to dance’ thing is kind of formal and often feels a bit like a school disco, but there is also something very charming, traditional and classy about it. The regular switching of dance partners also helps to integrate different groups and makes for a really friendly environment.

While this post is by no means the end of my salsa journey I feel some evidence of my progress is required. While there are many videos of me dancing well with my teachers, I found out early that that doesn’t really prove anything.

The real test and what I had been building up to was my trip to Cali, often referred to as the world capital of salsa, where we visited La Topa Tolondra – a famous local club which has hosted many better dancers than I over the years.

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While I don’t expect a signed photo of Oliver Jones will be going on their wall any time soon I did pretty well. A few nods of approval from surprised locals and smiles from dance partners was all the encouragement I needed.

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It’s not really the done thing to take a video of yourself dancing in a salsa club, but thanks to a random Kiwi guy who was impressed with my moves I do have some grainy footage from a late night venue in Cali.

Starting off in the ‘Colombian style’ with lots of his-and-hers spins I throw in a couple of open breaks at the end. It’s lacking some flair but I think I managed to look the part for 45 seconds, mostly thanks to my partner. I’ll let you judge for yourselves…

Spanish Update

The 4 days of group Spanish classes I took in Madrid late last year were quite demoralizing, mostly because I didn’t try very hard. After some sporadic effort with Babbel and Duolingo (two mobile apps both worth a look if you want to learn a language on the cheap/free), I decided to give school another shot, 3 months later, signing up for a week-long immersion course in Medellin.

There are many language schools in Medellin but the approach at Blink is great for backpackers – it’s a hostel, restaurant, language school and even a launderette rolled into one, meaning you can get a week’s accommodation, two meals a day, 20 hours of group lessons, 2 hours of one-on-one classes and some clean underpants for under £200. It’s a pretty stellar deal and the teaching is great, with class sizes of 5 or less.

Speaking a foreign language is very rewarding when it goes well, and after finally learning all the main tenses (subjunctive aside) I have been able to have some proper conversations with locals. Just today I managed 45 minutes of almost continuous chat in a cab, covering the classic Colombian taxi driver discussion topics of politics, women and football. I was exhausted but pleased with myself on arrival.

Again there have been some lows to go with the highs. During my Spanish lessons in Medellin I inadvertently asked my teacher to ‘get me hard.’ That was entertaining, but just a few days ago I managed to upset a friend who was on her way to meet me by texting “I have forgotten you” (No me acuerdo de ti) when I meant to say “I don’t agree with you,” (no estoy acuerdo de ti), so much so that she turned around mid-journey and went home. No puedo gañar a todos.

The Three S’s

The things that unite my three S’s – learning Spanish, Salsa and Surfing – and possibly the learning of any new skill, are the need for perseverance and regular practice. The more waves that have landed on my head, the more times I have frozen on the dancefloor and the more locals I have confused or offended with my broken Spanish, the more I have learned. The bigger the fail, the more likely you are never to do it again.

Still, despite the many challenges and bumps in the road there have been far more ups than downs and I am delighted to be making some real progress, with hopefully a lot more to come.


Next Stop: Getting Spiritual – Salento, the Cocora Valley, and San Pedro

What is The Gump Method

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