Two goals lay before me somewhere down in that enormous sprawling urban monstrosity: Get LASIK eye surgery and learn some new salsa moves. In reference to the first one, I’d been told LASIK surgery had originated in Cali, the plastic surgery capital of Colombia (perhaps South America as a whole), and that it was the cheapest place in the world to get very high quality laser vision correction done. I’d also heard that some patients, especially those with significant astigmatism (my diagnosis), were not eligible for the surgery. So at the very least I’d go through the diagnosis process. Regarding my second goal: Well… obviously. I wanted to learn to dance better! Salsa in its various forms is a very fun but difficult dance, especially for the lead (traditionally the man), as I need to decide which moves/turns/twists to do and guide the woman through them smoothly. Having taken multiple levels of classes back in Seattle, I figured I could just add on to my previous knowledge. Ah… the pitfalls of expectations…
Arriving into the city via the famed Cristo Rey overlook, I had a fast and fun 2000’ paved descent into the city. I passed numerous large-scale 3-dimensional murals carved out of the clay that formed many of these hillsides, then painted.
I dropped into the busy city and quickly, nervously, looked for a hostel that had been suggested by a local contact, called El Viajero. Rolling my bike into the narrow gated entrance, I entered a hip realm of down-tempo electronic music, the staff all quite young with tattoos and piercings, wearing t-shirts emblazoned with the hostel logo, and every apparent guest seemed to be between 18 and 24 years old. Only after the fact did I realize I’d entered The Lonely Planet’s top suggested hostel in Cali. It was definitely a scene. And definitely not my scene. It was not the music or the age difference. I like people no matter the age, and I liked the music. It was the vibe of the place — THE PLACE to be for young tourists in Cali. There would be a Karaoke party that night. Most guests were still sleeping (it was nearly noon), having arrived from the night before around 5-6am. I lasted 1 day before finding a more quiet, relaxing hostel.
Having been kept in touch with a Colombian bike mechanic back in Panama who had an Uncle here, I reached out and was invited to a group mountain bike ride the following morning…
We met up at around 5:30am across the city from my hostel. Not sure of the security situation at that time of night, I bore down and pedaled at top speed, not stopping for cars nor traffic lights. I arrived at the house of Jorge as a couple other cyclists were pulling up. He shared coffee and tamales with the whole group before we hopped in the cars to drive out to the start location. The morning light began bleeding across the horizon as we sped through the empty city streets. Arriving in a small parking lot, we unloaded and rode off toward a mountain track. Starting with a big climb.
Unfortunately that clay like dirt used to make those beautiful murals along the roadside was consistently present here as well. Crossing one 20 foot patch of the stuff locked up my entire drive train and froze both wheels. Picking at the mud/clay for 20 minutes, I managed to get the bike rideable again. It was a fun day out riding with Jorge and his bike club returning to the town I’d camped by on my way in named La Cumbre. We crossed paths with at least 2 other bike clubs, joining forces for one section to an enormous group of over 50 riders! Not to be overly repetitive, but I do love the welcoming community of mountain bikers. I always feel like I’m a part of the family from the very first meeting.
Next step: LASIK:
Having done a good deal of online research, I chose the largest ophthalmology hospital I could find, the Centro Opthamologico de Cali. A grand 6-story complex, I was certainly not walking into a dingy back-alley quack’s office. The receptionist guided me through offices and hallways until I was led into an exam room, filled with high-tech machines. Nearly 2 hours of testing with all sorts of flashing and twisting lights shone in my eyes led to the production of a 10-page packet of lab results, most pages appearing like the one above. Appearing more like a nautical map than a representation of my corneas, I carried the packet in to my final meeting, with the eye surgeon.
“Why did you wait so long?” These were his first words to me in heavily accented English.
I was taken aback, as I didn’t know what he meant. He very bluntly informed me that as I was to turn 40 within a few months, I would benefit from improved far-sighted vision, but very soon require reading glasses regardless of the surgical procedure. It was the first time I’d been “aged” by a doctor so definitively. I know I’m about to turn 40. Of course big round numbers that are divisible by 10 seem to bear extra weight, but I had a hard time swallowing that a few months of life would suddenly dry out my corneas enough to drastically alter my vision. Regardless, it appeared that if I’d done the surgery 10-15 years earlier I’d have enjoyed glasses-free life… at least until July 9, 2016 when my corneas would suddenly shrivel up into raisins. So should I do it? I was torn. While a fraction of the current US price for the surgery, I don’t like throwing away money, particularly when my savings are running lower by the week.
At the wise suggestion of my beloved Sister I decided to go in for a second opinion. The hospital connected me with a corneal specialist who kindly met with me the following day at no additional charge. Wow, lucky decision. She told me that I had a rare asymmetry in both corneas that had a significant risk of worsening with LASIC surgery. I should get all the testing done in another 2 years, and only if the asymmetry went unchanged could they then perform the surgery. So there you have it. ALWAYS get a second opinion. And be prepared to be stuck with glasses if you choose to get LASIK “so late” as I tried to. Alas. At least there’s salsa dancing around here…
Arrebato Caleño. One of the myriad salsa schools speckling the touristy San Antonio neighborhood in Cali. Wandering in with a friend from my new hostel, I felt really welcome here. The receptionist was a Spanish traveller, studying dance all across Latin America. She’d only planned on a few weeks in Cali and had been here 4 months so far. I opted for an initial packet of 6 private lessons which came with a couple of free group classes. And so it began.
My teacher and the school’s owner Alejandra played a mid-tempo salsa track and told me to lead her through all I could remember of my classes back in Seattle. Not an easy endeavor! She looked up at me with huge wide eyes piercing into my very soul, reading into my inability to access salsa dance skills of yesteryear. I awkwardly yanked her though the few turns I could remember, looking in every direction but back into those eyes. After less than a minute she stopped me and informed me we’d be starting from the beginning.
She was a gentle teacher and showed me so much about how to really lead: The subtle body gestures that clearly communicated where my partner needed to be, the wind-up that prepared them for the next move. After my 2nd lesson, I was starting to build some confidence. Perhaps I’ll go out to the dance club with some other tourists… see what I can do…
A group of us arrived at the club on a weeknight at around 11pm, about an hour or two before they’d be closing. The moment I walked in I realized how over my head I was. EVERY couple on the dance floor were AMAZING. The music was twice the speed of that with which I’d been learning. The partners effortlessly transitioned between moved after ever more complex move, interspersed by incredibly complex footwork. It was really exciting… to watch… I could not imagine asking one of the gorgeous women to suffer through my 2-3 simple moves after getting pretzeled across the dance floor by their previous partner. I sat on a big bass speaker and observed. It was actually lovely once I gave myself the freedom to NOT dance. I just enjoyed the skills before me and really listened to the richness of Cali’s salsa bands being mixed by the DJ.
I did manage to gain the courage to ask a few women to dance a few nights later. It was awkward but I was glad to step toward the fear. One thing I did learn: To really build a significant base of skills in salsa caleña, I’d need to stay here and study for at least a month. So… is that how I want to spend my time? I considered the possibility as I enjoyed the rest of my prepaid classes with Alejandra.
Jumping back to the topic of lodging, I left that whipper-snapper party hostel after the first night and found my way to a very calm, French-owned hostel near my salsa school named Tostaky. It seemed like a Russian name initially until I sounded out the syllables slowly: To-Sta-Ky. Accessing my Cuban spanish background with inherent tendency to drop syllables, I realized it was a compression of 3 words: To (Todo) Sta (Esta) Ky (Aqui): Todo Esta Aqui (It’s all here). I love solving puzzles like that.
So I rolled my bike into my small 4-bunk room to happily find only one roommate (I shared a room with 11 others in the party hostel). He seemed glued to his phone, disinterested in any communication, but I still bid him good day and unpacked a bit. We chatted enough to learn that we were both from the US (he’s a native New Yorker)…then he shared some of his experience recently staying on an ashram outside of Cali teaching Kundalini yoga and tantra. Somehow the conversation acccelerated in interest and depth so much that after 6 hours of continuously deepening, we acknowledged we were long lost brothers. We spent most of the next 10 days talking, sharing stories and learning from each other. It seems that each of our marathon conversations have certain themes to them, like that first night was all about how as guides/healers/health facilitators we can still express our own imperfections and dark sides. Every time I speak with him, it’s as if a part of my thought process deepens and develops. So lucky to know you Dro!
We spent one day wandering the city looking at murals and graffiti. Beautiful pieces around here.
One afternoon we dragged our French roommate Marie from the hostel, down to the river in search of a swimming hole. While soaking in our underwear, a fisherman slowly worked his way up the banks toward us, casting for trout. Without success, he ended up spending an hour sitting with us, talking about his life growing up on the edges of Cali, how the city had changed, but somehow stayed the same. We played instruments together, shared our motivations for journeying, a fantastic afternoon.
Old cable car system for crossing the river before bridges were put in place. I hopped right in with hopes of pulling myself across, but the two barking pit bulls across the way convinced me otherwise.
No better place to wash your motorcycle than in a raging river!
Back in the city, it appears drinking water isn’t so easy to come by. This man was filling his water bottle from an overflowing water drain outside of a condominium complex. What a contrast.
After 2 weeks of dancing, biking, and brotherhood, I felt that familiar pull to continue onward. The high passes of Peru were drying out and the various accounts of riders further South all spoke to the insane outdoor magic of those Peruvian Andes. Hard to leave a new friend though. Luckily Dro is working his way South as well. Not by bike however. In search of spiritual and ceremonial growth experiences, he’s taking advantage of opportunities to study while offering his vast skills as a teacher and coach. I know we’ll be seeing each other again. A few hours of my final afternoon were spent making this piece for him. The spoke nipples travelled with me since the USA until my wheel needed to be rebuilt in Costa Rica. The feathers from inner tubes that have visited all of Latin America with me.
So what about staying to study salsa????
Yeah. Not sure what happened there. Honestly I really enjoyed being a novice at a new movement form again. It was challenging and frustrating and rewarding, all within moments of each other. But there is a lack of integration that became apparent in the application of the classes. The salsa scene in the clubs: Tons of people done up to the 9’s, looking perfect and sexy for each other. Lots of alcohol, not a lot of space for deeper connection. There was a time in my life when I really enjoyed just loud clubs and dressing up (of course for me it was in furry/sparkly burning man costumes, but still), and that is not where my inspiration lies these days. Integrity of action is choosing not to overlook any part of what I’m doing which is out of alignment with my deepest philosophies. I’m not just looking for fun, as it appears. Fun is great, but I need it to be integrated into a larger whole. The search continues…