Sparking memory and hope: a note from Cali, Colombia

A view of Cali from San Antonio

There are moments that spark a feeling of déjà vu, a delightful familiarity or a sense of uniqueness. Some of it is about being mindful; but in my case experiencing that feeling is largely a sign that, every so often, I manage to embrace my identity and with it, an ‘old’ connection to this place called ‘home.’

Our first day in Cali had a few of those ‘sparks’. We woke up to the wonderful warmth of Colombia’s third largest city located on the west; not far from the Pacific coast and famous around the world for its salsa music. The first thing we noticed was that businesses don’t open till late. Our early morning coffee routine (and overall caffeine-dependent mood) was at stake as there were only a handful of coffee shops open before 10am! Still, we got on our way and walked along Cali River, experiencing the city as it slowly woke up.

People were going to work or simply hanging around and thus the first ‘spark’ occurred: I was reminded of my father’s comment that people in the low-lying lands enjoy public space more than those in the high-altitude cities because the weather enables it. And as if a play was unfolding before my eyes I started to notice the different roles everyone played: two old men in a heated discussion — probably about football!; a street vendor in a repetitive yet somehow melodious voice offering tamales; a child asking her mother to help her jump on top of a sculpture (to her mother’s clear disapproval); a couple of police officers chatting and a few others going into a church for morning mass. The streets were alive.

As we made our way into the centre of town we came across a massive demonstration of public sector teachers and unions. I was immediately reminded that my mother was also marching with her colleagues in Bogota. She has been a teacher at the local school of the town where I grew up for decades; and although she is approaching retirement and doesn’t face the same challenges younger teachers do, her outrage for the dire conditions in the sector only grows.

In addition to the never-ending saga of securing the appropriate resources for schools in greatest need, currently there are talks about curtailing teachers’ ability to discuss politics in the classroom for fear of ‘indoctrination’. This is no surprise given the current political environment of strong polarisation and politicisation because of the upcoming local elections and the controversial current president.

This got me thinking about a discussion with our host Angela the day before who suggested Colombian leaders couldn’t imagine education as a right because our standards are so low. Education is a luxury in this country and the elitism that pervades society means that often only the rich can afford the type of education that will ensure their children succeed as adults. Another “spark” lit up when I realised how important it is that someone dares to dream of a society where education is free for everyone. Whether it is teachers on the streets, or the recent uprising by students here too. Not all is lost, I thought.

Police overseeing the teachers march

We then went looking for lunch and entered a very popular neighbourhood called ‘La Alameda’. It is famous because of its giant market. There were stalls, people and cars everywhere. As we sat down to eat, we witnessed an unfortunate, but also comical and revealing incident: a spark in a literal sense. A car was trying to back out of its parking space and as the car guard was guiding him, another one was passing by and they made contact. The impact was so light that people looking at both cars seemed to really struggle to see what the damage was. Traffic stopped. People came out of their shops and so began an act that says so much about this culture:

On the one hand there was the driver who had been ‘hit’. He was outraged and shouted while the accidental perpetrator tried to apologise, to no avail, even though he couldn’t see evidence of what he had actually done. Meanwhile, the car guard was yelling back and defending himself as his friends were teasing him saying, ‘it was your fault, you should pay for the repairs!’

After 20 minutes of people shouting pieces of advice from their different corners about what should be done, two police officers on a motorcycle arrived. They interviewed the two drivers, took notes and then hung around for another 15 minutes or so. Traffic remained at a standstill while the discussions continued everywhere. A public bus had stopped in front of our restaurant and we could see the animated discussions taking place amongst passengers. Arms were flying around, some were shouting out the window, but still the cars wouldn’t move.

Eventually, cyclists and motorcyclists started to drive on the sidewalks to bypass the accident and just like that, traffic started to ‘flow’, even as the bus and cars remained where they were. We finished our lunch, paid our bill and the scene was still frozen. For all we know, they might still be trying to figure out the impasse.

The day after — as if the universe was trying to compare and contrast — we were sitting having a drink looking onto the pedestrian walkway along the Cali river when two cyclists crashed into each other and ended up on the ground. One complained of pain and the other was concerned about his bent wheel. My expectation was immediately that a fight would follow.

As in the previous occasion, spectators joined the two and offered different forms of assistance. One helped to straighten out the wheel, the other helped one of the cyclists get up. Although I couldn’t hear, there were many words exchanged. Several minutes went past and what followed had us chuckling for a while. One of the cyclists walked towards the shop next to where we were sitting and when he was in a visible spot again he had two beers in hand, passing one to the other cyclist. Both took a big sip, said cheers, smiled, and went their separate ways.

I am still unsure what to make of this episode (not least that people in this city and country drink beer for any excuse!) but what my heart really desires is to think that deep inside we have an ability to mend broken ties; that in the most unsuspected situations we are able to see the other and through simple acts we can indeed forgive.

This is a difficult thing to really believe given the general climate of mistrust and antagonism in the country right now. Although the peace process has been difficult at times, the past 10 days have been specially so, as a series of demonstrations and debates ensued since the president objected to six points of the peace agreement; which could derail the entire process. That situation is a lot more like the drivers’ fight. There is no room for compromise or mutual support, but more of the antagonistic and aggressive demeanour which characterises many of my memories of this place.

The day ended with a crazy storm, which blew trees onto the ground, looked like the monsoons had just arrived, and ended up shutting down the electricity in a big part of the city. We took refuge with several others and watched the storm wash away anything and everything in its path. It was a little frightening until a bunch of kids went past on their bicycles — three on one bicycle in fact — screaming and laughing as they cycled. And I was again reminded that as Colombians we have the ability of taking ourselves less seriously when we try. And as Angela suggested, it is in finding comedy in the everyday through which Colombians seem to get through their difficulties.

Cycling in the rain

I am passionate about cities, public space & mobility. Born in Colombia, I have spent my adult life in the US & South Africa. Currently, Cape Town is home.

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