Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Now That You Mention It...

Remember the scene in Pretty Woman when Julia Roberts is shopping for something nice to wear in a fancy little boutique somewhere on Rodeo Drive and the shop girls follow her around the store, making rude comments and passing judgement, despite the fact that she has money to burn?  Shopping in a Colombian mall will make you feel like Julia Roberts, but minus the rude comments and judgement passing.

It has been something all of us gringos discuss from time to time: how annoying it is to visit a store, whether to browse or to buy.  We try to be strategic and make up our own set of rules.  Never enter a store void of other costumers.  Check the ratio of shoppers to customers from the entryway before entering (Sub-clause: leave if ratio decreases to levels not in your favor.)  Only go shopping with a friend and then, once past the threshold, divide and conquer; they can only follow one of you at a time, right?

Now, if you're a fan of having your own personal shopper, then this is the country for you!  Touch an item just briefly and the sales person has it off the shelf/hook/hanger and is presenting it to you in all it's glory.  Need a specific size and it will materialize faster than you can say "dressing room."  However, if you like a nice leisurely trip to the mall, you're out of luck, amigo.

Today I stopped into my local Adidas store to check out some of their running apparel.  I realized this was going to be "one of those" visits when, no more than two steps into the store I was greeted, asked what I was looking for, and told that this gentleman was "at my service."  After exchanging pleasantries and informing him that I was "just looking" he, not surprisingly, proceeded to trail me as I weaved in and out of the store's aisles, making conversation and pointing out various things along the way.  "This one is nice. These and new.  Do you like this?"  And so on.

Again, this is typical of a store clerk and the shopping experience in general.  However, this gentleman did something different: he asked me how the retail service was in the U.S.  (I'm sure a giddy smile appeared on my face.)  Well, if you really want to know...  I told him it was very good and that people are friendly and greet customers, but that they don't "follow them around the store."

And...release; it was like going to therapy.

Of course, he just nodded thoughtfully, continued to stay near me for the next few minutes as I browsed my way to the exit, and explained that "in Colombia it is good service to always be helpful and attend to a person before they have to do it them self." Thank you, sir, I'm aware.  At least I told someone.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Hometown Glory

One of my good friends here in Cali, Beatriz, is from a smaller city about five hours north by bus, along the eight-hour journey to Medellín.  Ever since we first met several years ago, I have heard about this "beautiful city" and, despite several failed attempts, we were finally about to organize a weekend to make the trip to get to know this city from an insider's perspective.

Manizales, the capital of the Caldas department (state) is located in and amongst rolling green hills and valleys in the mountains of Colombia's coffee region.  The people of this area are known as Paisa's (say: PI-sah), and are often compared with Texan's and the Quebecois in that they are a proud and friendly people with more local pride than national.  (It should also be noted that the unofficial stereotype of the Paisa's is that they have terrible hairstyles; it sometimes seems like everyone is in a punk band.)

Beatriz explaining the history of Manizales as told by an
elaborate and impressive hilltop scupture.

Bolívar statue
We did the typical visits to popular tourist sites in the city - the main cathedral, a statue of Simon Bolívar as a bird, a watertower turned into cafe/nightclub/climbing wall, and an eco-park just outside of town filled with orchids, hummingbirds, and a zebra and ostrich rescued from a narco-trafficer's private collection - but the most interesting place was in the "zona rosa" of the city, a neighborhood known as Cable.  Situated atop a ridge, the strip of restaurants, bars, cafés and clubs is the place to be almost every night of the week.  Aside from the people-watching, what made Cable so intriguing was that Manizales - especially at night and on a summit - is cold and there were people everywhere outside.  For comparison, Cali is universally hot and there are not nearly as many outdoor dining areas in the entire city as there were in this one area (I may be exaggerating slightly, but you get the idea).

One of the things I will always associate with Beatriz is her disdain for the hot chocolate served at school for breakfast on Friday mornings, always bemoaning the fact that the chocolates are so much better in Manizales, as she wrinkles her nose and refuses to take one.  This too proved to be true.  As did the fact that ordering an empanada or a bandeja paisa (huge plate of beans, lentils, meats, a potato, fried plantains, and one fried egg) outside of the region pales in comparison and would only serve the purpose of attempted nostalgia.

Hana, Jennifer, Nira, and I at El Mirador in Manizales
Between the scenery, the people, and the food, I count this city as one of those magical places one goes to disappear without ever hiding.  Should I ever vanish on my own accord, place Manizales as one of first places to look for me; I'll be happy to show you around!

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Kicking Things Off

Last summer the world - most of it - was engaged in the FIFA World Cup Soccer tournament hosted by South Africa and singing along with Shakira to a little ditty called "Waka Waka (This Time For Africa)".  A short month ago, things were repeated in Germany with an epic showdown between the USA and Japan for the title of the FIFA Women's World Cup final.  Well, low and behold, I arrived back in Colombia to the start of the semi-final round of competition for the Copa Mundial Sub–20 (U-20 World Cup tournament), with games hosted in cities all over the country!

Rita, Rob, Samantha, and me, after Portugal's vistory.
This afternoon a few friends and I had the privilege to attend the semi-final match between Portugal and Guatemala right here Cali in the newly renovated stadium downtown.  Portugal won 1 - 0 with a penalty kick early in the first half to advance to the quarter finals.  There was so little action the rest of the game that the fans around us started called the losing team "Guatemalo" (malo = bad).

Afterwards we headed to a nearby bar to watch Colombia take on Costa Rica live on television.  The game was being played in Bogotá, but most of the fans at our particular watering hole were decked out in full Colombian soccer regalia.  It was a close and tense match ending with a national victory 3 - 2.  As I sit in my apartment now, there are still horns being honked several blocks away near the bars and clubs that are open celebrating.  I'm looking forward to the craziness if they advance even farther!