Descending from the Cordillera Central and into the Valle de Cauca, we were bombarded by hot breezes as we headed towards Cali. This was of course, a result of our constant opening of bus windows to counteract the bus driver’s sub-zero air conditioning (it’s their thing I guess). In any case, we met up with a local Caleña that Brent had met in Panama for dinner at a Cuban restaurant. “El Malecon Cubano” is located in the swanky neighborhood of El Peñon and featured a full-size Havana taxi on the stage, as well as waitresses decked out in Che Guevara regalia. Alex sat at a long table with about 12 other people who all gave us a glance, then promptly ignored us for the rest of the night. I wasn’t surprised, we weren’t anything special to these Colombians: doctors, lawyers and trust-funders; they had all been to the U.S. before and spoke better English than our Spanish. Oh, and most of them were with their significant others, even more reason to not give a crap about a couple gringos.
Annoyed and hungry, I called a waiter over and ordered my Cuban restaurant default: Ropa Vieja with a Mojito. I tried to stay calm when I received a carne asada sandwich with bacon. “This is Fidel’s special ropa vieja sandwich,” the cutesy waiter informed me and quickly edged away after I began to lambast her employer for daring to call itself a “Cuban restaurant” without having the most typical Cuban dish available. (I mean, even Cuban places in the mall have ropa vieja). After listening to a mediocre salsa band cover Buena Vista Social Club, I couldn’t take it, I’d had just about enough of this poseur Cuban place and these well-to-do Colombians, I called it a night.
Sunday couldn’t have been any different. Alex picked us up in her truck in the morning to head out to her family’s “Finca” or coffee farm. We drove up the valley into the pueblo of Pance, which is the destination for lazy Sunday relaxation. Though not suited for swimming, the river sits at a higher altitude than Cali and provides decent refuge from the afternoon heat. We had a great time chatting with Alex, her mother and our new friend, Antonio. While definitely more upper class than most of the Colombians we had previously met, Alex and her mother demonstrated that Colombian kindness and warmth is pervasive towards new people regardless of where they hail. They also had personally known victims of FARC violence some years before, lending powerful commentary our discussion. As we got more comfortable talking, I cautiously shifted the conversation to Uribe and the U.S. use of Colombian bases. While everyone agreed that the country had been made safer under Uribe, it was also noted that he had some things to answer for (such as the “falsos positivos”) and getting the economy on track. Their opinion on the bases shocked me a bit; not for their purpose (everyone always asks why the U.S. needs bases here) but for their opinion of U.S. soldiers.
It is general belief among Colombians that the U.S. soldiers that are stationed here hold little regard for their local populations (namely women). Despite allegations of rape (which after the famous case in Japan, seems unlikely) there is fair certainty among Colombians that U.S. soldiers have fathered many children with Colombian women before returning to the United States. Whether or not this is true, it is a matter that the U.S. military should address in it’s Public Diplomacy towards Colombia and the rest of Latin America. The conversation returned to a somewhat lighter tone as we lunched on bife de lomo and salad and enjoyed a lazy Cali Sunday Breeze.