It was raining when the bus left Bogota, and it took two or three hours to get out of town because of all the traffic. The bus was only half-full. There was no one next to me, so at one point I tried to lie down, facing the seat with my knees tucked up in a little ball. Before long, we started downhill at such a steep descent that I was literally hanging from the armrest to keep from falling to the floor. It took all the strength in my arms just to hold on, and as the bus swerved left and right, was almost like swinging on a jungle gym. It was a strange way to travel, for sure.
After a while, my arms got too tired and I had to sit up, but now it was like I was standing on a ledge. By the time we reached the outskirts of Cali, I was cooked. I’d written down directions for the hostel I’d booked a room at, and it had looked fairly straight-forward. When I got out of the bus station, however, it was a rough looking neighborhood, and I got wildly lost, lucky to even find my way back. I asked directions from three people sitting on a curb and they insisted that I take a taxi. It was that dangerous.
The taxi went the opposite way I’d been walking, and seemed to travel at least two miles before arriving at the hostel. To think I would’ve found it by following my intuition was just deranged.
It was way too early to check in, and I knew it. I sat down on a couch and started dozing off. That wasn’t going to work. I’d been in Cali years earlier, and my only memory of the place was women playing folk songs on acoustic guitars beneath some kind of monument. I went out walking in the direction of the river and found nothing that I recognized. There was a bridge with a church on the other side of it. I crossed over and followed the riverwalk, passing a series of cat sculptures. Then I came to a park with boulders stacked on top of each other. Someone had tagged them, like a preschooler using crayons on a wall.
I was too exhausted to function, so returned to the hostel and started sleeping in a hammock, until someone tapped me and let me know my room was ready. I was splurging on a private with a shared bathroom. It wasn’t much larger than a closet, but came with a high-power fan. As soon as I lay down, I was fast asleep.
Cali is the capital of salsa music. That’s what I was hoping to learn about while I was there. All I knew about salsa came from a video I’d watched on YouTube about the early days of salsa in New York City and the Fania All Stars, a group that had featured legends like Celia Cruz, Willie Colon, and Hector Laboe. The guy working at the front desk, Ace, was a dance instructor. He told me he’d been practicing dance his entire life, but when he performed, people were so cheap, cheap, cheap, he had to supplement his income by working at the hostel. I’d found a man after my own heart. I asked him about places to check out salsa. He said there were clubs all over the city. I asked about the women who played folk guitar. Where could I find them? He told me to head to Bolivar Park, the same place I’d been that morning.
When I returned to the park, I found no women playing guitar. For some reason I was obsessed with that memory. I saw two tourists on a bench eating shaved-ice and asked them what they knew about the city. They’d just arrived as well. The shaved-ice, what they call a raspado, looked so good I ordered one. While the man was making it, mixing real fruit into it, I asked him if he knew about the women guitar players. He told me to go to Loma de Cruz, adding that it was too far to walk. I figured I’d look it up when I got back to the hostel.
In 2008 I’d taken a trip to Ecuador and Colombia, where I’d been to many of the places I was visiting now. I hadn’t been to Medellin, and hadn’t heard of Putumayo then, but had started in Quito and traveled all the way to Cartagena and back. It had been the final straw. I couldn’t afford to make records that no one supported anymore and had worked at the same inner-city school so long it was threatening to become my only story. Once the school year began, I was sitting on a hotel at the Mexican border. The engine had just seized up in my truck and a front tooth had fallen out of my head. I only returned to Los Angeles to quit my job, and had been living out of a suitcase ever since.
A move like that might be a daring one to make in a movie, but has real consequences. Still, faced with the same options, I’d do it again. Not knowing what will happen next can cause a lot of anxiety, but leaves room for surprises. If you know what’s going to happen next, and it’s not what you want, sometimes you need to just jump. You might end up in an equally bad situation, but at least it will be a different one.