April 7, 2018
Last day in Cali. I had had big hopes for the day, going to Buga, working on my blog, going to other cool places in town, but probably little of that is going to happen. To begin with, I wake up at 9:45 am, shockingly late, but then having been up until 3 am the prior night didn’t help. The hotel I am staying in may have pretensions at excellence, but having a loud bar open until the wee hours of the morning on weekends is not going to help their cause.
Breakfast at the bakery, and coffee at Zahavi. The owner is concentrating intently on attaching cape gooseberries and orchids to a wedding cake, leaving me to my coffee (not so good today) and excellent carrot cake. He confirms impassively that yes, all of his pastries are made with lemon or orange zest, my mother’s old secret …
Hunched over my desk, making notes, writing in my journal, booking the hotel room in Pereira, booking the flight from Pereira back to Bogotá. Outside, the sun is streaming through the windows, a rare occurrence here these days, and yet I am not outside, where I should be. I eye the outlines of the cloud formations, rushing through the tasks at hand. Quickly gathering my possessions, I run out the door, imploring the owners to clean my room, then racing to catch a taxi to the Cristo Rey, which is a huge sculpture of Jesus with his arms outstretched, gazing out over the city of Cali, Cali’s answer to Rio’s Christ the Redeemer.
The road passes the vicinity of the zoo, but continues further and further uphill, the city inevitably passing behind us, the landscape becoming more dramatic, rising up to the west to another cordillera that stretches all the way to the coast. I had originally intended on spending my last few days in Buenaventura and the surrounding coast, but it and the rest of the Pacific region will have to wait for some other hypothetical trip to the country.
The view from the top is spectacular, worth the trip alone, not that there is much else to do here other than eat arepas, grilled meats, and take photos of your girlfriend. People spread along the railing facing the city, taking selfies, doing the obligatory family thing, although this is definitely a hangout for starry-eyed lovers as well.
I am tempted to shove a camera in some of their faces, but decide to remain respectful. There is a group of cyclists that made it up this steep hill, and are busily chatting before the inevitable descent. Apparently, many people hike all the way down, which would probably be a very attractive proposition, if it weren’t for the fact that I want to return to town and take some cutting edge photos of the neighborhoods around San Antonio before it gets too dark.
I was really hoping I could just leave the hotel room and visit one of the seemingly innumerable fancy restaurants in the area for a quick dinner, then move on. But as usual, there is a hitch, namely that all establishments are gated, that is, their gates are closed and locked, and you are somehow supposed to psychically convey to them that you are interested in entering. In some cases, the doorbell was ignored, in others, the alleged doormen weren’t around to open the door.
This system is in place to discourage vagrants or thieves from entering restaurants and harassing clientele. In such case, some person could be posted at the door to receive potential clients, without wandering off, only never to return. Furthermore, posting menus on walls outside would be an excellent idea as well, without forcing people to have to ask for them. It’s not as if places post their menus online, either.
The restaurants I am able to inspect the menus for have average and uninspiring fare, at predictably high prices. The venues look charming, the decor funky and original, but the food choices simply annoyingly insipid. And the typical stench of grease is enough to chase a person away as it is.
There are some choices on the north end of Calle 2, just before Carrera 4. My other problem is that I forgot to bring cash, and only have a credit card to pay with. I hadn’t intended on making this evening a splurge, although I could justify it, given that it is the last day in Cali. So how about Zumaia, which is as expensive as it gets, and should be correspondingly refined.
The interior of the establishment is promising, with its high ceilings, sprays of fresh flowers, hand-painted wallpaper, and elaborate chandeliers. But the smell of grease is dismaying. I don’t quite follow the waiter, as she speaks too fast, and some of the menu items are too obscure. I take a long time to chose, due to the number of relatively esoteric selections, and their high prices. It’s hard to dismiss the fact that I just left the hotel room to eat food, not spend a fortune on some pretentious experience.
I select a Causa Limeña, is made with a mixed of stir-fried vegetables, some fruit, and octopus, baked in a shell of mildly spiced potato puree. Well, then. Shellfish and potato puree, bad choice. Stir-fried octopus mixed with stir-fried anything, drowns out the flavour of the octopus and too greasy. And the flavours included in the dish simply don’t cohere.
The second dish – for a cool COP $48,000 – looks more promising, but then it turns out to have its issues as well. A pile of fat prawns are bathed in a coconut curry, while some are laid out on a bed of tamarind jam. Fantastic! Except that the prawns are stuffed in bacon (bacon and coconut curry? I don’t think so …). The prawns are also battered in shredded coconut, with an overwhelmingly soapy taste. Wrong move. And finally, the curry is spicy and yet bland, presumably made without garlic, hence preventing the flavours from achieving a real depth.
I slowly walk back to the hotel, shaking my head. I am really not sure what to do with myself here. I love food, and this country just doesn’t have the mojo. But after years of traveling in Asia, I literally forced myself to travel to South America, knowing full well that one of my issues was that the food would potentially be terrible. And so it has been. And in a month, I will be in Italy, and I am sure I will find lots to complain about there!
I was going to hit the clubs in Barrio Granada on my last night here, but just feel deflated, and couldn’t be bothered.