Sunday, February 13, 2011

La Matraca

I´m not generally a nervous traveller-- I´m not a big planner, and I tend to like to wander off and see where things go without knowing what´s ahead. The one thing that I do worry about, however, is not knowing the cues that tell you that things are getting sketchy. I´ve been in lots of neighborhoods that were perfectly safe although they looked really grungy, and I´ve also accidentally wandered into dangerous slums without realizing it (asking what street I was on and being told, "oh, the streets don't have names inside the slum" was a definite cue, albeit a belated one).

Last month while my sister was still here in Cali, one day we went downtown to find her some cheap flip-flops. While she was looking in the stands, I wandered off towards the vegetable stalls, where they were selling all kinds of stuff you only see in Colombia as well as full (read: enormous) delicious-looking lunches because it was already almost noon. I got about half way down the block when Felipe came running. Eva, you're walking into a slum-- the next block is full of people smoking  basuco (residue from the cocaine-making process). I took that as a compelling-enough reason to turn around-- but I had no clue that that´s what I was wandering into, nor was there any reason that I would have. 

But then, the other day a friend was talking about going out to El Obrero (obrero means worker), a neighborhood with a not-so-safe reputation but great places to dance. We decided to go one Sunday afternoon; surprisingly enough she had heard that it was a good time to go because that's when the old couples come out to dance. We drove through the downtown to get there, and just as we passed where we had gone to find my sister flip-flops Felipe pointed out the window, "look, over there is Sucre, what you were walking into the other day." And wouldn't you know, a scene out of The Wire, minus the Baltimore row homes, with all the junkies leaned up against the walls, smoking, or passed out on dirty mattresses. So I mean, yeah, I would have realized...once I was already in there. 

And then we got to El Obrero, more specifically a place called La Matraca. I love watching old people dance. This was an club of regulars-- they all clearly knew each other-- but there were extremely friendly to us, sharing shots of rum, shouting out rhythmically with the music (old people can get away with things that young people can't), and one woman in particular kept coming over to tell us dirty jokes: 
-Es que ahora ustedes bailan tipo Carulla-- siempre un mercado cerca a usted.
-These days you guys dance Carulla-style-- always a market close by you-- meaning-- Carulla is a supermarket chain, whose slogan is "always a market close by you". But "mercado" is also slang for penis-- thus the joke. 

La Matraca has been around for years, and it plays a mix of salsa, cumbia and tango, though it's primarily known for being a tango bar, not a common thing here. What's interesting is that most of its clientele isn't from the neighborhood-- they are lawyers, doctors, not really what would be considered "working class". When things get interesting, people from the neighborhood look in from outside, a crowd forming around the barred windows.

All in all, a strange but enjoyable mix, and if all the dancing makes you hungry you can go outside to eat fritanga (fried street food), fried up in the dirtiest oil I've ever seen. Even if it hadn't been delicious, which it was, it would have been necessary; drinking with old Colombians is no joke. (When my sister was here in December and we were helping to cook the night before the wedding, Felipe's uncle's contribution to all the work going on was to feed us shot after shot of aguardiente. No one other than las gringitas found this strange.) 

But I'm not used to Sunday afternoon dance parties either, and I definitely didn't leave La Matraca thinking it was a bad idea. More like, !Feliz domingo, que lo pases bien! And I hope we all do, in whatever way we choose (Modern Love column, anyone?) Thank goodness for New York Times online, although it's not the same as being able to spread the newspaper over the sunroom floor at my parents' house. That'll come soon enough though; meanwhile I got some old people to dance with.

La Matraca, Centro Cultural
Carrera 11 #22-80
Barrio Obrero
Santiago de Cali, Colombia

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