From the monthly archives: "February 2011"


Waiter crosses the street to get to the other side…..

 Feb. 17, 2011—-

 CALI, Colombia—-I have two nightlife memories of Cali, 2011. So far.

 One involves aguardiente as it always does in Colombia.

 The other is more unique.

 I am on the 11th floor of the Hotel Obelisco in the El Penon hotel district of Cali.  I have a balcony that looks over the Cali River and the busy Colombia avenue that coils  through the dense neighborhood.

 The boulevard’s speeding motorcycles and mopeds  remind me of Naples, Italy and the cab drivers are just as reckless as they are in Chicago.

 Every night around 5 p.m. the hotel staff sets up an outdoor café along the riverfront.  By sunset the café is filled with people including the three Greek guys who keep encouraging me to hang out with them in pursuit of women—even though I don’t wear skin tight shirts unbuttoned to my naval.

 The waiters run back and forth between the hotel and the riverfront café:

 Across the boulevard, with  trays in one hand.

 It’s like an extreme sport you see at three in the morning on ESPN 2.

 I can sit on my balcony with a bottle of Poker beer (that’s the proletarian beer here as opposed to the upscale Club Colombian) and pretend I’m playing Pac Man.

 The other night I  ate at the acclaimed Platillos Voladores (Flying Saucer). Chef Vicky Acosta is on to something. She is a young woman who has traveled to China, Thailand, Indonesia, Argentia, Chile, lived in London and hopscotched across Europe.

 She fuses the influences of her travels with Colombian Pacific Coast cuisne, which generally features  shrimp, coconut and guava chicken. The tropical egg rolls were literally out of this world.

 Vicky got wind I was in the restaurant. Well, I was the only gringo on a busy Tuesday night. She brought over her friend Luisa Martinez and  they began telling me about a  drink Vicky invented.

 It features aguardeinte—29 per cent alcohol. Made with fermented and distilled sugar cane (grown year round in Colombia) it is the country’s national drink.

 It has been messing people up for a long time.

  Vicky and Luisa do not do shots of aguardeinte but they encouraged me to have a “Vicky Wicky” drink.  I am here to share the recipe with you:

      1.     Apply salt in the border of a mid-sized glass, add ice.

      2.     Add two shots of aguardeinete.  “”NOT SUGAR FREE!” the women  declared in unison.

      3.     Add ½ shot of lemon juice.

      4.     Fill the rest with tonic water.

      5.     After three drinks go salsa dancing. Even a square dancer like me.

 The drink was sort of a Colombian Margarita.

 I need to share the “Vicky Wicky” with someone. Maybe I’ll pass the tip along to Jimmy Buffett who has never performed in Cali.

  I can hear a ballad like “Don’t Cry for Me Aguardiente.”

Luisa (left) and Vicky; love the saucer-mirror decor..

…which is how things look after a few “Vicky Wickys.”

  Luisa said they sell plastic bottles of aguardiente around Cali. She encouraged me to buy one and bring it back to the states to share with my bartender friends.  Maybe I will.

  It  would be a nice surprise for Rahm Emanuel next time I see him at the Matchbox in Chicago.

     Feb. 16, 2011— 

     CALI, Colombia—-Across the boulevard from the briskly flowing Cali River there is a place where time stands still.

     A storefront shop sits between the Nomeolvides (Forget Me Not) Floristeria where  yellow roses bloom during the day and the Escoces’ strip club where black petals fall at night.

     Between the passionate curtains Hugo Suarez Fiat keeps his collection  of 20 vintage movie theater projectors in the small storefront on Cali Avenue. 

    The steel dream machines are from the 1930s, 40s, 50s and have been salvaged from old movie theaters in Colombia.

    There’s twin projectors from Teatro Damasco  in the small town of Restrepo, two hours northwest of Cali. Suarez Fiat found a beautiful green 1952 projector from from Yugoslavia. Most of the machines were made in the United States.

     Suarez Fiat, 61, is restoring the projectors and soon hopes to  open a cinemagraphy museum called:  


     Thumbs up!


“The Sirius” (treadmark) made in Spain with American parts (circa 1954).

Saved from Teatro Teusaquillo in Bogota;’,


     I’m supposed to be on vacation but I can’t stop finding stories even under the sunny 84 degree skies of Colombia’s third largest city.

     I don’t have a car. I  discovered Suarez Fiat’s workshop by walking around the El Penon’ neighborhood in search of Mountain Dew. He was excited to talk.

     Within every collector there’s a waiting connection.

     “I love museums,” he said during a Wednesday afternoon conversation in his shop.  “I love movies. I would like this to remain with the idea of people going to the movies.

     “Cali has almost two and a half million people. Do you know what most Calenos do on Saturday and Sundays? They go the malls.”

    People here kiss each other on the cheek, hold hands and even throw a table full of red rose petals on a restaurant dining room table for a surprise Valentine’s Day—-when Colombians celebrate Valentine’s Day on Sept. 17, which they call “Friendship & Love Day.”  They believe in movies.

Restaurant Platillos Voladores (“Flying Saucer”) Feb. 15 in Cali

    Suarez Fiat is a native of Cali. He has practiced law in Cali for 30 years. His mother Yolanda Fiat De Suarez  owns the Floristeria.

    Suarez Fiat knows of only one other person who collects old movie projectors.

    He has met Steven Krams of Miami, Fla. who has 400 projectors. Last fall Krams opened the Coral Gables Art Cinema in downtown Coral Gables, Fla. which shows films with a vintage 35 m.m. projector.

    Before reeling into the specifics of his collection Suarez Fiat gave me a primer on the Colombian film industry.

     The first film made in Colombia was in 1922. Spanish director Maximo Calvo came to Cali in 1921 and began work on  “La Maria” which depicted the classic Colombian romantic novel “Maria” written in 1867 by Jorge Isaacs. The grandiose estate where Isaacs spent his youth is about an hour northeast of Cali.  I brought the book along  for my tripItis a stunning marriage of love and South American nature.

Maximo Calvo

    Suarez Fiat walked over to a huge projector. 

   He had a sunset glitter in his eye.

    “This one is of historical value,” he said looking at the Super Simplex projector made in Cleveland, Ohio. “It used to belong to the first theater in Cali: Teatro Jorge Isaacs, named after  the writer of ‘La Maria’! This projector  came to Cali in 1932. This was the first time people could hear the sound.”  The projector’s  Peerless lamp  was manufactured in Aurora, Illinois.

      My first newspaper job was at the Aurora Beacon-News.

      It is a small world.  


     Colombia’s  second big hit was  the silent film “Garras de oro” (“Claws of Gold”)  made in 1926. “That was funny,” Suarez Fiat said with a chuckle. “Because it was against the U.S. It was when Teddy Roosevelt took Panama away from Colombia. The 1903 U.S. aggression led to the construction of the Panama Canal. “Garras de oro” was only rediscovered  in 1982 at the National Archives in Washington, D.C.

    As a teenager in the late 1960s Suarez Fiat met Andres’ Caicado, who became an esteemed film critic in Colombia. Caicado, Carlos Mayolo of Bogota’ and movie director Luis Ospina stated a movie industry that flourished in Cali up through the late 1970s. (Today Ospina runs an annual movie festival in Cali., Caicado committed suicide at age 25.) 

      Cali’s balmy weather and lush palm trees were reminiscent of Los Angeles, thus came the name Caliwood


    “About three, four years ago the boom came back with the movie ‘The King’ ‘[”El Rey, 2004] about the beginning of drug trafficking in Cali,” Suarez Fiat explained. “It was done by (Jose’) Antonio Dorado and filmed in Cali. That movie has been all over Latin American and on Cinemax.”

      Suarez Fiat finds his projectors in odd places across Colombia.

      He discovered the Teatro Jorge Isaacs twin projectors about 10 years ago on an antique cart in downtown Cali. He said he paid $250. “People walk by and think these are big cameras,” he said. “They are movie projectors!

     Suarez Fiat does not have a truck to cart the 600-pound machines to his storefront across from the Cali River. He takes the machines apart and reassembles them in his magical space. All the machines work. He can find parts in Miami and in Colombia.

     Remarkably, the projectors are in good shape.

     “If you are in a little town in Colombia and you present a movie every Friday and Saturday and everybody paid one dollar, what are you going to do with the movie projectors?,” he asked. “You are going to love them. You protect  them.”

     Suarez Fiat has been married for 21 years. His wife Gloria is “okay” with his  movie projector obsession, in her husband’s word.  He paused and said, “She understands. Sometimes she asks, ‘Why is it my turn with this guy? But she helps with my vision.”.

    What is Suarez Fiat’s favorite movie?

    “Al Pacino’s ‘Scent of a Woman;’,” he answered. “I used to love the American films from the 1960s like “Ben Hur,”  Lawrence of Arabia,” or “The Ten Commandments.” That era was pretty exciting for Colombia. Everybody was amazed. But now when I see them I find them even funny.”

    What about cinematographer/comic Jerry Lewis?


    “Very much!” Suarez Fiat answered.  “He was very funny.  It’s difficult for comedy and jokes to translate in Colombia. The jokes are not the same. But  he did so much more  with his face. He was fantastic.

    “Is he still alive?”

    Yes he is and he would love to see Caliwood.