September 7, 2009
Some Notes on Colombia
I recently returned from a ten-day trip to Colombia, SA and as it was with Louisiana, I found the opportunity to write sometimes conflicted with the opportunities to do cool stuff down there. Therefore I would like to present another bullet-point list of writings based on what I was able to jot down and observe between adventures. I give you: Notes on Colombia.
On Hairbrained Fantasies
On my flight down to Bogota I had no idea what to expect. Donkey carts full of coffee beans? Chickens and piñatas? Men with mustaches? Mustaches with mustaches? My mind began to wander as I considered the possibility of staying longer than ten days and traveling around. Soon those wanderings became fantasies of being kidnapped and becoming a great white warlord.
“I wonder if I could survive in the jungle if I escaped from guerrilla kidnappers. Would locals immediately turn me over to local "authorities?" Would I be able to find an embassy? I’m usually able to extricate myself from sticky situations, though sometimes you don’t really have that chance. Maybe I would befriend them, take up their cause, fight by their side. I could become a famous and feared White Warlord, brought there by chance or perhaps by fate. Well, it’s a story the world may never hear.”
I soon learned that Bogotá was not much different from any other city, and putting myself in the way of guerrillas would require I travel far to the south or west, which was not really part of my itinerary.
There are three popular alcoholic beverages consumed in Colombia; Rum, Aguardiente, and Beer. They do not bother with ice or with cocktails, though you are welcome to buy a bottle of Coke to mix if you like, but generally rum and aguardiente are sipped slowly from a glass, or done as a shot with friends if you’re feeling ambitious. Aguardiente is an anise root based drink, similar to pastis or anisette, but a bit smoother, a bit lighter, and quite delicious even to those who, like myself, do not like licorice. While you can purchase a nice bottle of aguardiente or rum in the traditional glass bottle, transportation is made easier when you get the large cardboard juice-box shaped container.
On Colombian BBQs
By my third day in Bogota, we had gone to two BBQs. They don’t mess around with burgers and dogs there. When they grill, they kill a cow and throw it on the fire. Not literally, but there is a lot of meat to be eaten. In an enclosed courtyard in the historic district on my second night, dozens of people ate hundreds of kabobs. My third day, we were on a rooftop overlooking the city. The roof was equipped not with a Weber or similar tin-top grill, but a built in brick and mortar set up with a glass awning protecting you from the elements- just in case you feel like a steak during a hailstorm. The glass awning actually came in handy as it did start to rain as we grilled a well-seasoned side of beef.
On The Differentiation Between The Two Types of BBQs
As I said, we attended several BBQs, all of which left me so full of food and drink, I came to be rather intimate with Salim’s toilet in the days after. However, it should be made clear that there seemed to be two types of BBQs; one at which the main focus was the meat and one at which the main focus was the drink. Both are very valid BBQs and very enjoyable experiences.
There were two times when Salim and I went to the small, enclosed courtyard protected by an 8-foot, broken glass-covered brick wall, nestled between three white stucco 19th century buildings. This is where several of his Fulbright friends are staying during the duration of their fellowships. It is the perfect location to host a large party or BBQ.
For the most part the hostesses prepared kabobs and grilled asparagus, both of which were wonderful, but it was clear that the main thrust of the evening was behind socialization and the 70 proof lubricant that enabled the cogs of new friendships to turn smoothly and freely. To see the situation in person, the food seems nearly incidental. It is the weekly release of strangers in a strange land, coming together as friends with only their Fellowships in common, to discuss, in English, that which they cannot always express to the people they work with every day, a respite from the world on the opposite side of tall, forbidding walls.
The rooftop BBQ was more conscious of what food was being served. It seemed to have been prepped the night before- or at least the marinating had been done in advance. We arrived at about 3 PM after a much-needed nap, still weary from having gotten home at 5:30 that morning from last night’s BBQ. A Colombian friend of Salim, Davide, a former soldier in the Anti-Narcotics branch of the army, was already at the helm, getting the coals hot and adjusting the height of the grill so as to provide a nice slow heat for the beef.
He had been seasoning and marinating the beef since the night before. It was covered in a yellowish, curry-like sauce that is apparently a traditional Argentinean recipe. The meat was not cut into steaks, but just grilled as an entire flank of beef, perhaps four or five pounds in weight. As it cooked, seared on the outside, juices trapped inside, Davide would slice off an end, one segment at a time, and let it heat above the coals, just a few minutes per side before tossing it onto a plate and passing it around to be devoured by the hungry guests.
There were also several pounds of small potatoes that had been boiled to tenderness and on hand next to a giant bowl of homemade guacamole for dipping. They must have used some secret ingredient in the guac- something like the Tears of an Angel, because it was the best guacamole I have ever had. Though I’m not an expert, having never tasted guacamole until I was 22 years of age.
There was of course plenty of beer and spirits to drink as well, but at this smaller, more intimate gathering of friends, it was clear we were really there to enjoy the food and each other’s company. It was a BBQ in the true sense of the word.
On Salsa Dancing
I cannot Salsa Dance. One of Salim’s friends, Hannah, tried to teach me and failed. Or perhaps I failed her. 1-2 1-2-3-4 1-2 1-2-3-4. I was having a very hard time finding her rhythm, falling in synch with her movements, which as a musician, I’m usually pretty capable of. I think I started to get it or at least become slightly more confident in my ghastly thrashing movements but was then told that while I had the beat, I was still bouncing too much. Despite having found the rhythm, salsa is more fluid, the rhythm just a ribbon of motion fluttering smoothly in time with the wind. My American ears heard the beat moreso than the flowing rhythm of the music so that is what I danced to with obvious halts or “bounces” with each beat.
I tried to follow her lead, but struggled. I shook my ass without moving my hips, I couldn’t move my lower half without moving my top and I seemed to have five feet, all of which stepped on hers rather unapologetically. Finally, I decided that I was probably doomed to do the no more than the Electric Slide for the rest of my life, thanked her for her patience, and gyrated away.
On The Military Museum
The Military Museum was incredible. It had the usual displays of old uniforms and medals, but it seemed more like an armory than a museum. The weaponry was old but all in working order. There were huge guns from the 40’s and 50’s and going back to the mide to late 1800’s. Everything was oiled and perfectly maintained. All the bolts on the bolt actions, all the cranks and swivels on the anti-aircraft guns, levers to load canons and adjustable sites, everything was in perfect condition, and was available for tourists to fiddle with and load if you happen to have some .557 ammunition in your pocket. If shit hits the fan, fuck the embassy, I’m going to the military museum. They must have all the ammunition downstairs or something, just in case. You don’t keep relics and artifacts in such incredible working condition unless you think you might use them again someday.
On Nighttime Urination
After my first night, Salim requested that I urinate in the kitchen sink. I had to walk through his bedroom to get to the bathroom and apparently I disturbed his masturbation or something. I simply could not agree to relieving myself where hours later, I would be making my coffee so we compromised. There is a dead potted plant on his small balcony that overlooks the entrance to his building. Needless to say, nothing will ever grow in that pot, ever again. For the nighttime hours, this was my W.C.
When you try to haggle with someone in a marketplace and you don’t know their language, and they don’t know yours, they don’t realize you are haggling. They just think you are getting the price wrong and will emphatically repeat themselves. Knowing adjectives like “expensive” “broken” “garbage” “cheaper” would be very handy at times such as these.
On Leaving Colombia
I may write in more detail about my experience going through airport security later, but I will just give a list right now of the different checkpoints that took about two and a half hours to go through.
1. Check in
2. Tax Exemption Stamp
3. 2nd Check in
4. X-Ray, metal detector
5. Passport Stamp
6. Bag Search
7. Body Frisk
8. Gate Check in
9. 2nd Bag Search
10. Board the plane
Then you're home free!
These notes are only a smattering of my experiences there. I will probably add to them periodically as I remember this or that and feel it necessary to share. I hope the reader finds it both enlightening and entertaining.