Food Friday: Chontaduro

So this is more or less the evil twin of my cholado post. When I arrived in Cali, one of the first things my friends living there asked me was, “Have you tried chontaduro yet?” Since they were asking with a tone of voice that implied less the sharing of a really exciting secret than some serious schadenfreude, I was already a bit suspicious. But when in Rome, etc.

who knew the knife wasn't the scariest thing on that plate?

They look innocuous enough, right? They could totally be plum cousins!

At least I had braced myself, though, so the next day, when one of our gracious hosts came into the room I was sharing with my two other visiting Bogotá friends with a full plate of the shiny red fruits, I was ready. Or so I thought.

I was ready for something weird, for sure, but at first they didn’t look that strange. Chontaduro, which grow on palm trees and go by different names all across South America, have shiny red skin and are about the size of a large strawberry or one of the mini plums here that I love so much. So far, so good. Normal-looking, normal color, nothing deeply frightening. Maybe it’s not so bad, after all.

Instead of biting into the little beasts, though, you peel them — I’m not sure if the rind is edible at all for anyone besides birds, but in Cali at least, they don’t eat it. And that’s when things get a little stranger. Since it bore a passing resemblance to other small pitted fruits, I was expecting something like a peach or plum to emerge from that bright red skin. Wrong. The innards of a chontaduro are orange, flaky and fibrous — they look kind of like a tiny, round sweet potato with a big pit in the middle. And that’s more or less how they taste, too, except without the “sweet” part.

otherwise I'm going outside and corralling a few bees

Wait, where did the honey go? There’s no way I’m getting through this plate without it!

That’s right. Chontaduro are a fruit that taste like the terrible cousin of a potato (if they tasted like potatoes, you can believe I’d be eating a pound of them every week). I don’t even know why they bother calling them fruit, since they seem much closer to a starch like yuca than a juicy fruit. In Cali, they eat them with salt and honey, which makes the taste marginally better, until you realize that you’re essentially just covering it with enough honey to hide the flavor of the fruit itself. Once I took one bite, I realized why my friends had been smirking when they inquired about my chontaduro experience.

Maybe it’s an acquired taste, since most caleños don’t seem to mind it at all, or maybe they place more importance in its alleged power as an aphrodisiac (can someone explain to me why all the most disgusting foods — with the exception of chocolate — are the ones reputed to be aphrodisiacs?), but either way, I’m somehow missing the appeal of the whole thing. Even after eating a whole plate of them, because I’d rather eat some gross stuff covered with honey than be rude.

Still, though, the next time I have an opportunity to enjoy the culinary delights of Cali, I think I’ll be sticking with cholado.

whatever the opposite of 'nom' is, that's this photo

One bite down, ten more (and a plateful of salt) to go….

Don’t Worry, Mom, I’m Only Planning to Kidnap One Alpaca

Today I’m off on a grand 12-day adventure to Ecuador and Medellin! I don’t expect to be anywhere near the interwebs during that time, but I’ve scheduled a few posts, mostly photos, to keep you all entertained in my absence. See y’all in July!

Food Friday: Cholado

they look just good enough to eat, don't they?

Oh so tempting…

On my trip to Cali a few weeks ago, I think it’s safe to say that about 30% of my conversations with my best friend revolved around cholado. How excited we were to eat cholado, where we were going to buy cholado, how much cholado we could possibly eat in one weekend — if it involved cholado, you can be sure it was discussed at great length.

So what, you ask, is this magical, delightful treat that so captured our imaginations and taste buds? WELL. Remember a few weeks ago when we talked about raspado?

that is a brave woman, right there

DO YOU SEE HOW MANY BEES ARE ON THIS CONTAINER RIGHT NOW??

Cholado is more or less its bigger, sugarier, fruitier cousin — and man, is it delicious. It’s also a specialty of Cali and the Cauca department, appearing under brightly-colored carts every few blocks in the cities and towns of that region. I guess icy treats are a much easier sell in places where it doesn’t rain every two hours.

Imagine if a sno-cone and a fruit parfait had a baby and shoved it into a giant cup with a straw. That’s essentially what cholado is: a sugar-high in a cup. It’s made by tossing a bunch of different kinds of fruit (pineapple, maracuyá, papaya, strawberries, etc.) into a plastic cup the size of a Big Gulp, adding shaved ice and food coloring, and topping the whole thing off with a strawberry, sticky-sweet condensed milk and a vanilla wafer, just for the hell of it.

all of that color is purely natural, of course

Bet you’re jealous you don’t have one of these right now

Grab a long-handled spoon and a straw (yes, you’ll end up needing both), and you’re good to go.

I only ate one of these treats during my weekend in Cali — not because I didn’t like it, but rather that one per weekend is about the limit that a normal digestive system can handle. Any more and I would’ve been bouncing off the walls for the whole week. It’s been long enough since that delicious day, though, that I think I’m just about ready for another.

25 Reasons Why I Love Bogotá

About four months into living in another country is when one allegedly hits that first real “low” of culture shock. It takes different forms and manifests in various ways for different people, of course — I’m overall a pretty upbeat, cheerful person, so anytime I don’t feel like hugging half the city is a warning sign for me. Luckily, this is fairly uncommon, and I usually just blame my bad-mood days on the rain, PMS, a painfully crowded bus or the fact that I cannot get my sixth-graders to shut up for two minutes, for the love of god.

Personally, I have yet to really hit that all-out valley of crap feelings — and, barring some sort of traumatic event, I’m not entirely sure I ever will, at least not completely. It’s barely been five months, and I already feel so at home here, in so many ways. The difference between how I feel at five months in Bogotá (blissfully happy) and how I felt at five months during study abroad in Buenos Aires (oh my god get me on a plane I miss baseball season and walking down the street without people saying creepy shit to me more than anything in the world) is just astronomical. I know this is blasphemy and everyone loves Buenos Aires and yay you can totally function there without even really speaking Spanish and blah blah blah etc., but all I can speak for is my own experience. While I’d love to go back and visit all of the parts of Argentina I didn’t get a chance to see the first time, I don’t think I’ll ever be tempted to live there again. The way I feel here right now, they’ll be dragging me out of Colombia kicking and screaming in December, if I end up leaving at all.

But back to the culture shock for a minute. Last weekend I was talking with a few friends about how a lot of us volunteers — who all arrived here at the beginning of January —  are probably going through similar low points around the same time. Living abroad, it’s even easier to feel isolated than it is at home; or to think you’re the only one feeling the way you are; or feeling a lot of pressure to keep up a happy facade, whether it’s for friends and family or because everyone else seems happy and you don’t want to be the only Debbie Downer of the group. This is normal, but it’s not positive. We all have bad days, but we also all have reasons why we came here, and reasons why we haven’t left yet. And those bad days are the times when it’s most important to remember those reasons.

One of my friends already wrote a very entertaining blog post about some of her favorite things in Colombia, and another excellent gringa blogger in Colombia has a really delightful list of reasons to love Bogotá. Encouraged by these ladies’ efforts, I want to toss my own hat into the ring. You can call it copying — I call it inspiration. Everyone else is talking about what they love about Colombia, and I just don’t want to be left out!

just, you know, about 40% of the time

See? It doesn’t rain ALL the time!

So, ladies and gents, in what I expect may be somewhat of a continuing series:

25 Things That Make Me Never Want To Leave Bogotá

1. No matter where I am in the city, I can see mountains. It is impossible to overstate how beneficial this is to my mental and emotional health.

2. It is totally socially acceptable for adults to walk around eating all kinds of sugary treats.

3. People stop to help other people change their flat tires. In the middle of the street. At 11:30 at night.

4. Crepes & Waffles. Oh my god, Crepes & Waffles.

5. At most tiendas (and grocery stores), a beer costs about US$1.

6. Random people at bars will buy you a beer, invite you to join them at their table and talk to you like they’ve known you for years.

7. Everyone has a finca outside the city. And they all want you to visit. You could spend months just finca-hopping every weekend.

8. Walks of shame do not visibly exist here (or are at least extremely covert), because tons of women are normally walking around in dresses and heels on weekend mornings.

9. People drink hot chocolate at breakfast and dinner.

10. Colombians will invite you to their birthday parties after knowing you for exactly two hours — or to their weddings after two months.

11. You can buy a cup of strong, dark coffee on pretty much any street corner in the city, for about 25 cents.

12. Also lollipops, if you’re into that.

13. When the guy at my favorite local bakery calls me “amor,” it actually does make me feel just a little more loved.

14. There are dogs everywhere. Everywhere. And they are beautiful.

15. Passengers on crowded buses will happily pass bus fare and change back and forth between fellow passengers and the driver.

16. The cops posted at every TransMilenio station are basically unofficial travel agents in flourescent jackets. The only things I’ve ever seen them do are text, give people directions and occasionally ask random people for identification if they’re feeling especially bored.

17. People keep their horses in the strangest, most surprising places. Like the field next to the Éxito on my walk home from school. Or their back yards.

18. Eggs are fresh, delicious, cheap and probably came from the chicken strolling down the sidewalk outside the store.

19. Reading is considered a worthwhile and normal use of personal time.

20. They have beer towers in more than a few bars. I missed you, college.

21. If you’re an hour late arriving somewhere, it is perfectly acceptable to blame it on the traffic, even if it’s not true. Everyone will understand.

22. Sundays are exactly the way Sundays should be: lazy, quiet, with empty offices and full bike paths and cafés. You can even get away with walking around in sweatpants on Sundays.

23. There is some sort of holiday almost every week. Most of them are celebrated on multiple days, and they often involve presents.

24. For some reason, stilts are really popular here. At almost any kind of large public event, there are guaranteed to be people on stilts. I think I’ve seen more stilts in my five months here than the rest of my life prior to this year.

25. Teenagers are not too embarrassed to be seen in public with their parents. Sometimes they even hug them.

#26: Chocolate-covered strawberries. They have stores specifically for these treats. I’m never leaving.

Show Me What an American Looks Like

This is me:

cats and i are one

…and also a cat. Of course.

I’m 5’4″, 23 1/2 years old, brown/brown. I’m totally blind without my contacts, my face gets covered with freckles when it’s sunny and I’m engaged in a lifelong battle against my eyebrows, which repeatedly attempt to annex the entire upper half of my face. I get told sometimes that I look Italian, or maybe Spanish, but my family heritage is straight-up German-Hungarian Jewish (and 1/8th mystery. That’s the fun part of me). The idea of whether or not I “looked American,” though, had never really occurred to me until I moved to Colombia, where I am told at least once a week that I don’t.

I realize, of course, that this mindset comes from a position of privilege. The U.S. is certainly not a perfect racial and ethnic melting pot of equality or “colorblindness” or whatever your chosen nomenclature for that impossible ideal may be. I’ve never been stopped in traffic for no good reason, nor had someone speak to me slowly and loudly because they assume by looking at me that English is not my first language. People don’t ask me where I’m from, or where my parents are from, and expect to hear me say the name of another country. At home, at least, I obviously do look American** enough that nobody gives my citizenship a second thought. I recognize that this is a privilege that many other citizens don’t have, and that’s a whole different and far more important battle — but it’s not the one I’m involved in right here, right now. Right here, right now, I’m trying to explain to people (and kind of to myself) why exactly I get so offended when people insist that I don’t look like an American.

Being told I don’t sound like an American is a compliment — it means my Spanish is good enough that people mistake me for a foreigner from another, less verbally-embarrassing country. Argentina, sometimes, because of the accent I picked up there, or Brazil, because I don’t sound like a native Spanish speaker. I’m more than fine with this. Not having people know right off the bat when I speak that I’m a gringa is both a testament to the fact that my Spanish isn’t filled with horrible flat vowels and overpronounced h’s, and it makes my life a bit easier in terms of not standing out or getting ripped off. Go ahead and think I’m from Portugal when I’m speaking, but once you know I’m from the States, please don’t tell me I look wrong.

My issue with this has little to do with any sort of desire to assert my American-ness all over the place. After all, I am not exactly the world’s most “hoo-rah!” patriotic Yankee. For starters, I’m from the People’s Republic of Eastern Massachusetts. I was raised on skepticism, grew up under the idealism-crushing Bush administration, have never watched NASCAR or “American Idol” and I don’t even eat burgers. But there are legitimate reasons I’m proud of where I’m from, and it will always be an inherent part of my identity. I certainly wouldn’t choose to identify otherwise unless it were for my own safety (there are some countries where it’s just better to be Canadian).

But more than the slight to my ego, it’s upsetting to me that the idea of what an American looks like is so narrowly defined as the “gringo” look: tall, white, with blond hair and blue eyes (apparently, they think we’re all Nordic). Because the thing is, very few Americans actually look like this. We (or at least I) take pride in the fact that there is no distinct American look, except for maybe wearing t-shirts all the time, and it saddens me that the entire, amazing cultural/ethnic/racial range of what an American might be is almost immediately negated when you travel to another country. You don’t look like this; therefore, you can’t possibly be this.

Obviously, people’s understanding or concept of a foreign culture they’ve never experienced is based entirely on the information available to them — or rather, the information they choose to absorb. I encountered this plenty of times last year while trying to explain to people at home that it was in fact highly unlikely that I would be kidnapped by the FARC, or listened to the tenth person in a row make the same stupid joke about drug dealers. But considering how tuned in many Colombians are to American pop culture, it’s kind of astonishing that their image of the North American is strictly limited to the gringo. Movies have their own bucket of issues with minority representation, but it’s not like every single person present in U.S. pop culture or media looks like that. The president doesn’t. Angelina Jolie doesn’t. Selena Gomez certainly doesn’t (I know, I know. I’ve been spending too much time with middle-schoolers). There are tons of high-profile Americans who don’t remotely fit into that mold — and yet, it’s still assumed here that that’s what we all look like.

I don’t think for a second that this image of the blond American gringo exists only in Colombia. It’s definitely present in a lot of countries — it’s just that I happen to be living here, so here is where I’m encountering it. There’s not much that can be done, really, to change it — when people have an image or stereotype fixed in their minds, it’s a hell of an uphill battle to change it (hi, all my parents’ friends who are still convinced I’m going to die here!). All I can do at the moment is keep looking like this, and hope that some people notice.

** for the purpose of this post, I’m using “American” to mean ” a person from the U.S.” I realize that isn’t technically accurate, and I’m sorry for the nationalcentrism, but there isn’t an English word for “estadounidense” and I refuse to write “person from the U.S.” every time because efficiency. It’s a problem, but it’s not a battle I’m prepared to take on right now. Please forward your complaints to the people in charge of the English language.