Totally Inexplicable Things Colombians Love #3: Aguardiente

Many countries have their own unique, distinctive liquor (sake, ouzo, deadly Czech moonshine, and so on), and Colombia is no different. The ubiquitous drink of Andean Colombia — the one you’ll see in everyone’s hands at a night out at the bar or club, the one that makes an inevitable appearance at every party — is called aguardiente (literally, fire water). Aguardiente (or guaro, for short, if y’all are on a nickname basis) is a clear, anise-flavored liquid made of processed sugarcane. It’s produced either with sugar or without, and typically has an alcohol content a bit north or south of 25%. It is also heinously, ferociously disgusting.

So many ways to poison yourself…

I’ve just insulted probably about 94% of the Colombians I know by dissing their national intoxicant of choice, but I’m sorry. Sometimes you just have to tell it like it is, and aguardiente is nothing but horrible. Despite the best (or worst, depending on one’s perspective) efforts of my friends here, my assimilation does not extend to this terrible creation. As I’ve said on multiple occasions, there are only about four things I don’t like about Colombia: aguardiente is right at the top of that list.

The thing is, any relationship we could ever have was doomed from the start, as guaro made the fatal error of tasting like anise. I have never been able to understand why anyone would willingly ingest anything anise-flavored — from unappealing black licorice to the look-nicer-than-they-taste cookies a well-meaning family friend gives us around Christmas every year, it’s one of the easiest ways I can think of to ruin something that otherwise might be delicious. Want to make a cookie suddenly revolting? Add anise. Want to make me avoid a cake like the plague? Frost it with anise. Want to make me swear off drinking forever? Force me to drink aguardiente (or tequila, but that’s a different story).

My favorite is #3: “Because it’s perfect to drink alone or mixed.” OR NEVER.

So the taste is the primary hurdle, but it’s not the only one. The way drinking is done in most non-beer-based social situations here is that a group of people buys a bottle and then spends the rest of the night taking shots out of little plastic cups that are incredibly easy to accidentally crush in one’s hands. And this doesn’t just happen at bars with tables — if you go out to a club, you’ll see people strolling around passing out shots of guaro like it’s Anise Christmas. To me this seems both illogical and like an invitation for spillage, but nobody put me in charge, obviously. It’s kind of like being back in college, but instead of ending up with terrible-tasting alcohol by necessity or legality issues, we somehow get it by choice (again, definitely not mine). Having shots forced upon me is not necessarily my favorite way to consume alcohol, especially in crowded public spaces — having shots of something that seriously tests my gag reflex forced upon me is probably one of my least favorite ways.

I suspect that most Colombians have a Stockholm Syndrome-type relationship with guaro — since they started drinking it when they were around 15 years old, they’re just used to it by now. Or maybe some of them genuinely like anise — after all, it’s a flavor that shows up in liquors produced in various other countries around the globe, so it’s not like Colombians are the only crazy ones. I just happen to be stuck with them.

Why drink like an adult when you could be using a 1-liter juicebox instead?

The one benefit of the existence of guaro is being able to punk people with it. When I went home for Christmas in December, I brought a few juiceboxes of the stuff (oh yeah, they sell liquor in juiceboxes here. File that under “Awesome Things Colombians Do Correctly”) back with me as “gifts.” My poor, unsuspecting friends thought it was so nice of me to bring genuine Colombian drinking material all the way home for them — until they tried it. Curses were uttered, blame was cast, friendships were called into question, I did a lot of giggling. It was absolutely worth it, but it also didn’t involve me actually consuming any of it. So I guess I’m okay with aguardiente as long as it’s not entering my digestive system.

The point is, if I ever manage to overcome my intense loathing of hot weather (unlikely) and move to the coast, at least 30 percent of my justification will be because they drink more rum there. Now that’s a liquid pastime I support.

Other Totally Inexplicable Things Colombians Love:

#4. Agua de Panela

#5. Inappropriate Uses of English

#6. Colombia’s Got Talent

#7. Horrifying Jeans

#8. Malls

#9. Wearing Heels Everywhere, All the Time

#10. ’80s Rock/Hair Metal Bands

Bottle Lights in Villa de Leyva

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Last week I got a chance to make a quick visit to my favorite place in Colombia (by now we all know that’s Villa de Leyva, right?). I stopped by my favorite hostel in my favorite town — the one run by the woman who acts like she’s everyone’s Colombian grandma, who calls every guest “mi amor” or “mi cielo” so she doesn’t have to try to remember all of our names, the one with outdoor showers and four cats roaming the premises and a huge lawn with plenty of space for tents and furniture made out of wine bottles and other recycled items. One of the best things about this hostel (after the hostess and the friendly cats) is that it’s always changing. They’re always moving rooms around, constructing new additions, changing the layout. It’s constantly in flux, so it’s a different experience every time you come back. Even though I’ve been there three times now, there were still plenty of new developments — my favorite being the new outdoor lounge space: a platform in the middle of the yard, covered by a tent made from a parachute and populated with pieces of lumpy furniture in various states of transition, including two “chairs” made of sofa pillow stuffed into dresser drawers. The best part of this room, though, is the light: a hanging garden of colored wine bottles, lit up by LED lights at night and casting splotchy colorful shadows across the interior of the parachute. I liked it so much I practically tried to sleep out there — the mosquitoes won this round, but I’m sure I’ll be back soon enough. I just hope I make it back there before the bottles move to a new location.

Quien lo Vive…

So as I may or may not have mentioned, I made up for my (lazy, broke, bad-at-planning, unmotivated) omission of last year and made sure I spent the second weekend of this past February in Barranquilla for Carnaval. Obviously a big part of this was the fact that Brighid lives there now, so it was a great excuse to go visit her, but it’s also one of those things that you just have to do when you live in Colombia. Or, judging from the number of gringos in attendance, even when you don’t.

Barranquilla, normally your typical mid-sized industrial port city, goes all-out for its Carnaval, which they never hesitate to tell you is the second-largest in the world (after only Rio, which, if you’re going to be second to something when it comes to Carnaval festivities, is really the only option). The city essentially shuts down for a whole week, during which time everything is covered in decorations, paint, banners, and anything red-green-and-yellow, the Carnaval colors. The people undergo a similar transformation — everyone is dressed in outrageous, neon, sparkly, bedazzled, insane festive clothing or costumes and covered in wigs, face paint, more sparkles, hats and other peculiar hair accessories. As if this weren’t enough, the two major spectator pastimes of Carnaval are drinking and throwing maizena (flour) and espuma (foam) at both friends and strangers until everyone in attendance looks as white as an Indiana frat boy on his first trip out of the country.

The days are filled with parades, dancing, music and celebration, and the nights — are pretty much exactly the same. We spent 2 hours one night just wandering from one block party to the next, weaving between neighbors dancing together and changing songs as we passed from one set of blaring speakers stacked higher than the surrounding houses to the next. People always talk about how joy is contagious, and this is one of the best places to see that in action — sure, we’re all sweaty and dirty and covered in flour and glitter and our feet hurt from standing and dancing, but we are all having one hell of a good time. Barranquilleros were, without fail, warm and welcoming and delightful people, and I couldn’t think of a better group to serve as my festival guides. For four nights straight, Brighid and I rolled into bed past 2 a.m., filthy and exhausted and probably dehydrated — and then the next morning, we got up and did it again. Because that’s what you do when it’s what everyone else is doing. We were just following the motto of Carnaval, after all:

Quien lo vive, es quien lo goza (S/he who lives it, enjoys it)

And enjoy it I did. Who’s up for 2014?

[full disclosure: I did not bring my fancy camera to Barranquilla, because beer + intense sunlight + flying foam + copious opportunities for robbery = disaster, as far as I’m concerned. So I’m sorry these photos don’t look so nice, but it’s the price we pay for caution. And it’s worth it]

Some Thoughts About Bureaucracy

One thought that kept coming up during my valiant (and ultimately successful) quest to get myself a visa was how much worse the whole thing could’ve been. Sure, getting up at 6 a.m. on a Saturday to go stand in line at DIAN and then sit inside the freezing building for 4 hours wasn’t exactly my favorite thing that’s ever happened to me in Colombia, but it also wasn’t the worst thing that’s ever happened to me. I survived. And from then on, everyone was so nice to me that it made the entire ordeal feel significantly less challenging than it could have.

I guess by now I shouldn’t be surprised that people in Colombia are just pleasant, even when they work at undoubtedly mind-numbing desk jobs, but there’s a part of my brain that’s still firmly lodged in the American (or at least Northeast region) mindset of only being civil when absolutely necessary, and definitely nothing ever past civil. We are exactly as polite as we need to be to get things done, and you can be sure you’ll know if you’re inconveniencing us. Not so here.

As I mentioned, the first time I went to register myself as a business at the Cámara de Comercio, I didn’t know I needed a copy of a utilities bill. I had all my other documents ready to go, but this one little thing was missing. It was too late in the day for me to go home, get it and come back before the office closed, so it was going to be one more day of delay in the process. But instead of just waving me away from the desk, the extremely helpful young woman working there (who, as I said, was as pregnant as she was helpful) sat down with me and filled out the entire document I needed, reviewing all the sections to make sure I was doing them correctly and telling me the smallest possible amount I could give as the value of my company, to limit taxes. “This way,” she told me, “you can just bring in the bill tomorrow and you’ll be all set!” And that’s exactly what I did.

She didn’t have to be that helpful. She could’ve just let me wait until the next day — it certainly wouldn’t make any difference for her job. But she did the good thing, and that’s the only reason I left the office that afternoon smiling instead of growling in frustration.

It was more or less the same at the Ministerio de Relaciones Exteriores, where I actually got my visa. I made damn sure to show up there with every single document I could ever potentially need, partly because I was so anxious to get the whole thing over with and mostly because you have to pay $50 every time you go there and I was sure as hell not going to pay $50 just for being a forgetful idiot. Even so, the guy I talked to there was so friendly and asked me questions like he was genuinely curious, rather than trying to trick me into saying the wrong thing. If I were a foreigner applying for a visa in the U.S., the process would be somewhere between a jail interrogation and a private investigator background check, and I would probably feel like a criminal without having done anything wrong. The “innocent until proven guilty” approach is so much easier to deal with in these kinds of processes — I was already nervous enough about applying for the visa. A mean agent probably would’ve made me burst into tears. Instead, I left with the world’s biggest grin and a promise to my interview agent that I would write nice things about Colombia.

Promise kept.