This week, in my other writing gig over at Only In South America, I explain chivas — Colombia’s answer to the party bus, and the cause of this one time I thought I witnessed my friend die. Don’t drink and try to step out of a moving vehicle, kids.
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.
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).
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.
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:
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]
Every culture (and every individual within that culture) has its own methods for dealing with illness, or even just the common cold. Some people swear by garlic cloves, others resort to endless bowls of chicken soup or other kinds of comforting broth, while still others just pop NyQuil until they’ve convinced themselves they feel better. I’m personally terrible at being sick — my two coping mechanisms, in order, are total denial and then eating whole oranges while drinking incessant cups of herbal tea with honey until I can’t think about citrus anymore. It may not be the most medically advanced strategy, but I haven’t died yet, so I have no evidence that it isn’t working.
I’ve only had a cold once so far in Colombia, and thank god, because while I may have the constitution to deal with Colombian gripa, I’m definitely not strong enough to handle the universally accepted cure: agua de panela.
Let’s start with the basics. Panela is a solid form of sugarcane, produced primarily in the coffee region of Colombia and sold in square blocks in pretty much any market across the country. It functions as a sugar substitute, since it essentially is just a block of unrefined whole cane sugar. It’s delicious in coffee, but less so when it’s the main ingredient of a drink.
Those of you who took Spanish in high school may have figured out by now that agua de panela is exactly what it sounds like: panela water. There’s nothing more to it — just a block of panela dissolved in warm water and served like a piping hot cup of sweet tea. I’m sure both Southerners and butterflies would delight in this beverage, but as someone who prefers my sweet drinks to involve fruit, it’s not really, dare I say, my cup of tea.
But that sure puts me in the minority here. Agua de panela is nationally accepted as the most effective and highly recommended cure — or preventative measure — for the common cold. It’s cold outside? Agua de panela. You’re coughing? Agua de panela. It’s 11 a.m.? Why not have some agua de panela?
Given how much soda Colombians typically consume, I guess I shouldn’t be surprised by the national preference for drinking sugar water at the drop of a hat. Still, the next time I start sneezing, you can find me in a corner with my tea and oranges — hold the butterfly nectar, please.
Other Totally Inexplicable Things Colombians Love:
Forget the fruit: I’m really a terrible Colombia blogger because of the coffee. Or rather, the failure to discuss coffee at least four times already. After cocaine and Sofia Vergara, coffee is probably the only thing most people around the world associate with Colombia, and yet here I am, twiddling my thumbs and talking all about (admittedly delicious and worthy of mention) buttered corn on the cob and pastries instead. Oddly enough, Colombia actually exports the vast majority of its coffee, so the stuff we drink here isn’t as high-quality as the beans you can buy in some fancy shop in New York, for example. Still, it’s pretty hard to find a genuinely bad cup of coffee around here, so I’ve got no complaints.
But I digress. To the coffee! For the record, I am slightly biased on this subject, as I’m essentially incapable of human speech, in either Spanish or English, before I’ve had my coffee in the morning. One of the first things I did upon arriving here was to warn my co-workers about this, and luckily, because Colombia is nothing if not a coffee culture, they’re pleasantly understanding about it. My students have yet to grasp why I just blink at them if they speak to me before about 8 a.m., but they’ll understand someday.
Coffee culture here doesn’t meant the same thing, though, that it does in Rome, or Istanbul, or Seattle. There are several near-ubiquitous chain coffee shops (I’ll get to those in a minute), but one can also find tiny, double-shot cups of strong black coffee (tinto) sold from carts or backpacks on nearly every street corner, from morning until well past dark. People don’t linger over frappuccinos in comfy chairs here — rather, they stand around the carts, chatting and taking small sips of steaming black liquid. Drinking coffee, like so many other actions here, is more of a social occasion than it is at home — you’re almost obligated to speak to someone else at some point, which is nice on the one hand, but, as I’ve mentioned, tends to be a bit of a challenge for me. My school alone has at least two different places to get coffee, and I haven’t ruled out the possibility of more that I haven’t discovered yet. Naturally, I frequent both of them at least once a day — more often, if I have class with seventh-graders in the morning.
Of course, since Colombia is a modern country and all, carts, cafeterias and random dudes aren’t the only place to satisfy a caffeine craving. Pretty much any restaurant, bakery or bar worth its potable tap water offers a small variety of coffee drinks, though obviously the quality varies. There are two major national coffee chains: the Greek-sounding Oma and the somewhat more renowned Juan Valdez. For reasons I cannot fathom, both companies chose practically the same dark red shade as their main brand color, which makes them rather hard to distinguish from a distance. Luckily, this isn’t much of a problem, since there’s at least one of each roughly every two blocks in most busy neighborhoods. Both places offer your Starbucks-style range of drinks, from basic Americanos to fancy blended frozen arequipe-flavored concoctions (which I will never try, given my ironclad opposition to cold coffee beverages. But they look nice!), and some tasty pastries. The one thing they don’t give out freely are lids for the coffee cups — you have to ask them for a lid when you pick up your drink, or you’ll be spending the whole walk trying not to spill steamed milk all over your shirt. As a clumsy person, I am still not used to this. Juan Valdez are also rockstars at branding, and sell everything from coffee presses to T-shirts at their stores. Oddly enough, their clothes and bags are are actually fairly popular here — can you imagine people walking around downtown Philly in Peet’s t-shirts? I guess Colombians just love their Juan so much they have to wear it on their sleeves.
(Sorry. That was a really terrible joke. I’ve obviously been speaking Spanish so much lately that I’m forgetting how to be funny in English.)
So I’ve spent enough time and digital space this week singing the praises of micheladas that I feel you’re all due a more detailed explanation. The short version is: They are the best way to drink beer when it’s hot out, and I don’t understand why I have not experienced them before in my life (this guy over at the NYT apparently feels my pain). I plan on keeping a supply of lime juice near me at all times from now on, for emergencies. And/or thirst.
Here’s the long version, for you detail-oriented folks: As with many tasty treats, the cerveza michelada originally hails from Mexico (which makes sense, considering they have that whole lime-and-Corona thing going on, too). According to the all-knowing information lords over at Wikipedia, there’s a bit of a debateabout how it originally gained its name, so we’re not going to dwell on that. The important thing is that, regardless of heritage, it’s created a strong foothold here in Colombia — one could order a michelada at pretty much every restaurant we visited on the coast, even if it wasn’t on the drink menu. I haven’t seen them here in Bogotá, which I suspect has a lot to do with the less favorable weather, but my impression is that you can probably get them in many places around here, too.
To create instant beer-based happiness, here’s what you need:
- a lighter beer like Aguila or Club Colombia. You don’t want anything too strong or heavy, since you’re not really going to be tasting the beer anyways
- lime juice, preferably from an actual lime
- salt, the coarser the better
- some kind of sauce. Apparently there are versions of micheladas using all kinds of sauce, from Worcestershire to Tabasco, or even mixes of several sauces. However, being the hot sauce zealot I am, I refuse to acknowledge the possibility of using anything else — ideally the Amazon hot sauce with the macaw on the label. So hot sauce it is.
If you’re at a restaurant, your michelada will arrive at the table like a fun little multi-part puzzle, self-assembly required. You will have a glass with salt around the rim (salt distribution varies, so choose servers wisely) and a shot of lime juice at the bottom. Sometimes they even give you a lime slice, for that extra limey flavor! You will also, of course, have your beer, which must be poured into the glass with minimal salt disturbance so as not to ruin how pretty it looks.
If you have a savvy server, he or she has hopefully brought the hot sauce out with the drinks (or if you’re at the good kind of restaurant, it’s already on the table). If not, you should absolutely request it, since it’s an important part of the whole experience. Once you’ve acquired the hot sauce, add as much as you like, although be warned that just a few drops of the really spicy macaw concoction should suffice (I may or may not have learned this the hard, painful way). Be sure to stir it before drinking, because hot sauce, beer and lime juice shockingly don’t mix well naturally, and an uneven distribution will really throw off your enjoyment of the whole experience.
Then drink it! And then consider ordering another one, because that first one was so tasty!
And if you’re at home, then just do it yourself, you lazy bum. Speaking from experience, it’s pretty fun to play with limes and salt and generally make a bit of a mess in the interest of drinking. Plus, in the privacy of your own kitchen, you can add as many weird condiment combinations as your heart desires, without risking judgment from any of your fellow diners. After all, there’s nothing that pairs worse with a tasty cold beer than the piercing hot glances of opinionated people. Save the burn for the hot sauce, folks.
Oh, and if you’re struggling with the reference in the title, please go watch all of this movie immediately, and report back when you can tell me how you like your coffee. You’ll surely laugh.