Bar Savvy

Friends, it has been awhile.  I have decided to take up the torch again as there are some large changes coming down the road and this seems like a great forum to keep people informed, and my vision/version of what is happening in print and in order.  To kick things off, here is an absurd little article I drafted  for a publication that we ended up not publishing, hope it’s a fun little read.

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It’s the confidence, the social ease and the witty banter—though it doesn’t hurt that bartenders are the smooth-moving gatekeepers of our liquid courage. Set up on a romantically lit stage, a bartender is poised to capture your now-fuzzy attention with a winning smile and a cold drink. Yet despite the lighthearted setting and free-flowing libations, it’s never easy to know how to make a move on your favorite drink-slinger.

Around you, everyone at the bar is vying for his attention. If only that gorgeous pourer of spirits knew that you wanted more than just your tab!—but amidst the chaos of waving dollar bills and clinking glassware, you’re faced with the common conundrum: is he being nice because it’s his job, or could there be a little something more behind that extra-tall pour of whiskey? Sit tight, hold your ground and protect your claim to the barstool nestled into that corner—you may just find the seven numbers you were looking for at the bottom of your bill.

It’s a round of questions that we all know too well, that rip though our thoughts as we gaze over at a barkeep whose shot-pouring technique is more interesting than any conversation coming from our slurring roommates. Is this something that’s going to happen tonight? Is there something long-term here? How much do I like this bar, what time is it and how much have I had to drink?

I want this to happen tonight:

One evening, as a colleague of mine made his way from behind the bar for the only restroom break he’d have time for, he turned to shut the door behind him and met with a puckered pair of lips as the girl who’d captured his glances all night finally decided words were a waste of time. Come closing time, as the last guests were ushered out and the lights flickered on to full blast, she ambled over to the bar and urged him to teach her how to pour a proper pint. He recalls a beautiful sunrise over the East River that morning.

For the bold and infatuated—especially those with short-term goals—capitalizing on the very fleeting free moments a bartender has may be your best chance to see the gates being pulled down at the end of the night. But be prepared: the bartender is usually the last person out of the building, and although the bar closes at 3 a.m., bottles still need to wiped, chairs stacked, messes mopped and cash counted. You may be stuck for some time under the bright lights, twiddling your thumbs over a cheap beer, before you get the chance to violate some health codes.

This isn’t a fleeting night, you’ve got potential:

Carving out just an extra second of banter with a bartender on a busy night is near impossible. As they try to recall a list of orders, obscure recipes and tabs, their focus is on moving efficiently and helping the next thirsty patron. That said, over a wall of people emanating “hmm”s and “umm”s, the prepared, confident order gets attention. It is forever a pleasure (and exceedingly rare) to hear an order from someone who knows what they want, delivered to you calmly with a lingering smile and a please. It’s almost as if that someone believes that the one serving them is a real person—and that’s enough to lift the spirits of any bartender. Given the number of well-meaning customers we meet with who are focused on losing themselves to their own style of fun, composure is often the only thing that will shake up our steady façade. When you return to the bar early on a weekday to pick up where we left off, there’s no doubt I will remember who you were, find you a seat in front of me, welcome you with a drink on me and, if we’re both lucky, join you in a long conversation.

As a new bartender muddling away at a job I most likely embellished my résumé to get, I often found myself behind on time and flustered, attempting to field everyone’s ill-advised mojitos in some semblance of the correct order as tickets piled up around me in drifts. On one such night—arriving from heaven, I’m convinced—she came forward, with a quick glance up and down the bar; built a barstool from nothing, all the while boxing out a sizeable portion of the crowd—an impressive feat for five-foot-zero—and, with a reassuring smile, calmly dealt out a “Don’t worry about me for a few—come find me when you can.” After ten minutes of blue-eyed-girl-fueled determination, I had cleared my board and was able to carve out some time to talk to this selfless and wonderful creature.

Even lubricated with your poison of choice and exonerated for all your poor decisions, you may find the list of hurdles long and frightening that holds you back from putting it all out there. But though it’s true that any bartender worthy of your attention is going to show you if they’re interested, it’s important to remember also that you’re a guest at their place of work, and one they won’t want to alienate, even should their hopes prove misguided. So after a free round and a bout of witty quips, the weight falls on your shoulders to take that near-impossible last step to leave them your number, and make sure they know you’d love to see them on the other side of the bar.

 

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On Craft Cocktails

Over the past few weeks I have been lucky enough to meet quite often a small group of people at the bar to talk, discuss, and taste cocktails from the very rudimentary basics through far fetched philosophy.  Being new to the industry myself and fairly unpracticed at teaching/regurgitating what I have learned, we have used a list of cocktails and spirits to work over the why/how of basic craft cocktail bartending.  Revisiting all of this in an orderly and systematic method is really helpful in revealing exactly what you don’t know, and has caused me to return to the books and begin pouring over everything about spirits, taste, and method again and again to fill in those gaps that seem to only grow as I realize how much there is to learn…

It has brought up some interesting questions about the depth and length of work a craft bartender has to go through to get a cocktail in front of a customer.  We encounter so often a solid look of disappointment when we pour out a carbonated cocktail that has been made in advance.  We would love to make everything in front of your eyes in a grand flourish of talented acrobatics, but alas to achieve a superior product with premium carbonation we have to bring the entire cocktail down to a very low temperature so that is better accepts the CO2, and that means making it before you get there and getting it into a freezer.  It’s hard to get across the equal love and care that went into a drink made out of sight of the guest, even if it signifies that it was even more involved and complicated to make, and so much more that we wouldn’t have time to do it in the moment.   Going beyond making cocktails ahead of time and looking farther into the actual ingredients that compose your cocktail: there is 1/2 an ounce of toasted almond orgeat in that there cocktail you are sippin’ on… and that isn’t something that magically springs from the ground out the magic fountain of orgeat.  It takes a bartender coming in early morning (1 PM) to find organic almonds were ordered that need to first be toasted batch by batch, then blended vita-prep pitcher by vita-prep pitcher at a time, then spun in the centrifuge to separate the oils, fats, milks, water, and solids, then take the milk/fats/oils and reconstitute them back in the vita prep, hydrate and add ticaloid to keep suspension, create syrup out of it, distribute to bottles, cork, label, and store… then quickly add it half an ounce at a time to each order of that single cocktail that uses it on the menu.  Sometimes I want to scream out to everyone about how much these craft cocktail bartenders in every bar out there really know!  They don’t just measure your drinks out spirit by spirit, but are crafting amazing ingredients from scratch with the precision and adeptness of educated cooks, who then take off their aprons, jump behind the bar, kindly direct you to the right drink, educate you about it, create it in expertly a manner as not to do injustice to the hard work they put in that afternoon, keep you company, and then bus the dirty glass when you are done, later on they are going to sweep and mop the floors.  So much happens behind the scenes to get that cocktail to the bar.  What’s more, these guys all care enough to make the ingredients themselves, but also to seek out the best and healthiest ingredients for them, stopping by the farmers market to pick up farm fresh eggs (which are actually the right size for a cocktail and from happy chickens) and organic local arugula for a infusions, etc,  every day.

I get really jazzed up about all of this when I enter the bar at 2 in the afternoon to find 5 bartenders brainstorming over giant bags of produce they just scooped up at the farmers market.  Blender is cranking away, centrifuge is spinning some ungodly concoction, and someone chewing on who knows what spice trying to figure out where it belongs in the spectrum of cocktail ingredients.  ‘Did you know that carbonated Fernet is terrible,’ asks a barback, ’cause if you didn’t I can tell you now for certain it is.’ Constant growth and exploration yielding good results or terrible ones, is inspiring.  I can only hope that all of this enthusiasm, care, and sweat translates to the customers in the silent form of a cocktail.

Learning Curve

Better late than never, although with the sizable gaps in time between each post it is almost at the never side of things.  To best illustrate the past months I should start by filling you in about our bar.  The bar.  Booker & Dax.  BDX, as we call it.  It’s a small room in the back of a bustling world class restaurant that has consumed all of my time and every drop of energy for the last 8 months.  Two bars, a prep kitchen, 4 tables, 32 stools, 2 bartenders, a server, hostess, barback, manager, cook, 147 liquor bottles, freezers, fridges, clear lime juice, liquid nitrogen, a centrifuge… and a vacuum rotary evaporator.  It feels like a pub but looks like a laboratory, serves exciting cocktails and addicting food, it functions at the highest level while flirting with being too casual… it’s extremely hard for me to wrap my head around and has been my battle for what feels like a lifetime.  In short, a bar which focuses on high end craft cocktails utilizing new techniques which we at the bar are implementing.  I will leave you here with some links to what others have written about the bar thus far so I that I don’t have to form words to what I can barely grasp:

http://www.momofuku.com/restaurants/booker-and-dax/

http://drinks.seriouseats.com/2012/02/video-dave-arnold-booker-dax-cocktails-centrifuge-liquid-nitrogen-techniques.html

http://gizmodo.com/booker-&-dax/

There are more from all over the map if you google Booker & Dax.  Woo.

I have been running on such high emotion and so little sleep for the last few months it has left me with much ammo for this blog, for your sake I am reigning in what makes it to this page for fear of crafting a 200 page memoir about the struggle of opening a bar with untested tools and virtually no space.  Since January we have been drafting menus, staffing, building, experimenting, buying, ordering… etc, all while the old version of the bar remained open.  We have just ticked off the 5 month mark of being open, and I only now feel like we are finding any sort of stride.  It’s interesting running a bar that focuses on the fore front of technology because of the ever lurking pressure to keep innovating, and even just now as a fledgling bar I am already feeling the heat of ‘what’s next from Booker & Dax?’ In this city so driven by food and culture your life on the scene seems to be much like a shark, keep moving or drown.  I don’t say that negatively, it’s like going to the gym, if you are not building up you are losing ground, and that always means working to improve and find to a new direction.  Already I fall nostalgic for cocktails we are replacing on the menu, until I fall in love with the one that replaced it.  Upwards and onwards, always upwards and onwards.

So much more has come out of Booker & Dax than I could have anticipated.  It is not the organizing and admin, cocktail creation or staff emergencies, all those things I could have predicted in the day to day of restaurants and the bar world.  Press, media, events, social presence, and the never blind eye of being in NYC…  is what wears you out quicker than anything.  We have been fortunate enough to be involved in wonderful events like Taste of the Nation to benefit a great cause, and MOFAD (Museum of Food and Drink), CityMeals on Wheels Benefit, and then there are the guest bartending nights at bars around the city, barbacking at Speed Rack an all-female bartending competition benefiting cancer research, teaching a class for Manhattan Cocktail Classic, and then you turn around and the bar is full of photographers shooting the ‘bright green cocktail or the one with the flames.’  Apart from everything these things are amazingly fun, but when they begin to back up against each other, and with scheduling, and ordering, and… you start to forget about things like laundry, eating, cleaning, exercise, reading… We are moving (again) and as I started to pack up I realized we never actually unpacked.  I’m 26!  It is certainly the right time to dive head first into the fray, and to quote an institution I am fond of, ‘Learn by Doing,’ there is no better education than hands on work.  The work opens more and more doors everyday revealing so many cool people, new places, fantastic meals and drinks, and new opportunities!  It becomes slightly addicting and definitely intoxicating after a while, and I find it hard to say no to anything coming our way.

It must be said again, and I know I have touched upon this in the previous post, but the bartenders, servers, barbacks, cooks, NEW MANAGERS (Robert Henry Nelson) are heroes.  Dave Arnold and I bust into the bar at the drop of a hat and generally destroy all semblance of sanity.  “What if’s” fly around and “how ‘bouts” spout out repeatedly, leaving a trail resembling that of a tornado… Yet the intrepid and obviously hardy crew never fails and always powers through.  The fact that we have assembled such a talented staff is the miracle that keeps everything running every day.  I could not put to words accurately the curiosity, intelligence, energy, spirit, and dedication that the gang has.  They are the heart and soul of the bar.

There are a few people out there making sure that I see the light of day, and to those few champions of things outside of the bar I solute you.  We have escaped the confines of the bar to walk shelter dogs around South Brooklyn (since I can’t have my own), learned how to raise chickens in Brooklyn, gardened veggies, play in a soccer match, and rampaged and frolic around the city.

Once again I haven’t written about much, updating anything, or corresponded with family/friends in any coherent fashion, but it did serve as a nice outlet for voicing what words happen to build up on my mind.

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To come:

Surströmming! Eating rotten fish out of a can from Sweden! See below.

(http://www.popsci.com/science/article/2012-04/popscis-friday-lunch-can-putrid-surstr%C3%B6mming)

Moving! Again! And how it’s the worst thing that can happen to a soul in NYC.

The fun side of things:  http://blog.zagat.com/2012/04/30-under-30-nycs-hottest-up-and-comers.html

What the heck just happened?

I am mostly alive.  I am slightly zombie… ish.  I am living a new life.  Since the last time I posted the world has been flipped on its head once again.  Gone are the days of distilling and nights of Amor, now is the time for pork buns and flaming cocktails.  Starting last November I took a position with Momofuku to champion their bar program at Ssam Bar in the East Village.  For the last four months I have been working with the incredible Dave Arnold and a team of amazing bartenders to flesh out a new cocktail bar, Booker & Dax, featuring a craft cocktail menu based around some newfangled and amazing tools created by Dave himself.

This post is not about the bar.  If you want to learn all about the awesome stuff happening at Booker & Dax then I will go into the bar in detail another time.  This is a post about the demands of running and opening a new establishment, about falling off the face of the earth, about sacrifice, success, and shortcomings.

The moment I started at Momofuku it has been a constant slamming of information, research, administration, creation, press, cleaning, hiring, firing, drinking, ordering, inventory, and lots and lots of hours logged.  Never before have I been so immersed in one single all consuming project.  7 days a week, 15 hours a day.

For better and worse, I have been so inundated in Booker & Dax I have not posted a blog post in 4 months, called my friends, been out in the city, been on a date, cleaned my room or washed any laundry; my gym called me yesterday to ask if I still wanted my membership because I hadn’t seen them in 3 months.  There are so may facets to cover when joining a new company, opening a new bar, and then running it that constantly demand all of your attention.  It has left me overwhelmed not a few times.

Why it’s worth it:

{I am entering this blurb post writing this blog post: I didn’t realize that I needed to spew out all of this below, I think the last few months have been so emotionally charged/draining that once you get started you can’t really stop an outpouring as such this is.  So the following is less informational and more… therapeutic}

The people.  There is one thing above all others that makes this constant battle worth it, the people.  Throughout this entire process I have constantly met and enjoyed the company of so many amazing individuals.  First and foremost are a team of bartenders who have such an extreme passion for what they do that they will endure anything just to learn more and be a part of something so great.  Working side by side with these guys has taught me so much about not only bartending, but work ethic, loyalty, creativity, and the unmatched energy that has made Booker & Dax the bar that it is.  I’m constantly blown away by what these people bring to the table everyday and I count my lucky stars I have them to lean on constantly.

Dave Arnold is a mad man with a pension for genius, and has quickly turned into one of my best friends.  Working with this man has educated me on carbonation, the physics of liquid nitrogen, using a rotovap, clarification, dilution, dirty jokes, flavors, interviewing well, and more importantly all about family and friends.  There are very few men on earth who command such loyalty from everyone they encounter.

I am now thoroughly convinced that if you gave me a cardboard box, a couple of pitchers of malt liquor, and a phenomenal caring bar staff that it would millions of times better than the most perfectly crafted well appointed bar with manikin like bartenders.

As this bar only just begins to find its stride and allows for some breathing room, the staff and management can begin to step back and start to unravel everything.  More than any success we have gained has this project illustrated my short comings.  Only when put under such great pressure do you ever see the cracks in the dam, and boy have I ever found a long list of cracks.  What my priorities are do not always seem to coincide with what the bar priorities have to be to make it succeed.  Balancing my time between costing out cocktail prices by dashes of bitters, staffing costs, over time hours, inventory, making sure we have the most cost effective blocks of ice, employees W-4’s are signed, and all of the admin drudgery versus the much more attractive side of my position like creation of recipes, tasting new spirits, events, and normal bartending… is hard.  Also, I make horrendous excel spreadsheets. I’m terrible at scheduling.  Routine, not my strong point.  To answer this all though, I now know this, and am starting to learn how to not necessarily fix these things but rather combat myself.  Once again, without the bartenders, dear god we would be lost at sea.

Bah!

On entirely an entirely different note: I am now 26.  Some years back, I believe in the ever impressionable era of 9th grade, Robby Nelson explained to me that the male body peaks for distance running at age 27, and ever since then I have committed myself to the idea that it is at 27 that a guy is perfect. (also it may just turn out that after 27 I may actually commit to the idea of being a man and not just a guy)  Absurd, I know.  My father, who is ancient, is far fitter than I am and could kick my butt while hog tied… but, none the less this gilded age of 27 has wrung in my head as the epitome of fitness.  While this last year has actually been fairly successful as far as staying healthy goes, this up coming year it the focus.  First step: cut out the daily doses of pork belly… yeah.

There is so much more I want to write, but I am becoming more exhausted just thinking about everything at this point.  So after getting this unorganized mass above out of my brain and on to paper I do believe I could produce a coherent post on the actual bar, cool new things, home bars, eating out at amazing restaurants… the fun side of things. Tomorrow.

Much love to you all.

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Foreign Fruit

I’m sitting safely back at home nursing a wrecked and exhausted body trying to wrap my head around the last week.  From exotic cocktail ingredients to machine gun armed military police, it was a week full of eye opening scenery and fantastic new people.  I apologize for the length of this post, but there is a lot to be said, and I’m home sick with time to write it.

Dave and I were asked to head down to Colombia and present about cocktails for the Bogota Wine and Food Festival, a gathering a chefs from around the globe coming together to celebrate the up and coming gastronomical culture of Colombia.  After securing our trip down to South America I of course realized my passport was expired and needed to get a renewal in 4 days, but as it turns out as long as you meet with some people in midtown with a wad of cash it can be done, and apparently, legally.  These magical people somehow had conjured a passport in my hand the same day I dropped off my application, and since now that I have gone and returned from a foreign land I can confirm that it was real!  If not shady…

We arrived in Bogota late at night to find that the airport, and as it would later turn out every street corner, was guarded by military police armed with machine guns amidst a throng of drivers recruiting our patronage.  Once all of the chefs were gathered up from their various terminals we were loaded into our SUVs and trucked off into the night.  When you have such a precedence of danger about a place it is hard to look passed your own biases, to feel what is real rather than what you expected to feel, and with all of the warnings radiating in my mind, “don’t take the taxis, they’ll abduct you,” and other sentiments the like left me uneasy.  We pulled away from the airport and our driver immediately became lost, completing loops through neighborhoods constructed of bamboo and cardboard houses we wound our way into the unknown of everyone in the cramped Toyota.  Stopped at a light in an unsavory section of town with crowds of people eyeing our car, the driver leans over and locks the door and asks us not to look out, it was then that I realized that I had been in this situation a 100 times in Albuquerque, Arizona, LA, and NYC.  This was no different than driving through our neighborhood in a rough part of the ‘burque except here the streets were lined with military patrols to make sure nothing would happen! I was probably even safer than in other situations…?  An hour later we safely rolled into our hotel, were sniffed down by the ever sweet bomb sniffing Labradors, scanned by metal detectors, and permitted to enter the beautiful lobby of this weeks home base.

Bogota is truly a beautiful city.  Set up high in the Andes it is a constant 55-65 degrees, perfect sweater wearing weather (+1000 points), with towering forested peaks and a rolling landscape filled with such lush greenery and interesting architecture you quickly fall in love with it.   Our hotel was luxurious with beautiful stone showers, soaking tubs, and giant beds.  People were beautiful and exceedingly accommodating to every weird demand in broken Spanish we made.  Restaurants had an abundance of unfamiliar and exotically good ingredients.  Such a constant flood of wonderful things quickly forced me over any fear of being abducted and shot, and I almost instantly executed a complete 180 into the realm of a having huge crush on this city.

Dave is obsessed with fruit and as soon as we dropped our bags off in our rooms he dragged me straight to a bar to grab a Lula Mojito-esque drink.  At breakfast in the morning the hotel laid out a fruit bar which meant Dave was hunched over the breakfast buffet ripping apart random colored fruity victims with childish glee.

Pitahaya. Amazingly looking/tasting fruit which we vacuumed rum into.

Repeatedly pods and bulbs were torn from tree limbs and quickly ingested to sweet satisfaction or rare disgust, quickly followed by,”gaw! That’s disgusting! Quick, try it!”  Thanks Dave, way to sell it.  At one point a fellow guest looked over to see Dave joyfully munching down a flower, violet petals still hanging from his mouth, and let out a laugh, “can you eat those?” Which garnered Dave’s shrug and muffled reply, “does it matter?” In the end about 90% of what Dave handed me was truly delicious and unparalleled in northern produce.  The colors, tastes, textures, and smells could only be found there in Colombia and left us jealously plotting how to get them to our bar.

Our first presentation snuck up on us quickly, and as it turns out using someone elses kitchen using a different language and packed with 40 other chefs can be a nightmare.  We had decided to use local ingredients in all of our demos and cocktails as it would be one of the few times in our lives we would have access to them.  Not knowing the flavors, scents, or textures of any of our ingredients meant having to create new cocktails on the spot.  Not an overwhelming proposition when you know the way around your kitchen like the back of your hand, but when transported to a foreign place where nothing is the same every single step takes triple the time it should.  So as is the fashion when Dave and Tristan are prepping for anything, the 2 hours before our demo were sheer madness.  We worked on every batch of ingredients up until the last 10 seconds before the lecture started with as much focus as could be mustered.  We had no time to prep our luckily beautiful and wonderful (she took the punches like a champ)  interpreter whom I had forgotten would even be necessary.  In the end we landed on stage and taught about centrifuges, liquid nitrogen, and red hot pokers for almost 3 hours, and took away from it the use of 5 new beautiful fruits, but I would be damned if we were as unprepared for the next round of talks.

Our next lecture was the largest and most visible of the week, and I was making damn sure we were going to be prepared.  Prep lists written 3 times and handed out early, order completed on time, long term prep already started the day before, and a schedule the next days events all laid out.  Up at 7 AM to eat breakfast, more continental breakfast fruit lessons from Dave, and then over to the restaurant to start off a day of prepping.  With 200 people, 3 hours of speaking, and 10 cocktails to get out the crowd, we had our work cut out for us.  El Cielo is the leading restaurant in ‘molecular gastronomy’ in Colombia, think the WD-50 of Bogota, and has achieved much acclaim to that end.  The kitchens are white and sterile laboratories which are constantly being cleaned, buffed, and shine, and required us to don full mesh hoods and pristine chef coats.  A rotovap in the corner and a canister of liquid nitrogen strapped to a wall instantly destroyed anything I had assumed about cooking in Bogota, and anything we needed was at hand and ready to go the second we needed it.  I thought we had stepped into a room that would propel our job to the next level with ease, and it might have done just that if we had had any ingredients.

3 hours later and a 5 hours to go until show time we had most of our ingredients sorted out thanks to the help of two brothers who volunteered for our event, heroes, both of them.  Armoring ourselves with mesh helmets we once more dove into the fray.  1 hour in and everything cranking away it looks like we may actually be ready for the night.  1 hour and 5 minutes in we find ourselves sitting at a 12 course 2.5 hour lunch put on by our our gracious host restaurant.  It was not an invitation you refuse, and in spite of our humble apologies and excuses we were plopped down and fed, properly.  We dined with the young head chef and owner, a young man he had befriended and his girlfriend, and this said girlfriend’s mom who was meeting the boyfriend for the first time. We were given course after course which exemplified the techniques that the restaurants style, such as course one: a hand washing of mango puree and salt over a bowl of tapioca beads which you were encouraged to crush to relieve stress.  This was followed by violet smoked gelatin, sweet potato foams, liquid nitrogen ice creams, other interesting bites, a steady stream of Lambrusco, and some interesting family chatting.  After constantly running upstairs to see how the interns were progressing with the juicing and centrifuging, and after our 2nd dessert, we were able to take our leave and use the last hour before the event to freak out and run around like maniacs.  I don’t know how it ever comes together, but somehow it always does.  We were there with a packed room, translator, our drinks, and a worn out team of people all focused on just getting through the next 3 hours, and in what I would have that was less than 10 minutes turned out to be 3 hours and we were done.  We packed up wearily, I looked to our chaperons waiting to get us back to the hotel and said, “we’re going out.”  I grabbed Dave, our translator Luisa, and Monica Hernandez (a new made friend met in Bogota who lives in the West Village?) and we marched into Bogota leaving a worried group of people in our wake.

At this point I was very worn out on niceties, not knowing where I was, and being so scheduled and orchestrated that I need to be out and in the city for a bit.  Luisa was from Bogota and led us to meet her boyfriend at a great Italian place where we finally got to relax and laugh about things other than festival matters.  It was beyond refreshing to hear about life in Colombia from young professional people living there.  It wasn’t a jaded outsiders view and it wasn’t someone trying to sell the city to me, just an honest perspective.  We heard about how dangerous it could be, and the bombs that did go off in the city, but also how wonderful it was to live in a beautiful place.  Like anyplace out there Bogota has its good with its bad.  It’s true you don’t get into a cab in the city as it’s likely something will happen, but it’s also true that if you keep your wits about you than nothing will happen and you will get to enjoy a flowering and beautiful city.  Dave and I left that dinner with lighter shoulders bearing no more responsibilities for the week and the support of new friends in an exciting place.

The next morning we were up early and heading to the airport to make our jump to Armenia, the center of the Colombian coffee industry.  We had been given the choice to fly up to the tropical paradise of Cartagena on the northern coast of the country where tropical beaches and stunning hotels awaited us, but unanimously we decided to head deep into the mountains to stay on a coffee farm.  The small prop plane took us over peaks and then down into bamboo and palm forests where we finally came to rest at a tiny airport.  This is the other side of our trip.  As soon as we got off of the plane I knew this was going to be a change.  This wasn’t the gorgeous hotels, always have a driver, wonderful meals at restaurants Bogota and festival, this was a small hatchback taxi, small road side shanties, and deep tropical forest.  We very carefully got into a taxi after quizzing our driver to the point of making him call our contact in Bogota to verify his ID, and once we were convinced that Abalardo was really our driver, we headed off into the stunningly green world.  So. Damn. Green.  It was foliage on top of foliage.  I was fairly sure Dave was going to have a panic attack because no one could possibly ever try all of the fruit that was so abundantly hanging within arms reach.  We slowly wound through the towns and farms quietly taking in a scene so foreign to us that we had nothing to really talk about.  Occasionally Dave would prompt ask me to ask Abalardo, the legitimate and non-abducting taxi driver, a question about what it was we were seeing, but mostly it was a quiet journey of constant awe.

It took us almost an hour in the car to reach El Delirio de Quindio, the small but beautifully equipped farm house we were housed at.  We were quickly show to our rooms which had only bars for windows, most places barely had walls due to the wonderful climate, where we were able to unpack quickly.  By the time I had my suitcases down and had washed the travel off in a quick shower, Dave had already rounded up our host and had him marching straight into the fores to find fruit to eat.  Upon his return he presented me with pods, berries, flowers, and nuts and simply said, “eat them!”  So we gorged on wild varieties of random fruits all afternoon.  That afternoon we ventured out of our compound towards the small town nearby to find lunch and get some shopping in before returning back to the farm for dinner.  We dined that night with a lovely American family who had moved to Bogota for business, and they entertained us with stories of living in the city and what it was like raising a family there.  Dave and I sent them to bed for the night, grabbed a bottle of Aguardiente (local booooze) and went to town.  After looking over some 80’s cocktail guides, and finishing our bottle, we ourselves meandered towards our rooms.

On my way towards our quarters, which were separate from the house, I encountered a man waiting for me with a machete over his shoulder and a vase of water in his hand.  Late at night, in the middles of real jungle, and with stories of violence swimming around my head this was somewhat of a jolt to the ol’ psyche.  The stranger offered me the water, oh yeah fucking right like I am drinking this rufied water so that you can hack me up with your over sized ‘I’m over compensating for something’ knife, ran through my head, but luckily cooler thoughts voiced themselves, “What the heck is that for!?” came out in broken spanish pointing at the machete.  As it turns out he was there to guard me, “and that’s really necessary?” Hoping the answer to be ‘of course not,’ but instead receiving, “absolutely!”  He planted himself firmly in front of my door.  It was after the perimeter alarm sang for the 3rd time creating barking and frantic feet shuffling that I resigned myself to reading, full well knowing sleep wasn’t going to be visiting me that night.

I studied International Affairs, and for the life of me want to be a Foreign Service Officer, but being in uncertain conditions where you aren’t solidly convinced you are ok will make you reconsider everything.  I slipped out of my room that morning exhausted but happy to see the sun, and realized that I was probably in no real danger at all and if I had marched to bed without ever encountering my faithful guardian I would have slept like a baby.  We sat for breakfast with the visiting family and all recounted similar stories of the previous night, which left me feeling better.  Only looking back on that night can I still say that I would still love to be in foreign service, maybe Prague has a post available?

Although tired I was ready to take on the country side and see what coffee was all about.  We were scooped up by a new driver, Lena, and her son Tomas.  They ushered us to La Recuca de Cafeteras to learn about the coffee making process, which believe it or not Dave Arnold was a whiz at, to the point of receiving a grunting nod of admiration from our tour guide after we picked our berries to be processed into coffee.   Coffee: not easy or fun to make.

It was becoming apparent that we were both starting to feel a little tired after our week and loss of sleep the night before, and we pressed on to the airport with only a quick stop for lunch, refreshments, fishing, meeting the new puppy ‘Estrella’, and to drop off the kids at Lena’s abuelos house.  At the airport we went through another bout of, ‘this is legal and allowed on a plane,’ with security over the red hot pokers and travel centrifuge we were carrying in our bags.  Finally boarding the plane we zipped back to Bogota.  7 hours of roaming the Bogota airport found us crammed into the un-reclining and minuscule last row of our 6 hour flight home.  6 hours later at 7AM I apologetically dislodged my femurs from the back of the row in front of me, and surprisingly ripped through customs.  Falling repeatedly asleep in the cab on the way home, I climbed the stairs to my apartment, and without a single thought, slept.

I woke up in a horrendous way, stomach wrecked, body stiff and weak, and unable to eat.  What happened I can only guess is hangover from 60 hours with no sleep and hectic travel, at least it has allowed me to stay home and eject from my body these memories.  Colombia, it is an awesome place which deserves respect.  When left alone to normal life I was only awed by how exquisite the landscape was and its bountiful offerings, I felt safe and warmly welcomed by the truly gorgeous people.  This country has been safe for a decade now, secured and policed, only old habits of maintaining over the top security reminds you that it once was a place unsafe to travel.  If you have the chance, go and take in the produce, the people, and culture, but go without bias and let the cities and country speak for itself rather than outdated words from the unknowing observers.

A Quick Chat with Helen Hollyman

Here is a quick chat with Helen on her radio show, U Look Hungry.  For whatever reason I can chat up a bar all night long but aim a microphone or camera at me and like kryptonite, frozen.  Luckily Helen is a wonderful host and kept me from tripping up too much, also the bourbon helped.

http://www.heritageradionetwork.com/episodes/2917-U-Look-Hungry-Episode-50-Tristan-Willey-of-Booker-and-Dax