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.

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