Nostalgic nibbles, from A to Z…
A is for ARROZ CON LECHE. This man spent his evenings wheeling his cart up and down the waterfront walkway in Santa Marta. He would yell, “Arroz con Leche” in a low, twangy voice, slurring the words together so they sounded more like, “ArrozcolecheeeeArrozcolecheeee!” I bought a cup for dessert. He ladled it from the depths of the cart and into a small plastic cup. It was warm and wonderful, laced with cinnamon and sugary sweetness.
B is for BANDEJA PAISA. It has been declared Colombia’s national dish. It consists of finely ground beef, beans, fried plantain, rice, egg, avocado and arepa, and comes with a few different salsas on the side. It is a culinary rite of passage. And gut-buster.
F is for FRUIT. There is an astonishing array of tropical fruit in Colombia. The usual suspects – pineapple, mango, papaya, guava, mandarin and banana. There’s also fruit I’d never heard of – maracuya and granadilla (both passion fruits), tomate de arbol, guanabana and lulo. All so good. I bought my fruit from this woman each morning in Cartagena. She called me “Mami.”
G is for GUARDIA. There was a massive military presence in Colombia. Our first full day in Bogota, Lizzy, Ellie and I walked the city in search of a good viewpoint. We ran into a small army of these guys just hanging out. They wanted their photo taken with the “Rubias.” Por que no?
H is for HOME. Fortunately, a very temporary home. Not that I mind sleeping in a tent. I usually really enjoy it. But this tent was an exception. It was by far the most uncomfortable tent I’ve ever slept in. It was built for two – there were three of us. There was almost no ventilation – it was at least 90 degrees at night and about 80 percent humidity. There were holes in the sides – the mosquitoes were fierce. There were pads on the ground – lumpy and damp. How did we possibly sleep in this little place we called home, you ask? We covered ourselves in deet and swigged rum until we fell asleep.
J is for JUAN and NATALIA. They were the most incredible hosts. I had a few days alone in Bogota before I flew back to San Francisco. They showed me a side of the city I never would have discovered on my own. This shot is overlooking Bogota. The photo doesn’t do justice to its massive, sprawling scale. 8.5 million people live there.
K is for KITCHEN. This one in particular was located on a small beach just outside of Taganga. The specialty was pan-fried fish over an open flame, served with a wedge of lime, patacon (fried plantains) and arroz con coco. I had the fish soup in a giant bowl. So good.
M is for MANGO. Mango might be my favorite fruit. Perfumed perfection. I ate mine with a squeeze of fresh lime. In Colombia, it’s common to eat green mango with salt. I did once, on accident. It won’t happen again.
N is for NUN. Fernando Botero, the famous painter who draws figures that tend to look rather largeandincharge, is Colombian. He has a style completely his own and I like it. Freddy does too. He bought a Botero print of a nun in a blue and white dress.
O is for OLD CARTAGENA. Old Cartagena is contained within 13 kilometers of colonial stone walls, originally built to keep pirates at bay. It’s a Unesco World Heritage site where horse-drawn carriages clickclack down the cobbled streets, grand balconies overflow with Bougainvillea, and both pigeons and people seek shade and snacks in the plazas.
P is for PIZZA EN PLAZA FERNANDEZ MADRID. On Freddy’s last full day in Colombia, we decided on pizza in the park for dinner. We weren’t expecting it to taste good, but it was quick, cheap and across the street from our hotel. Surpresa of all supresas, it was damn good. I got green apple, onion and blue cheese on top of my pie. Gourmet!
Q is for QUESO. Colombians love cheese. It’s in everything. I am stating this as simple fact, although I also happen to think it’s brilliant. Colombians go so far as to drink hot chocolate with cheese, dunking small squares into the cup or just dropping fresh curds in and letting them melt. They also eat arepas con queso – gooeymelty cheese encased in warmsoftcrisp cornmeal. The particular arepa above was the best I had in all of Colombia. Hot off the griddle and oozing cheese.
R is for ROAD LESS TRAVELED. There seemed to be an astounding shortage of tourists in Colombia. I was expecting more. Way more. I liked it just the way it was. Authentic. I was grateful for the little bits of Spanish that tumbled around on my tongue and managed to be understood. I would have felt lost without it.
T is for TAYRONA. Parque Nacional Natural Tayrona sits at the northern tip of Colombia. We bused it to the park entrance from Santa Marta, walked on the only road through thick jungle for almost three hours, and arrived here at sunset. Beachfront paradise.
U is for UNDER THE SEA. Fish, shrimp, prawns and squid are the building blocks of Colombian’s coastal cuisine. Fish is usually selected pre-fry from a plate (resembling a silver platter, close but not quite). Cost depends on size and type. It comes with platacon, arroz con coco and ensalada. The fish on the left would run about 20,000 pesos ($10), with all the fixings.
W is for WOULD YOU RATHER. Freddy and I played this game. All the time. Would you rather get captured by guerrillas and be forced to live in this dark underground tunnel (with bats) or in the jungle (with bugs) for two weeks? Seriously, this is not an easy question to answer. Pick jungle and it’s probably easier to escape but I’d be eaten alive by mosquitoes and could die from Dengue. Pick tunnel and it’s cooler, but there’s almost zero chance of escape and I’d run the risk of getting bats tangled in my hair.
X is for X MARKS THE SPOT. Where slaves arrived from Africa to be bought and sold in Plaza de los Coches. Cartagena was South America’s principal slave-trading port. Now this plaza is lined with stands selling homemade candies. From slaves to sweets.
Y is for YUCCA. Yucca fries, arroz con coco, fish and calamari. A typical coastal lunch.
Z is for ZIPPY. Okay, Z is a difficult letter in this alphabetic tale so this is a bit of a stretch. Zippy is not her name but it should be. She was a firecracker of a lady. All 4’8″ of her. I asked her, “Puedo sacar un foto de Usted?” She frowned and shrugged, so I snapped a picture. Then she demanded that I buy her a coffee and bread. I liked her zip, so off we went in search of a snack. Zippy settled on a small paper bag filled with an exotic fruit I’d never heard of, peeled and sprinkled with salt and honey. Ellie held her cotton candy stick for a moment while Zippy grabbed her snack. Then off we went on our separate ways…