Acacias and the inevitability of aguardiente

If there’s one thing I’ve learnt during my time in Colombia, it’s that sometimes aguardiente is simply unavoidable. Occasionally you can get away with excuses such as “I’ve got to be up early tomorrow” “I’m on medication and can’t drink” or by desperately shouting “NO.” However, aguardiente is more than just a drink (and Colombia’s national drink at that – which alone is enough to make people delight in forcing it upon helpless foreigners). Aguardiente, or “guaro” as it is affectionately referred to by some, is a unifier, enjoying equal popularity among the rich and the poor, the old and the young in every corner of this humongous country. Unlike drinking in the UK, in which people usually buy and consume their own alcohol, aguardiente is very much a group event and is shared out among friends, family and often just random strangers who happen to be nearby… Similarly, there is no single drink in the UK that is so universally liked and representative of the nation as aguardiente is of Colombia. More than anything, drinking it is almost a source of national pride and celebration of Colombia and that joyful, happy-go-lucky Colombian spirit. Aguardiente Antioqueña proudly brands itself as “the best of Colombia for the world” …

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The word aguardiente comes from Latin and means hot water, or fire water. I can confirm that the drink itself very much embodies this name. It is made of distilled sugar cane molasses, anise and water. As opposed to being sweet, as one might foolishly imagine, it is overly reminiscent of sambuca, hence my problem. You can put it in coffee, aguapanela, and many other things, however it is most commonly consumed in shot form, washed down with several (desperate) gulps of water.

There are many things that I’ve grown to love during my stay in Colombia that at first seemed odd beyond belief. These include the bocadillo and cheese combo, aguapanela (aka sugar water) and arepas (yes, even arepas), however I am afraid that aguardiente is NOT one of them, nor is it ever likely to become one. Nowhere have I learnt this truth quite so painfully as in Acacias, Meta…

As usual, this blog is a tad late, so we’re going to back-track to the end of March… After my Easter holiday plans decided to unplan themselves, Fayida and I took a spontaneous trip to Acacias, in the Meta department, with my housemate Silvana who has family there.

Acacias is a beautiful little town a 3-4 hour bus journey south-west of Bogota and is part of the Llanos Orientales. It is a quaint, tranquil and ridiculously hot kind of place with unbelieveably green and vibrant countryside and a sky that seems to stretch on forever. Due to the incredible heat our day-time activities consisted of lazying around and going for a dip in the nearby river. However, in the evenings we went to the park in the centre of the town and spent a happy few hours wandering around, people watching and sampling one of the weirdest fruit salads I’ve ever encountered. It’s called a cholao and is made of about 50 ingredients (I’m not joking, the process of assembling it took about 5 minutes). It typically consists of crushed ice, many different flavoured syrups, lots of different fruit (papaya, banana, passion fruit, apple, mango, lulo, guanabana), ice-cream, condensed milk, cheese, hot chocolate powder, chocolate sauce, a wafer and probably many other things. Really makes you think to yourself, “how on earth did they come up with this?”

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The most typical food from the area is called Mamona (essentially grilled veal). I can’t comment on it as I did not try it, which everyone I have spoken to since seemed fairly scandalised by. The most typical music is Joropo, which involves a harp and an incredibly complicated dance, as you can see below.

As the title suggests, the most memorable (or not, as it happens) part of my stay in Acacias was sampling aguardiente llanero. I have a sneaking suspicion that this particular type of aguardiente is much stronger than the regular one. We proceeded to drink it in true Colombian fashion, seated around a table in a little bar with a shot glass each. Unfortunately for me, said shots were poured at a alarming pace and after muddling my way through several salsa songs it was safe to say I’d had more than my fair share. My night ended with rather exhilarating motorbike journey back to Silvana’s house in the early hours. Unfortunately the following day was not nearly so enjoyable.

And the moral of the story is… avoid aguardiente at all costs.

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Beautiful Acacias!

 

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Carnival Craziness

At the start of February I returned once more to the city of Barranquilla, this time to experience one of the most important dates in the Colombian calender: Carnival!

I flew to Barranquilla a few days before the carnival began with my housemates and a few other friends. Conveniently, my housemate Silvana is from Barranquilla and her family very kindly allowed us to stay in their home. We had a relaxing first day chilling on a beach near the city. It bears mentioning that Barranquilla is an incredibly hot place. Whilst I freely admit that I am not particularly good at dealing with such places (understatement), one of the things I like most about them is how life completely changes: it’s practically impossible to be stressed or to rush when you run the risk of melting from the exertion.

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In the evening we went to the Plaza del Caribe to a free concert called “Noches del Rio,” celebrating the start of the carnival and music from around the Magdalena River, and indeed, the whole world. One of the things I like most about Colombia is how important traditional music continues to be, regardless of age, and how much it varies according to region.

Undeniable proof that carnival is so much more that the parades are the street parties. On Friday evening we went to one such party (two actually) in the centre of the city. I was initially somewhat confused as to why we were going to a random street, but it soon became clear enough. Music was playing, the aguardiente was flowing (woo..) and a plentiful supply of flour and foam spray could also be obtained. Soon enough everyone in the vicinity was all but unrecognisable, covered in a sticky mixture of flour and foam, laughably drunk and happily dancing to the music. There was such a contagious, carefree buzz in the air among the hundreds of people packed in the streets, that I was left convinced of the following; parties where you can unashamedly squirt people with foam, bombard them with flour and drink 20 p beers are my kind of parties.

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After a few hours we went in search of food and found ourselves a rather yummy chuso desgranado. This is a very typical Barranquilla thing and one that consists of meat, lettuce, tiny crisps called “fóforos,” sweetcorn, costeño cheese (aka the best Colombian cheese I have come across thus far) a whole host of sauces (tomato, mayonnaise, pineapple…) and a very hard-to-describe thing called bollo (google it). It’s nicer than it sounds and looks.

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We soon moved onto our second street party of the night, outside the iconic Troja salsa bar, where we bumped into the rest of the British Council assistants. We spent a few hours dancing in the streets, which were still full to bursting with party-goers. We were, however, forced to make a move in the early hours, after quite hilariously discovering that one of our party had consumed rather more than their fair share of aguardiente…

On Saturday the carnival parades kicked off. After a mad rush to make it to the stands by 11 am and a heated discussion with a guard who responded to our question as to why our seats were already taken with a, “they always sell more tickets that seats” (genius), we then waited a good hour for the procession to actually begin. Ahh Colombia…

The first parade is called the “Batalla de Flores,” and it was very much worth the wait! As its name suggests, there was rather a lot of flower throwing going on. Needless to say, my only “carnival” experience up until this point (Frome Carnival) left me wholly unprepared for the intensity and duration of Barranquilla Carnival. The parade was full of all manner of costumes (I particularly enjoyed the women dancing whilst balancing aguardiente on their heads) and a huge variety of dance groups called “comparsas” – the 20 or so members of one such group were ALL dressed as gorillas, which, in the baking heat of Barranquilla was impressive in itself. There was also a questionable amount of blacking up, as well as half-naked women, carnations being thrown in all directions and a baffling number of carnival queens. It seemed like every company or organisation present had one; supermarkets, mobile phone companies, newspapers, beer brands, even the bloody police! Over the following days the parades were equally crazy – it was all enough to make Frome Carnival rather pale in comparison…

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A important part of carnival are the various characters that accompany it, a wacky mix of inexplicable creations. One of the most iconic is the “Marimonda.” Originally a joke intended to mock the rich and make them feel uncomfortable, it turned into a popular symbol. It is said to have been created by a Barranquillero who couldn’t afford a costume and it consists of wearing a brightly coloured mask that bears a strong resemblance to  a penis, with the craziest, most clown-esque clothes you possess. Worn back to front, of course.

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Another well known character is the “Negrita Puloy,” a black woman wearing a frilly red and white dress, with big necklaces and earrings.

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The “Maria Moñitos” is another face that makes a regular appearance. This costume took off after one Barranquillero entered the parade with hundreds of brightly coloured ribbons woven into his hair, a face full of make up, high heels and a brightly coloured party dress, perfectly encapsulating the happiness, audacity and “mamadera de gallo” the Costeño people are renowned for.

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I will now leave you with what was undoubtedly the most played song during the carnival. This kind of music is called Champeta. It’s from Cartagena, a coastal city in the north of Colombia, and is ridiculously catchy. The song essentially describe a upper class woman (posh being “pupi”) who didn’t used to like Champeta, as she considers it “coleta” (chavy). She then gets sucked into a TV, dances Champeta and becomes la Pupileta. Obviously.

The following video was the official carnival video last year and features the then carnival queen. It’s a somewhat odd video that illustrates the carnival timeline, as well as many carnival characters. On the first day of the parades the human embodiment of the carnival spirit, Joselito Carnaval, is brought back to life and the celebrations begin. The parade on the fourth and final day of carnival is known as the “Muerte de Joselito,” his death symbolising the end of the celebrations for another year.

 

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The Joys of Santa Marta

(From the beginning of January – I am impressively behind)

After we returned from Valledupar, Sovio and I spent a few days chilling in Barranquilla, getting to know the city a bit better and visiting all the touristy spots and museums. I will be describing Barranquilla itself in more detail in my next post, so for now I’m going to focus on a trip we took to Santa Marta and Minca.

Santa Marta is a city about 1-1.30 hours from Barranquilla and near to it is Tayrona Park, an enormous national park with a visitable tourist area complete with campsites, walking routes and restaurants. We took the earliest bus to Santa Marta and from there we got a taxi to Tayrona. It turns out they stop letting people in at around 11am, when the park quotas are “full”, so we were among the lucky few who just made it! Our plan to avoid paying an extortionate amount for food/water once inside meant we ended up lugging a huge six litre bottle of water through the jungle and surviving on an odd diet of biscuits, bread and tinned goods whilst there. Luckily, there are lots of little shops at the entrance where you can buy such things. Much to my anger, my Colombian foreign ID card wasn’t deemed sufficient proof of my residence in the country, meaning I had to pay the special (extortionate) foreigners’s fee (15 vs 50 pesos).

Once inside we got a shuttle bus until the road ended, then, after mistakenly taking a path that led us in a massive circle for a good hour, we found the route and began the two hour walk to the first beach, Arrecifes. We continued on to the furthest and best beach, Cabo San Juan, only to be told that they had no more tents to rent, so had to trek back to Arrecifes. My advice – get there early! We had a little swim before heading back to the first beach, and it was BEAUTIFUL.

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The adverse effects of the heat

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Cabo San Juan

The following day we got up early to watch the sunrise on the beach. It was definitely one of those “am I really here?” moments. The peace and tranquillity of the moment was broken only by the waves crashing against the shore.

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For me the words “national park” conjure up images of vast, empty and isolated landscapes, so the park was much livelier and more touristy than I was expecting. From what I can remember they let in about 1000 people a day and there are several restaurants inside and an unfortunate amount of litter. In short, it’s a far cry from the Lake District.

We decided to do the trek to “Pueblito”, a small indigenous settlement belonging to the Kogui people, the descendants of the Tayronas who once lived in the area. The walk lasted about an hour and a half, climbing 260 metres above sea level. It was formed mostly of huuuuge rocks and boulders, making it more of a case of leaping from rock to rock than a simple climb; quite the adventure! The route was incredible. Everything felt huge and we saw all sorts of different plants, birds, butterflies and innumerable strange little blue-tailed lizards. The place just felt so full of life, with any number of weird and wonderful sights to be discovered around the corner. Pueblito itself was composed of four or five wooden huts constructed on what remains of the ancient Tayrona site. It wasn’t exactly anti-climatic, rather the whole idea of an “Indian village” for tourists to visit seems highly questionable to me. The enormity of the climb made it more than worth it in the end though.

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The following day we left the Parque Tayrona and made our way to what is, without doubt, one of the best places I’ve visited in Colombia so far; a small town called Minca, up in the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta. Upon arrival, very hot and bothered, we were less than impressed with the 210 stairs up to our hostel, but it was definitely worth the climb. At 650 m above sea level I found the climate in Minca to be much more acceptable. The hostel, Casa Loma, was really quirky and homey, high up in the hills with amazing views over the pueblo. Lounging in the hammocks you could look out across the mountains and take in the beautiful sunset, a situation that was made all the more enjoyable with passionfruit mojitos. We stayed in a little cabaña hidden in the trees and woke up refreshed and eager to explore.

IMG_3433We set off fairly early on a hike to Los Piños – a viewpoint up in the Sierra Nevada – armed with a dubious hand-drawn and very out of scale map provided by the hostel. You can see where this is going… We got off to a flying start and soon made it to some stunning waterfalls, where Sovio was brave enough to go for a swim (they were FREEZING). The route was incredibly beautiful, so green and vibrant and the kind of place that just makes you feel more alive for being there. The way was filled with enormous bamboos as big as a small house, and all kinds of plants, vines and colourful butterflies. After the sprawl of Bogotá it was fairly surreal.

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The long and short of the story is that after the waterfalls we somehow managed to miss the shorter footpath, and instead continued climbing for hours along the “main road.” Some helpful people in a hostel pointed us in the right direction and we eventually made it to Los Piños. Despite the heat and the difficulty of the climb it was well worth it!!

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We hadn’t initially planned to go to Minca, but I’m so glad we did. Despite it being a small town, I could’ve easily stayed a few days or weeks longer. Though Minca is fairly touristy – I saw almost as many French people as I did cats, and believe me, there was a disproportionately high number of cats – it still has its particular charm. The centre or “plaza” (for those generous enough to refer to it as such) felt like that of any other small town, aside from the handful of hostels scattered among the greengrocers, bakeries and cafes. If I’ve learnt one thing during my stay in Colombia, it is that I am NOT a city person.

Unfortunately, thanks to our detour it was late afternoon by the time we reached the viewpoint, meaning that we had to literally run back down the mountain (having successfully located the mystery footpath) in order to make it back in time to take a taxi to Santa Marta, and from there the bus to Barranquilla.

All in all I had a marvellous few days and strongly encourage anyone so minded to visit this incredible corner of the world.

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A Reflection on International Women’s Day

(I wrote this post a good fortnight ago…Punctuality is very far from being my forté)

Today, the 8th March, is International Women’s Day. To be perfectly honest, it’s not a key date in my calendar and not something I would’ve remembered if it weren’t for the fact that it’s everywhere on social media – even Facebook is asking me how I’m celebrating…

Here in Colombia, I can only come to the conclusion that International Women’s Day has been seriously misinterpreted. Today, upon entering my English class at 8 am I was greeted by many a “Feliz Día de la Mujer teacher!” much to my confusion. Later on in the staff room I was given sweets by no fewer than five people, also wishing me a happy Women’s Day. I was sent numerous whatsapp messages with brightly coloured, sickly-sweet cartoons repeating the above, to which I responded with a bewildered “gracias!” Upon leaving university I saw many schoolgirls carrying roses or chocolates – Women’s Day gifts. In my dance class all female members were given a rose. As if it were an excuse to repeat the same commercialised horror that is Valentine’s Day. In short; it’s not.

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“Women are exceptional… They are as strong as an oak, they attract everyone’s attention, they have the courage of a knight and a contagious sweetness, they are so beautiful and we love them so much that we celebrate a day especially for them”

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“Happy Women’s Day, because women like you make life lovelier”

I understand that different cultures have very distinct ways of marking celebrations, yet in my interpretation (and I’m very aware that it is nothing more than that; an interpretation) International Women’s Day has nothing to do with the above. Converting it into little more than another field day for modern commercialism, to celebrate the simple fact that a given person identifies as female, is to do a grave injustice to an event that is still of vital importance today.

To me this does not seem to be a simple case of an alternative way of celebrating the day, but rather a complete contradiction of its focus and principles, i.e. gender equality. Granted, at first glance they seem harmless enough, but messages such as the ones above do much to further emphasise the supposed differences between men and women. Interpreting qualities such as “loving,” “sweet” and “beautiful” as principally female traits, as opposed to what they really are – HUMAN characteristics – further separates men and women. It reinforces stereotypes that have limited both sexes to rigid categories since the dawn of time and promotes the idea of gender as an inherent quality, as opposed to what it truly is, a societal construct.

It’s like saying let’s celebrate women’s emancipation and progress by giving them all these very stereotypical and gender specific gifts and compliments… On the surface it may seem cute and harmless, but that’s the very problem: trivialisation serves to make this day meaningless, at the same time as aiding a subtle, (and probably wholly unintentional) current of sexism.

My disquiet at the above interpretation inspired me to investigate the history of International Women’s Day and what it’s really about. It all began in the early 1900s with various protests and marches in the US against women’s oppression; in 1908 15 000 women marched through New York demanding shorter hours, better pay and voting rights. Women’s Day was observed nationally the following year. International Women’s Day was born a year later and marked in various European countries. The New York “Triangle Fire,” in which over 140 women died trapped in a factory, is widely believed to be the event that catalysed International Women’s Day, drawing attention to women’s working conditions and rights. International Women’s Day became increasingly important and more widely celebrated over the following years. In 1913 the date was changed to the 8th March and has remained the same ever since. One of the main original focuses of the day was the granting of universal suffrage and over the years the day has adopted different emphases: a world free of violence against women, empower rural women, women in decision making etc. Though many nowadays (erroneously) believe that feminism’s cause has been won, IWD is still observed to both celebrate women’s achievements and illustrate the many issues they still face, such as unequal pay and the overwhelming dominance of men in politics and business.

International Women’s Day was seen as a necessity in order to raise the profile of women’s rights and support the struggle of oppressed women worldwide. This event was considered essential back in 1909, and it is a struggle that is, in my opinion, unfortunately just as relevant, important and necessary today, and one that must seek to avoid a misinterpreted and wholly commercialised fate.

So, instead of using International Women’s Day as an occasion to congratulate me on my gender (thanks…) or overlooking it entirely, I wholeheartedly urge all people to interpret it as a day to reflect on how they can act to promote gender equality in their own lives, because after all, sexism is not simply a women’s issue.

“I raise up my voice—not so I can shout, but so that those without a voice can be heard…we cannot succeed when half of us are held back.” ―Malala Yousafzai

 

 

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10 reasons Mexican food is the best food EVER

Having recently gone back to Mexico for two weeks at Christmas I was reminded of one of the reasons I fell in love with the country when I went for the first time two years ago; the food. During my stay I quickly reached the conclusion that anyone who hasn’t tried real, authentic Mexican food hasn’t lived. Forget about burritos, fajitas and chilli con carne, proper Mexican food is crazier and more varied than you could ever imagine. So, in no particular order, I bring you my top 10 reasons Mexican food is the best food EVER.

  1. Everything is fresh

Unlike the UK, in Mexico bakeries, greengrocers and butchers are still the norm, as opposed to mile long, plastic filled supermarkets. Obviously they also exist, as much as anywhere else, however what’s different is that they are generally less popular (and more expensive) than the above options. In my opinion, in this aspect the UK has a lot to learn. Here, there are bakeries on every other street, where you can literally watch them baking the bread, and it’s better, fresher and cheaper than anything you’ll find anywhere else!

What’s more, in Mexico old-style open markets are still big business; huge warehouse buildings with hundreds of individual stalls selling everything from dairy products, fruit and veg and meat to flowers, herbs and spices and craft work. Infinitely more fun than Walmart.

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  1. Mole

Mole truly is a wonderful thing, and in this context, not a small burrowing animal. There are infinite reasons as to why mole is so great. In essence, it’s a sauce with countless ingredients (chilli, tomatoes, herbs, spices, nuts, onion, garlic, sometimes even chocolate makes an appearance). It comes from Oaxaca, in the south of Mexico (famous for it’s 7 moles http://www.foodrepublic.com/2012/08/15/the-7-moles-of-oaxaca/) and can be found in a variety of colours and intensities. It can be eaten with rice, tamales (see next point), enchiladas…the possibilities really are endless.

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  1. Tamales

Tamales can be found in many Latin American countries, but, in my incredibly biased opinion, you simply can’t beat a Mexican tamal.

Tamales are usually eaten for breakfast. They are made from maize flour mixed with butter and whatever flavour your heart desires (lime and currants, strawberry, chicken and green salsa, beans, mole, literally, anything goes). This dough is then carefully wrapped in a maize leaf and steamed for about an hour – and it’s as simple as that!

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  1. Street food

The huge variety of street food in Mexico really is incredible. You can find everything from tacos, quesadillas, gorditas and pambazos (google them) to esquites, elotes, churros and all kinds of fruits. Street food usually comes with fairly negative connotations and a niggling fear of food poisoning. It’s a last resort. However, Mexico is an exception to this rule; in Mexico street food is the cheapest and it’s often the best! What’s more, in Mexico it is all but impossible to be unable to locate food, since on almost every corner you are guaranteed to come across someone selling something yummy.

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  1. Regional varieties

This is probably due to the size of Mexico in comparison to the UK (it is the 14th largest country in the world, after all), but something I really love about Mexican food is just how much it varies by region, and how certain foods can only be found in the region in which they are produced. For example, Toluca is known for its green chorizo (not sure why that was considered a good idea), fried grasshoppers are a Oaxacan delicacy and seafood is usually only eaten by the coast.

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  1. You can eat chilli with EVERYTHING

This is no exaggeration. I have seen foods I previously thought impossible to be eaten with chilli being liberally sprinkled with the stuff. In Mexico, fruit is often covered in chilli, you can buy chilli sweets, and a Mexican michelada cubana is a drink involving beer, lime juice, clamato (clam and tomato juice), chilli and tabasco, with chilli sprinkled around the rim. Chilli crisps, chilli scrambled eggs, chilli icecream, chilli popcorn… You get the gist.

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  1. But you don’t HAVE to 

Mexican food is obviously well known for being incredibly hot, yet what people don’t realise is that there are a lot of dishes that aren’t inherently so, rather, you add the heat to them. For example, tacos are always served with a selection of salsas for you to add as much or as little as you like. On that note, Mexicans have an unhealthy obsession with something called salsa Valentina, a spicy chilli sauce used to drown all manner of snacks.

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  1. If you want to, you can do it

This is more of a reflection on Mexican society than specifically on its cuisine, but one of the things that I most like about this country is the freedom (in certain aspects) that people have, and the enterprising attitude you are frequently met with here. For example, if you want to make your own ice cream and cycle round the neighbourhood selling it from a cooler box on your tricycle, there’s no one stopping you.

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  1. Tortillas

Tortillas are like the potato of Mexico. They are its staple. And, much like the potato, they can be consumed in an endless number of ways; filled with meat (tacos), rolled up and covered in sauce (enchiladas), cut up into nachos, fried and covered in sauce (chilaquiles), filled and fried (flautas). As well as this, they accompany most meals, essentially allowing you to make a rudimentary sandwich out of whatever you happen to be eating.

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10. The variety of alcoholic beverages 

Obviously, when you think of Mexico and alcohol, you inevitably think of tequila and corona. However, you would be sadly mistaken in thinking that Mexican cactus based spirits stop at a bottle of Jose Cuervo. Very wrong indeed. Mezcal is the name of another (equally horrible) spirit made from fermented agave. But, instead of being served with salt and lime, you often do shots of mezcal with a slice of orange and what can only be described as crushed worm salt (yum). In addition to Mezcal, Mexico is famous for its pulque. Whilst pulque is also made from cactus, unlike tequila and mezcal it has a cloudy appearance and, in my opinion (I’ve been loudly contradicted), is ever so slightly reminiscent of vinegar… Like most alcohols, after a few sips it’s not so bad, but it’s an acquired taste to say the least. It can, however, be found in a variety of flavours that help to make it rather enjoyable!

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Mezcal!

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Tomato and peach flavour pulque

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Home

Today I woke up pondering that perfect crisp and green smell of 7 am on a bright, cloud free morning in the countryside after it’s been raining all through the night, yet it’s still too early for the sun to have dried everything up again, leaving that inimitable after-rain smell of vitality and awakening and the promise of a good day to come. It’s a very precise feeling.

This burst of nostalgia inspired me to put pen to paper (or in this case finger to keyboard) in an attempt to describe all those indescribable feelings, smells, sounds and moments that I associate with England and that come with that fleeting sense of déjà- vu, making me long for home more than anything.

Right now in Bogotá the weather does feel somewhat home-like. There’s that familiar cool breeze and the sky is looking particularly overcast. I never would’ve thought it possible to long quite so much for a grey, drizzly, rain-filled day, in which you’ve no option but to sit curled up on the sofa with a nice hot cuppa and a digestive biscuit, but, apparently, depriving an English person of this most mundane of situations for six months leads to its becoming all they could wish for, all the more so in climate-less Bogotá. A bit of variety is all I’m asking for.

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Whenever I’ve thought of home over the last few months and what it is that I miss about it (other than the obvious; family, friends and Freddy) it’s always impossible to quite put my finger on it; a haphazard assortment of random, unrelated things that pop into my head…

I miss cycling full-speed in the pouring rain, reveling in the fact that getting absolutely bloody soaked is all but inevitable. I miss crumpets toasted on an open fire, dripping with (REAL) butter and mum’s home-made blackcurrant jam. I miss silly drinking games and the sickly-sweet, vomit-inducing aroma of a jesticle. I miss cheese. I miss the ritual of tea, and the shocking obstinacy with which some people (my mum) insist that their way is the best (only) way to make it. I miss the smell of green fields and farms. Some days there’s nothing I’d rather do than go and lie in a field (the farmer’s daughter in me had to come out eventually, right?) I miss the silence of the countryside.

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I miss the silly in-jokes and made up words you share with the friends who’ve known you for years. I miss other people’s habits that previously annoyed me no end (i.e. the constant noise of living in a house full of singers) that I now look back on with a fond resentment and a little smile to myself. I miss staying in and putting the world to rights over a bottle of wine with one of the people I love best. I miss fish and chips at the seaside. I miss the inevitable Saturday routine of charity shopping with mum. I miss winding, narrow country lanes. I miss huddling around (or literally sitting on) the wood-burning stove in the depths of winter because it’s too cold to venture into the rest of the house. I miss that satisfying feeling of stepping on a day old cow pat (in wellies) or a particularly crunchy looking leaf.

IMG_0658I miss the perception of the humble cup of tea as a solution to all life’s problems, big or small (it really does work). I miss the frequent incomprehensibility of my grandfather’s accent. I miss recycling. I miss the smell of washing just brought in from the line on a particularly blustery day. I miss pretending that it’s warm enough and entirely feasible to have a BBQ in March. I miss spontaneous baking.

It’s amazing how being removed from a place for an extended period of time and having to get used to a very unfamiliar situation (i.e. the never-ending urban sprawl that is Bogotá) makes you able to perceive and fully appreciate the importance of those mundane and unremarkable concepts you have of the place you call home, that otherwise go wholly unnoticed.

It bears mentioning that, though it may appear otherwise in light of the above, I am NOT having a terrible time here in this crazy city. I’m sure that when I leave and wake up in rainy old England six months down the line, I will have many an uncapturable memory, indescribable smell or moment to ponder in nostalgic reminiscence.

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Valledupar: Colombia’s Vallenato Capital

After returning from Mexico at the beginning of January, I took a flight to the city of Barranquilla on Colombia’s Caribbean coast to stay for two weeks with my friend Sovio and his family. Barranquilla is the fourth biggest city in Colombia and is famous for its carnival in February, which I will soon be writing all about! We went on several trips from Barranquilla to nearby destinations, the first of which was to the city of Valledupar (capital of the Cesar region), a 4 hour bus ride south east of Barranquilla.

First things first, Valledupar is HOT. This meant that one of the first things we decided to do was go for a swim in the river Guatapurí, where we spent a happy few hours splashing around with the hundreds of other people who were there.

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The river was followed by a trip to the nearest shopping centre. It was in Valledupar that I came to the realisation that in Colombia going to shopping centres is considered a fun activity by a fair few people, as opposed to a chore. I think in this case air con was the pretext, but even so…

For dinner we went to a place called Jerry’s where we shared an ENORMOUS four-person salchipapas (basically sausages and chips), with the usual questionable “meat.” Seriously considering going veggie… This was followed by a wander around Valledupar’s central plaza, where I tried my first raspado (crushed ice with a flavoured syrup poured over). It was odd but not terrible. The plaza was still lively and full of families walking around even late into the evening – probably due to the unbearable heat during the day – so it was lovely to chill and soak up the atmosphere.

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Valledupar is famous for being the birthplace of a musical genre called vallenato, a traditional style of music that is extremely popular on the Caribbean coast of Colombia and is characterised by the use of three instruments: a small drum called a caja vallenata, a percussion instrument called a guacharaca and the accordion.

Vallenato is believed to have originated in the songs travelling singer sang as they went from town to town throughout the region. Like medieval minstrels, these were songs they composed to relate news from their towns, their sorrows and joys, as well as personal anecdotes or to express their love for a woman. Vallenato is considered so important that UNESCO have named it an “Intangible Cultural Heritage in Need of Urgent Safeguarding,” whatever that entails…

Whilst we were in Valledupar it was the city’s 466th birthday, and what better way to celebrate the occasion than with an enormous, free vallenato concert? This took place in the Parque de la Leyenda Vallenata and was attended by a whole host of well-known vallenato artists. Obtaining tickets for said concert turned out to be a bit of a pickle, and one that saw us queuing in the baking heat for a good few hours, only to later be offered tickets by everyone and their aunt… The concert turned out to be veeeeery very long indeed, with artists such as Kvrass, Silvestre Dangond and Martín Elias. It goes without saying that after FIVE HOURS of non-stop vallenato and more hunger than I would’ve imagined possible, I was no longer quite so enthusiastic. According to my friend Sovio there are two types of vallenato, the old traditional kind, and the “new wave.” To allow those of you who have not yet come across vallenato to make up your own minds, here is a link to a popular (and in my opinion somewhat annoying) example of  new wave vallenato:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gE3R582ADF0

And here is an example of something a little more traditional:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bMFd54rgBMk

To be perfectly honest, there’s not an awful lot to do or visit in Valledupar, but I felt our little trip was just long enough to get a feel for the place and find out more about the style of music for which it is famous.

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Group photo with “La Pilonera Mayor”

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