Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Gabe + Art (Tuesday, March 23)

Museo de Arte Moderno La Tertulia, Cali, Colombia.

Pura Salsa (Monday, March 22)

So we came to Cali for the salsa. There's not a ton to see or do around here during the days, as the culture is really built around the nightlife. And oh, what a nightlife.

Monday night we went with a few of the other kids at the hostel to Las Brisas, one of the biggest, hottest salsa clubs in town. After a 30-minute cab ride (a hefty 9 USD) we suddenly pull off the side of the highway. We're here.

After a quick pat down by security, we're led inside to a table with plastic chairs about 10 feet from the dance floor. The waiter gets us a bottle of rum and a pitcher of sour lemonade, a bunch of plastic shot glasses, and we're off. The music is infectious. An hour later we are sweaty, drunk, happy.

There are asses being shook everywhere, and I mean SHOOK. It's amazing what women do to accentuate their bodies here, including all manner of ruffles, cutouts, and a level of skin-tightedness I would imagine is verrrrrry uncomfortable. Didn't take any pictures for fear of retribution by jealous Colombian boyfriends, but suffice to say that our goal of seeing Cali culos was fulfilled. Women like to be nekkid.

(Gabe made the very interesting point that we will be going from South America, where women are PROUD of what they got, to Muslim North Africa and the Middle East, where, you know, shit is different. We'll take our skin now while we can.)

But anyways. Besides the dancing, and the watching of the dancing, the best part of the night was easily the watching of the pros dancing. Cali has several world championship salsa couples, and a team of them also happen to be employed at Las Brisas.

So, for your enjoyment: The pura salsa of Cali, Colombia.

Futbol! (Sunday, March 21)

After a lazy barbecue at our hostel, The Pelican Larry, we headed out with a bunch of the other backpackers to a futbol game downtown. It was two Cali-based teams, though weirdly, their names were Cali and America. Gunther, the big German hostel owner, described the game in terms everyone of us -- Americans, Brits, Frenchies, Argentinians, Israelis, and Aussies -- could understand: "It's like AC Milan vs. Inter Milan." So, you know, a big deal.

Gabe tells me that riots at soccer games around the world are a big problem. And I expected a big police presence. But this was different, I think. Mounted police everywhere. They don't let people wear belts into the stadium, so there are lots of little "businesses" where people will guardan your belts until the end of the game. I got fully patted down at the entrance and had to take off my shoes for inspection. And then there was this, parked right outside the gates.


The game itself was fun, though a totally different kind of sporting event for me. There wasn't a scoreboard or even a game clock that we could find anywhere, and instead of having locker rooms, each team inflated a tent to rest in during halftime. But the enthusiasm made up for the lack of resources. The crowds were crazy pumped and everyone was singing, pounding balloons, and some had even brought their own drums and horns.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Back to civilization

And with a two-week backlog of posts!

We're back in Neiva for a day after time with Gustavo on the ranch. We're sleeping with air conditioning. Have hot showers. No gigantic spiders in the bathroom.


We're here until this evening, when we take an overnight, 9 hour bus to Cali, the capital of salsa and culos, or so they say. This is the first of our overnight hauls, and since it's on a comfortable bus that we already know, it's a good test of whether or not long-haul bus rides will be part of this upcoming year. I've already ixnayed any hostels that don't provide private, in-suite bathrooms. (Huge indulgence, I know.) Anyways, I'm looking forward to a double dose of Ambien and hopefully no memory of the ride whatsoever.

About four or five days in Cali, for dancing and frolicking and butt watching. Happy!

Final few days on la finca

Another day, another chicken killed (Tuesday, March 16)

Patricia had actually wanted to make soup yesterday, but the chickens proved harder to catch than usual – no soup. (They’re getting wise to us.) So last night, she and Gustavo hatched a plan.
They waited until after dark til all of the chickens were in their coop, about seven feet up in a tree, and then took a bamboo ladder to the tree in the pitch black to grab one by the feet while it was sleeping. Amazing. Wish I had a picture of this, but it was daaaark.

Anyhoo, after catching it and tying its feet, we all took turns holding and guessing the weight of the bird – in el campo, you take what entertainment you can get – Gabe and I were both off by a pound. However, the gallina took revenge on all the fun by dropping a splashy poop right by Gabe’s flip-flopped foot. It was like going to the movies.

And today’s lunch? Caldo con pollo y arroz. Mmm.

We milk cows (Monday, March 15)

Are you the bandito? Or are you? (Sunday, March 14)

The family took a day trip to San Agustin, a historic town with incredible archeological sites. It was cool. We have a million pictures.

We also got to see Pitalito, the teensy tiny pueblita where Gabe’s Colombian grandparents, Estrella and Gentil, were both born.

But the wildest thing for me was the bus ride home. Before we took off from Pitalito to Alta Mira, an employee of the bus company got on board with a handheld camcorder. He took a long still shot of each of the seated passengers so he could have a record of everybody on board. You know. In case one of us was a bad guy.

They also often do this at the checkpoints, which are run by el ejercito y la policia local. (A few years ago, bus passengers used to have to get off the bus at checkpoints in order to be patted down by military, so this is quite an improvement.) We hadn’t seen this on any bus rides yet, but we have also been very careful to ride during the day, so that may be why. At any point, it was la freaky deaky. No me gustan estas notificaciones de la violencia.

La Violencia (Sunday, March 14)

Depending on who you talk to, Colombia is still in a state of war. Here at the family finca, 8 hours south of Bogota and bordering some of the more dangerous departmentos of Colombia (basically, jungle + mountain = FARC + banditos) the memories are still pretty fresh.

Por ejemplo:

The graffiti in town. It mostly says stuff like, “En memoria de las familias de las victimas de La Violencia.” We see this a lot.

The stories. Eight years ago, guerrillas robbed a neighbor of Gustavo’s, killing three people. That was in 2002. Eight years ago, they also bombed the local power station in Alta Mira, knocking out electricity at Guasamilla for a week. And just five years ago, ladrones (perhaps with a political affiliation, perhaps just taking advantage of the chaos) robbed Guasamilla. They came at 5:30am, locking Gustavo, Patricia, and their employees into a room. They blockaded the door by tying a rope to the front columns of their house. They stole all of their valuables, including their wedding rings, and 24 cows. All in broad daylight. Nobody was hurt, thank god, but Gustavo and Patricia only escaped from the locked room when one of their employee’s wives came looking for him after dark.

The precaution. Patricia never wears jewelry anymore, and in fact the only tesoros she owns is what the ladrones left behind. When Gustavo, Gabe and I went to Garcon the other day, she gave me a spare set of keys to the truck – “llaves de emergencias.” What the emergency could be on a shopping trip for bull hormones and bread could be, I don’t want to know. Every possible door and window to the house has bolts or blockades, every single one of which is locked at night. Our bedroom has a lock with key from the inside, while our windows have iron grids on them. Every woman I’ve met has given me a lesson on how to carry my purse. You lock your door the minute you get in the car. You don’t hail a taxi, you call one so that the pick up is on record with the company – otherwise, as Diana says, “I mean, it could be anyone. It could be a serial killer.”

The Weapons. Gustavo has a ginormous rifle, which is about the size of Patricia. It’s for birds, and you know, bad guys.

Most of all, it’s about a state of mind. Though Colombians are verrrry touchy about their world reputation and mindful of their PR, day-to-day they still live under the shadow of La Violencia. And so for the next six weeks, so will we.

Ghosts of Christmas Past (Friday, March 12)

We have had a lot of anxiety-ridden dreams since arriving in Colombia. I think part of it is our overworked brains – from wake til sleep, we are constantly translating, stumbling through our Spanish, and weirdly losing our English grammar. We have some serious Spanglish going on even when we’re speaking English to each other. Skyping with Sandy & Anthony and Margarita & Juan has proved a huge mental relief. (Uh, also, if anyone wants to find us on Skype, our username is Chermeo.)

Part of it is probably the state of eternal caution that being in Colombia requires.

We’re also learning a shit ton of overwhelming family history. Some skeletons done come OUT of the CLOSET the past few weeks. It’s a lot to handle.

But mainly, Gabe and I think it started as a question. Every time we encounter something extrano or novel or new – which is, you know, all the time – we giggle: “Did you think that five years ago you’d be listening to Akon with your 13-year-old aunt’s niece in rural Colombia?” “Did you think five years ago you’d be dancing salsa at a political rally for your cousin’s uncle-in-law’s senatorial race?” “Did you think five years ago that you’d be freaking living out of a backpack?”

Etc. I mean, five years ago today, we weren’t even dating. Gabe was getting ready for his wedding with that chick in Michigan, and I was living with that dude in New York. For the two of us, the past five years have included five moves, four apartments, four countries, five jobs, a niece, a nephew, a death in the family, some very important relationships and a countless number of teachable fucking moments.

It’s a lot to process, which has led to a lot of odd dreams. Especially odd for me because the dreams have been super literal recreations of past situations or choices, packed with very real ex-boyfriends, places, jobs, and arguments – as Gabe calls them, Ghosts of Christmas Past. I haven’t eaten a single elephant (Scroll down to "My Elephant Dream") since I’ve gotten to Colombia, but, at least in my dream world, I’ve made a lot of very different decisions. It’s unsettling – I wake up every morning with a sense of how very different my life could be.

And today, we learn how to brand and castrate bulls (Thursday, March 11)


**Editor's note: We wore pretty much the same clothes every single day on the ranch. Hence, many days, many events, all same clothes.

You have been warned.

Gustavo has some 120 cows on his land, many of them young calves. At about six months, all of them are branded with his ranch’s marca, a double B symbol that stands for his family name, Bermeo Blackburn. As productive, expensive animals, la marca is incredibly important for when the animals get lost, or are sold.

The iron brand is heated up in a fire of dried bamboo, then used on the right flank of each cow. It sizzles and smokes, and the cow bellows. It smells bad, but it’s over quickly. It heals in about a day.

At six months, he and his ranch hands also castrate the young toros in order to prevent natural reproduction. (Gustavo explained that it’s dangerous for the cows to mate naturally, as inbreeding will lead to weak, unproductive animals more prone to disease. Gustavo has three adult toros that father all of the animals and is considering starting artificial insemination.) The instruments used in the surgery – basically a sharp paring knife, a pot of water, and antiseptic powder.

The young bulls have been separated from their mothers, and are already complaining when the process gets started. (Gustavo separates the young calves from their moms in the afternoons, so that they don’t drink all of their milk). Gustavo and Jose, one of his trabajadores, rope and wrangle the bulls one by one, using a botalon (basically a Y-shaped, carved tree) in the center of the corral for leverage.

Once the bull is roped, they pulled it so that it lays down on its side. Then Jose roped its legs together tightly and pulls its tail out of the way. No matter how much the bull thrashes, it can’t move far.

Then Gustavo does the surgery. First, he wets the bull’s scrotum, then slices off about a 2-inch square bit of loose skin, dropping it in the pot (to be later fed to the dogs). This is when the bull seems to react the most, though what happens next can’t be any less painful.

The two huevos slide out, or are massaged out by Gustavo. He slices open the sac, and pulls each testicle out by hand. It is attached by a tendon, so he twists the tendon over and over again, creating a tight coagulated seal, and eventually it snaps off. It makes a horrible sound, yet weirdly, the cow doesn’t seem to respond to this much. It’s repeated again for the second testicle.

Then, Gustavo shakes antiseptic powder into the scrotal wound, and Jose unravels the rope.

The cow jumps up pretty quickly. In five days, the opening will be healed completely, and Gustavo, who is proud of his methodology, has never had a bull develop an infection.

We castrated 7 bulls yesterday. It sucked.

Since we eat everything here, Patricia prepared the huevos for breakfast. She salted them overnight, giving discarded bits to the dogs, and in the morning, fried them with garlic.

We ate them with papas and arepitas.

This, for me, was a gamechanger. I have happily eaten a bazillion burgers and steaks and sweetmeats in my life, marveling at the marbling and debating different cuts. I’ve spent months tinkering with meat recipes, braising oxtail after shortrib, and have very proudly come up with what I think is the perfect ratio of veal to beef for my burgers. My beef purchases were always about flavor and an abstract sense that I wanted the cow to have lived a nice life – not about the fact that I was killing it. I never once considered that I shouldn’t buy leather.

Gustavo and Patricia live on this land and respect it, and all the life on it. I understand why Gustavo castrates and brands his cattle. It’s part of the process that has brought every delicious filet I’ve ever eaten to my mouth, and probably Gustavo did it with more love and respect for the animals than any of the commercial cattle farms I’ve bought beef from during my life. This is his livelihood. Once the cows are slaughtered for beef, the skins are sold for leather. I am sitting on a leather chair with their neighbor’s marca on it right now, and I respect that.

But I can’t do it. I watched those young young bulls thrash around in the corral, bellowing angrily and plaintively for help, their bodies twisted with ropes and pain. The worst moment is when after a few minutes of thrashing around in the dirt and manure, they lay their heads down in defeat. They looked at me with what honest to fucking god felt like shame. I could have drowned in it.

Did you know cows have eyelashes?

So, that’s it for me. I now know that I most certainly could not even attempt to kill a cow, and so cows are off the list of animals I will eat. I ate the fried cow testicles in the morning because they should not go to waste, and because Patricia prepared them with love. But no more.

Also …


Killing a chicken (Wednesday, March 10)


**Editor's note: We included pictures of two different killings in order to show a complete picture of the process.

You have been warned.

I have maintained for a long time that if I can’t kill an animal, or at least participate and engage in its death, I probably shouldn’t eat it. I have no issue with eating animals, and I have no problem being at the top of the food chain. I think there are respectful and humane ways of raising and slaughtering animals for food, and I support businesses that do so. But I’ve always been bothered by the fact that I had no idea whether or not I could take a life. Being a city mouse, I haven’t had a ton of opportunities to kill my own meat – but here I find myself, 30 years old and a devoted lifetime carnivore, on a working ranch in rural Colombia where what we raise is what we eat. And so I learned.

Yes, I can kill a chicken.

Here she is, in the halcyon days of Monday and Tuesday. She walked through the house and courtyard, nibbling on arroz, maiz, guayaba, and whatever leftovers we threw her way, obviously unaware of her fate.

Gabe and I joked that we’d make her into sancocho, a traditional Colombian stew of chicken, corn, plantains, yucca and potatoes. Patricia’s response: Okay, let’s do it.


So this morning, after a breakfast of chocolate and arepitas, we caught the gallina easily enough. Patricia held her between her knees as she tied a string around her feet. The chicken was surprisingly docile through the whole process. Then, with the help of one of the workers, we killed her by grabbing its head, twisting a little, and then pulling hard until her neck broke.

At any rate, for us, the actual killing was the least disturbing step in the process. We then hung her upside down, in order to collect and coagulate all the blood in her head and neck.

The next step is to pluck the bird. It’s done by dipping it into boiling water over and over, which loosens and separates the feathers and makes it easier to pluck.

She’s starting to look a bit more like a bird in a supermarket, though only on the outside.

Now, butchering. The whole birds that Gabe and I buy in New York are already pristinely clean, with the gizzards, if they’re included, packed into a vacuum-sealed bag. So this was a hugely new experience for us.

First, we butterflied the bird, and opened up her chest to start removing the internal organs, such as the heart, lungs, liver, and intestines.

The stomach was still full of undigested corn kernels, while the gizzards, when split open, showed a cakey mess of partially digested bits and a bunch of tiny little pebbles, which help process the food. Chickens don’t actually chew anything.

The heart, you know, looks like a heart.

You have to be very careful with the intestines and colon, so that waste doesn’t spill out and contaminate the meat.

One notable difference in the meat compared to what we normally see was the puny breasts – nothing like the 1-lb gargantuan monsters that come from commercial birds. These were slim and muscly, with little fat.

And then, the hardest part for me. Our soon-to-be lunch was once a laying hen – we had been enjoying her eggs for days already. And I LOVE eggs. I’ve been known to eat a dozen eggs in a week. But this was almost more than I could handle. In butchering her, of course we found eggs both ready to be laid, and some still in formation. Makes sense, right? I don’t know why this was such a stunning discovery for me, but seeing these tiny, budding yolks blew my mind, turned my stomach, and just generally freaked the shit out of me.

In the end, we put all edible parts into a pot, including the meat, the yolks, the feet (which were first skinned), and salted them. The unusable parts were fed to the dogs. Nothing goes to waste here.

A day later, Patricia cooked her into a magnificent sancocho, which we ate for a leisurely lunch, with rice, guacamole, and strawberry juice, giving thanks and cheers to the gallina. She lived a happy two years with us before we took her life.

Salud, gallina. Gracias.

Why one should always wear DEET in el campo (Tuesday, March 9)

Look, my leg appears to be normal:

Oh wait, just kidding.

Leche calor de una vaca (Monday, March 8)

This morning, Gustavo woke us up with the offer of hot milk from a cow. Like, his cow. One of his cows that one of his workers was milking, about a 50 yards away. So we went.

Patricia gave us cups with panela, crushed raw cane sugar, in them, and we marched out back to where his two trabajeros were doing the morning milking. The squishy, wet sounds of cow pies hitting the ground surrounded us as Gustavo handed the cups to his worker, who filled them up with five or six squeezes straight from an udder.

We stood in the corral drinking hot sweetened milk as cows milked, mooed, pooped, and peed all around us.

I am pretty sure this is what afficionados call “raw milk.”

It tasted delicious, though the close proximity to poop was a little worrisome. We gave our leftover milk to Quito, the Great Dane and the big eater in the family, and waited patiently to get sick.

Miraculously, it didn’t happen. Over breakfast, Patricia asked us how our stomachs were. We said fine. She informed us that if we haven’t thrown up or had diarrhea within 10 minutes, we’re good to go.


Guasamilla, in pictures

Neron, on an evening walk:

On the front porch with Luna and her mom, Sombra:

Gabe and the pollitos:

Tree on the property:

Gustavo, relaxing in the afternoon:

Gabe and Quito in the courtyard:

Las hamacas y arboles in the courtyard:

Me and Patricia, out for a stroll:

And of course, las vacas: