Heart of Hormiga
(with apologies to Joseph Conrad)
Ah, the dolce vita of the gastro-journo. Far-flung ports of call. Exotic delicacies. Rare and copious libations. But it’s not all cake and ice cream. Sometimes these “tours of duty” can be downright harrowing.
Case in point: a while back we sent our intrepid Contributing Editor south to check out the Colombia Provoca food expo. Though we aren’t sadists per se at Tidings, we thought it would be fun to send a diabetic (who’d be toting vials and syringes) to a country that’s just a titch uppity when it comes to “medication” and surround him with food that would probably be way far off his diet plan. Upon his return he went AWOL, refusing to discuss the junket. Pointed questions only resulted in him crumbling to the ground, twitching and whimpering, “la hormiga, la hormiga!”
Recently we found his travel notes going for a song on eBay. His (at times incoherent) dispatches reveal a twisted journey into a personal and professional heart of darkness. Though thoroughly edited for content (and modified from the original to fit this screen), sensitive readers are forewarned …Editor
August 23, InterContinental Medellin, 10:25 pm
Medellin, [expletive], I’m still only in Medellin. But I’ve finally stopped moving.
The landing in Colombia through a ferocious electrical storm was unnerving. The drive to the hotel perhaps even more so. I was picked up at the airport by “Susi” and “Vero.” Not entirely sure who they are. Was supposed to be greeted by Colombia Provoca people wearing purple shirts, but instead got more or less kidnapped by this slightly crazy duo who took me on a terrifying, white-knuckle race along narrow, rain-soaked mountainous roads to the hotel; a trip that made a ride on Space Mountain seem positively soporific.
August 24, 12:30 pm, Mezeler restaurant, downtown Medellin
The family that owns the classy Mezeler hails from Oakville, Ontario, about a 15-minute drive from my Toronto nest. A small world indeed — but as comedian Steven Wright would say, “I wouldn’t want to paint it.” After an excellent lunch and great espresso (no surprise), I was introduced to aguardiente. Not to be confused with the Portuguese brandy of the same name, Colombia’s national drink is a sort of anise-flavoured turpentine similar to ouzo but a tad less sweet and viscous. Colombians drink it liberally, which could explain the driving thing.
3:00 pm, with S and V in the S-you-V
Driving in Colombia is insane. It comes in two flavours, “stop” and “careen.” “Stop” is the typical speed in downtown traffic when you pray to go much faster. “Careen” occurs on narrow, wet, twisty mountain roads where you just [expletive] pray. How people are not killed every minute in some vehicular maelstrom escapes me. Driving, riding, walking, standing still — all potentially suicidal activities in the downtown core.
Getting to where you are going can apparently also be a challenge, even to seasoned “tour guides” like Susi and Vero. We’ve been driving in a circle for about an hour and a half — and have gone the total of (give or take) two kilometres at the speed of a snail on Quaaludes. “Don’t you guys, like, live here?” I ask as we circle the same block a third time. “Yeah, but they change the roads everyday,” Susi complains. Vero is leaning out the passenger window trying to get directions from a city bus driver. Without much luck. After a minute of arm waving and rapid-fire Spanish she hauls it back inside. “He’s so stoned,” she reports dejectedly, “we get nothing out of him.” Sweet.
5:25 pm, Botanical Gardens, Medellin
Finally at the Provoca grounds. Beautiful location with exotic flora, dark, sexy people and plenty of foodie things. And pisco. Pisco, along with aguardiente and cachaça, demarcates the South American spirits triumvirate. I used up many of my “food tickets” on pisco. And cigars. Some food I think. Some spicy sauces and interesting vinegars and other stuff like … [remainder hard to decipher].
Late, Inter-hotel whatever
Mangled to batch a hus [unintelligible] back to the bed place … key somewhere … never drink aguardiente again, I swear … and I’ll never, ever even think about trying … [remainder of paragraph unintelligible].
August 25, 6:00 pm, General observations after a long day
Colombia is a beautiful country and it’s easy to see why the push is on to make it a more popular travel destination. The landscape offers a stunning blend of lush sultry jungle, exotic flora and fauna, emerald mountains and dizzying valleys, the bottoms of which I was rather convinced we’d all eventually (and terminally) be introduced to thanks to our semi-crazed bus driver who seemed oblivious to the potentially delicate interplay between meat, metal and gravity. I remembered Susi’s comment regarding the city bus driver. And I prayed.
The traditional foods like chicharrón (a deep fried pork), carne molida (a kind of dried and powdered meat), tamales (yum) and the ubiquitous arepa (a sort of corn pancake that tastes like not much) were equally contrasted against a sort of Colombian version of The Keg where we were taken after pleading (unsuccessfully) for a bite of more “authentic” local food. What do they serve at all those roadside stands anyway? I’ll never know.
Then there was the ultimate in surreal. We were bussed out to an “authentic” Colombian village, which turned out to be a replica of what an authentic Colombian village would look like — without the swimming pools, I suspect. Stepping off the bus after a three-hour (“45 minutes” in estimated Colombian time) careen over narrow mountain roads, I observed and heard a brass band of musicians, the oldest of which would have been no more than 12 yeas old, playing a rather woozy and detuned version of, of all things, “Last Kiss” — a song made quasi-famous by the Canadian band Wednesday back in the 1970s. (I was to learn that the Wayne Cochran-penned 1962 ditty was also a hit for Colombian crooner Alci Acosta. Which made this a bit less weird; but just a bit).
11:00 pm, reflections on the “Sibarita” dinner, Provoca grounds
“You just pick it up and bite the end off. It tastes nutty,” said the helpful fellow to my left. The “it” in question was a [expletive] large, albeit decidedly dead black ant (hormiga!) that had been rendered such having been baked into a dish I had been rather enjoying. But with about six glasses of Chilean Sauvignon Blanc offering fortitude I glared at the ant defiantly. It shot back the kind of cold, unblinking, hate-filled gaze only a recently-baked ant could conjure. With swift aardvarkian resolve I bit the ass — it was a hormiga culona — a “big ass” leaf cutter type. “Nutty” is not what came to mind. A rather more pithy descriptor ending in “-tty” did. Inhalations of Argentine Malbec followed. Now convinced a prolonged bout of post-traumatic stress is in order.
All things considered, the whole scene was borderline surreal. Seated at an outdoor head table, eating hormiga with the current mayor of the city, who looked disarmingly like Gino Vanelli circa 1980, and his learned and rather attractive wife, I tried, through a somewhat pleasant haze, to make intelligent journo-talk. The mayor is a rather popular dude who, depending on who you talk to, has been instrumental in changing the face (and hopefully, reputation) of what infamously has been one of the world’s most violent cities. Though I suspect it takes more than a handshake and a few kind words to get things done around here, evidence of a city in transition is certainly visible. Anyway, a wee nip now to help me sleep …
August 26, 4:35 am, InterContinental lobby
I feel like a can of smashed worms. Did I not say I would never drink aguardiente again? Ever? Sleep was fitful, if not frightful. Dreamt Burl Ives was performing, “The Old Lady Who Swallowed a Fly” for me — only it wasn’t Burl Ives singing but rather a very large black ant that was, implausibly, being accompanied by a woozy out-of-tune brass band of larvae.
Bus was supposed to pick us up an hour and a half ago. Bus not come. Taxi here now. Off to airport. Probably for a full cavity search by security. Which would be nothing compared to hormiga and aguardiente …
August 27, 3:24 am, finally home
Seven hours to get to Colombia, 23 hours to get home. Don’t even want to talk about it. Or ever visit the Miami airport again. Too strung out to sleep. What’s on the tube? A movie … Them! Hormiga grande! Terrific …