Wildflowers beat bouquets; botones de oro me valen oro

Weeds spotted on the roadside,

picked on the return bike ride,

offered wilted in sweaty hand,

beats a bouquet from a foreign land.

Bring me no rose, emerald, or gold;

all I want from Colombia is you to hold.

Well, and our friend’s great coffee beans:

This is what simple joy to me means.

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Tres silvestres botones de oro

me valen más que minado oro,

esmeralda y plata.

Lo que nunca me falta

es la única exporta

de Colombia que me importa:

el café de nuestro amigo

(y tenerte acá conmigo).

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Un viaje colorido en chiva con cada sorbo de café de los Andes  

 

Viajar a toda velocidad en vías pavimentadas, con las ventanas cerradas, el aire prendido y la música a todo taco, es embarcarse en una carrera contra el reloj y contra la naturaleza. Encerrado tras cristal, las copas de los árboles y el pasto se juntan en una pared de verde borroso, la vida dentro de la vegetación escondida y olvidada.

Si transitar en un carro así es como habitar un apartamento en la ciudad, montar una chiva es como acampar bajo las estrellas.

La chiva colombiana, también conocida como escalera, es un camión convertido en bus, adaptado a las condiciones de las carreteras en la zona rural de la región paisa, y la forma tradicional de transporte público en el eje cafetero de Colombia.

¿Cómo distinguir a una chiva de la multitud de transporte público? Si bien hay buses y camiones en ciudades colombianas pintados en salpicones del patriótico rojo, amarillo y azul, en comparación la chiva es un colorido guacamayo. Mientras los buses municipales se limitan a líneas sobrias, la escalera es un frenesí de diseños geométricos y exóticos. El artista Carlos Pineda trazó la similitud con las mándalas de India y publicó un libro donde niño y adulto puede colorear o meditar sobre las mándalas de las chivas convertidas en blanco y negro. Para observar el proceso y perderse en el vertiginoso video de los diseños, ver hasta el final de Mándalas del Camino.

Otro elemento esencial de la escalera es la ausencia de vidrio en las ventanas de los pasajeros. Eso permite a los choferes y sus ayudantes pisar directamente sobre el marco de madera y usar el vehículo entero como una escalera para montar las cargas campesinos al techo: desde bultos de café para vender en el pueblo hasta los sacos de arroz comprados a cambio. No hay nada raro en ver un marrano atado o gallinas en guacales, pero un día me encantaría ver una chiva llevada encima de una chiva.

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Esperando al bus en La Florida, Risaralda 2011

La brisa corre por tu piel. Pues, la brisa corre un poco más rápido que el vehículo, así que tienes tiempo para observar con detalle a la naturaleza que pasa a los bordes de una carretera no más amplia que la escalera. Es una oportunidad para estar en contacto con la vida natural, y con la vida humana. En vez de sillas individuales, los pasajeros se sientan codo a codo en un solo banco largo, como asistir a una de las iglesia católicas que se erigen encima de cada pueblo paisa.

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Llegó la chiva, montado con mis compañeros para una caminata.

Quienes te acompañan son seguramente campesinos, y en la zona cafetera paisa de Antioquia, Caldas, Quindío y Risaralda, son caficultores. De acuerdo a la Guía Turística de Antioquia, las chivas “llegaron a Antioquia en 1908”. El municipio antioqueño de Andes, capital comercial del suroeste y eje de la economía cafetera de Antioquia desde hace más de 100 años, declaró en el 2004 la escalera un bien de interés cultural.

Antioquia es un Caramelo chivas Andes
Crédito: Daniel Augusto Cifuentes Sierra

En la terminal de transporte de Andes se estacionan las “55 chivas que todavía prestan servicio regular a las 62 veredas del municipio”. Daniel Augusto Cifuentes Sierra capturó esa escena en esta fotografía, publicado en el libro Vistas de Antioquía en 2014 por la Fundación Viztaz, dedicado a la conservación de la memoria cultural. Según el fotógrafo paisa quien trabaja con caficultores en la zona, “Las escaleras son sin duda los caramelos más coloridos de Antioquia y el principal medio de transporte del área rural.”

La Cooperativa de Caficultores de los Andes hace un homenaje a las chivas que transportan a sus socios con sacos de café para vender, tostar y exportar a países como los Estados Unidos. En una edición especial, el empaque de sus bolsas de café tostado viene estampado con los diseños coloridos de las chivas.

Este es el café que tomamos. Café envuelto en la tradición campesina. Por más calor que haga en este momento en el verano en Texas, intento tomar unos sorbos sentada afuera, con la brisa sobre mi piel, igual como montar en una chiva.

¿Te atreves a bajar el vidrio, sacar tu brazo, y sentir la naturaleza? Súbete a la chiva para disfrutar de este café producido en las montañas verdes de los Andes. Bolsas de media libra disponibles para vecinos amantes de un buen café.

Converting into a coffee drinker and loosening Latin tongues

Today I love writing for the coffee industry, and I love coffee, but it’s not always been (bean?) like that. Like a good Catholic, it’s time to confess.

I had my first taste of coffee fourteen years ago. It was two in the morning during finals week, with twenty pages left to write. Like Ramen and Sriracha, coffee was one of those college-kid staples that didn’t click with me. My nebulous memory of that, and a handful of other desperate nights alone with a bulging coffeepot and blank screen, involved twitching fingers over the keyboard, a vow to never do that again, and a wow at the grade I pulled off. I owed it to coffee, but swore off caffeine and procrastination once I tossed my tasseled mortarboard.

Seven years passed calmly, without coffee, until I landed in Colombia, the land of coffee. I imbibed in the free-flowing firewater (aguardiente) that revelers poured into the shot glasses strung around my neck. I gnawed on gelatinous strips of deep-fried pork rind (chicharrón), pretending that the row of teeth looked more like a bear claw danish than an animal spine. I nibbled a razor-sharp Communion wafer (hostia) until I observed the true Catholics letting it dissolve on their tongue. This former teetotaler, vegetarian, and Christian was quickly, albeit temporarily, converting out of cultural respect and curiousity. But the very waft of coffee brought back a wave of nausea, tremors, and profound regret.

No soup for you, but two bowls for you

Colombians have an acutely accurate proverb to describe what was about to become my experience with coffee (ditto for loud partying, greasy meat, and Catholic churches): “Al que no le gusta el caldo, le dan dos tazas.” It’s the polar opposite of Seinfield’s Soup Nazi, where even if you love the soup, “no soup for you”: If you do not want any soup, you’re given two bowlfuls.

It was not a Colombian who introduced me to coffee done right; it was an Italian. I’m enamoured with Italy: the expressive language, the svelte fashion sense, the ten-course meals. The food and the wine, oh yes, but in all I’ve gleaned about Italy I somehow glossed over the essential role of the espresso.

I learned to take espresso because it was given to me by an Italian. Or rather, it was ordered. “Dos tintos,” barked my new boss over the phone to the office runner. I had no choice in the matter. Down in the kitchen the server had already offered me coffee a couple of times that week and I had politely declined, “Oh, I don’t drink coffee, but thank you.”

Now she stood in front of the executive desk with a silver platter and a glimmer in her dark eyes as she asked how many teaspoons of sugar I’d like. I followed the Italian’s lead and accepted it black. It appeared innocent in a dainty white porcelain cup, but I could catch the gleam of the heavy black liquid. The heady aroma reeked of past regrets.

Like dancing a tango, I followed the man’s lead. He sipped, in silence, savoring. Then it was my turn. It was unsavory, but I enjoyed the silence. The first swallow loosened the tongue. As he explained my role as the organization’s in-house translator between Spanish and English, I hoped my tongue would also navigate the explosive Zs and Chs of Italian.

Sipping and conversing, we were two foreigners united by Colombian coffee and a need for common ground: language. We did our best in Spanish, lapsing into mother tongues when necessary. Two cups clinked gently on saucers, two or three times and it was over. The discussion was done, the tinto was gone. I hadn’t even realized that I’d finished the entire espresso; time went by that fast. Entirely unlike the early dawn hours of caffeine-induced insomnia to meet deadlines.

My life lesson from Colombian coffee

Among the many factors that determine a pleasant gastronomic experience are the food or beverage itself–quality, portion, preparation–and the setting in which it’s consumed–company, occassion, ambience. My only experience with coffee had been drinking an entire pot of hastily-made, discount-priced drip grinds, all alone and under stressful circumstances. I had been doing it all wrong, on all counts.

Colombia taught me to enjoy tinteando, the art of solely savoring small portions of black coffee in pleasant company.

A couple of years after I learned to drink espresso, we also acquired a Nespresso Aeroccino and learned the art of making cappuccinos and the science of baking pastries, but that’s a whole nother story that involves a couple of pounds of over-indulged guilt (can you say, biscotti?).

Drinking American coffee after learning to tintear in Colombia

Would you like to supersize that?

Which brings me back to America. Exactly one year ago I returned to the United States, and knowing that we’d moved from abroad with nothing but heavy books and pounds of Colombian coffee, our landlady salvaged some perfectly good things the lazy former tenants had left to be tossed in the trash.

Useful item 1 is this ugly mug. Other than the garish green handle that clashes hideously with the red hide of some trophy hunter, what alarmed me was its size. Here it looms over a Café de Colombia pocillo, just big enough for a tinto.

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When you fill a mug that large with a hot beverage, you have to drink it all in one sitting, otherwise it gets ruined in the reheat cycle. Chugging that much coffee does a number on your system. Drinking the same amount, spread out over a couple of hours at work or socializing, is more tolerable. Apply the same rules of thumb to caffeine as with alcohol–small doses, over a long period, lots of water in between, and never by yourself.

I see café customer behavior as a major difference between the United States and Latin American, and even European culture. In the U.S., customers commonly order coffee to-go and in a disposable cup, then scald themselves trying to swig it while rushing down the sidewalk (and promptly file a lawsuit). No wonder we’re stressed-out: the caffeine is not to blame so much as the hectic (and wasteful) form of consuming it.

Don’t walk with coffee; talk with coffee.

In Latin American cafés (and so I hear, European cafés, and please share if anywhere else), drinking coffe is an idle and enjoyable affair. It’s a time to sit down to consume, to observe, to converse, to socialize. Coffee is sipped, not gulped, amid dialogue. Or it’s a natural break in the work day, but office kitchens are stocked with ceramic mugs and not styrofoam cups. How can anything be slowly savored out of an artificial container designed for speedy disposal?

If you are decidely a tea person, or have bad flashbacks of cramming at term time with coffee, I challenge you to try the attitude behind tinteando. Sip a well-crafted espresso in pleasant company. For you to have a conversion moment like mine, the coffee doesn’t have to be Colombian, and the company doesn’t have to be Italian. Heck, try it with Folgers and your best friend. But you must follow the Colombian pocillo portion and the Italian philosophy behind Slow Food. Ah, la dolce vita.

Putting the green in holiday greenery, with a pop of red

There is a lot of greenery in holiday decorations, but not a lot of green.

  • Our neighbors have left their Christmas lights on all night long since before December.
  • UPS has been bringing a package to the neighbors nearly every day since Black Friday. Inefficient deliveries means online shopping isn’t more environmentally friendly than driving once to the mall. (How about a discount if you opt to lump all your household’s purchases spread out over several weeks into a single monthly delivery?)
  • Single-serve aluminum baking pans and disposable champagne glasses are designed for holiday office parties or hosts who can’t bother to cook and then wash dishes afterwards too.
  • After the flurry of unwrapping, the mounds of paper, ribbons, bows, and probably a little kid’s already lost new toy, are whisked up in a pile for the garbage.
  • Unwanted gifts, notably the ugly-on-purpose white elephants, are given for a chuckle, then tossed.
  • The everyone-must-have-it-and-so-shall-I item is purchased at all cost, only to be relegated to the back of a closet stuffed with last season’s trends. A lady paid $300 for a Hatchimal in an online auction! That much money can buy a whole chicken coop set-up with a flock that will lay edible eggs every day all through next Christmas.

This year, our first living in the United States, we wanted to make at least a two-person dent in America’s Christmas-time consumption. We went for a hike in the forest while everyone was stuffing themselves silly at Thanksgiving, and the next day picked up free pecans straight from the trees while everyone was shopping on Black Friday, purportedly to help bring businesses out of the red. For the greenery, I didn’t need to spend green; I just had to look outside.

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Navidad 2011 in Jardín, Colombia. Photo credit: Carrie Cifuentes

I hadn’t had a proper backyard garden since we lived in Jardín, Colombia, where every vividly painted balcony had a little old lady stooped over with a watering can. It didn’t matter if the pot was an empty pop bottle, as long as you grew pretty flowers in it. And everyone did. Gardening in Jardín was effortless: year-round mild temperatures, fertile soil, abundant water.

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Growing corn on either side of a mandarin orange tree in our backyard in Jardín. Photo credit: Carrie Cifuentes

Texas is a whole different beast. It’s like riding a bronco. I really, really, wanted to see at least one bright red tomato popping out of that tangle of green branches, like Rudolph’s nose if he ran into a pine tree, and so I hung on as big ol’ Texas weather bucked with all it’s got: a drought in June, 100-degree days in July, a rainstorm-a-day that brought fungus in August, aphids in September, daily tickling sessions to help pollinate in October, nightly tucking the plant to sleep under sheets for frost just at fruit-set in early November, and numbly stripping the branches of any tomato bigger than my pinky fingernail before the hard frost in the teens in December.

I missed my Rudolph moment, but green ripened into red in the dark cabinets and exploded with homegrown flavor. After that first juicy bite of lost summer, I made my peace with winter’s closure of the growing season and yanked off the tomato cage. I guess I wasn’t entirely at peace looking at unopened flowers and still had the bronco-buckin’ grip that can snap metal. That broken cage released my creativity, and with a little redneck ingenuity (duct tape) the upturned trellis became an upcycled tree.

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Coffee capsule/tomato cage 2016 Christmas tree. Photo credit: Carrie Cifuentes

Tinto in two forms helped with the rest of the decorations.

1.) Tinto as black coffee: Empty espresso capsules became dangly bells that let out a dainty ring against the sides of the tomato cage. This is our fifth year of hanging the same Nespresso capsules (and hanging the same hand-sewn stockings) on a miniature Christmas tree, which back in Colombia was made out of fresh bamboo branches each year. We rescued the capsules from the trash bin of an office that worked with and drank a lot of Nespresso.

2.) Tinto as red wine: Empty bottles will spell out J-O-Y to my visiting nephews and nieces learning to read (it’s my middle name too). The letters were cut out from the cardboard of a cracker box. The twine had held up pole beans in the backyard. The red marker and gold ribbon were discarded by previous tenants. Three evergreen clippings came from branches that overhung a nearby walking path and were due for a trim. The wine came at a cost, but we’re happy to be still celebrating monthly anniversaries.

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Joy in a bottle. Photo credit: Carrie Cifuentes

Thank you to the coffee and wine growers for contributing to our year-round enjoyment of these beverages and our year-end holiday decoration.

Thank you to the tomato growers who will sustain us until next summer’s crop.

Thank you to those who also choose to find peace and beauty in the simplicity of a more sustainable seasonal celebration.

Thank you to my readers and fellow writers for nourishing my mind with your inspiring ideas and encouraging words.

Now bring on the holiday desserts! (Thank you to the cocoa growers, the vanilla growers, the almond growers…)

Seasonal greetings from Tinto Tinta Translations!

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¡Feliz navidad! Photo credit: Carrie Cifuentes

Denton Caffeine Crawl for National Coffee Day

 

In honor of National Coffee Day, this morning Tinto Tinta Translations hosted a caffeine crawl around downtown Denton, Texas.

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The objectives were to support local coffee shops, build community, and promote biking in Denton. Fellow entrepreneurs in the Denton Area Small Businesses group, neighbors on Nextdoor, local hosts on Couchsurfing, and cyclists in the Denton Bicycle Coalition were invited.

I rode to each coffee shop on my bike.

Drunk driving = bad. Caffeinated bike riding = good (to a certain extent).

First stop on the Caffeine Crawl Agenda, bright and early at 6:30 am, was Upper Park Cafe at 222 W. Hickory.

Daniel and I ordered an Americano. Tori, the waitress who swaps shifts at Upper Park with another night job in between wrapping up her senior year at UNT, clearly runs on caffeine (how else?) and gave us a sample of their popular pecan coffee, which supposedly has extra caffeine. Grinding coffee beans with pecan nuts would smell divine, but the flavor was a little too strong and seemed syrupy.

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Café de Antioquia: el mejor café del mundo (Coffee from Antiouqia: the best coffee in the world)

The second stop had a double purpose. Cultivar Coffee Bar shares shop at 235 W. Hickory with Hypnotic Donuts, making for a no-brainer breakfast. At 7:00 am there were already a couple of bikes chained to the patio fence adorned with UNT pendants, and a handful of students inside the cozy space.

Bacon strips top two of the favorite donut flavors, Canadian Healthcare (with maple icing) and Evil Elvis (with peanut butter and banana), but I guess I’m not southern enough yet. Instead, I ordered the third most popular, Express Yo’ Self: a chocolate donut spread with coffee icing and sprinkled with coffee grounds. What else?

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Sunk into ‘70s sofas set up family-style in a living room, eerily watched over by a chicken-headed Hindu deity with a donut in multiple hands, we could barely see petite Krysten efficiently running Cultivar behind a mammoth La Marzocco coffee machine. The sleek Italian machinery paired well with the retro bar seats, just as their house coffee paired well with Hypnotic’s donuts.

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At 7:30 am on the opposite side of the square, (114) West Oak Coffee Bar was serving up heartier protein-packed breakfasts alongside fall-flavored beverages. Their seasonal barista specialties of campfire cortado (a s’more in a mug: handmade walnut syrup, chocolate milk, and marshmallows) and yam and taro lattes (one-upping pumpkin in nutrition and uniqueness) sounded cozy, and the warm visual palette of brick-exposed walls and worn wooden tables was fitting. Jim, the assistant roaster, said that when they’re roasting coffee downstairs it smells like bread baking. Oh my, sensory overload of yumminess. I’ll have to check back when it finally feels like fall. When does that happen in Texas?

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Caroline, the media manager, described her field visit to their direct trade program in Colombia and the goal of offering growers equal wages. Jeremy, the head roaster, and Matt, the owner, came upstairs and the whole West Oak Coffee Bar staff melded behind the bar like one big, creative, friendly, coffee-loving family.

So far there had been only a handful of hipsters, students, and business folks headed to work at each coffee shop. At 106 N. Locust, Jupiter House was nearly a full house by 8:00 am. The line was long, the signs were small (and lacked prices), and the place felt like your typical coffee shop. I found the most atypical group underneath the sign Murderers Row.

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It was a small sampling of the large eclectic group that forms every Saturday morning, comprised of professors, lawyers, artists, a county commissioner, and the former mayor. One lady greeted a judge up for election heading out with coffee-to-go, then said she’s friends with the other candidate. The group’s mix of political persuasions makes for interesting conversation. How better to create community?

They came to Jupiter out of convenience and in search of camaraderie, but none came for the coffee. It was a meeting place; the thermos was brought from home as an accessory. This was the only place where I stayed dry on coffee, but I got my fill of conversation.

The last stop on my tour was Shift Coffee, straight down the street at 519 S. Locust. Oscar and I sat outside, soaking up the morning sun and discussing healthy sports habits among children. At this point I was hardly feeling healthy: I had only had a donut to eat, and much too much coffee to drink already. And the coffee shops were clustered together around Denton’s downtown square, limiting my pedaling. I’d have a long bike ride home and would be fueled to the brim by then. My other car runs on caffeine.

Shift has simplistic, contemporary-stylized menus on mini clipboards and a repurposed window, but their coffee is complex. Barista Kat gave me an adorable full sensory description of my Ethiopian pour over with apricot and black currant notes, a light acidity, and the sense that fall is right around the corner (I chose it over the Panama honey because I remember my sweltering days in Panama as an eternal summer, and I’m about ready for that to end here in Texas).

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Barista Ramen shifted his attention between me and another customer, giving both of us a full education on our coffee. He pays meticulous attention to quality control, tasting everything from their rotating supply of roasters. But of course their favorite is Spyhouse Coffee Roasting from Minneapolis, as I was wearing my Green Party Minnesota shirt, and I met a fellow Midwesterner at the bar who works across the street at Bullseye Bike Shop. Biking and coffee, on target.

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I settled into a parlor chair by a bookshelf stocked with classic literature and chatted with a white-bearded, gnome-nosed man (it’s beginning to feel a lot like Christmas!) about population growth in Denton, the final frontier of the metroplex. Fort Worth used to be where the West began, and Denton is now where the wild expansion butts heads with long-horned ranches.

With thoughts of farms and families ruminating in my head, and too much coffee churning through my bloodstream, I left the knowledgeable staff and hipster haven of Shift and headed home.

Barhopping starts out running and slows to a pub crawl. This caffeine crawl started out barely awake and revved up to 90 RPMs. I shifted to low gear on my bike ride back and wondered how long it would take for over 500 mg of caffeine to filter through my system.

After the splurge comes the purge. Tomorrow is International Translation Day. I think I’ll celebrate starting now with several glasses of water/agua.