A colorful ride on a chiva with each sip of Los Andes coffee

Traveling at top speed on paved roads, windows rolled up, the A/C blasting and music blaring, is to go on a race against the clock–and against nature. Enclosed behind glass, the treetops and grasses outside merge into a fuzzy green wall, any life inside the vegetation hidden and forgotten.

If riding in a car like that is like living in a city apartment, climbing aboard a chiva is like camping under the stars.

The Colombian chiva, also known as a “ladder”, is a truck converted into a bus, adapted to road conditions in the rural mountainous area of the paisa coffee-growing region, and the traditional form of public transportation in the Colombian coffee lands of the central Andes range.

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Waiting along the roadside to be picked up by the chiva.

How to distinguish a chiva from the multitude of other forms of public transport? While many buses and trucks in Colombian cities have a spattering of the patriotic red, yellow, and blue, the chiva is a colorful macaw. Whereas the municipal buses limit their paint to somber lines, the chiva is a frenzy of exotic geometric designs. The artist Carlos Pineda traced its similarities to the mandalas of India and published a coloring book (for children and adults alike) to meditate on the mandalas of the chivas converted into black and white. To watch the process and lose yourself in the dizzying video of the designs, watch until the end of “Mandalas del Camino“.

Another essential design element of the ladder bus is a lack of windows along the passenger seats. This allows drivers and their assistants to step directly onto the wooden frame and use the entire vehicle as a ladder to load onto the roof the farmers’ sacks of goods: from jute bags of green coffee to sell in the village to sacks of rice bought on the return trip. It wouldn’t be unusual to see a pig or chicken heaved onto the roof, but one day I would love to see a chiva (in Spanish it means goat) carrying an actual goat!

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Author with her friends riding the chiva.

A breeze sweeps your skin. The slow-moving vehicle itself doesn’t generate much of a breeze, allowing you time to observe in detail nature passing by within arm’s reach on the roadside. It is an opportunity to be in contact with natural life, and with human life. Instead of individual chairs, passengers sit side by side on a single long bench, like attending one of the Catholic churches whose spires tower above every paisa village.

The other passengers are surely peasants, and in the paisa coffee zone of Antioquia, Caldas, Quindío, and Risaralda, they are most likely coffee growers. According to the Tourist Guide of Antioquia, this form of transportation “arrived in Antioquia in 1908”. The Antioquian municipality of Andes, the commercial capital of the southwest and hub of the coffee economy of Antioquia for more than 100 years, declared in 2004 that the chiva was part of their cultural heritage.

Antioquia es un Caramelo chivas Andes
Photography by Daniel Cifuentes

At the Andes transportation terminal, “55 chivas that still provide regular service to the 62 rural villages of the municipality” are stationed. Daniel Augusto Cifuentes Sierra captured this scene in this photograph, published in the 2014 book Vistas de Antioquia by the Viztaz Foundation, dedicated to preserving the area’s cultural memory. According to the paisa photographer who works with coffee growers in the area, “Ladder buses are without a doubt the most colorful jewels of Antioquia and the main means of transport in the rural area.”

The Andean Coffee Growers Cooperative pays homage to the chivas that transport their members with coffee bags to sell, toast, and export to countries like the United States. In a special edition, the packaging of their roasted coffee bags is stamped with colorful chiva designs.

This is the coffee we drink. Coffee enveloped in the peasant tradition. As hot as it gets in the summer in Texas, I try to take a few sips sitting outside, with the breeze playing on my skin, just like when riding a chiva.

Do you dare to roll down the window, stick out your arm, and feel nature? Hop on the chiva to enjoy this coffee produced in the green mountains of the Andes.

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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.

***********************************

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.

Gardening mysteries unraveling in March winds

My left thumb has been itchy lately. I’ve been yanking up scratchy thistle, and I got a bee sting there a couple days ago. Clearly (or dirtily) the left is the green thumb for gardening, following the rhyming logic that my right is for writing. After translating resources with clear instructions for sustainable agriculture with tropical crops like coffee and cacao, I walk into the wild unknown of my own subtropical kitchen garden.

Exploring gardening in Texas, during my first growing season here, is mostly a joyous experience of marveling at nature’s mysteries.

Just like in Manizales, seasons are thrown with gusto to the wind. It can feel like spring at dawn, summer all day long, and fall right before dusk…during a November winter.

Faithful to the start of the adage on March storms, tornado winds this week shredded my milk-jug-encased tomatoes straight down the middle of the stem, yet didn’t even tussle four-foot-tall arugula. The garlic in the middle of still-straight cilantro simply folded over because it’s time to ripen, tornado or not.

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Flowering arugula smells sweet like jasmine, as the leaves get ever more peanut-buttery potent. It’s an exhilaratingly sensorial confusion to nibble and sniff at the same time. Coffee flowers similarly remind me of jasmine, but peanut butter was the one American treat I always missed in coffee-growing countries. Arugula strangely straddles that rift in cultural cuisines.

This particular plant came out of a mystery pack of jumbled seeds from a garage sale, was the only one to bolt from two beds, and chose to do so right on the edge of the patio.

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Clover seeded last summer luckily flowered for St. Patrick’s Day and started to attract pollinating bees, but I got a bee sting all the way downtown at a Keep Denton Beautiful (beauty-full of flowering Redbuds) event. I hung up a birdhouse only for a wasp to make its nest.

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There’s no rhyme or reason to when roses appear, whether tended or ignored. Mint comes back with a vengeance if mowed over, but dies when gingerly transplanted. Tropical ginger couldn’t hack the dry Texas heat, but the coffee hasn’t given up.

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We were charged with babysitting someone’s special organic jalapeño seedlings potted in black gold soil compared to our backyard’s clay bricks, and each one died. Just regular seeds out of fruits from the Mexican market gave us 99% germination on bell peppers and habaneros that overwintered wonderfully. In Colombia we danced salsa; in Texas we grow salsa!

IMG_7454The greatest mystery lately has been what’s sprouting from the unfinished compost I spread over the beds when spring planting time arrived months earlier than expected. The compost from last fall’s garden held the remains of a couple of successfully sweet cantaloupes, several smashed pumpkins from the neighbors that go overboard for Halloween, a boatload of unripe watermelon from an early winter snap, and umpteen vine-borer-infested butternut squash.

Today I moved a mound of leaf bags and squashed underneath I found seedlings with seeds attached: they’re watermelon. But I firmly believe that some others are undefeated squash.

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As Masanobu Fukuoka expressed in The One-Straw Revolution, seemingly random growth is not wrong; it’s entirely natural.