Colombia. To some, the mere name conjures up images of coca fields and swarthy-looking men with slicked-back hair and a long pinky fingernail exchanging briefcases full of cash for brick-sized packages wrapped in duct-tape. Others think of an RPG ambush on white, USGOV Suburbans or of pink t-shirts, covered by cheap suit jackets, a la Miami Vice. And then, there are those of us that have actually been there.
For those of us that have been to Colombia, most will agree the first thing that strikes you upon arrival is the sheer beauty of the countryside. There are mountains, plains, jungles, snow-capped peaks, headwaters of the Amazon and cities as large and as modern as those of the US. Indeed, Colombia is one of the most diverse countries in the world. As one travel advertisement reads: “If you want to go to the Caribbean, go to Puerto Rico. If you want to see the Andes, go to Peru. If you want to see the Equator, go to Ecuador. If you want to see the Pacific Coast, vacation in Costa Rica. If you want to see the Amazon, travel in Brazil. But if you want to see all of this-go to Colombia.” If anyone has traveled around Colombia for any length of time, they know that statement to be true.
Yes, it’s true Colombia had over 35,000 violent deaths last year. It is the kidnapping capital of the world. They are in the middle of a 40-year old civil war that has developed more sides than a south-Georgia demolition derby. It has millions of displaced citizens, swelling the populations of the larger cities to the breaking point. The roads between cities are rarely traveled due to the various illegal factions vying for territory, with the average citizen normally coming out on the losing end. So, with all this in mind, why would anyone spend precious vacation time in a bona fide 5-star World’s Most Dangerous Place? Easy: the people.
If anyone has spent time around the average person in Colombia, they have learned the true meaning of hospitality and humility. Entire generations have grown up knowing nothing but war, yet in the midst of the turmoil, there is more than an abundance of smiles. A Colombian may not be rich, but he (or she) will gladly invite you into their home for whatever meal they are able to prepare. Chances are, you’ll even walk out with a little gift from them-a chiva perhaps? (A chiva is a very Colombian bus, wildly painted and used traditionally to transport people, chickens, coffee and every other imaginable thing between small towns. Today, miniature replicas are popular as small souvenirs for the occasional gringo passing through).
I am constantly amazed at that magic that each Colombian possesses-that incredible ability to be happy. Almost no one has been left untouched by the war-many have had family members kidnapped or murdered. Most have been financially affected by the increasingly poor condition of the economy due to the struggle. More still have been forced to flee their small villages for larger cities when the rebels took over the area. However, happiness not only survives but thrives. No place is a more shining example of this than Andres’ Carne de Res.
If ever in Bogotá, take the one hour trip north to the town of Chia and visit Andres’ Carne de Res, literally one of the most unique restaurants on the face of the earth. It started years ago when Andres himself set up a small shack that specialized in steaks, South American-style-cooked on large grills. The goal was to create not only a place to eat but also a place for families to have fun together. Andres employed clowns, magicians and storytellers to entertain the children. For the adults, there were wooden picnic-style tables that would accommodate several large families so they could all participate in the conversation. There was always plenty of music and the ever-present refajo (the typical Colombian thirst-quencher made up of Colombiana, a soft-drink like cream soda, beer and a little shot of Aguardiente). Soon, the crowds swelled beyond the capacity of the small, wooden room. Andres was forced to add addition after addition throughout the years until it stands today as one long structure made up of many open-air rooms. Some rooms hold large grills in the middle. Some have a sandbox for the children. Others have a cotton candy machine and a dance floor. The place is still full of musicians, magicians and waiters who act out entire plays involving the diners.
What started out as a way to help the unemployed artists in the area has turned into the restaurant’s trademark-the small, handmade objects that contain Andres’ name. Order a fine Cuban cigar and receive it in a metal tube, molded and hand painted with an old bottlecap holding the cigar inside. Want some cigarettes? Get them in a small woven, hand-painted sack with you-know-who’s name conspicuously displayed. Desserts come in a large dollhouse that opens to reveal the goodies inside. Fruit is served from a Carmen Miranda-like mound on the head of a dancer attired in a flowered dress. And that’s not even mentioning the walls, floors and ceilings! Suffice it to say, it will be the most interesting way to display a menu one will ever see. A small metal box comes down from the ceiling containing the menu in such a way that one must turn the knobs to scroll through the selections. And then there’s the wall ornaments…. well, those you’ll just have to find out for yourself.
To visit Andres’ on a Sunday is to have a restaurant experience that one will remember for a lifetime. There is no talk of war at Andres’ on Sundays. There are only those beautiful Colombian smiles. Smiles from the grandparents holding the children, smiles from the children holding the free sparklers and smiles from Andres who still walks around thinking of new ideas for the walls.
Yes, Colombia is at war; no one is pretending it is not. The Colombian people have many long days ahead of them as a nation; that is a fact. However, to these daunting and dark days, they have learned to turn a face displaying a smile that is both warm and genuine and that is something we all can learn a lesson from.
Author: Cristobal Campos