Chocolate Fridays

Minca, Colombia

Location No.: 132

Time spent there: 09/05/17 – to present

“Viernes de Chocolate”, they didn’t happen every Friday but it was often enough to be a routine we knew and looked forward to. Every now and then my mom would show up with chocolate, usually on a Friday or at least that’s when I remember it to be.

She wasn’t very affectionate when we were growing up, she loved us in ways that I didn’t understand and at times I couldn’t feel her motherliness. Providing for us was proof enough for her and maternal duties were completed with many hours of hard work and earnest sacrifice.

However, we had chocolate. Sometimes it was chocolate-peanut bars, or chocolate ice-cream or ingredients for homemade chocolate cookies. Chocolate Fridays were always unannounced, always a surprise and a welcomed fleeting moment of peace and happiness in our often turbulent home.

Chocolate brought out a side of my mother that was rare. I can summon up the images of her tired smile as we relished her gifts. Chocolate as an offering of affection, a bridge between our hearts, a fix to our familial stress and a language of unspoken words. The exchange, our metaphoric embrace, the momentary light in her eyes. I remember all that better than the taste of the chocolate itself.

Earlier this week, I visited a small organic cacao farm in northern Colombia. Eighty-five years ago, Señor Cardenas, a man who could barely sign his name purchased a gorgeous tract in the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta with breathtaking views of the mountains and the Caribbean Sea.  Along with his sons and grandsons he worked the land producing coffee, cacao and avocados. His grandson, Eugenio and his wife Ana run the small farm today.

Cacao trees grow a tiny fragile flower. Only 2% of them are pollinized resulting in pods, the home of the precious cacao beans. Each bean is covered with a fruity flesh that tastes like mangosteen or lychee and Eugenio instructed me to not bite the bean as I savoured its surrounding sweetness. Before the beans are processed they are high in theobromine making them poisonous; but after they are fermented, sundried and roasted they have one of the world’s favorite flavors.

Eugenio slow roasted a batch of cacao beans for us in a contraption he built from a YouTube video and then ground them into 100% cacao paste. The room filled up with a strong aroma of chocolate as he boiled the paste into hot water and milk. I held the cup of hot chocolate in my hands and brought it close to my face. Steamy chocolate full notes hit my senses, snapshots of my mother accompanied them, invading me with bittersweet nostalgia. My taste buds longed for the intoxicating food of the gods, my heart longed for time with my siblings and those Chocolate Fridays long gone.

Cacao in its purest form is dark, bitter, an acquired taste rich in vitamins and minerals that contributes to health and wellness. In order to make chocolate, one must add a sweetener like honey or sugar and for a more palatable chocolate milk is added. Flavorful chocolatiers mix in ingredients like coffee, ginger, dried fruits, sea salt, chili and even insects.

I don’t know all the intricacies of chocolate but over time, I’ve come to understand my mother’s love during my childhood as 100% cacao. It was pure yet it was so raw. It was hard to consume when it wasn’t processed into chocolate yet it sustained us. It was a survival love, like the flowers from the cacao tree. Perhaps, she only knew how to grow the cacao but didn’t know how to make the truffles so she just gave us our treasured Chocolate Fridays.

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The view from La Candelaria, coffee and cacao farm in Minca, Colombia.
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Cacao pod
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Eugenio, in his tour room showing us the chocolate process from pod to cup. He built the small roasting machine after watching YouTube videos.
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Inside the pod, the prized cacao beans.
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My mom and I during my last visit earlier this year. We lived through a lot, we lost someone we both loved, we are learning how to make chocolate. 
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Fat Guy

Cochabamba, Bolivia

Location No.: 78

Time spent there: 04-21-17 – 04-26-17

I don’t like the nickname we gave him but it was involuntary. His name starts with a “J” and his weight isn’t his most prominent feature. However, every time we tell this story, we end up calling him “Fat Guy, the one who took our money”.

We met him through Couchsurfing, he had eighty-seven positive reviews so no need to worry. He picked us up at the bus station on a Friday and took us to his family’s home. He was a  really big guy, long hair in a braid, a friendly smile, and an arm in a cast. His mother cooked lunch for us, we took a nap in his room and he explained that he had to work that weekend.

Fat Guy was an operator on a radio/tv tower on top of a hill outside of town. The tower had a small bedroom, bathroom and kitchen in it. It sounded like an adventure and we had read some interesting reviews about it in his profile.

We spent the next two days with him, cooked meals together, learnt about his job, shared personal stories, gazed at the city lights below us, and hiked in the trails nearby. There were a couple of inconsistencies in his stories, but who doesn’t have those? Life doesn’t always add up perfectly. We liked Fat Guy. He had unique life tales, he related to the world around him in his own way and he welcomed us into his whirlwind of colourful experiences. He was Bolivian yet so un-Bolivian both inside and out.

Nice guy, but we still kept our backpacks locked at all times, except for those thirty minutes. Damn moment of carelessness while we skipped over to the nearest store for breakfast items. Half of my hidden emergency fund was gone and Thomas’s wallet was ransacked with about seventy percent of it missing. We didn’t want to point the finger immediately but after going over every possible scenario we couldn’t find any other suspect.

Thomas, who gives everyone the benefit of the doubt was willing to believe that an alien had abducted our cash before blaming Fat Guy. Until he decided to take a break from our  hushed Sherlock discussion and eat a snack. Thomas keeps a hidden stash of gourmet chocolate in his backpack. To find the pocket where he keeps his treasure, one would have to be intentionally searching his bag, throughly. That was it, no further proof needed. What kind of man takes another man’s chocolate?

There is always the chance that our conclusion was wrong so we decided not to confront him. We packed up and said a brief and short goodbye to Fat Guy and his radio tower. He didn’t seem surprised to see us depart in such haste. As we shook the dust off our feet, we wondered if he had eaten the chocolate already or if he was savoring it right then.

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PS: I reported him to the administrators of Couchsurfing and his profile has been removed. Usually, with an allegation of this type, a user might be blocked for a time but in his case he was removed completely in less than two days. It’s possible that other guests reported him in the past as well. I’ve had nothing but amazing experiences with Couchsurfing and continue to vouch for the community yet there are always a few bad apples in the bunch.