by Kevin Barrett
photographs by Nick Pironio
If you ever have the chance to go to a Colombian wedding, I suggest you do whatever necessary to make it happen. And if that wedding coincides with the Colombian celebration of Carnaval…prepare yourself.
My Colombian friends – folks I met when I lived in Buenos Aires a couple years ago – invited me to their wedding in Pasto, Colombia on January 3rd. I’m not sure if they actually expected me to show up. Then again, I think they know me well enough that they weren’t too surprised when I Skyped them and said: “Kevin Barrett plus one.”
Scheduling was a bit tricky. I worked New Year’s Eve, closed the bar (Foundation, where I am cocktail director), and drove straight to the airport with my girlfriend for a 6 a.m. flight. The shell shock from the night before was just wearing off as the trauma of a long layover in Miami set in. After a semi-lucid four-hour flight, we arrived in Quito, the capital of Ecuador. I was instantly revived. I love that feeling when you first arrive and the whole trip is ahead of you. Things can go well or not, but it’s going to be an adventure.
I would have liked spending more than one night at latitude 0, or close to it, but we had to rent a car and drive through the Andes instead. (Traveler’s note: When driving in the mountains of South America, give yourself plenty of extra time, throw out your GPS, and don’t look for signs or count on clear directions. You’ll get the hang of it. We did…eventually.)
We arrived late that night and stayed with the family of the groom. In the morning they fed us breakfast, gave me a haircut, did my girlfriend’s hair and makeup, then fed us again. Colombians have hospitality down to an art.
That afternoon, at the wedding on a mountaintop outside the city, I was reunited with many old friends from Buenos Aires. There was one in particular I had almost forgotten about: aguardiente.
Aguardiente is the anise-flavored cousin of rum. It translates as “firewater,” and drinking it is a social event.
Several old friends and some brand-new ones approached my girlfriend and me with a bottle of aguardiente and a shot glass. After each shot, they’d ask us what we thought of their country. So far, so bueno. Even so, that night, I learned an important life lesson. I learned that every Colombian man, woman, and child can dance better than I can.
The next day, we attended Carnaval de Negros y Blancos in downtown Pasto. There are few things that I have a hard time explaining with words. Carnaval in Pasto is one of them. It must be experienced.
Like New Orleans’ Mardi Gras, it’s a huge city-wide celebration that draws people from all over the world. There are a few unique aspects of it, however.
During Pasto’s Carnaval, people spray you with canned foam (espuma) that they sell on every street corner. Sometimes they throw flour in your hair, and if you’re not paying attention, someone might come up from behind and wipe face paint on you. There are only a few rules: You shouldn’t mess with old people, little kids (unless they start it), or animals. If someone is eating or drinking, you can’t foam them. You can, however, spray foam at the police if you want. I did not want.
Like driving through the Andes, we were not very good at this Carnaval thing the first day. We were annihilated with foam, flour and paint. And that was just from our friends. On the last day, we were foam-wielding Colombian versions of Neo and Trinity from The Matrix. (The first one. The good one.)
We bought hats to protect our hair, and wore glasses to protect our eyes. I even picked up some ponchos to wear so we could wipe away the foam. Most importantly, we had two cans of a special brand of foam with a super nozzle that shot farther than the others. There were some epic battles on that last day while a grand parade – reminiscent of the Mummers in Philadelphia – marched through the city with giant papier mâché floats.
It was a pleasant blend of elegant culture and savage debauchery.
We had to leave that day, despite our friends’ protests. I tried to tell the groom’s father in my poor Spanish how meaningful the whole experience was for us. My Spanish had not gotten any better on this trip, but he understood.
We drove back to Ecuador and explored the rain forest and some natural hot springs. We ate guinea pig. We even ran into my friend Lazlo in Quito the night before we flew home, but that’s another story and another drink. For now I’ll leave you with this.
Que Viva Pasto!
2 ounces Leblon cachaca, or your favorite white rum
¾ ounce fresh lime juice
¾ ounce grenadine
There is no aguardiente in North Carolina. Well, there is, but we call it moonshine and make it from corn. The closest we can get to the flavor of Aguardiente Nariño is cachaça with an absinthe rinse to give it a hint of anise flavor. Also, keep in mind aguardiente is usually drank neat, but maybe it shouldn’t be.
Pour a little absinthe in your favorite cocktail glass and swirl around to coat it before you pour it out. Now mix remaining ingredients, including egg white, in your favorite shaking tins with no ice. Shake vigorously for 10 seconds. Add ice and shake again. Strain into a glass and enjoy your new favorite cocktail.