A little liquid courage in Cali, Colombia
In Cali, Colombia, the self-proclaimed salsa capital of the world, life revolves around the rhythms of Latin music. In the streets in the afternoon, on party buses at night, or in clubs that pulse until the early hours, hips sway as naturally as waves crashing against the shore of the nearby coast. But in late summer, for the five days of the Petronio Alvarez Pacific Music Festival, salsa takes a back seat to the diverse sounds of Colombian Pacific music like cumbia and currulao, and its cacophony of percussion instruments, like the marimba.
Held in Cali’s Pascual Guerrero football stadium, the free festival celebrates the indigenous music, food and culture of the largely Afro-Colombian Pacific region that surrounds Colombia’s third largest city. And since you will most likely be worse than 99% of the other dancers there (unless you happen to be from Brazil), a little liquid courage is just the thing to get your feet moving.
Unfortunately, at the 15th annual Petronio festival, beverage options were limited to viche – an alcohol made from sugar cane that is unique to the Afro-Colombian Pacific coastal communities – and other Pacific specialties such as arrechon, tomaseca and tumbacatre, most of which seemed to contain viche.
Thankfully, Colombia’s Pacific region is responsible for some of its most flavourful cuisine, and dishes like shrimp ceviche and spicy pescado (fish) helped coat my stomach before I had to force viche down my gullet. At its worst, the spirit tastes a little like embalming fluid, or at least how I imagine embalming fluid to taste. At its best, viche tastes like embalming fluid mixed with a spot of rum.
Sadly, for four nights in August, drinking viche was a necessary evil, a rite of passage in the same way that cheap keg beer is a part of university and getting hit in the groin is a disagreeable consequence of riding a mechanical bull. Though aguardiente – a relatively palatable, anis flavoured liquor – is the national drink of Colombia, viche seems to be the object of some (probably misplaced) pride, possibly for its alleged aphrodisiac qualities.
At the Petronio, as well as in certain areas of Pacific Colombia, viche is difficult to avoid, as some friendly local will undoubtedly make sure that you always have a full shot glass. He will then – most likely – send you off to dance with his girlfriend.
Most of the viche and the other micro-produced liquors at Petronio came in plastic bottles with conspicuously homemade-looking labels. The key, it seemed, was to pick something with a label that wasn’t too terrifying (bottles with grey-and-white labels printed on office paper looked extra scary, like perhaps they were brewed in some one’s bathtub). If I made a bad choice, perhaps I could contact the producer via his personal email or phone number listed on the bottle, and demand a refund.
Apparently I chose a bad bottle.
It took less than three minutes before a genuinely concerned local approached and informed my travel partner and I of our mistake. We must try his, he said. It would taste much better. He would come back later and drink it with us, but for now we should just enjoy it. So with two bottles in hand, we continued to drink until another new friend approached. His viche was the best, he assured us. We must drink it. And in fact, both these gentlemen were correct. The difference between each variety was noticeable, in the same way there is a noticeable difference between the taste of regular, plus and premium grades of petrol.
Soon our newest amigo was introducing us to his cousins, all of whom, he explained, were eager to dance with us, a task made difficult by the fact that we were now holding onto a half-dozen bottles. So we passed some viche to neighbours on all sides and danced unashamedly, while the locals attempted to teach us how to move to the beats of the Pacific.
“Espera, espera!” (wait, wait), they would say. “Escucha, escucha” (listen, listen), with a finger to the ear. And they began to clap out the rhythm that remained confusing to our non-Latin ears: clap clap! clap clap clap clap! Clap! Clap clap clap! clap, clap clap clap clap! And then: “OK?!”. After more than a month in the country, this was becoming a regular interaction, as there is always dancing going on.