James Beard Publication of the Year 2017

Switching From Beer to Rum Ups the Stakes When Gunpowder Is Involved

Switching From Beer to Rum Ups the Stakes When Gunpowder Is Involved

Beer in San Gil

The mountain air was filled with flying lead and clinking bottles, and sudden cracks of gunpowder made everyone jump. It was just another round of tejo, Colombia’s favorite drinking game.

We lined up to play, kicking a line on the cement floor, throwing lead pucks across the room into a clay-filled pan. Points were awarded for burying a puck in the center of the clay, or for crushing a mecha, a small paper packet filled with loose gunpowder. An evening of tejo was a welcome break after two weeks of hard riding, pedaling a loaded bicycle over Colombia’s dirt roads and mountain passes.

Since arriving in Bogotá, we’d camped in soccer fields, abandoned schools, and at the edge of train tracks, and we’d been overwhelmed by the generosity of the people we met. We had read about the war before leaving home, about the killings and disappearances, and we looked for signs of that trauma in the villages and highlands of the Colombian Andes. But every conversation turned instead to the country’s beauty, the women, the food—it was clear that the people we met were ready for the world to change the subject already, okay?

Before the end of the first tejo match, my beer bottle was smeared in red clay. After two, we’d racked up a line of empties along the fence, and my teammates were pouring rum straight into their bottles of Coke. It raised the stakes considerably and I kept my head up, ready to dodge the flying lead pucks that skittered across the cement and ricocheted off the wooden backboards.

Even that couldn’t distract the players next door, who weighed each throw with deliberation, landing their pucks in the center of the clay, snapping mechas every few minutes. We drifted to the adjacent lawn-bowling alley, where a couple of local guys practiced their throws beside an impressive collection of empty bottles. One man came over to the group to give my husband, Daniel, a beer, clapping him on the shoulder. “Welcome to my country,” he said, over and over. “Do you like it?”

“I like it very much,” Daniel replied. Our new friend beamed, pleased, and handed him another beer. “Yes,” he sighed, “Colombia is very beautiful.”

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