Heading south from Medellín on the Autopista Sur, past Licores Nacionales, Mango’s discotheque and Envigado, to the last Metro de Medellín station, oversize 4×4 vehicles stream on a pilgrimage to the faux fondas of Sabaneta’s Calle 77 Sur.
Traditionally, Antioquian fondas were akin to stage posts or truck stops where muleteers stopped for food and board, music and drink as they transported cargo between cities and rivers. Sabaneta’s fonda replicas seek to recreate these old customs and a slice of simple country goodness, a mythicised past, collectively held and that bred that charismatic old duffer Juan Valdez, the archetype good natured, dependable and honest bean picker, armed with a smile and a poncho while passing back- breaking days clambering over precipitous mountainsides.
Now, like the English country tea rooms in Dedham Vale that draw gaggles of American tourists yearning for an authentic taste of the old country, the fondas are plasticized and pricey, whose habitués are the moneyed ‘paisa’ (term used to describe the peoples of Antioquia) nouveau riche who gather under the heliconias to feign the Simple Life and engage in a debaucherous cacophony of joyous fun. “We come to the fondas because we are montañeros (mountain people). It is a connection to our past,” says fashion retailer Alexa Vallejo.
Dulce Jesus Mio, is a restyled single storey whitewashed colonial set of cottages with red paint detailing on window frames and doorjambs. Its cooling thick walls and expansive interiors, are crammed with simple wooden tables and chairs. A fabricated environment that, like a Las Vegas casino, aims to transport one somewhere else, in this case a quiet rural town in perpetual celebration of its saint’s day, a replica complete with church, colonial houses, barbershop, dentist and a chiva bus; a make believe world behind closed doors that keeps you hermetically within a fantasy lit by thousands of sparkling fairy lights.
The pantomime is cast with clowns, magicians, dwarves, mimes, a mayor, policeman, priest, nun and enough arrieros (mules) to keep a major European city in angel dust for a while yet. Uniformed male waiters don straw hats from Aguadas, Caldas, white trousers, blouson, poncho and cowhide satchels, while the women skirt along in flowing Victoriana dresses, the cheap fabric of pretense, and trot bottles of guaro (aguardiente), whisky or rum to each and every table.
The purpose is none other than bacchanal: the first shot of guaro goes down, bitter, vile yet successively sweeter and smoother with each thereafter, as a waiter passes with a demijohn of rum sufficient to keep the British Navy afloat. Helped along by a backdrop of rancheros and vallenato, Colombian folk music, and the occasional salsa number for added spice, unwinding more and more with each twist of the bottle cap, each shot brings one closer to that imagined town square of familiar comfort, towards a simpler time, and made possible by the cooling of oversized Japanese engines parked outside that helped consign such a time to the past.
Bottle after bottle topples and crowd the solid wooden tables that resound with the sharp thud-fall of empty shot glasses. Dancing couples, drunk now, wheel around and bump like pinballs off the tables and chairs they swirl between, as a boot polish black drag queen with fantastically bright red lips plants his voluminous newspaper and pillow-stuffed bottom on the lap of every male who enters.
But this is no one trick pony, whose mischievous presence wins gradual acceptance as the aniseed liquor gains the upper hand. There to humiliate for the cause of bon temps, poor lad, his large white Al Jolson eyes flicker and dart, looking for female prey with whom to create many a memorable Kodak moment by shoving a sex toy in their faces, and in keeping with the overall pretense, in true Vegas style, it is fake.
The night nears its crescendo with the arrival of the troubadours, folk singers, that open in pep rally style, drawing easy cheers and whoops and hollers by reminding people how great Colombia and the Paisas are. Ah, here is a little splash of real magic, that rises above the artifice as the troubadours start a trova: a traditional duet sung in ad-libbed humorous couplets that typically extol the beauty of women and the shortcomings of men, verses often inspired by the attributes and characteristics of those present, in alternate rapid-fire verses at increasing tempo.
At its best, the trova is breathtakingly witty and intelligent, an underappreciated art form. And after a another shot burst on my table in the form of a libation, I had everyone singing couplets, and it went something like this: “Paul Harris is a funny lad, and his stories aren’t that bad.”