This post is about to make you hungry.
Here in Cali, papayas and mangos are essential eats everyday, avocados grow as big as my head, $2 street food is saving my life, and we are perfecting the art of cooking rice. Every experience in Colombia is metaphorically feeding my hunger for new perspectives, adventure, and personal growth, but the physical meals repeatedly have opened the door for new relationships and new friendships and this has been the sweetest part.
One of my first weeks in Cali, I was assigned to make a “traditional Colombian dish” for homework. I quickly ran home and asked my roommate Jenni, born and raised in Cali, if she would help me choose a dish. She excitedly responded that we should make Sopa de Queso. She called her mom, wrote down a recipe and I hurried off to a market to purchase the veggies, cheese, and herbs needed to make this dish. The next day, Jenni and I met in our little kitchen, turned up the music really loud, and began chopping veggies. We quickly decided that we were going to record the process like a cooking tutorial video, so we pulled out the selfie stick and began filming. Three hours and a bloody finger later, many laughs and me repeatedly asking what different veggies were called in Spanish, all of our roommates gathered around our kitchen table eating the steaming hot, delicious soup together.
In this moment my family table had gotten a little bit bigger.
Around the kitchen table in apartment 603, our hands were submerged in a dough made of flour, salt and water as my 12 year-old neighbor explained the steps. We slowly kneaded the ingredients together with our fingers, as American classics of the 70s and 80s (Queen, Nirvana, Abba, and Elton John) played in the background. After we finished kneading, the dough was swept into the kitchen only to reappear minutes later, fully formed into fresh, warm, steaming arepas stuffed with meat, avocado, tomatoes, and onions. On this particular night, the Venezuelan family that lives in our same apartment building had invited me into their home saying it was imperative for me to learn how to make Venezuelan arepas (slyly adding that they are much better than Colombian arepas).
Over the warm arepas, I learned that this family was new to Cali only three years earlier when they were forced to leave their home, family, and life in Venezuela to find refuge in safer city. As we ate, they explained to me differences in language, culture, food, and life in Colombia. We shared stories of our cities and the things we missed about home, while also discussing the things that we loved about Cali. The night ended with us once more, all huddled around the kitchen table, giving mini tours of our home towns on google maps.
In this moment my community table had gotten a little bit bigger.
The first time I felt like a real Univalle student, I was in the cafeteria line. A boy standing in front of my friend Julia and I, who seemed to be listening, turned around and asked if we spoke Spanish. Both of us nodded and we began chatting with this other student. He motioned to lead us through the faster line, and we followed him all the way up to the food. We got big bowls of beans, meat, rice and fresh juice and invited him to come sit with us outside. Here, our conversations turned to asking him about Cali, the health care system, systemic education problems and what he knows about America. We all laughed when he told us that he wanted to visit Alabama because he really loves the movie Forest Gump. He wanted to know our stories too, why we were here and what we thought of everything. After we were done eating, he ran off to class and we ran off to finish our homework, but we left having gained a new friend.
In this moment my international table had gotten a little bit bigger.
In each of these stories, food welcomed the opportunity to learn about the experiences of someone else, feel more at home in this new place and a peak at special pieces of culture and tradition that people hold dear. These are the meals that continually leave me feeling full.