Re-heating leftovers, cultural relativism, and the depiction of Colombian riders by the international media

As a kid, I never really noticed how often my family ate leftovers. I had grown up doing so, and many of my friend's families did the same, collectively raising leftovers to a culinary art that many visitors to Colombia now identify as its own dish (see this recipe as proof). "Calentado", which literally translates to "heated" or "re-heated" is what we lovingly call our leftovers days after, and they usually consist of rice, vegetables and beans along with meat, which all begin to coagulate into a starchy concoction. This is because calentado is usually made up leftovers from a few different meals, collected over days in one plate, and heated up as one. This is a dish that is both loved and known all over the country. I say "most", because at one point during my childhood, a school friend who used to frequent our home pointed out how often he'd been served calentado while visiting. He viewed it as a sign of my family's (relative) poverty, something that had never occurred to me.

Today, living in the United States, I'm amazed by the fact that many friends of mine won't eat leftovers, or take extra food home with them from restaurants (the thought of mixing up random leftovers into one dish would probably scare them to no end). I guess the well-worn saying applies to me in this regard: you can take the kid out of Colombia, but you can't take Colombia out of the kid.

I tell you all this because today's post is little more than calentado. Thoughts, images and others bits of information that were left over, and are all presented to you here as one body of text.

It's all relative
The image above show a young(er) Nairo Quintana, racing in his native department of Boyaca on a mountain bike. Below you'll see a similar picture of him on a track bike. These photos, along with one of his parents and two of his siblings in front of the family home were published by the Colombian magazine Cromos not long ago.

On the day that these photos were published, I received a request for an interview via email, from an author in Spain who is writing a book about about Nairo Quintana for a Colombian publisher. The author kindly asked if we could speak, since he wanted to interview me for the book. I was taken aback. I'm by no means an expert on Nairo Quintana, nor Colombian cycling really. So I proceeded cautiously, but was pleasantly surprised to find out that the questions being asked of me only dealt with Quintana tangentially.

One of the primary topics we discussed was how Colombia is perceived in other countries, and how the upbringings of men like Quintana become such a strong part of the narrative abroad. Often depicted as coming from absolute poverty, men like Nairo and his brother Dayer have had to explain their childhoods to the press, to get across the idea that they didn't grow up eating dirt while living in a hut. This is because monetary status is relative at best, and in rural Colombia, having a roof over your head, and food in your belly (while people in your family work hard to earn a living) makes you working class, not poor, despite what appearances and external standards may convey to those abroad. I don't think this is a matter of lacking self-awareness, or an example of cultural relativism. But rather, it's an example of how intrinsically linked we are to our own self-view (which we learned and took on as kids), which in turn is shaped by our surroundings, and the societal standards that come with it.

This is not to say that we all grow up in what sociologist Erving Goffman described as a "total institution", places where we are isolated to an extent that we begin to create and live by new sets of standards and rules. The way we view ourselves and our upbringing is crafted through concrete events, but relative values. Values that, relative as they may seem to some, shape one of the most powerful and seemingly concrete views we all come to have: who we are.

This all brings me back to just how questionable the portrayal of Colombian cyclists in the media can be. Weary of how often these men are referred to as being poor, dark, diminutive (I myself may have used this word, I myself am somewhat diminutive), and several other words along those lines, it will be interesting to see if/when the tone in which they are spoken about changes. Are Colombian athletes destined to always be portrayed as the hapless underdogs, even if they grow out of that role? For that matter, have they not done so already?

Many of these issues, regarding how men like Nairo and their family are portrayed in the media, don't just apply to the international press. Enamored by the juxtaposition of a farmer's son conquering a stage at the Tour de France in far-away Europe, Colombia's media outlets usually resort to similar devices when it comes to our sports figures. This, I would venture to say, has to do with how disconnected those who live in a huge city like Bogota often are from the country's rural areas. The level of disconnection is often frighteningly similar to that of journalists who have never even set foot in Latin America.

Which brings me back to calentado. It may look a bit like hog food to some. And though time has granted me some level of self-awareness, I continue to see eating it as part of my life growing up, and never as a sign of the relative financial realities in which I lived. This is because I continue to judge my upbringing with the knowledge I had then, and international standard and views can do little to change that.

A couple of weeks ago, I received a small package from Belgium in the mail. I opened it eagerly, not knowing what fantastic contents lay inside. Sadly, the package contained two copies of the program that was given out in Amy Dombroski's memorial. Needless to say, mood soured upon seeing this. But I then tried my best to remember how great my trip to Zonhoven was last year, and how kind Amy was to me, as I spent the afternoon with her, bothering her to no end, and asking endless questions, as I took a million pictures before, during and after the race. Below are other photos from that race which I never got around to posting before.