Colombia’s identity resembles that of its national liquor, aguardiente: tempestuous, exotic, and scorching. Guerrilla warfare, drug trafficking, and a sense that things are only getting worse spill into a magical sea of Caribbean beaches, Andean valleys, and the Amazonian rainforest. An intoxicating mix of passion and struggle, the war at home wounds from far away. A swig of alcohol dabs the injury. Fútbol (soccer), a national obsession, is the chaser.
Dressed in the yellow, blue, and red of Colombia’s flag, EL CAPITOLIO (83-17 Roosevelt Avenue, 718-478-8771) is dark, quiet, and crowded. Two huge photos hang prominently side by side: a brightly lit emerald-green soccer field and a close-up of fans, frozen in ephemeral exhilaration. Gooooooooool! Colombia 1, Ecuador 0. Frenzy collides with brotherhood, bonding street-corner Casanovas who toast to the homeland. Two big screens and two small TVs are tuned to the Copa America—a/k/a the Peace Cup this year, since that’s what hostess Colombia desires. A waitress, all tight wear and long hair, delivers me a shot of Aguardiente Antioqueño ($3), sugar cane alcohol mixed with natural anise essence, a dry concoction that lingers after I down it. Halftime means big business. Calling-card vendors, flag and CD salesmen, and a bespectacled older lady selling gum and cigarettes hawk their merchandise. A few Coronas ($4) later Colombia beats Ecuador, cumbia music is played on cue, and little kids and their dads file out.
The sports odyssey continues days later at CHIBCHA RESTAURANT (79-05 Roosevelt Avenue, 718-429-9033), where the crowd, splayed out between five giant screens and two television sets, stares back at their own El Dorado, the Metropolitan Stadium in Barranquilla, Colombia. The ranch-style spread, decked out in bullfight memorabilia, fake balconies, and pictures of the countryside houses it imitates, takes the illusion one step further with a pretend stable enclosing a life-size portrait of a horse. A lasso hangs close by in case the stallion gets feisty. After a glass of Ron Viejo de Caldas, an aged rum that I wrongly sully with Coke ($6), the drama being played out between Colombia and Chile seems more desperate. The stakes are higher. Colombia must put on a good show. Our morale was crushed when the vice president of the federal soccer association was kidnapped. And our pride was hurt when Canada and superego Argentina refused to play. Lack of security the only reason? With a Cerveza Aguila ($3) in hand I raise my glass to survival and perseverance. The thin brew hinting of apple tries to lure me back for more. Instead I move on down the avenue.
Outside, a stranger in a tux checks ID and baseball caps at the door of CLARO DE LUNA 76 (76-03 Roosevelt Avenue, 718-533-0101), an upscale nightclub with game. Inside, paintings of voluptuous naked women greet me. I grab a too syrupy piña colada ($5) and a seat by the ruby-red-lit bar. Soft-focus violet lights show off the scratched wooden dancefloor, old scars left by fancy heels no doubt. The few bodies present huddle around a bottle of Aguardiente Cristal nearby as the game breaks for halftime. Colombia 1, Chile 0. Romantic salsa, fit for married men and their mistresses, blares from the speakers. The floor beckons, but the house specialty, A Claro de Luna (grenadine, vodka, peach schnapps, and grapefruit juice; $6), keeps me grounded. The too bitter cocktail clashes with my palate. Too sweet, too tart, is there no in-between? Can’t we all just get along? My mind drifts. Colombia scores again. Gooooooooool! We all shout in unison. Finally. How sweet it is.