Shaved Ice in Cali, Colombia

Jesús María has sold shaved ice in front of the church in the San Antonio neighborhood in Cali, Colombia for 31 years. He’s sold to foreigners, locals, musicians and bull-fighters. His life wouldn’t be the same without his job.

What is the allure of brightly colored, sugary drinks? Could it be the bright colors and the sugar?

The plaza in front of the colonial styled church fills up every afternoon and every weekend with people enjoying the view, listening to the story-tellers that come in the evenings, and enjoying the breeze that blows through after 4:00 in the afternoon.

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San Antonio church in Cali, Colombia, is prime shaved ice-selling territory.

The crowds of people attract vendors of all types of wares: from corn on the cob to hand-crafted, multi-colored leather sandals hawked by travelling artisans. But there is one man who has been there longer than all of them: Jesús María, the shaved ice seller, who has been providing the park with shaved ice for 31 years.

In Colombian Spanish shaved ice is called cholado, and it comes in various forms. There is the simplest version, that Jesús María sells which is ice, passion fruit and blackberry syrups, lemon juice, and sweetened condensed milk. More elaborate cholados will contain the basic ingredients, plus a number of fruits including lulo – a tropical version of the kiwi fruit that is orange on the outside and tart juicy green on the inside – pineapple, mango, banana and whatever else might fit in the cup.

In a city where the average temperature is 25 degrees Celsius (77 degrees Fahrenheit), but often reaching 30°C (86°F), there is no shortage of people looking to cool down. It is a product that is commonly consumed here, as it is in many places where the sun bakes down on beaches and cities. What makes Jesús María’s cholado different from many in the city, and virtually any shaved ice that you could buy around the world is his tricycle bike with an integrated manually cranked ice-shaver.

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Jesús María’s mobile shaved ice machine. It originally belonged to his brother, who was paying too much to keep it parked. Hence, Jesús María’s career as a shaved ice vendor.

Because it is 100% human powered, you have to wait a little longer than you would for a shaved ice that has a motor powered ice shaver, or a slushie that is just waiting for someone to put a cup under the spout, pull the handle and let the brightly colored sugar slush flow. But while you wait, you can appreciate Jesús María’s utter efficiency in production; you can listen to the classic boleros and vallenatos that continuously flow from his transistor radio; you can anticipate the cool sweetness cut by the sour of the lemon juice that you are about to receive.

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Sweetened condensed milk is usually the last ingredient added to a cholado in Colombia.

Selling cholados has been Jesús María’s sole source of income for the last three decades. He charges $4000 pesos ($1.35 US) for a small, and $5000 pesos ($1.70 US) for a large. “On Sundays, I might sell 50. Half of my profits go directly towards supplies, and the other half, I have to spread out over the week. Weekdays are pretty slow, I might sell five or 10 cholados, but I know I can count on Sundays and holidays, when the park is full, to get through the week, “ he explained.

While the days are long for Jesús María – he arrives at the park at 8:30 a.m. and doesn’t leave until after 5:00 p.m. – there are perks to his job. “I’ve served people from all over the world here in the park. But one in particular was Luis Miguel Dominguín, a famous bull-fighter. I remember him because he was sitting right over there, talking on a cell-phone. In that time, no one in Colombia had a cell-phone. So, I asked him who he was, and he told me. But he was just right there, like any other person in the world!”

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Hands stained red with sugary syrups are a sure sign of vocational cholado making.

Jesús María has found vocation in making cholados. “This job brings me a lot of satisfaction. I like it. It’s everything to me. It’s like if I didn’t do this, I would probably get sick from missing it.” He has no plans for modernizing his set-up; it just wouldn’t be the same, for him or his customers.

 

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