Yesterday I almost booked a flight out of here. Even my frustration with trying to return something to a store didn’t make me think that I couldn’t live here. Instead, I was brought to the edge by my near inability to buy cocoa powder.

Ok, I admit I’m being slightly melodramatic. But only slightly.

Chocolateras and molinillos

Chocolateras and molinillos

As my friends, family and former co-workers know, I love to bake. I’d heard that recipes for desserts that rise, such as cookies and cakes, need adjusting because of Bogotá’s altitude (8,660 feet/2,640 meters) so I’ve been reluctant to start down the baking path here. However, when I learned that Saturday is the birthday of a guy who has been in my class since I arrived, I knew I finally had a good excuse to turn on the oven. An online search led me to this recipe for high-altitude brownies that I could bring to school for a surprise celebration.

Colombians love their hot chocolate, which they primarily drink at breakfast, often with cheese in it. (Yes, that’s weird.) They even have a special metal pitcher (called a chocolatera) for heating it, and a special wooden utensil (a molinillo) for mixing and frothing it. My house has two of each.

So imagine my shock when I went to the grocery store to buy cocoa powder and couldn’t find any. The baked goods section had only various liquid forms of chocolate topping and everything in the hot chocolate section seemed to have sugar in it. I asked two people for help. At first they couldn’t understand why I wanted unsweetened cocoa powder. Then they proceeded to tell me they don’t have it.

Carulla's hot chocolate section

Carulla’s hot chocolate section

I remembered an off-hand comment about how meal planning here can be difficult because you can’t rely on the grocery stores to have the same items in stock consistently. I decided to try the Carulla six blocks away in hopes that I could find cocoa powder there.

Again, I struck out in the baked good aisle. When I got to the hot beverage aisle, I decided to spend some time reading the packages. And, lo and behold, there in the middle of the millions of different types of hot chocolate, was my natural cocoa powder. (Specifically, on the fourth row down, just to the left of all of the green packages, there are two bags of it, one hidden behind the 20% off sign.)

In hindsight, I suspect they do sell it at my neighborhood Carulla, I just didn’t take the time to read the packages carefully because I trusted the employees to know their inventory. I now remember another off-hand comment about how people here are so eager to be helpful that they’ll answer any question, even if they have no idea whether their information is correct.

Arequipe

Arequipe

The brownies came out well, especially because I decided to add a Colombian touch. Another sweet they love here is arequipe, which is like caramel, but not as thick and sticky. I decided the brownies would be enhanced by a layer of arequipe in the middle. I was right, sort of. Most of the arequipe melted into the brownies instead of baking as a separate layer. I was disappointed to see this, but once I tasted one, I realized it gave them an extra fudgy texture. Delicious. I’ve decided to stay.