Forget what you know about The Most Interesting Man In The World. The real one lives in Colombia's main coffee-producing region, drives a Nissan he converted to hand controls, and processes coffee using machines he built himself out of old beer kegs and washing machine parts.
His name is César Gómez and he is a badass.
But the path to his life as a coffee-producing hostel owner in one of the most beautiful places on Earth was a circuitous one. César, who goes by El Capi (short for capitano) began his career a Colombian Air Force chopper pilot and then an airline pilot. When a man who was jealous of his girlfriend shot him in the back, he lost use of his legs, but that didn't stop him from working as an airline safety official and a television journalist.
Now, using what he's leaned in his various other lives, he runs a coffee tourism business in Alto de la Mina, a town his grandfather established as a hub of Colombia's coffee trade in the 1880s. Using old beer kegs and washing machine parts, he makes his own coffee, drawing tourism and business to the secluded town.
In the early 1990s, Colombia was still a pretty wild place. Pablo Escobar was still on the loose, and in the culture he supported, it wasn't uncommon for people to get shot in bars and tiendas for looking at someone the wrong way. Another unfortunate side effect of the days when the cocaine trade was rampant and open in Colombia was the rise of guerrilla and paramilitary groups. (Those times have largely disappeared, but the narcotrade still exists. U.S. consumers get 90 percent of their cocaine from Colombia, Ecuador and Boliva.)
As a young pilot in the Colombian Air Force, César said he "dropped a lot of bombs" on guerrillas from the Vietnam-era UH-1 Iroquois helicopters he flew. His military service got him a job as a pilot with Avianca, Colombia's top carrier.
Life was pretty sweet as a dashing young airline captain, but that all came screeching to a halt 17 years ago. As César tells it, his wife's jealous ex-boyfriend, another Air Force guy, decided that he wanted César out of the picture. So he shot César in Cali one night, hitting him in the spine and the lungs. Luckily, the bullet didn't kill him, but one of them severed his spinal cord and he became a paraplegic.
This happened at a time when talking to a strange girl at a bar could get a person shot immediately if her boyfriend happened to be linked into the drug trade (many Colombian males still won't holler at random girls because the paranoia from that violent time persists). It's not clear whether or not the jealous man was narco-connected; he could have been no more than an enraged jilted lover, but who knows. At the time, there were many people with a hand in the drug trade.
Bound to a wheelchair, The Real Most Interesting Man In The World decided to keep kicking ass like he had before he was shot. He started by sticking around at Avianca to run safety and logistics there for a short time before taking his flashing smile and latin good looks to the small screen as a television weatherman.
But although he never lost any of his gusto, César said that the years after the shooting were difficult. To unwind, he frequently visited his family's hacienda in Alto de la Mina, a house and a sprawling complex of coffee processing buildings his great-grandfather built in the 1880s after discovering gold in a river bed nearby. His grandfather had picked the spot because, unlike the valley below, there weren't too many mosquitos up there. (That's why the hamlet is called Alto de la Mina, which means "above the mine, in Spanish.) His forebears moved from gold to coffee as the Colombian coffee trade burgeoned.
Today, Alto de la Mina is a small town with little economic activity, but César is trying to boost its prosperity through coffee tourism. Using the worldly knowledge he gained far from the bucolic hills of his ancestors' coffee farm, César first opened a museum dedicated to the town's and his family's history, then expanded it into a cafe and a hostel with stunning views of the surrounding valley.
Along with a small team of workers, he processes coffee onsite, using old machines and contraptions he's built out of old beer kegs, washing machine parts, and anything else laying around that comes in handy. His coffee bean toaster is perhaps the most spectacular of these, looking like something from Doc Brown's laboratory. He pours the beans into an old beer keg, where they rotate as they're heated by burners that look like they came from a buffet table. Using a custom fabricated metal widget that slides into a bolt hole welded onto the front of the barrel, he checks the beans periodically. When they're ready, he opens a hatch and the beans pour into an old washing machine barrel, where they spin beneath an old bathroom fan to cool off. A network of PVC pipe sucks smoke and dust out of the room to keep the air clear.
Because he's disabled, César has to be creative about how he gets things done. Sometimes he uses a hand powered wheelchair, other times an electric scooter with a pair of vice grips attached where the recliner lever should be.
"This way, I can work the recliner, and if I need a tool for something, it's right here," he said with a grin.
He drives a Nissan SUV with a custom lever installed to operate the pedals. Pull makes it go, push makes it stop. (As a former helicopter pilot, he's probably used to working weird hand controls, because he drives like a pro on sketchy, unpaved mountain roads.) Inside his house, he can't take the stairs, so he built himself an elevator out of angle iron and an old motor. The counterweight — an old washing machine basket loaded with stones — is calibrated to his exact weight. He's totally Parking Lot Mechanic.
"I've had to add a few stones recently because I am getting too fat," he said, laughing. "Hopefully I can take some out soon."
Oh, and the coffee? It's delicious. It smells like heaven and makes you want to drink it until you're a quivering mass of caffeine-addicted worthlessness. César attributes that to the time he and his crew take to make the coffee the right way — he's openly critical of the mass production techniques used in Brazil, where he says producers make bitter-tasting coffee.
So if you're a Colombian coffee fiend and have been curious about where your daily cup of joe comes from, go visit The Real Most Interesting Man In The World. He'll keep you entertained for hours with personal anecdotes and histories of coffee production in Alto de la Mina and worldwide. If you're good, he might even take drive you down the valley to see some ancient petroglyphs.
But what he really has to offer is his boundless enthusiasm and his example of how life can be lived to the fullest no matter what happens to you. This is a man who won't take no for an answer. Anyone — coffee lover or no — can benefit from than.
Photo credit: Benjamin Preston