A Digression to the South

It’s a cliché but a useful one: I can hardly believe it’s only been a week…That’s always how vacation feels, at least if it’s a functional vacation that actually makes reality seem impossibly far away.  Alas, that’s also how the return feels, when the bliss of no responsibility and tropical fruit fades into naught but memory.  I began writing this post fortified by fresh papaya and black coffee cut with leche more akin to whipping cream than American impersonations of milk.  In my standard fare procrastination, I conclude it from the single-digit temperatures of the frozen isle of Manhattan, where the air is so crackly dry it scrapes your throat and there is no papaya.  At least not that I can afford.

The refuge that short week ago?

Bogota, Colombia, city of 8.6 million, plus three (me, the boyfriend and his brother)

We booked our flight here months ago—the bf had airline credit that was about to expire and I was aching for a trip that would be the inverse of Moscow—cheap, delicious and wholly unacademic.  It was a lucky semester of unexpected part-time jobbing, so a brave little vacation budget seemed in order.

Our connecting flight out of Atlanta was delayed by over four hours.  We were actually on the runway when the pilot noticed a light had gone off that “doesn’t normally go off.”  Another forty-five minutes on the runway and they figured out that if nothing else, we weren’t taking that plane to the Andes anytime soon.  Needless to say, airport waiting is never fun, especially not when it brings along with it a 2 am arrival in an enormous and entirely unknown new city (with a wee history of crime).  Inconvenience, however, was actually not the main concern.  The first anxiety generator of our trip which was the fact that our traveling companion had perfectly timed his flight to arrive when we did, and would now be waiting outside Bogota airport baggage claim for four hours.  Oh the best laid of plans….

The waiting however, proved to be very very well worth it.  For one, the little brother was neither kidnapped, robbed nor thrown into a panic.  As for ourselves, we ended up befriending a Colombia fellow on the plane.  He was sound asleep when we got on the first attempt out of Atlanta, but after the endless delays, announcements and shuffling about terminals, we struck up a conversation and by our arrival in Bogota, had exchanged info and ended up hanging out all weekend.  The guidebook had warned us that Colombians were friendly, but it didn’t quite prepare us for the amazing generosity of a guy who borrows his parents’ car to drive you an hour and a half into the mountains to see the lagoon that spawned the El Dorado legend.  Not to mention escorting us around the Botanical Gardens, driving tours of the city, and introducing us to some amazing food.

He also drove us all around the city (Ev—I thought of you!), pointing out the nice areas, the historic sights, and the streets that led to the huge barrio of poverty and crime they call “the Bronx.”   As we were driving near, but not in, the Bronx, someone came up to the car asking for change.  Just as our Colombian hero was hitting the auto-lock on the doors, our guest began to try and disengage the rear view mirror from the driver’s door.  We sped into the intersection and ended up loosing the backing (the plastic encasing opposite the mirror, at least not mirror itself.  I’d never seen someone actually try to steal parts from a moving car— the man actually kept pulling on the mirror even as we were driving.  Our guide was unfazed.

Our first weekend, having been picked up at our place by the ever-accommodating Andres, we headed northwards out of the city and towards the mountains.   Through Bogota, we sped down the stretch of Ave Caracas (or was it Ave Fifteeen?) where the Mariachi players stand along the curb.  Andres told us they are here every day, and people come by to hire them for events, private or commercial.  This particular Sunday they were out in droves (or at least, there were more Mariachis then I’d ever seen at once), standing there in their gold-buttoned costumes and cowboy hats, holding guitars, waiting to be picked up.  Strangely (or aptly?), this is the same stretch where hookers congregate, making for a strange South American catchall locale for evening entertainment.  A few days later, during a scorching, exhaust-fumified mid afternoon, we walked this stretch and saw it up close.   The Mariachis had a beautiful statuesqueness, none seemed even breaking a sweat, and they all stood with dignified and erect posture under the occasional shaded spot of tree line.  Storefronts on this stretch were limited to advertising prix fixe lunches and girlie shows and my compatriots (both male) were subtly handed fliers for hourly specials with Asian ladies.  It’s horrifying how cheap a prostitute is.

That, however, is getting ahead of myself.  We are headed out of the city on mission.  The destination: the aforementioned site of the El Dorado myth, the town of Guatavita.  The lagoon in the top of the lake was believed to be a home to the gods, and the Muisca Indians threw gold-wrought art into the lagoon for ceremonies and as sacrifices.  In some accounts, a Muisca chieftain would ceremonially dive into the lake, covered in gold dust and accompanied by gold coins and stones.  This led to a couple of confusing conclusions on the part of the later invading Spaniards.  First, they suspected that there was some magical property of the lake that produced gold, or that at least housed more of it than the mind could fathom.  Or, better yet, there was an entire city of gold, waiting to be plundered by European expeditions.  A simpler but equally wrong assumption was that the Muisca must have incredible access to local treasure troves (unmined or otherwise), whereas in fact, the Muisca traded for their gold and did very very little mining themselves.  Cruel really, that the Spaniards sooner wanted to believe in a magical lagoon of gold than consider that the indigenous people were master craftspeople and had highly developed trading relations.

The drive to Guatavita was about as spectacular as the lagoon itself.  The mountain road leading out of the city (well-paved, I must add), takes you past countless restaurants and little vacation getaways—imagine little lake front communities with firepits and livestock instead of boats in the front yard.   We went past vineyards producing wine of very suspect quality and nurseries that supply flowers across the region and internationally. We stopped at one point for the best arepas of my life; thin damp mountain air may make everything taste better, but I’m also sure they were good in their own right. As we got further from Bogota, the landscape made me think of a decoupaged Ireland—myriad shades of green and patchwork hillsides, sparse trees and a steely, cloudy sky that wavered between rain and mist.  But with the purple-grey silhouette of the Andes encircling us at all times and the foreground speckled with the three stripes of Colombia’s flag and brightly colored pick-ups from the 70s.  Invisibly embedded in the landscape was the occasional thought that these picturesque mountains were probably sprinkled with guerilla bands.

After seeing the lagoon, we decided to risk the chance of rain and walk the path back to the parking lot rather than avail ourselves of the park-sponsored shuttle.  Just forty or fifty minutes of traipsing down dirt paths adorned with unknown flowers and recent manure made me sorely sorely miss the country.  I couldn’t even remember the last time I went traipsing in the country.  That is a sorry state to be in, and that afternoon was a welcome rectification of how urbanified my life has become.  And even better than any previous country walks I’ve had, this one included a pit stop at a little lean-to where two girls sold grilled corn and homemade corn liquor from one of those giant orange thermoses you see on football sidelines.  Four of us split two ears of buttery, salty blackened corn and a Dixie cup of corn-shine. Nourishment for soul and body.

* * * * *

Among the many great things about Bogota is its pedestrian friendliness.  I had quite naively assumed that only medium sized cities in the Pacific Northwest gave street precedence to bikers and walkers, but two major streets in downtown Bogota are closed off on Fridays and Sundays for non-automobile traffic.  Our first Sunday in Bogota was the day we drove north to Guatavita, and we passed more bikers than you’d see in Central Park on a Saturday.  Watching tanned middle aged people bike up 40 degree inclined mountain roads at 9000 feet elevation has sort of the same effect as watching Rocky or Cirque de Soleil:  you feel awed and very out of shape at the same time.

Our last Friday in the land of guanabanas and uchuvas we decided to check out the Septimazo—the major thoroughfare near us was closed to traffic and was advertised as featuring street performers, endless food carts and vendors of all sorts.  It did not disappoint.  There are some things that are too wonderful to photograph: somehow the fetish of the camera and consumption and materialization would ruin it. (One day when I am pure of heart and have a better memory, I’ll renounce the camera altogether?) The drive to Guatavita was one such experience.  So was the Septimazo.

I kicked off with a coal fire grilled corn on the cob, smothered in butter and sea salt.  Corn in Colombia is a different vegetable than what we have here.  Like the difference between real, juicy, used-to-be-a-speckled-creature-of-God chicken and the stringy tofu of chicken that’s available at most grocery stores.  Colombian corn kernels are enormous and meaty and when grilled they have this crispy salty taut skin.  I could have eaten my weight in them.

Anyway, we began just below the Bull Fighting Ring near our place and wandered southwards towards Plaza Bolivar, past the first smattering of food carts where I got my corn on the cob to fortify me for total visual overstimulation.  The twenty minute walk to the Plaza yielded sightings of:

  • Hipster clowns on unicycles
  • A midget in mariachi clothes singing Mexican ballads
  • Two attractive but utterly untalented female rappers
  • A large screen TV, mounted on a platform, playing Japanese karaoke
  • Another tripod mounted large screen TV with Asians playing violin
  • Barefoot hippie teens doing acrobatics on the ropes suspended from the curbside trees
  • Airbrush artists blasting American club music while painting with blowtorches and razor blades
  • White missionaries doing cheerleading routines for Jesus and preaching (in English) of “relationship” rather than “religion”

Once at the Plaza the boys got paisa chorizo (home-style sausage, I guess you could say) wrapped in a thick corn tortilla and Candelazo—the local cocktail that involves liquor of panela (sugarcane), aguardiente the (local hard liqueur), lime and cinnamon.  It hits the spot in its own way.

As we sat on the steps of the Plaza, looking out the ice rink teeming with skaters, a man came up to us and asked up something in Spanish (logical).  I think he wanted to recite a poem to us for money.  People always find the BF to ask for money.  No joke.  Anyway, we try to tell him that we don’t really speak Spanish, and suddenly the group of teenage girls behind us burst out in giggles and start yelling, “Son gringos!  Son gringos!”  The giggling continued.  This, naturally, did not deter our aspiring poet, who continued to speak despite the adolescent outbursts and our smiling and blank faces.  Their sweet delight in our gringo-hood sums up how Colombians in general seemed to view us—a pleasant novelty neither here nor there.

This was the other beautiful surprise of Colombia, or at least Bogota: how utterly uninterested everyone is with foreigners.  We were three very pale folks, speaking miserable to mediocre Spanish (yours truly doesn’t even deserve to be dubbed miserable).  I can only imagine we had a look of vague wonder and uncertainty most of the time.  Nevertheless, we were always treated courteously.  To our knowledge, we were never ripped off, never zinged with special fees unlisted on the Spanish menus or price lists, and always patiently borne with when we tried to both understand and then deliberate between menu options.  Yes, we will need you to repeat the juice options one more time.  And then wait a moment while we discuss amongst ourselves whether that fruit is maybe persimmon or something altogether foreign.  But that’s just fine.   The very few people who asked us where we were from were always glad to hear that we’d decided to come to Bogota, and then, almost without exception, noted that we should stay longer, or, better yet, never go home at all.  They had a point.


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