Monday, May 30, 2011

el Viajero Pobres - Bogotá

-Bogota May 5, 2011-

The kind young lady at the United check-in counter at the Ottawa airport offered to tag my luggage “High Priority” (which may not have been a good idea considering where I was going) after last summer’s debacle in Buenos Aires. Flight to Washington was uneventful; no peanuts or salted pretzels, a choice of bottled water, juice, coffee or soft drink and an annoyed-looking flight attendant who when not pushing her cart up and down the centre aisle, which she did with bland indifference, lay crosswise half asleep in the seats next the lavatory. She did however saved me the embarrassment of busting in on someone au-commode by pointing out to me that the lavatory was indeed occupied. Huston airport is wonderful: clean, well laid out and impeccably maintained. Flying over the suburban DC I couldn’t help but notice how many trees (all of one green canopied type) there are in this State; a veritable green space bespackled with tan/ecru mansions all with swimming pool, winding laneway and manicured lawns. Whomever won the contract for developing must have walked away a billionaire. I was fortunate to have all three seats on my side of the aisle on the flight from Huston to Bogota. With the exception of a cranky baby and the seat in front cranked as far back as it would crank, the 5 hours was as comfortable as a Continental flight is or could be. Finding and keeping an internet connection in Bogota is a challenge; ergo the tardiness of my first email.

Deplaned, we were corralled into two queues and quickly processed through Colombian customs; me twice, the second customs agent referring to me by name, which was either rather friendly or a sign that they knew I was coming. Rolling my luggage through the mechanical doors I was met by what appeared to be the paparazzi. In actually fact they were taxi people; some taxi agents, the inveiglers, dressed in suits with little paddles with the name of a hotel who pressure you into their taxi, armed police, sniffer dogs, Golden Labs, and the general hustle and bustle of a big city airport. My first mistake was to accept the false generosity of the inveigler. He took note of where I was going and quickly, before I came to my senses, which I suppose given my 11 hours of travel was unlikely, ushered me to a black non-descript taxi. I was quoted 40 thousand pesos, about $22 Cdn. After a harrowing drive lurching and caroming through heavy traffic we arrived at my hotel. The driver then took my 50 Mille peso note and claimed he had no change; which of course he did. Thankfully Leo, the owner if the B&B’s son, came to my rescue and dealt with the inveigler. I was told this is not uncommon and that unmarked, or private taxis are to be avoided at all costs.

I was taken to my room, a double bed, wide screen TV mounted on the wall, lots of closet space, a second smaller room with a settee and table and a private bathroom with a shower that resembles a walk-in closet with a skylight, the shower nozzle attached to wiring attached to a device that is suppose to, and I say suppose to, change cold water into tepid. The windows are barred, as is the door. Its actually quite a nice room; and for what I paid incredible! The hot water… well I am in South America after all.

Bogota is situated in the high plains of Cundinamarca and Boyacá in the Eastern Cordillera of the Andes, 2,640 m. above sea level. Needless to say I was hit with altitude sickness as soon as I walked off the plane and onto the plain. The symptoms are a headache, joint aches, difficulty catching one’s breath and a general malaise that dissipates within a day or two. I’m fine, just a bit rough around the edges; not something to be overly concerned with. I’m told that once my system aligns itself with Bogota’s I’ll be hale and hearty.

-May 6, 2011-

I met up with Leslie yesterday; my contact here in Bogota. Leslie grew up around the corner from me in Pointe Claire, attended the same high school and Cegep, knows about laviolettes and late-night drinking in Valois Park and has been living here and working as a journalist and translator for the past 22 years. She lives with her two sons, 14 and 16, in a residential part of the city where she owns a condominium. Well aware of my aches and pains Leslie suggesting coca tea, yes coca, which I graciously declines (its suppose to remedy altitude sickness and is non-toxic when not mulched with diesel fuel, Janitor in a Drum, bathroom solvents and or lye). Leslie invited me for lunch after which we took for a short walk to a park near her home; and for those of you who are hell-bent on a complete smoking ban in all public spaces, which in many ways I do agree with, albeit grudgingly, the park is designated non-smoking; which I discovered when the guards motioned at me when I lit up. Next a solo jaunt around the neighborhood, Leslie’s boys were due home from school, where every building complex has its own guard-post and Eastern European style boarder crossing fence thingamajig, rising and lower when an ID carrying resident arrives and leaves by car.

My first attempt at buying cigarettes went well, the woman behind the counter getting help from a woman on my side of the counter who successfully translated my all but non-existent Spanish. For those of you who smoke cigarettes range from $2 to 3 depending on where you purchase them. Unlike Canada where a single package of cigarettes is taxed upwards of $7, the taxes levied in Bogota are middling to nil. Mind you with the altitude here in Bogota, and the respiratory heaviness it encourages, one smoked cigarette goes a long, long way; a puff more like a pant or a railing gasp. Leslie invited me for supper so I had the opportunity to meet her boys; two wonderful, well educated polite young gentlemen.

After dinner we taxied it to an Irish Pub for quiz night, the taxi ride taking well over an hour… even at 7-8 pm the traffic merciless, as was our driver who had no compunctions about laying on the horn whenever he felt like it or felt he had been slighted by another taxi driver, which from what I’ve witnessed is all too common. Its sort of like automobile jousting but with 3 thousand pounds under you rather than a dappled roan mare. Perhaps Cervantes lives on in the minds and tempers of cabbies and their fares (as I too felt like screaming out the window at a slow moving car or a hopscotching J-walking! But with armed military everywhere one is best to keep one’s moribund thoughts to oneself)

Arriving late we joined a team of Brit expats, one of whom is married to a Colombian who runs a private school and the other in the British military stationed in Bogota. One of the answers was ‘face-off’, referring to how certain sporting events begin. They were happy to have a stick-swinging, elbow crunching Kanuk on their side. The pub is in an older colonial part of Bogota, once a city in itself, now part of greater Bogota. I noticed a tableful of young people across from the pub drinking shots of alcohol from Mickey’s, which I was to discover are sold in the local bodegas and permitted on the outdoor porticos. The line between the wealthy and the poor is like a Chinese Wall; the rich driving sporty European cars, lots of BMW’s and Mercedes, and the poor using horse and cart or cheap one-stroke motorcycles. Not an un-mufflered Harley in sight, much to my delight. And of course public transit: a mishmash of privately owned and operated buses that stop upon request and carry people hanging off the doors, literally. Then there is the city-run Transmilenio: a network of articulated buses with dozens of stations on its six main lines. There are also packs of minibuses and vans. And of course the ubiquitous yellow radio taxis that work like drones in a beehive running people around Bogota like so many lemons with wheels. They drivers tend to be fair, but it is best to arrange a fare before setting off; that way you dispense with haggling with someone who will invariably always have the upper hand and come out on top.

-May 7, 2011-

When I arrived there was a vase of flowers in my room; long stems with big white trumpet shaped flowers. I'm not sure what they are, but they are beautiful. Yesterday I ventured out and did some shopping: fruit, oranges and apples, some raw almonds, bread, honey, yogurt, peanuts and potato chips, two bottles of con gas water, a liter of mandarin juice all for under $10 Canadian. Thus far I've been able to order dos empanadas with cheese and dos with a mixture of beef, lentils, potato and spices. I'm working on expanding on my food ordering and will hopefully be able to order a full Colombian meal soon. Leslie is going to take me around the centre of Bogota tomorrow; once I get my bearings I should be able to move around on my own with more confidence. The weather is a mixture of hot and muggy with rain and bright hot and sunny; you get a mixture of each throughout the day and evening.

I saw someone right out of my novel, a character who lives, subsists, in the fictional world I have created. A legless man punting up the sidewalk using wooden blocks. His pants legs, coiled like braided rope, trailed behind him tied in a knot; a look of determination offset with despair on his sun-reddened face; people moving aside as he trundled passed, one arm occasionally stretched out begging for alms. He brought me back to my own fictional world, a world inhabited with half-people and people living half-lives. People struggling to make it through another day, living on the edge of humanity, the forgotten, the marginalized and humiliated, hanging on with all their might.

The poverty here is staggering; the area where I am staying considered one of the richest in Bogota, a level 5, meaning well-guarded and safe. As there is no such thing as unemployment benefits or social assistance if you don’t work you don’t eat, which creates a subculture of beggars who’s very existence depends on the kindness and humanity of others. One hour of my hourly wage would feed a family of 5 for 2 days. If I can I try to buy from street vendors, their canopied pushcarts lining the main streets and thoroughfares; the city landscape dotted with colourful umbrellas and ramshackle horse-drawn farm carts. I saw a horse grazing in the median and the owners, a man and woman, sprawled out in the grass; the woman picking lice from the man’s head. The horse appeared healthier and better cared for than the couple; its belly sagging below its haunches as it ate its fill of free grass.

Took a taxi to the neighborhood where the Irish pub is where I was lauded for my knowledge of ice hockey; $5 Cnd. There is a small park with stone benches surrounding the centre and wooden benches lining the perimeter. Sunday is outdoor market day; vendors selling everything from jewelry to Colombian artwork, scarves and handbags to cakes and empanadas, the general ware one finds at an outdoor market. Much like the one Julie and I went to in Buenos Aires, except with armed police standing around trying not to look menacing. As I was much in need of coffee with cream, a rarity in Bogota, I stopped in at the Irish Pub and took a seat in the outdoor courtyard at the back of the pub; a rustic garden with flowers and other unidentifiable flora hanging in suspended baskets. I ordered a coffee con leche (with cream) and opened my book, which I was told by two foreign teachers, who moments later asked me to join them, indentified me as a gringo. I was invited to join them and drilled for 10 minutes: where are you from, what do you think of the weather, why Bogota of all place… Jessica is from Texas and has dual citizenship as her father is Colombian; Joanne is from Michigan I think; both are teachers at a private school here in Bogota. It started to rain, which it does intermittently, very intermittently, then as quick as it started it stopped, the clouds opening up a crack, letting a single ray of sunlight through.

Jessica and Joanne were drinking a mixture of mulched mint leaves, two types of rum and fresh lemon; a Bogotá concoction one wouldn’t find at your local Ottawa pub; nor, I imagine, would one want to as it looks like the grass clippings you scrap from the bottom of your lawnmower. I ordered a second café con leche, much to my headaches delight. A British/American music producer/manager/roadie joined us (Joanne, I was soon to discover, is a pro at engaging people in conversation, inviting a third English speaking person to join our quadrate; making a roundtable pentangle).The British/American music producer/manager/roadie regaled us with Jason Bourne-like stories of customs intrigue and full-cavity searches, telling us that he had three passports, UK, US and some other make-believe country, and was working on getting a fourth… making the Jason Bourne reference rather fitting. Before flagging a taxi back to the B&B I gave Jessica the phone number where I’m staying; Jessica suggested we get together this week and do some sightseeing and pub hopping. The Colombians are welcome to all the grass clippings and rum they can stomach. I’ll stick with café con leche or Ginger Ale and lime.

-May 8, 2011-

I’m loathe to admit, but yes I am watching the News; CNN in English. My perspective on ‘things’ is different; Colombia existing outside the social and political pomposity of North America. However, with the presence, a ubiquity that seldom escapes your attention, a simulacrum, French theorist Jean Baudrillard (1929–2007) would say, of the police and military around every corner and on every street, under underpasses, too, one gets the feeling that ones’ movements are being carefully monitored. But as in most South American country, 20,000 Pesos folded into a neat pentagon and stealthily offered in a handshake generally makes most problems disappear. At the airport the DAS, the Colombian secret police, regularly pull people out of line to either 1) ask you more in-depth questions or B) ask you to follow them to one of the many interrogation rooms, this after you’ve already been processed through customs. As long as you have everything written down and ready to hand over, where you were staying while in Bogota, the hotel address, any friends you might have living in Colombia, how much money you have with you, etc., you don’t really get hassled; unless of course you draw undue attention to yourself like wearing your sunglasses in the airport, acting shifty, perspiring profusely (the airport is air-conditioned), staring at the Das, which in itself is beyond imbecilic, or have a sleeve or two of tattoos, the ones that make you stand out whether you intend to or not. (They like Ozzie Osborne here, cable carries his reality show, but remember you are in a very Catholic country. Any impious shenanigans can come back to hit you like a headless chicken in the forehead!)

One takes ones’ chances when one tales a taxi in Bogota. The traffic here is beyond congested, more like an arterial blood clot that stretches North, South, East and West. A trip in a taxi is like a rollercoaster ride without the loop-to-loops and curvy tracks. The horn is a necessity, not an automobile “apt”, and is to be used without fear of reprisal or a punch in the eye, everyone lays into them, even old ladies, the blind and the Sisters of Mercy, a gaggle of whom I saw walking together this evening their white habits in glaring contrast to the generally morose attire of evening-goers. Taxi drivers swerve carom around the city streets like they have to get home because they just got a text-messaging telling them that their wife is about to sell the house and move out with her new boyfriend. In all my travels, both abroad and at home, I have never in my life been witness to such crazy driving, and no Montreal doesn’t even come close, congested roads, traffic jams and all around insane operation of a motor vehicle. Add to this motorcycles veering in and out of traffic, cutting off cars and bumping in, the every-present highway vendor, selling everything from bottled water, roasted something or the other, nuts I think, candy and of course dashboard ornaments; the Virgin Mary by far the most popular. It’s a wonder the emergency wards aren’t overflowing with half-amputated Virgin Mary salesmen, small children, as they too flag sown speeding cars too, actually stopped, the traffic, remember, and bottled water hawkers. Perhaps that’s why Catholicism is so prevalent here in Bogota.

I met Leslie this afternoon at the Juan Valdez coffee shop abutting the Botero Museum. There’s nothing quite like a Cappuccino with raw unrefined sugar after a harrowing taxi ride up a mountain. Of course the taxi driver grossly overcharged me, almost double from what Leslie told me. I knew something was up when he put in a CD with all those one hit wonders from the eighties; the Bee Gees blaring out the window as we swerved in and around traffic, a symphony of horns cutting into a heartfelt Bee Gee’s harmony that had me thinking of that French girl I dated with the friend who had one blue and one brown and Nicole who’s bust out measured anything I’d ever seen in National Geographic. Leslie showed me around the centre of Bogota, stopping every so often to wonder at the confectionaries and sweets displayed like soldiers in the pastry and bakery windows. Thank goodness I saw a sign announcing “Cheap liposuction” on my way in by taxi. We stopped in at one of the many churches, dating back to the early 16th century, and I gawked at the religious paintings and artifacts that adorned the inside of the sanctuary, a few feet away two people deep in prayer as I rubbed my hand against 16th century wood and stone. The Botero Museum, though small, is wonderful! Some of the rooms display works by Picasso, Dali, a bust, which I had no idea Dali dabbled in, Monet to name a few. I plan to visit a second time before I leave. The Gold Museum and National Museum I will save for later in the week, as they, I am sure, will occupy a great deal of my aesthetic time.

-May 9, 2011-

This is what I wrote (for my novel) after seeing the legless beggar: “He saw him again; his legs dragging behind him like coils of rope, feet crippled with polio, hands clutching wooden blocks tied to his wrists with old clothesline. He pulled himself across the blacktop stopping every few feet to reposition his weight, then pushing down hard on his elbows aligned his shoulders with the cracks in the sidewalk, loose stones and gravel leaving their imprint on his forearms and hands, then bowing his back, his ribcage snapping, continued on his way, those around him making no effort to hide the fear and repulsion on their faces. Lela saw him; his faint image; the Sisters of Charity cajoling him to give his worthless life over to God; the Witness, shoving a pamphlet into his face saying ‘--God recognizes only those who recognize Him… and you… God doesn’t see… doesn’t recognize Himself in you… you have yet to be born… dead, that’s what you are… the dead among the living’.”

Much like Buenos Aires Bogota is a city of pastries and sweets. The side streets are lined with sweet shops offering such saccharine treats as caramel filled trumpets, custard filled tubas, cheese rolls and something that resembles a bagel covered in icing, coconut cookies and tamarind filled squares, delicate handmade confectionaries that would stop an elephant in its tracks, a sweet tooth heaven that is sure to change a sourpuss into a doughy optimist.

Leslie invited me for lunch today: a traditional Colombian soup with potatoes and chicken; very hearty and belly warming… a real treat for someone whose ordering range consists of cheese empanadas and cigarettes. I used an ABM for the first time today, and must say it came off without a hitch… of course Leslie pointed out the right buttons to push. Thank goodness Green is the international colour of GO! Or gangrene! Which I’m sure an inexpensive lipo vacuuming would remedy (see “Cheap Liposuction”). I am very fortunate to have a friend, a new friend in fact, here to show me the proverbial ropes. It sure “do” make things easier. There seems to be a common bond a, wherewithal if you may, between people who were born, schooled and raised in Montreal. Perhaps it’s the way we were brought up, Pointe Claire is, or at least was when I was growing up, a predominately English suburb and traveling outside of the relative safety of English speaking Montreal into the predominately Francophone world of Montreal taught us how to be aware of our surrounds, people, the divide between the two cultures was just beginning to be politicized, the 1979 provincial election that saw Rene Levesque take office, and not to look too naïve or Anglais cocky. This schooling, I suppose, stead’s we English Montrealers well abroad, preparing us to accept our minority status wherever, okay almost wherever, we go. Humility speaks louder than cultural superiority.

Much to my good fortune, which has been sullied by shyster taxi drivers (actually both of today’s trips were wonderful; I paid the Bogota fare) I was invited to dinner at Leslie’s. I had the all to rare opportunity to sit down to supper with Leslie and her two sons, two exceptionally talent and engaging young men. I was also privy to mother and sons building, yes building, blackberry jam in the middle building, a cake for their father’s birthday. Leslie’s most recent email said that the cake, indeed, had risen to the occasion! I’m planning a daytrip back into the city-centre for tomorrow: back to the Botero Museum, the Gold Museum, the Archeology Museum and window shopping for sweets and caramel filled trumpets. Remember, cosmetic surgery in Bogota is cheaper than a well-tailored suit… no matter what side you dress on!

-May 10, 2011-

I was told by a guest from the Netherlands staying here that helicopters fly over neighborhoods looking for suspected drug dealers, the ear-deafening whippoorwill-whippoorwill of the rotary blades filling the air with fear and suspicion; and once the suspect’s house is identified, sometimes incorrectly, a brigade of soldiers will come rappelling down ropes into the suspected drug dealers garden, apprehend said drug dealer and helicopter he or she off to jail. Every time I hear a helicopter flying overhead I can’t help but think that I’ll be hit in the head with the knotted end of a rope. The other explanation, of course, is traffic helicopters; but its not nearly as exciting as soldiers in your garden carrying assault weapons. I, however, have no need to be fearful; I’m safely ensconced in a level 5 neighborhood, the highest being a 6.

Urine and Forest Gump, these are the two things that best describe this afternoon’s misadventure. Let me start at the beginning: I left the hotel at approximately 1;30, caught the H4 Transmilenio bus, then thinking I was at the right transfer station, which I wasn’t, got off the H4, then after a 10 minute wait got back on the next H4, got off at the right station and transferred to the J24, which took me up the mountain, past the Jimenez (see famous poet) station, further up the mountain, the bus seeming to hit every crater in the loose pavement, and to my final destination, the Museo del Oro. I got off the bus and waded into a veritable sea of lunchtime people. An ocean; a vast endless sea; into the Bogota deep. Not having a clue where the museum was, which I was later told was a half block down, down the mountain, and few yards to my right, or left, I figured this would be a good time to call Leslie for redirections (in all fairness to Leslie, she had already given me right directions). I paid 2000 pesos to use a cell phone. (Vendors selling chips, cigarettes lollipops etc., also rent minutes on cell phones, which are attached to their stands with curly, and often colourful wire). Leslie re-gave me the directions she had already given me and off I went; passed the Museo del Oro, past Jimenez station, further down the mountain until I found myself some 3-4 Kilometers from where I started.

I again called Leslie, thankfully she is patient and sympathetic, and asked her where I was; which was an idiotic question as I was there, or here, wherever here or there was, and she wasn’t. I handed the cell phone over to the vendor so Leslie could ask him where I was. The vendor, having no idea why I was handing him back the cell phone, except perhaps to indicate I was finished, hung up. Through some sort of savant-like pantomime I managed to indicate to the vendor that the person he had just disconnected would like to talk with him. He hit redial, which seemed cool considering the cell phone looked like a 1990’s model, and again, through pantomime and hand waving, I managed to indicate to him that the person on the other end of the call, Leslie, would like to asked him where I was. At this point a thought went through my head: I could pretend that I’m a deaf mute, the deafness, after all, is partially true, and garner some sympathy for my inability to communicate in Spanish, or at all, really.

Tiring of hand-puppetry and mime, my skull beginning to implode in on my brain, I decided to try and make a go of getting myself back to the hotel on my own. A mistake, of course. I walked some more and then some more, and then finding myself wandering further in the wrong direction, or so I thought, I decided to find a bench, sit myself down, and smoke a cigarette. After 5 taxi’s refused my fare, I think it had to do with the time of the day, rush hour, and how far north I had to go, and three failed attempts at getting back on the Transmilenio, and yes I paid all three times, and finding the transit map more confusing than communicating in waves and pantomime, left the platform, three times, and began walking; this time back in the direction from whence I came, some 3-4 kilometers.

The walk backwards back up the mountain, I think, brought me through an area of Bogota most Bogotá-ians don’t walk through. I was stopped twice and asked for change, or so I thought, once by a woman with three teeth and a snarling smile, and once by a two-toothed man who got quite irritated with my persistent no’s and eye-to-eye stare. The I walked under an overpass, over would have been better, and was assailed by the heavy horsey, albeit human stench of urine and unwashed clothing. Then passed an alleyway where a bonfire was being stoked with busted up pallets and bags of garbage, for the homeless I surmised, the heavy stench of urine overpowering my ability to navigate. Then, after responding to an unshaven fellow whom I gathered was a schizophrenic out for a walk (see Deleuze and Guattari, Anti-Oedipus) in French, he kept referring to me, and his imaginary friends, from what I could understand, as being Californian, I finally managed to convince a taxi driver to take me to Leslie’s neighborhood, a much closer fare.

So where does Forest Gump figure in all this you ask? When I got up this morning I had no inclination to walk 7-8 kilometers, 2-3 maybe, but certainly not 7-8. But once I started to walk, in the wrong direction sadly enough, I just kept going, with no regard for where I would end up or who I would run into. Thus the Forest Gump reference, or as I refer to it, a Gumpism. I met Leslie and her boys outside a bodega, by chance actually, and Leslie made sure I got the rest of the way back to the hotel safely. Tomorrow Leslie has graciously offered to take me around Bogota. This time I will get to visit the Museo del Oro; and maybe run into a few old toothless acquaintances along the way.

-May 11, 2011-

I swear, by all that’s holy and impious, that I saw an elephant frond nibbled into a likeness of Christ in the garden outside my hotel window. Carpenter ants, maybe an indigenous herbivore with razor-sharp mandibles and pincher-like hands, (no that sounds too anthropomorphic, too unlikely), or some species of bird who’s sole Darwinian raison d’être is to fill the world with likenesses of our Lord Savior. Or I have imagined the whole thing. The Andean high altitude does strange things to one’s sense of reality and perception.

The night before garbage pickup the streets are a trash-land of paper, fruit, peals, rinds, skins, half-eaten empanadas, anything disposable, which appears to be everything, and people culling through the trash heaps looking for things to recycle and sell. The smell is overpowering; as is the sadness of watching the poor and destitute rummaging through puddles of decomposing garbage looking for their next meal. I saw this in Buenos Aires, and suppose it goes on in other South American countries. Yesterday while trying to flag a taxi outside a Health Centre I watched as a legless man, amputated at the pelvis, was loaded into a miniature ambulance, his wife or daughter, watching on anxiously. The ambulance was no bigger than an El Camino with a hardtop; just enough space to fit an amputee or a two-legged person with their feet hanging out the back window.

I have seen more one-legged and no-legged people In Bogota than I have seen anywhere else I have traveled to or lived in. Its quite tragic, as I was to find out, as many people have lost legs to landmines left behind after the notorious drug cartel wars that have held Colombia hostage over the years, leaving people in constant fear and suspicious of unmarked motorcycles (all motorcycle riders must wear a yellow vest with their license plate number boldly printed on it. In the past cartel hit-men and assassins were known to drive through the city on motorcycles taking out people with submachine guns and Uzi’s). You can still sense that fear when a motorcycle speeds by and you can’t quite make out the license number on the rider’s vest, which are often obscured by a haversack or rain jacket. I did, however, notice that many motorcyclist wear their vest over their haversacks, giving one an image of Quasimodo cutting in and around traffic in a rush to get to the cathedral on time.

I asked Leslie why all the roadside curbs are so high, or deep depending on where you’re looking at them. She said it was the city’s attempt at discouraging people from parking on the sidewalks. In the past people would take a sledgehammer to the bollards erected every few yards to keep people from blocking the pedestrian sidewalks. I’d say it’s a good extra step off the sidewalk and down onto the street.

Leslie took me on a city bus today, all owned and operated by private individuals who pay a yearly licensing fee and a percentage of the fare to the proprietor of the bus company The owner/operators take their buses home each night and can often be seen with their wife or one of their children sitting in the passenger seat. The buses hold 18 people and are about the size of a short bus, the kind used to transport special needs children to school. You pay through a hole in a Plexiglas window separating you from the driver. Our trip to downtown Bogota cost 1.400 pesos each, or about $0.70 Canadian. The driver will let you off anywhere you want; all you have to do ask. Its amazing how the driver operates the bus without stopping to collect fares; he simply reaches backwards through the Plexiglas window, collects the money, and if need be make change. It can be a bumpy lurching ride, but much cheaper than a taxi. Bogota, by the way, doesn’t have potholes… it has craters, some big enough and deep enough to swallow up a bus!

I made it to the Gold Museum today, thanks to Leslie. If I’d been left to my own devices I would have ended up at the Museum of Hapless Travelers, eating cheese empanadas for the forth time or dancing flatfootedly round a homeless persons’ bonfire. The Museum is bright; gold gleaming bright. The collection dates back to well before Christ, the oldest I saw between 27-30 BC. The pieces range from earrings and necklaces, full body dress, with gold penis sheath, to ceremony and ritual thingamajigs made to look like shamanistic animals, the jaguar and crocodile, for example, and jewelry that would tear septum from cartilage and put a permanent crook in your neck. Its well worth the visit, if a bit too glittery on the eyes. We lunched at restaurant on a hilly street, the menu offering a choice of barely or fish soup, red beans or chickpeas, two small boiled potatoes, rice, a small salad of shredded greens and carrots and a choice of fish, beef, chicken or pork. Leslie and I both went for the barely soup, a thick chowder-like gumbo that is a meal in itself. For the main course Leslie chose river fish, which came intact, head,, tail and dorsal fins, the eyes crusted over from deep frying, and red beans, potato comes with every main course, and I flayed chicken breast and chickpeas. I chose a Colombian soft drink that tasted like cream soda and Leslie a barely drink, a cross between Quaker Oates and cloudy water with a hint of sweetness.

As I sit listening to the rain dancing a jitterbug on the courtyard tiles outside my window I can’t help but wonder: what is it about Bogota that makes it such an intriguing city? Is it the people, a combination of born and bred city-dwellers and those from the mountainous regions and border communities looking for work, the merger of the poor and wealthy, the legless beggar in the street and the well-dressed businessman enjoying a midday lunch protected from the mayhem and recklessness of the streets, the guard at the door to the restaurant or café smiling as the outside disappears and the quiet hassle-free inside encourages a haughty arrogance, or is it the city itself, the winding streets and open green spaces, a National Park in the centre of the city, or the people dodging in and out of traffic, idling cars overheating as they wait patiently for the intersection to open up, the diesel belching buses and horse drawn carts, the amputees in WW2 issue wheelchairs and the legless man stuck in the middle of the street oblivious to the cacophony of honking horns ruing the day of his birth, or is it the childlike fear that we secretly harbor, some more secretly than others, that the Incan calendar is coming to an end and the terrifying realization that we will all die, some sooner than later? I really can’t say… its all too overwhelming, this life we live, these childish fears we fear, the thought that this thought could be my last. I think it best to stop harping on hypothetical’s, except death of course, and continue experiencing what life, this place Bogota, has to offer; the experiences I have yet experienced, the moments I have yet to pass through, the new faces I have yet to meet, the love yet to be loved, and let the Incans worry about tomorrow.

Tomorrow, if all goes as planned, I will be taking a three hour bus ride to Villa de Leyva where I am to meet up with Angela, a friend from Ottawa originally from Colombia. I hear tell its a beautiful colonial town relatively unchanged from when it was first settled eons ago! A tranquil relaxing place to end my trip.

-May 12, 2011-

I was rousted from sleep this morning by the clapping of thunder, the courtyard outside my window a splashing tympana of rain. The road to Villa de Leyva will no doubt be overrun with flood waters. As this year’s rainfall in Colombia has left 1,000’s upon 1,000 of people homeless, entire sides of mountains collapsing, mudslides and floods washing out roads and villages, I dare say a bus trip outside of Bogota would be unadvisable.

When I returned to the hotel yesterday I was pleased to find a vase of freshly-plucked white lilies on the bedstead table. To me they resemble a trumpeting hand reaching out to some botanical fairyland; or a gateway into an unsullied landscape where love resides uncorrupted in a white invaginated flower. Or I suppose they’re just flowers… a nice additional to a rather austere minimalist environment. I now have immitigable scientific proof: the hard thing I stepped on and crushed like a walnut, pulverizing it to smithereens, was in fact a snail. Along with the rain come snails out of the garden, bazillions of them. Black with yellow, or it could be red stripes, foolscap antenna, sluggish, as is to their mien, and slower than a Euripidean tortoise. The rains have made my decision for me: I will not chance the trip to Villa de Leyva. With the flooding and collapsing mountainsides that have wrecked havoc on Colombia this year (see 1,000’s left homeless) a bus trip through the mountains could spell disaster. In lieu of something different, this evening Leslie and l are going to Andre Carne de Res, one of the best restaurants and dance clubs in Bogota, to dine on pork loin and watch Colombians do the salsa. Dare I say, dare I, I will watch from the wings as salsa is not one of my dancing strong suits; nor is tango, ballroom, folk, Hip-Hop, square, rave or belly, for that matter.

There is something existential about being in a county where one doesn’t speak the language. Its like living in a deaf-mute world, shutout and silenced, and forever trying to communicate in whatever manner possible. Pointing and smiling seem to work, as does grunting and speaking quickly like you know what you’re saying but your interlocutor isn’t savvy and quick enough to keep up with you. I feel like I am the only non-Spanish speaking foreigner in Bogota, the only one trying to ask for directions or order a cheese empanada; which of course is not true, but it does feel that way. For reasons I have yet to completely understand, perhaps it has to do with the not too-distant legacy of the drug cartels and indiscriminate killings, or the often suspicious nature of Colombians, for good reason I might add, I felt much more comfortable, less shut-out and silenced, in Buenos Aires; but then again Buenos Aires is a much more European-inspired cosmopolitan city. When all the cheese empanadas and cigarettes have been ordered (in pigeon Spanish) and the Transmilenio braved, arriving at the hotel relatively unscathed except for an unshakeable sense of claustrophobia, I will remembered Bogota most for its people, a people who’s determination and courage to survive, to grow and thrive under insurmountable odds far over shines any day lost in a ‘bad neighborhood’, struggling to order a meal other than cheese empanadas or living in a deaf-mute world of my own making.

-May 13, 2011-

Awoke to another day of rain. It has rained, with breaks of sunshine, everyday since I arrived in Bogota. Before coming to Bogota I had thought Dublin was the rainiest city I’ve ever visited! I was wrong; the two tie for the most predictably unpredictable rainy cities I’ve traveled to, Bogota taking first place for the most persistent, and for a city that thrives on dashboard Virgin Mary’s, unrepentant fog that enshrouds the city and surrounding mountains. Its no wonder the coca crops thrive in the lowlands and hills; Colombia has the ideal climate for green growing things. The taxi I took home tonight had the usual Christian iconography, a Virgin Mary hanging from the dash, a reenactment of the Stations of the Cross with each station outlined in mosaic pebbles, a faded snapshot of Christ and an Iron Maiden sticker on the rearview mirror. Now surely that deserves a round of Hale Mary’s, agnostic or not!

Allow me to backtrack a little. Leslie and I dined at a restaurant qua salsa emporium amusement park of all things Colombian chic. One of the most popular restaurants in Bogota, catering to the young, middle-age and old, foreigner and Bogotán alike, Andres Carne de Res is a funhouse of food, drink and entertainment. Shortly after being seated a trio of traveling musicians, drummer, clarinetist and cantante, arrived at our table to welcome us to Colombia. I was wreathed with a red, yellow and blue sash, or sashed with a wreathe, that read HONORES DE LA CAS (a sort of Cub Scout sash; the kind your mother sewed your cloth badges onto until you got your sewing badge and could sew on your own) and Leslie crowned with a silver tiara. Then the singing and drumming and clarineting began, welcoming us to Andres Carne de Res and, from what I gleaned, Columbia. This went on for well over 4 minutes, perhaps in keeping with the levels, or stations, of the restaurant, we were seated above the Inferno and below Paradisio, and ended with a festoon of yellow paper butterflies in homage to Gabriel García Márquez and the curing of cholera. Our meal consisted of a sizzling platter of grilled viands: pork, beef, three types of sausage, Chouriço, Chorizo and blood, and chicken, a small ciborium of mountain potatoes the size of throwing marbles, dipping sauces, hot, medium and mild, and toasted cornmeal pita triangles. It was devilishly delicious! Query: does travel-insurance cover a colonoscopy? Oh yes, lest I forget, and this ones for you Paul, I purchased a copy of James Joyce’s Ulises in Spanish.

Thus far, and nearing the end of my stay in Bogota, I have most enjoyed the simple Colombian traditions; the people and customs, the food and cheap cigarettes (even though smoking is bad, and I am in complete agreement with most of the smoking ban laws, a $7 tax on a package of cigarettes in Canada is pure piratery and the government that levies the taxes no better than the smugglers in their Go Fast Boats!), the mountains, stunningly beautiful when not obscured by fog, the flora and fauna, tricolored birds and snails the size of Volkswagens, and having made a new friend in Leslie.

-May 14, 2011-

My last day in Bogota; a day of both sadness and rejoicing; rejoicing in the anticipation of the first hot shower in twelve days, lower altitude, although I have acclimated myself to the Andean elevation, a Gauloises, my desktop computer where all my ‘stuff’ is saved and being able to communicate in language, not hand-gestures, mime and brutish grunting. Sadness in leaving behind the people I met: Leo, who manages the hotel and was very helpful speaks impeccable English for a Colombian, his assistant, a beautiful, always cheerful woman with the singing voice of an angel, and the young every-hurrying woman who makes sure all the rooms are spic and span, and of course my guide and newfound friend Leslie; who as chance has it will be in Ottawa later this summer.

Traveling is like being born; everything is new, the only language you have mastery over is reptilian (grunts, wails and squirming) and painfully difficult to decipher in others, and if you have a name you don’t know what it means or how to pronounce it. All of which reminds me of Lacan’s ‘Mirror Stage’, that moment in infant development when we become a differentiated “I”. As a traveler, might I conjecture, one goes through the ‘Mirror Stage’ over and over again, indefinitely, each time we set foot in a foreign country; every new metropolis, conurbation, civilization and culture placing a mirror in front of our face. If I have learned anything in the 12 years I have been in university, other than how to conjugate and annotate, its that I still have a lifetime’s worth of things to learn.

Joseph K just scurried past me, his back stickled with rotten apples and broom hay. I have had a guest with me for the past 12 days: a bug. What species of bug I haven’ the faintest, but bug it is. This morning I discovered a snail climbing the ramparts of my hotel wall, making it almost through the open window and onto my laptop. If I’m correct it is still there, paralytic, gagging on my secondhand cigarette smoke, poor dumb creature.

My flight leaves Bogota for Newark at 9 am. I have been cautioned to be at the airport a minimum of three hours before liftoff. The DAS, immigration/secret police, known for their thorough full-body pat-downs, X-rays an unequaled security procedures, sometimes carrying them out three times just to be sure, make departing a long and drawn out process. Once through the DAS gauntlet I will be free to browse the Duty Free Shop, have dos more empanadas, watch shifty, wet under the arms gringos try and look inconspicuous, and say once last fond despedida to Bogota in hand gestures, mime and syllabant grunts.

-May 18, 2011: Postscript-

I arrived at Eldorado airport at 5;50 am sharp, the taxi driver as honest as the day is long. After a few calculations, time, altitude and cabin pressure, I surmised that I would be smoke free for the next 15 hours, cinnamon Nicorettes and spearmint chewing gum may only saviors, I hurriedly, and with no little haste, smoked two cigarettes, snubbing them out on the carport sidewalk, and skated in through the sliding doors. Once inside I took heed of what Leslie told me, itinerating all I needed to do to ensure a swift, stress-free debarking, and went directly to the Tax Exemption wicket. I queued for 4 minutes, presented my passport to the agent, smiled, the agent smiling in kind, and had my passport stamped, exempting me of all and any taxes and proceeded to the next queue. I joined the line at the Continental gate, where my luggage was weighed and tagged, then on to the first of four security checks. Once passed security I was sent on to the ticket wicket (slides off the tongue like a half-swallowed oyster) and given my boarding pass. I took the escalator up to the second floor, my luggage safely in the hands of trained professionals, or so I hoped, and on to the second security check.

At the second security check I was instructed to remove my belt, boots and jacket, empty my pocket change and place it in the plastic container provided, take my laptop out of its carrying case, open laptop and place it, keyboard side up, in the plastic container provided, remove anything metal or metallic from my person, my Titanium shoulder exempted, and place carryon’s on conveyor belt, where they were given a good X-raying, the usual walk through the magnetic doorframe, greeted by a wand-waving agent upon successful magnetic resonation, and on to the next security check yanking up my trousers as I went, my belt lassoed round my hand. Once admitted into the lounge/duty-free mezzanine I sniffed out a coffee wicket and bought myself a café late. Slaked and no worse for wear I made my way to the departure lounge, queued up, watched a pageant of breast-enhanced, sway-bottomed Bogotán women parade by, long raven black hair reaching the cleft of their buttocks, and waited for the final, and hopefully last security check. Before being admitted into the departure lounge I was again instructed to remove my belt, boots and jacket, place pocket change in plastic container provided, take my laptop out of its carry case, place laptop, keyboard facing up, in the plastic container provided, walk through magnetic doorframe, smile at agent, who smiled back, then, having been admitted into the departure lounge, found a bench and sat down, my trousers hanging round the sharp bones of my hips, my belt halfway through the loops.

The flight from Bogotá to Newark was uneventful, except for a 65 year-old stewardess who kept promising me free things and extra helpings for bumping into me every time she went up and down the aisle. I graciously declined her remittances and set about figuring out how to get the woman in front of me to stop jamming the back of her seat into my knees (her top-heavy breast-enhancements causing an imbalance between hips, buttocks and scapula; the result: a distaff areolation). We landed in a rainy, gray Newark, deplaned and processed through Homeland Security, proffering card claiming I am not bringing any dirt, fruit, embryos, bacteria, viruses or laundered drug money into the country, then let loose on Newark. I had a five hour wait for Flight 210-something, Newark to Ottawa. Two hours in, my nicotine levels dropping, it was announced that Flight 210-something, Newark to Ottawa, would be delayed another two hours; my layover wait now extended to seven cigaretteless hours. After weighing the pros and cons, which weighed heavily on the side of me leaving the security zone for a smoke, which would require me being reprocessed through security a second time, I exited the departure lounge. I arrived in Ottawa at 1 45 am, was processed through Canadian Customs, where I was reminded by an understanding Customs agent that I was over the allowable tax exemption, but she would let it go ‘this time’, I was ushered into a taxi; arriving at my door 20 hours after leaving Eldorado for Norman street.

Bogotá is a breathtaking city, literally, where for a few hundred thousand pesos you can choose between a number of plastic surgeries, drink mountain coffee, observe interesting people go about their day, and night, if you’re brave enough, prepare for the next Olympics (some countries send their athletes to Bogotá to train in a high-altitude arena), eat interesting, albeit unpronounceable food, cheese empanadas the easiest to order, so I discovered, you pronounce the ‘Q’ like in ‘quay’, otherwise they mistakenly give you chicken with potato and or plantain, and explore and discover the wonders and beauty of a country working diligently to change how the rest of the world views them; a place of drug cartels, murders, systemic government corruption, poverty and political instability. Never once did I feel unsafe, recall my foray into ‘the other Bogotá’, in harm’s way or unwelcome. Colombia and Colombians are magnificent, I would not hesitate to visit a second or third time, but not without first learning the rudiments of the Spanish language, having a city map on hand (see the ‘Other Bogotá) and preparing my lungs for the high Andean altitude.

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"Poetry is the short-circuiting of meaning between words, the impetuous regeneration of primordial myth". Bruno Schulz

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