The girl from the coast stood by my side as we waited for the bus that would take us to the club in downtown Bogotá, which was once attacked by bearded rebels who did not like any structure that was tall and shiny and made of glass and steel, and which had military guards defending it, because such buildings only allowed fat ranchers wearing expensive suits in, and those ranchers were class enemies. With the casual familiarity people display in Latin America, she turned to me, placed her palm in mine, and said in Spanish, “See, my hands are so cold!”
Her hands were indeed cold, and she was unused to the chill—she was shivering like a palm tree on the Caribbean coast where she grew up— because where she lived, the sun almost never set and it was always warm, and the breeze brought relief and rain, and did not lead to a drop in the temperature as it did in Bogotá.
Ancient secrets: La Candelaria, Bogotá’s historic old city, has a great gold museum.
Bright sunlight filtered through the rarefied air of the city, set 8,000ft above sea level, and the rays gasped, trying to reach the people deep in the valley, and you felt no warmth by the time sunlight reached you. But what the ambience lacked, the people made up for through their humane warmth, which survives despite their living so close to the precipice, where one sharp turn on the wrong side, and you tumble down the valley.
A few months ago, I was in La Candelaria, the part of Bogotá known for its quaint and quiet streets, which occasionally rise abruptly, making it hard to breathe, harder to talk and walk at the same time. You would have thought a poet had got lost on the streets, chasing after his love, and named the meandering lanes after the misty mood of the moment. There, that street is Amora, a friend told me; the other one Agonia, and over there, Fatiga. Love, agony and fatigue—only a poet would think of such names. My friend laughed when I waxed lyrical about these names. As coffee hissed on her percolator, she said: “You foreigners can think of poetry. We live with explosions.” Then she expertly poured out the coffee, before the percolator could live up to her prediction.
Bogotá’s reality is complicated, with the threat of an explosion never too far: You realize that because every building you visit requires your passport and there are metal detectors to keep weapons at bay. There are clearly understood rules of staying safe in a country still at war—which areas to avoid, how not to get abducted, where it is safe to go out at night, and how to take taxis (you get a secret code, the driver gets another secret code, you exchange those codes, and only then the driver trusts you, and you trust the driver. Just because a car is yellow and there is a light on its top does not mean it is a taxi, I’m told).
Bogotá has lived through a brutal war for many years—by one reckoning it goes back to 1948, when a presidential candidate was assassinated. The violence goes on and the current president, Alvaro Uribe, has initiated a harsh law and order regime that has made the streets safe again. So safe that one night in 2006, while walking back to our hotel, we met three women in swimwear, campaigning for a bunny rabbit as candidate for president. These women were serious: they were telling my Colombian friends that it was time to have some fun, and why not vote for a rabbit for president? Realizing we had no vote in their elections, they smiled and blew kisses at us, trying to convince others that a carrot-munching animal was the best mascot for a bleeding nation.
But if discovering Marquezian magic realism is not surprising in Bogotá, nor should it seem strange that Bogotá is an existential city, where you live for the moment, by the moment, and, more important, live up the moment. Take the long drive from the city to its outskirts, to the restaurant that seems like a way-station in a fantasy movie— called Andres Carne de Res, it is an insanely decorated spectacle, where you will end up dancing at some point in the evening. It is Colombia in a microcosm, how it would like to live—without a care, dancing through the night, eating well with nothing remembered the next morning. The New York Times has called it “profound, spellbinding, beautiful, tumultuous, confusing and fattening all at once”.
Fattening, I understand easily. I’m sitting with my friend Catalina and she tells me to go easy on the delicious arepas (corn-based bread) and almojábanas (rice-flour fritters) spread out before us, saying the main course is yet to follow. She then insists I should not even try ajiaco, the potato-based soup.
“You’ve had ajiaco twice in the past week. Try something new tonight,” she says. I’m touched. It seems she cares for my health. “Let’s all try the Argentine beef,” she adds. Ah!
Later that night, at my friend Bill’s suggestion, I try Guatemalan rum (very nice). It is noisy and cheerful. Masked nubile waitresses in tight T-shirts and figure-hugging jeans perform synchronized, impromptu dances on the crowded floor, with large posters of Hollywood starlets and 1950s Americana stuck all over the restaurant.
I also see a cross in this temple of hedonism. It is not as incongruent as it might seem. This is the country where senators change votes after receiving gifts from the ruling party, passing crucial constitutional amendments; where you get a better deal on your dollar from a bank than on the street, so awash are the touts with dollars floating around because of Colombia’s drugs- and arms-strengthened illegal economy; and where a nice Catholic woman tells me matter of factly how her younger brother lives with his girlfriend and their kids. Sin is a relative term; politics is absolute. Nothing makes sense at first sight, and then everything does.
Write to Salil at firstname.lastname@example.org