Saturday, February 2, 2008

Postcards from Tino

From Bogota I headed northeast to Villa de Leyva, a meticulously preserved colonial town in the Andean highlands. Declared a national heritage landmark in 1954, Villa de Leyva is the Colombian equivalent of Williamsburg, where all modern architecture is forbidden. The Plaza Mayor is the country's largest public square, 120 by 120 meters, and the only structure on the cobbled expanse is a small fountain at its center that once provided drinking water for the town. The irregular cobble rambles for blocks in any direction from the square.

Villa de Leyva is a popular weekend retreat for the Bogota elite. Several portals off or near the main square open up into a series of immaculate courtyards and nooks housing a half dozen gourmet restaurants, bars and cafes. Many artists have been attracted to the town and the surrounding Andean highlands and a number of them have opened galleries about the town.

As peaceful as the town center is, I had heard many excellent reviews of a guesthouse a mile uphill from the square. The cobble gives to asphalt for a few blocks and the last half mile runs up a dirt road past the army barracks and then right up to the base of the surrounding mountains. The dorm room was only three beds in a cabana above the guesthouse. As I was the only guest upon arrival, I had the cabana to myself with its view of the valley beyond the floor to ceiling windows.

On my third evening at the Renacer Guesthouse, a backpack appeared on the bunk next to mine. There are many brilliant and entertaining backpackers on the road, and hearing their experiences is one of the many pleasures of travel. There are also some real morons out there. By the way the new arrival had settled in, the floor already was strewn with dirty clothes, trash, and other junk, I was fearing my roommate for the night was in the latter group.

I was watching the sunset from a hammock on the porch when my roommate appeared in the doorway. His name was Tino, a young German with blond hair curling down past his shoulders. His face seemed pinched horizontally around his eyes We spoke Spanish for a moment, but he was having difficulty expressing himself and quickly switched to English.
Tino looked younger than his 19 years, too young to be travelling the world. He had been in Bogota for a couple months, working for the YMCA with street children in the barrios. He was headed to a national park along the Atlantic coast where he would get room and board for helping the park rangers.

When I said I was from the States, Tino did not hesitate with his opinions of America and her citizens abroad. He does not like American travelers. He finds Americans to be arrogant, rude, reticent to discuss politics, and worst of all, he finds them everywhere. He likes the American government even less. At least here we had some common ground, though Bush bashing is a tedious conversation piece given all the ideas and places that could be discussed with a fellow traveler. I steered the conversation away from politics for a moment, but Tino either did not get the hint or did not care, and in the next breath was criticising a political system represented only by two parties, "You only have Democrits and Republics, you don't have a Green party... America always is talking about Democracy, but the elections aren't real, it's all for the television."

I went to bat for our congressional system. At the cost of representation for minor parties, there is greater stability in our goverment than in a Parliamentary system. But mostly I wanted to get away from this kid for the evening. I told him I was going back into town for dinner. With the look of a bare bones backpacker I assumed he'd be cooking for himself. To my disappointment he said he would join me.

We aren't a dozen yards from the guesthouse when Tino pulls a cigarette carton from his bag and from it a joint the size of his middle finger.

"Are you sure that's a good idea, away from the hostel?"

"Don't be paranoid," Tino replied.

He takes a half dozen hard drags and soon is talking about Alice in Wonderland and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, the cartoon and the movie, respectively. There didn't seem much point in riffing off his thoughts, as it was evident he was unable to follow conversation, his own included.
He insisted I take a hit. I declined, and suggested he be careful as we were walking along the low stone wall and past the sand bag pill boxes of the army barracks.
"Don't be paranoid, no one is watching."

I missed the next turn in Tino's monologue. Something about The Doors. He was asking me if I had heard of Idpusus. I hadn't.

"You know, man, the Trojan Horse."

"You mean The Iliad?"

"Yes, he sleeps with his sister and then, he, ah..."

"Killed his father," I finished, "Oedipus."

"Yah, the song about Oedipus."

The dirt road kicked out into the pavement and Tino continued smoking as we passed a group of kids playing soccer in the street. He extends the joint to my chest.

"You must try some. It's not that strong. And I've got plenty more," he said, patting the cloth purse slung over his shoulder.

He is probably right about the weed. The stuff our parents smoked in the 60's had about 15-20% of the THC levels, the psychoactive compound in cannabis, as the weed grown in the States today. In a place like Colombia, where pot grows everywhere with minimal cultivation, the stuff is likely to have the 3% THC--versus 15-18% in hydroponic strains grown today in North America and Europe--level found in naturally occuring cannabis. If a puff of today's hybridized strains is enough to send one flying (it is), then Tino should be doing fine by the several dozen hits from a fat joint

At the point we hit the cobble of the town center a jeep a few blocks down started moving in our direction, jiggering along behind low beams.

"It's the police." Tino said, contemplating a last hit, the joint pinched between his thumb and index finger.

The jeep bumped towards us, and once the headlights were at an angle we could see a middle aged driver out on the town, his shirt unbuttoned to display a gold chain and cross in a nest of chest hair.

Tino was proud of himself that he hadn't panicked and thrown his roach into the gutter.

"Way to stick to your guns, Tino," I said..


"I said, way to stick to your guns. It's an expression."

"That's another thing I don't like about Americans, they are crazy about guns. And the death penalty."

"Have you ever fired a gun?" I asked.


"You should try it sometime, it's fun."

A couple of gringos were walking up the street opposite us. Tino clearly liked the look of them. He quickened to a jog while shouting out to them, in English.

"Hey, where are you from?"

Canada and Sweden, they replied.
"Great," Tino said, "I'm tired of meeting so many Americans here. They are everywhere."

And who exactly did he expect to meet working for the YMCA?

"Yeah, man, we were on a vision quest with some Californians," The Canadian replied.

I hadn't noticed Tino's clothes in full before this moment, his back now turned to me as he spoke with the non-Americans. With his hooded cardigan and its green, yellow and red stripes, baggy pastel pants and brightly colored cloth sack, Tino had the stoner look down cold. He was a blond haired version of myself twelve years ago.

Next yet to his companions, Tino was a DARE poster boy. The Canadian had a decomposing beehive of dreadlocks piled on top of his head. His eyes were in free float, and his jaw kept working a few seconds beyond his last syllable. The deep tan suggested months, perhaps years, on the road. He was what Tino wanted to be--the White Rasta. Yet after all these years--he claimed to be 27--he could not escape his accent. Beneath the stoner falsetto he had a (now scrambling) precision in his diction that suggested upper-crust Connecticut boarding school. Tino should really hate this guy, the "I'm Canadian" American.

"What kind of vision quest?" Tino asked.

"We went up into the mountains for 7 days without food or water. It's so cleansing. On the third day I started to see these spirits! They were buzzing around my skin," the White Rasta acts out this routine, pinching up and down his arms while looking around everywhere at once. "I said, 'Hello sprits! Would you please give me some knowledge?' They wouldn't. They're tricksters, those spirits."

"You went for a week without water?" I asked.

His routine finished, it took the White Rasta a long moment to respond.
"That's nothing, man. There are these yogis. In India. These yogis can live for 500 years. They touch their pulse," the Rasta demonstrates, "and stop, their hearts. Just like that. I saw this yogi, man, who bent a spoon. With his mind."

"Here come the Police," Tino said.

A dirt bike approached from the square.

"The police are just in your head," the Swede said.

He was right. Even from a block away, it was clear the helmeted rider was not a policeman.

The young man from Sweden was not as ostentatious as his fellow traveller. His thin and wispy beard made his baby face look even younger than was possible, though he had to be least 18. Of the three, he was the most clearly zonked. The deep red in the whites of his eyes blended into his sunburnt skin. I enjoyed for a moment the irony of running into personified examples, according to Roman, of the two characters most likely to stick out on a Colombian sidewalk. Villa de Leyva is as laid back and secure as Colombia gets. Still, four ridilculous looking gringos speaking loud English in the street at night were bound to be asking for trouble.

"Hey, we'll trade emails. Then we can meet up. On the coast." Tino suggested to the Rasta, mimicking his companions glacial cadence.

I figured this was my out so I turned to make my exit.

"He's a writer, he should have a pen." Tino said.

I turned back around and dug in my bag for a pen.

"Hey, here come the police," Tino said.

"You've got to get the police out of your mind, man," the White Rasta replied.

I fished out my pen. Looking up from my bag I saw four men with reflective vests approaching from the square. The police were now in my mind too.

Tino grabbed the pen from my hand asking in the same breath if I had some paper too. Something was telling me to walk away. But now he had my writing pen.

I looked back toward the square. The police were a block away. The Swede had produced a card from his wallet and the three were exchanging their information. Slowly. I snatched back the pen as Tino lifted it from the m in '.com' and pivoted towards the square. But the police were now upon us. The lead officer announced that they wanted to search our bags.

I am probably the only one who understood, and terrified about what they might find on the three clowns behind me, I immediately held out my bag for the search. This was more than the weapons check I was accustomed to on the road. The officer who performed the search, no older than Tino, unzipped every last pocket on my bag. He even thumbed through my papers and looked in between my un-mailed postcards. This one was definitely looking for drugs.

I was cleared. As casually as possible, I began walking in the direction of the square. I made it ten feet when Tino screamed in broken Spanish.

"Travel together!"

I look over my shoulder to see Tino's outstretched arm and finger frozen in a bird-dog point in my direction. For the first time I saw his face unpinched, his eyes were wide open, full of terror and hatred. One of the officers, also young, was holding Tino's rasta satchel in one hand and a smaller bag, what must have been his dope, in the other. A third officer, at least my age and likely in command, held up his hand as he approached me.

I took a breath, and in the cleanest accent I could muster, began, "Disculpe me...(Excuse me officer, but this boy and I are not travelling together. He arrived tonight at the guest house Renacer where I have been staying for several days. We walked into town for dinner, but I do not know him)."

The officer did not reply. He had stopped a few feet from me and did not move closer.

"May I?" I asked, motioning towards the square.

He nodded.

I wasn't ten more more feet when Tino yelled, this time in English.

"I need to borrow your pen!"

I was tempted to reply, "I don't think they have postcards in prison, Tino."

I thought it wiser to minimize my connection to the boy.

Tino did not return to the hostel that night, nor the following morning. He either didn't have the means or the guile to bribe his way out of custody. I hadn't stuck around long enough to find out what happened to the White Rasta and his friend, though I can only guess they found something on them.

If I were a stoner in Colombia, I don't think I would advertise the fact decked out in the international symbols of pot smoking. I would also make sure to speak near fluent Spanish, in the event I had to talk and bribe my way out of trouble. Tino's pidgin wasn't even good enough to bring someone else down with him.

In Israel, they don't recommend that immigrants spend money on Hebrew classes--the army will teach them the language. I wonder if the same holds for a Colombian prison. Maybe his new rasta friend will teach him. To bend the bars. With his mind.

Please write, Tino. I am sure you will have some interesting stories to tell.


ctw said...

Oh, the young travellers we meet. There is something comforting about the wisdom that comes with the slightest bit of age and perspective...

Angélica Figueroa Rueda said...

hahaha These is exactly the kind of experiences i need to hear about.
Please, please, write back to me.

Maria Angelica.

Anonymous said...

Hey Bill,
You ought to avoid Gringos.