Thursday, January 22, 2009

Barranquilla Redux

The sign on the wall reads: This facility has public restrooms, please use them. Do not use your own containers.

Where am I?

Well, start with New Orleans. Remove the Quarter, the tourists, the excellent cuisine. Exchange the columned mansions of the Garden District for Moorish villas of Prado Viejo with more bougainvillea. Uproot the Live Oaks, replant Ceiba trees. Pound more cracks into the sidewalks and elevate them at least two feet above street level. Overlay neighborhoods of shotgun shacks with concrete blocks and corrugated roofs. Swap incomprehensible Cajun drawls for incomprehensible Spanish creole. Turn up the heat by day, add a sea breeze (January and February) at night. Refer to Mardi Gras as Carnaval. Get your Yellow Fever jab.

I present you Barranquilla. Another rotting port town beneath the waters of a dirty river.

First, the river. The Magdalena is Colombia's equivalent of the Mississippi and served as the country's primary commercial artery well into the 20th century. Anyone who has read Gabriel Garcia Marquez will be familiar with Magdalena's importance to Colombian history. In the General and his Labyrinth, Simon Bolivar takes his last journey in South America down the Magdalena to his intended exile. The romantic steamboats of Love in the Time of Cholera plied her waters for generations, and the environmental destruction through the deforestation to feed all those wood burning engines is still in evidence. In many places the tropical canopy never returned, rendering one of the river's silted branches unnavigable for commercial vessels. The setting of Chronicle of a Death Foretold was a victim to the river's strangulation. Cut from its commercial function, time stopped in the colonial city of Mompox. It is now a sweltering time capsule of late 19th century life.

A storied, filthy river. But why again Barranquilla?

It's hard to find a town with any interest these days that is off of the gringo trail. Mompox will give you an idea to the extent of the trail's far reaching tentacles. I thought I got off the beaten path for a moment in Mompox last January. Finally a place for that outstanding adventure travel piece I've always wanted to write. But I had no clips to pitch it with, no matter, within days I found scooped by a Harper's article from that February, "Go Before You Die". the piece was about a writer's trip from Bogota to Mompox in what he called the 'New' Colombia, a place where it is safe to travel just about anywhere. Eleven months later even Mompox has become an established outpost on the backpacker trail.

There still aren't any roads that go all the way through to this South American Timbuktu--you get there by a combination of bus, taxi, boat and tuk tuk--but there is a brand new hostel. Not that I would have cared to stew in the staggering humidity of malarial swamps with all the terrifying insects longer than it takes to see the sites. The churches and graveyards are outstanding, but the best visit is to the villa and courtyard that doubles as a retirement home and an insane asylum where blind man Jose Pupo, both old and insane, will take your hand and ask for the year and date of your birth. He'll then tell you about that day in Mompox, in my case a Friday when in rained in the afternoon. Then he'll break out his harmonica and his old and/or insane colleagues will gather around to dance or at least to rock in their chairs to the music.

This can all be done in a day, or in the Harper's writer's case, a morning--he didn't know to look for Jose. Then the reality of the dead river port creeps back with a sunset that brings mosquitoes but no relief from the staggering heat. No, I've logged my year in the Mississippi Delta, thank you very much.

People know about Barranquilla, but they only come here for the four days of Carnaval. Backpacker Bibles The Rough Guide, Footprint, and The Lonely Planet, all write up Barranquilla as a dusty, noisy cauldron of a place without a single permanent tourist attraction.

Excellent work, ladies and gentlemen. Your readers have listened, and stayed away. I didn't know that some of those South African lads could read. But thanks to your descriptions, I am free to roam this town in total obscurity. The people here aren't clued in to what a backpacker is or looks like.

In a city where many people have never met a foreigner outside of Carnaval, people don't know what to make of me when they do notice. Sure, I speak a little funny, too slow for a Costeña, for a coastal person's patience. But then who from out of town doesn't when they pronounce every last little syllable. When I open my mouth what registers in some people's eyes is not so much foreignness as, 'is this guy retarded?' When my mouth is shut I don't look retarded. So I get asked for directions on the street, which is doubly funny in a country where all the cities are on exactly numbered grids. By appearance I'm just another variation of the many European and Middle Eastern immigrants who chose this town when it seemed like it might have had a future.

Those travel writers were on to something. Aside from hosting the second largest Carnaval in South America, Barranquilla hasn't had much going for it in a long time. Not that it doesn't try, in a developing world sort of way. Following the lead of Medellin and Bogota, Barranquilla raised the money for a rapid transit bus line similar to a subway in that it has special lanes and boarding platforms at stations along the route. The mayor promised that the first line would be ready to open at the beginning of 2008 with more to soon follow. One year later and not only is there not a single rapid transit bus on the street, as far as I can tell there is only evidence of one partially completed station along the route. The city did find a way to spend all of the money.

Last summer a local newspaper broke a story that toxic waste dumps had been discovered on vacant sites throughout the poorer districts of the city. The estimated 10 tons of toxic material had been delivered from a consortium of Colombian hospitals, six in Medellin, three in Barranquilla. The companies contracted to dispose of the material had been making easy money on this fraud for as long as 4 years, maybe longer. Health experts are surprised that there don't seem to be any repercussions yet, at least no deaths have been attributed to the dumping. The mayor demanded explanations, as if he weren't already in on the take.

It is slightly less crazy than it sounds, that the perpetrators could have thought they might get away with dumping 20,000 pounds of toxic medical waste in a major metropolitan area, Colombia's 4th largest city. Every summer and fall the slums of Barranquilla function as an above ground sewer. Barranquilla does not have a drainage system, so when the heavy rains come the city streets become rivers, thus the high sidewalks.

The streets whose swift running rivers have rapids are called arroyos. Dogs, children, cars, buses, and the occasional home gets washed away with the arroyos (check out this footage). Since, like New Orleans, the poorest neighborhoods are in the lowest lying and most flood prone neighborhoods, much of the waste dumped there would be expected to wash out into the river each year. It begs the question how much was actually dumped before the waste was discovered. Then again, in a country run by drug lords, what does one expect will happen to a 'waste management' company for dumping some garbage on a city already acknowledged to be shit hole. Perhaps a fine, if the mayor can pocket a piece of that action too.

So I'm here because it's a surreal place to pick up the paper in the morning. I like dysfunctional port towns and the kinds of characters that wash ashore here, or in Barranquilla's case, to sea.

With every year it gets a little more difficult to learn new language. They say the drop is precipitous after the age of 35 or so, and I'm already losing my hearing. So I´m on the clock if I´m ever going to see my goal of fluency in another language. In the next few months I hope to absorb as much as much Spanish as possible. I figure if I can understand the dirty, half-swallowed Costeña Spanish they speak here, I can understand it anywhere. I don't know if I could survive once the breezes stop (late February or March) and I'm not particularly interested in Carnaval, but for the next few weeks Barranquilla will do me just fine.

There is one place I was immediately recognised. Not just as a foreigner, but as an American. I attended Game One of the Colombian Baseball Championships that opened on Saturday. It was a full house, 8,000 capacity in the single deck stadium. A peanut and cigarette man outside the park produced a ticket for me then ushered me to the front of the entrance line.

For 3 bucks I figure i was headed for the cheap seats. Turns out my 'VIP' ticket landed me on the first row in between the plate and 1st base. Like everything in Latin America, the experience was a little louder and took a little louder than the equivalent back home. The crowd cranked their noisemakers and a couple of sections drummed African beats while the organist blasted an amplified truckers horn to rattle the opposing pitcher throughout the 5 hour, 9 inning affair. The 90 cent beers helped to pass the time, as did the old guys behind me who announced the batters and the pitching changes. They took pride in schooling the Yanqui on the nationalities of the players, mostly Colombians.

My local nine has a couple of links to the game here. AA Prospect Jesse English was at one point on the roster of the visiting squad, though I can not find his name on the recent box scores. New Giant Edgar Renteria's foundation sponsors the Colombian baseball league and contributes to the development of Colombian talent. The talent is not overwhelming, thought the mascot was Big League material. The guy dressed up in the gator outfit managed to be the bat boy, field foul balls, chase around kids in the between-inning promotions, and dance to the organ without once tripping over his ground length tail or passing out inside his foam head on a steamy Caribbean night.


Steven said...

thanks for the update on your where-abouts.

Great Reading


Steven said...

Thanks for updating me on your where-abouts. Great Reading