Wednesday, January 14, 2009


There is something eerie about a city of 8 million empty of its people. It is Saturday night in Bogota and there isn´t a single car or person on the streets. We are in La Candelaria, the city´s charming if crumbling historic neighborhood that seems more like an outer barrio for students and starving artists than a central district even on a busy night. Only a few hungry dogs are wondering about. It is a heavy quiet, broken only by the odd short bus blasting full speed from nowhere and not even slowing for the dark intersections. How can the middle of a capital city be so empty and depressing?

The barman where we got our last drink warned us to take cabs tonight, and that was in a much posher area of town. This is the weekend of the festival of kings when many smaller towns have their annual fairs. Anyone with family outside Bogota and with the means to leave the city does so this weekend.

But there aren´t even any cabs about in La Candelaria, and no radio taxi is going to drive from across town to take us a block or two to the nearest open corner joint. Maybe the muggers have taken their machetes on holiday too. But it doesn´t matter. A mugging might be better than this claustrophobic hostel.

I´d choose these foreboding streets to Anandamayi tonight. Not that it´s a bad hostel. I´d recommend it as one of the best places to stay in Colombia. The bathrooms are spotless. The dorm where I have been sleeping for the last 5 nights is cavernous, and until Sarah arrived it was me and 11 empty bunks. The floors in the dormitory are dark, shiny hardwood and the ceiling is an A frame that easily reaches twenty feet high. Last year there was a fireplace in the room that they have now removed for fear that some moron like myself would burn the place down. It is cold at night in Bogota, at 2,600 meters it often falls into the 30´s, and last year I would fall asleep right in front of a full on blaze. This trip I´ve had to steal blankets from the empty bunks. With five wool blankets, four up an one down on the mattress for insulation my teeth stop chattering and the cold on my face is a nice contrast to warmth of the bed.

A cold, beautiful place, what looks like a farm house nestled the middle of a national capital. There are two spacious courtyards, one whose every inch is filled with flowers and herbs, the other has poi pond, lush plants, trees, more flowers and benches to sit and read in the afternoon, or at night to huddle under a blanket and contemplate the moon. The kitchen has a wood burning stove and there is always a pot of tea ready for the guests. No fireplaces, but they do have hot water this year, I´m not sure how I stayed in a place so cold without hot water (by taking showers at 2 in the afternoon).

But it is the people here that we have to get away from tonight. Sarah and I had holed up in our empty dorm room but we´ve both seen the shadows of faces as they attempt to peer through the thin curtains that don´t quite cover the windows on the door.

Perhaps I shouldn´t have introduced Sarah as my cousin. That is their interest, in the cousins. It was the only way she could share this beautiful room with me, the young girl in charge this holiday weekend wouldn´t permit friends in the dorm, and she was sure we were more.

It is sort of true that we are cousins. Our stepfathers are brothers.

For the past few days we´ve been getting those sideways glances and rolling eyes from everyone, the staff and especially the Americans, an older would-be businessman and a younger eagle scout type who are both staked out in the warmth of the kitchen. The older American who claims to hail from northern Wisconsin was the model gringo yesterday. Under a Panama hat he smoked cigars in the courtyard all afternoon while pitching a real estate scheme to a middle aged South African. The latter is a happy-go-lucky type who sails catamarans across the ocean for an Australian company. He seems very interested in the American´s scheme. I can only hope he is being polite. I asked the old gringo about his business and he mentioned something about ´flipping´, something else about a four unit complex in Minneapolis, and having been out of the market for three years, before changing the subject. He is full of shit.

The eagle scout is a nice boy. I wonder how long he´ll last teaching in Bogota. He´s acted wounded since the first night Sarah arrived and we went out to the Zona Rosa, the club and nightlife district. I think he has a crush on her, though I do not think Sarah was impressed that out of the hundreds of places he took us to an American styled brew pub and sports bar. Whatever the matter, the whispering begins as soon we leave the room.

So tonight the dark, empty, freezing streets of Bogota are more appealing than the sideways glances and forced conversation in the warm kitchen at the hostel. But what can happen in a block? Surely the bar down the street is open on a Saturday night just past nine.

The cafe is closed. So is the restaurant another block down the hill. Another block and more of the same. I haven´t been too many places where I didn´t feel comfortable walking the streets, but I´m thinking its best we turn back. We take another street to return the hostel and we pass a bodega that is open. There are a few tables and chairs squeezed into the floor space along the counter. Sarah gets some cigarettes. We order beers and a man offers us a table across from the register. We sit and talk a little. A man one table away is staring at us. His eyes are big and bloodshot, but I don´t notice this at first, only that he is smiling. I smile back to be polite. I imagine they don´t get too many foreigners at the tables of this little corner store. He takes my gesture as an invitation and jumps from his seat to one at our table with a suddenness that does not seem natural nor sane. Now I notice the bulging eyes. I´d peg him for a meth addict were we back home. This being Colombia, he is probably just a coke head.

He tells us he is from the poorest barrio in Bogota, apparently the one that sits just above La Candelaria. Sarah knows this type, says there is a guy like at any party in South America, especially one with gringas. She is hardly listening to him. He is focused on her, wants to dance with her, in what space and to what music I do not know. I try to divert him by talk of football, I ask him about the national team. He says something, then repeats himself, again and again, though I can´t understand him, and can´t help but notice his spittle flying from his mouth and into my beer.

A second man at a table nearer the street is interested in us, in a saner, where are we from?, kind of way. He knows about football and we talk a bit, at times over the head of the coke addict who again is focusing on Sarah.

¨She is my cousin,¨ I tell him.

This makes him pause for a minute. Sarah and I begin talking in English. We are enjoying the fact that we may as well be speaking Thai. It is a rare place these days where English can be used as a secret language, but no one here understands a word of what we are saying. The coke head is now grabbing at Sarah. The second man seems embarrassed but says nothing. I tell Sarah in our code that it is time to leave.

A block away and we notice that the coke head is following after us, but he is either too drunk or too blasted to make anything of his pursuit. We stop in front of the first open cafe we´ve seen all night, with what sounds like a live jazz piano, and our friend waddles by us and on up the hill.

The kitchen is empty save for Eduardo, the boy who serves as the night guard, nodded off in front of the television. We sip tea and look through the cards in Class Struggle. I remember this Marxist board game from my last trip here. The box has a picture of Karl Marx arm wrestling one of the Rockefellers. The object of the game is the alliance of the non-ruling classes to overthrow the capitalist system. The professor who wrote the game recommends it as a classroom tool. I must get one of these games for my friend James, I remind myself.

Finally back to the dorm. It would be so much warmer to share a bed tonight, but Sarah is my cousin. Sort of.

1 comment:

LSC said...

you must liberate that game from south america and send it to san francisco!