Friday, March 26, 2010

Barranquilla VIII: Frogg's Leggs

Press passes in hand, Henry and I set out for the opening ceremony at the soccer stadium for the crowning of the People’s Queen of Carnival. The venue was fitting. Though Colombia is as soccer mad as the rest of the continent, beauty pageants rival sports in popularity and press coverage. The crowning of the Coffee Queen in Manizales dominated the national news for a week in January, and reporters and news crews from all over the country had gathered here to watch contestants from the barrios perform choreographed dances in groups of ten to twenty, an emcee explaining how the acts and costumes corresponded to traditional carnival themes. The competition was punctuated by musicians struggling to become the next Shakira, hometown superstar and pride of Caribbean Colombia.

When the girls introduced themselves at the end of the night, sections on the field behind us exploded in cheers and waved banners with the names of their respective barrios, names like Path of Roses, Eternal Hope and Beautiful Coast. An inverse relationship existed between the superlative in the name and the time it would take for a wandering gringo in that barrio to be stripped of his wallet, cell phone, and in these hoods, his shoe money.

“Imagine the reporters who have to treat this as a real assignment.” Henry said at the end of the contest. “They have to get real quotes from the girls.”

We followed the rest of the press corps backstage anyway. Devastated fans also stood aside as the new queen flanked by a retainer of runners-up were thronged by media from all over Colombia. I calculated the odds that I would have another chance to interview a contestant in a South American beauty pageant, then opened my note pad and approached the first girl I could find whose stage makeup wasn’t streaked with tears. My subject was polite, but her eyes were far off and her voice did not register above the background noise of the stadium. Not that I asked any good questions. I had no idea what were the relevant points in a beauty competition, though I had picked the winner. This year’s popular queen was clearly the most charismatic of the bunch.

Henry didn’t have to get quotes, but his camera drew attention from some of the passed over queens backstage. They must have calculated the odds that they would have another chance to appear in a foreign publication. They plastered falsetto smiles on their faces and posed for his photos.

We decided the interviews were good practice for Frogg’s Leggs where we decided to test Nancy’s theory that our credentials would get us access to anywhere in the city.

The most famous of Barranquilla’s nightclubs was in a northern neighborhood just a few minutes from the apartment I had rented from Rosita and Elena. I walked by the club several times on weekend evenings; even the posher crowds in this hard working town restricted the party to Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights. Occasionally I’d pause on the sidewalk opposite the club behind the scrum of taxis dropping off passengers and competing for fares. The party spilling out the door--chiseled guys in half buttoned designer shirts stalking for opportunities to light cigarettes for girls whose impossibly large breasts threatened the fabric of their perfectly taut dresses--was sufficiently intimidating to keep me in the shadows.

I’d like to think that cowardice was only part of the explanation for why I had never been. within fifty feet of Frogg’s Leggs. When it comes to security concerns, Colombia gets a bad rap, but the reputation has some merit. A reasonable traveller can navigate this country in safety with a few caveats--avoid remote jungle areas home to FARC remnants and motley para-narcos, leave the union card at home, and steer clear of anything that whiffs of the drug trade.

Sounds simple. It is for the most part. Though abiding that last rule is too much to ask of most of the Euros set to blow their way through the country. Cocaine in a Colombian nightclub is like steroids in professional sports. Almost everyone partakes for similar reasons. The average player can juice and have a chance at stardom or stay clean and languish in the minor leagues.

Every hostel in the country has a bleary eyed British backpacker lounging in a hammock just waiting for you to say hello so he can tell you the tale of how he stumbled into arrest at a nightclub in Cartagena, Cali, or Medellin. The story is so uniform it has the ring of an urban legend. The Brit (maybe Irish, Australian, French Canadian, though he’s usually English) went to a nightclub with a fellow traveller. Within minutes they were approached by a guy who wanted to share some of Colombian’s finest with them. Better than anything they can find off the street, he assures them. They agree, sniff, sniff, and then ask to buy a little off their new best friend.

The next night they come back to the same club to find their guy, this time with money from all the other party people in the hostel. After they make the transaction, they notice a policeman at the door heading straight for them. The cop finds the drugs as if he knew they were there. He puts the two idiots in cuffs. Meanwhile, their new friend, who must have tipped off the cops, has disappeared. Perhaps he’d pre-arraigned a cut from the 1,000 Euros the foreigners are forced to cough up to the arresting officer in exchange for their freedom.

The threat from the drug trade is not always direct. That sultry beauty leaning against the bar? She may be single, or she may be one of several girls a Cartel player brought out that night. He will not take kindly to some gringo chatting her up. Since she is probably feeling neglected and bored, she might not bother to warn him.

Yet to visit Colombia and forgo the night life would be like going to Argentina and not eating the beef. In the six months I had logged in this country, I had visited two clubs, one in Medellin and one in Cali, I felt obliged to sort the claims both cities make that they host the most beautiful women and the best night life in the world. Barranquilla made no such boasts, though on the former front, the European and Middle Eastern immigrations grafted to the older Spanish creole and African bloodlines has produced some exotic results. With a reliable wingman--Henry did not seem the type of Brit to fall for the cocaine hustle--it was only fair to see how Barranquilla matched up with her more acclaimed sister cities.

Henry was our point man at the door. He walked to the head of the line and explained we were here for a BBC piece on Carnival week. The bouncer was suspicious of his camera bag, after a thorough search and pat down he said he would let us in for 5,000 pesos, a nominal two dollar cover. And no waiting.

Frogg’s Leggs was tiny compared to the night spots in Medellin and Cali, and it was not the full on sensory assault one experienced in the bigger clubs. No geodesic dome throbbing with laser lights or rooftop deck with panoramic views; no costumed performers or international circuit DJ flown in from Spain or California. Just a long rectangular hall with a bar up front and a dance floor at the rear, the length of it insanely overcrowded and buzzing with Red Bull vodkas and Andean marching powder. The ten dollar import beers were familiar.

Henry steered towards the bar while I pushed through to the dance floor. All those salsa lessons--culture nights at the Slovenian bars with their bizarre post-socialist agendas that mixed self-improvement and booze, quiet evenings in Central America where a dance instructor was cheaper than a beer, premeditated second dates with the girl who had also travelled south of the border--what a joke. I wouldn't be kidding anyone with my locked up hips and total befuddlement of rhythm. Yet the dance floor was less all-or-nothing than a pick up move at the bar, and as far as I knew there were no codes about dancing with the cartel man’s second girlfriend.

I didn’t have the technique nor the raw energy to keep in time with the beat. I figured a clean nosed gringo’s best play was somewhere between cultivated detachment and ironic incompetence. Not on the dance floor, it turned out. The first two girls I approached gave me the same withering look they might have given someone’s retarded older brother who pulled his penis out in the living room.

I edged my way to a side wall where I could watch without being noticed. As I passed through a crease in the dancers at the edge of the floor a girl with a round face and almond eyes flashed me a smile. I looked again to make sure, and for a second our eyes met. I motioned my head back towards the throng of gyrating bodies then extended my hand.

“You’ll have to lead. I’m a gringo,” I shouted into her ear.

She smiled. She didn’t need to play the part of dance instructor. She guided my arms around her waist then enveloped my knee with her fleshy thighs. From that point on I was along for the ride. I could feel the rhythm of the dance through the motions of her body.

“What’s your name?” I asked after the beat changed. The pace intensified, perhaps some sort of meringue. Americans do not dance meringue. The Dominicans had to invent a slower dance beat called Apambechau so the lead footed American soldiers could keep up with their partners. Pambeche was the name of the coarse cotton Dominicans wore which had a similar look to the finer cotton of American khaki, looks like the real thing but is a sad imitation.

“Katerina,” she said. She pulled me in tighter as if to speed me up to the beat. My cheek pressed into her matted hair and my shirt dampened where it touched her sweat drenched body. It must have been a long night for Katerina. She had a fragrance of cane alcohol over cigarettes butts mashed into urinal cakes.

Henry was nowhere to be found, maybe he had sought out another interview for his wife hunting article. It was nearly two, the time of night those looking to go home with someone make their move. I did not want another dance with Katerina. I pushed my way through to the door.

None of the taxis in front of Frogg’s Leggs wanted a part in a drive out of the city. These were the five nights of the year when the streets were flush with out of town fares with no idea of the prevailing rates. I finally hailed a driver on the road out of town who agreed to take me, or at least didn’t drive off when I stated my destination and what I knew was the rate for a late night ride.

The back seat smelled like the last customer had soaked the floor mats with aguardiente, a substantial improvement on Katerina’s acrid musk. It looked to be a quick ride as the driver was not much bothered by stop signs or traffic signals. The sleepy looking driver hunched over the wheel in a daze until he approached an intersection. Then for a second he sprung up, opened his eyes half an inch further, and flicked his brights a couple of times as the car was already accelerating through the intersection. I didn’t demand he stop the car because I knew this was the only cabbie in the city willing to run an hour long round trip at such an effective loss. I wished I had a beer, and a seatbelt.

There was a roadblock just past the the turnoff for the Puerto Colombia road. A DUI checkpoint, something I had never seen or heard about before in Colombia. The cops asked us both to step out of the car, and when they did I sniffed out that it was the driver, not the taxi, who was soaked in cane liquor. The cop produced a breathalyzer. Without pause the driver obediently blew into the machine. The device then made a series of accusatory short and sustained beeps, as if spelling out drunk in Morse code for the other machines who couldn’t see or smell the man who now leaning against his taxi.

“0.18,” the policeman informed two colleagues who had been drawn by the sound of the failed test. My driver had blown twice the legal limit for anywhere I had had a driver’s license.

What was I supposed to do, ten miles from the city and nearly as far onto Prado Mar? The only drivers bound for the coast at this hour were sure to be as smashed, and I doubted the cops were going to offer me a ride.

Two of the officers then grabbed the taxi man under either shoulder and escorted him away from the road.

“Where are they taking him?” I asked the cop who wasn’t propping up my driver.

“To the other machine.”

I followed the cops to a shed that looked like a little league concession stand. It was a concession stand, an open air convenience store selling drinks, snacks and cigarettes, though I did not see any donuts. I asked for a couple of beers, half expecting the cops to say something before the attendant opened the refrigerator. They were all preoccupied with the second, larger breathalyzer. I was told it was more accurate than the first device. My stupefied driver, again without protest, blew into the machine. A second passed before the machine beeped.

“0.16” one of the cops said.

“Your first Carnival?” anther cop asked to me.

“Yes,” I said, figuring that’s what he wanted to hear.

No one stopped the taxi driver as he started his shuffled back to the car.

“What’s the legal limit, for alcohol?” I asked.

It was 0.20, one of the highest legal limits in the world. Granted, few people would lose consciousness at .20, though stupor was the word most commonly used on the BAC charts when describing the affect of 0.20.

“You want to try?” the first cop asked. He held out the blow tube attached to the corroborating machine.

I looked back to road. The driver did not appear to be in a hurry. He could probably use a nap after expending so much effort with the police.

“Sure.” I said. For effect I pounded the rest of my open beer.

I blew. The machine made a single beep.

“0.15. With beer in your mouth. If you were a Costeño we would arrest you!”

It did not sink in immediately. Cops making sobriety jokes at a DUI check point was a new experience for me. He meant they should take me in for not celebrating enough. I was about to offer to drink my other beer to get back in their graces, but the break time was over. The lights from the next coast bound vehicle were bouncing along up the road.

The gate was chained when I arrived. Ruiz took his time answering the bell on the second ring. I got the sense he was keeping an eye on my whereabouts as he followed close behind me on the way into the house. I guessed that meant Natalie was home. No one else seemed to be. Carlos was still in the city, it was the first night of his make shift Carnival hostel. Irene must have still been out. Only the kids were asleep beneath the overworked air conditioner.

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