Saturday, July 17, 2010

Barranquilla XIV: The Second Casa Carlos

The Battle of the Flowers concluded several miles to the southwest as the last comparsa danced into the sunset. At street level it was already dark. The last glow of fast fading tropical twilight concentrated in the western sky.

The side streets teemed with Carnival goers in a languorous flow away from the river and the spent expanse of parade route. The concrete was refinished with a sticky carpet of overindulgence: beer cans meshed with candy wrappers, corn shuck woven into mangled straw hats, florescent colored flyers advertising restaurants and nightclubs cross hatched with several thousand green pamphlets explaining the personal power and exaltation, the godliness achieved with man’s defeat of the reactive mind. The police who manned the barricaded entry points to the boulevard had handed out these last pamphlets, no telling what or how the Scientologists paid for this tacit sponsorship.

The words of L Ron would proselytize in the matted garbage until the first deluge of April or May invoked arroyos which would run counter to the slow moving herd. Brown rapids scrubbed the surface filth and carried it along with anything without foundation-- dogs, children, cars, shanties--into the Magdalena. The city without a drainage system was a seasonal garbage disposal, and not just for the mundane. Toxic waste trucked clandestinely from as far away as Medellin and Bogota mingled alongside more conventional garbage in anticipation of the seasonal flow. When the rains fell and the rapids formed it would all go gushing into the muddy river and blossom a shit brown plume into the sea.

Toxic waste and deadly rapids would wait for the hangover after the party that would continue into the night, the morning, and the next week on the streets-cum-riverbeds of Barranquilla.

Even the most euphemistically named barrio held its own block party, most with their own stages and line-ups of musical performances, where whispers of a Shakira appearance were de rigueur. The rumors themselves were a sign of respect, appreciation that Barranquilla’s brightest star has not forgotten her hometown. Students, out of towners, the posh set of Barranquilleros flocked to the zona rosa along the Calle 84 where the din of competing baselines rumbled through the bodies crammed onto every inch and elevation of banked sidewalks and parking lots. The corner lot of last night’s street battle with the cops was where I agreed to meet Ian and his wife.

The crowds thinned as I turned north into Prado Viejo, the old money neighborhood where villas set back from street had collected their favored strands of the early 20th century immigration, facades flush with flowery Churrigueresque of Spanish Baroque fluttered alongside the grounded geometry and soothing repetition of the Levantine tradition. Everywhere the walls were splashed with Bougainvillea and assorted blooms so vivid as to seem artificial. Gnarled roots of ceiba trees cracked the sidewalks and rows of tapering palm trees reached for the sky. The Prado Hotel stood like a fortress on the neighborhood’s flank, its block-long neoclassical walls shielded the old world neighborhood from the high rise apartment blocks to the north and west. Though designed for the city’s affluent, collectively the towers reminded me of the drab concrete worker hives ringing the charming centers of Prague and Ljubljana.

The high rises began on a subtle upward slope of irritated follicles across a twenty block mosquito bite on Barranquilla’s concrete skin. What was subtle to the eye was obvious to the storm rains, the gradient inspired bright yellow and black warning signs posted every two hundred meters depicting an upturned car floating atop a river of curving black lines.

The security guard did not look up from his television as I entered the aluminum gate into a narrow courtyard and out of my imagined exile. As I walked through groups of fellow travelers who stood on the steps and sat along the low wall, a psychic wind was stirring, its vortices tickling at the back of my mind. Then a gust. I could feel it tearing away the months of inertia. Suddenly I was surrounded by familiarity, a setting dense with texture, texts and sub-texts, I could readily interpret. I was starved of social fluency, an essential vitamin complex for any higher order primate. The depletion had caused my self to atrophy. For the first time in months, shirts weren’t just shirts, nor backpacks backpacks. The hairstyles and piercings, smiles and postures, and most of all the words--English was the default language of all but one of the clusters--were all steeped in meaning.

I found an empty section of wall to sit and watch and listen. And no one seemed to mind. It was unlike the those-in-the know hostels where the new arrival was immediately sized up for membership. Here there were no intimidating glances, no silent hostility from a jaded in-crowd with the menacing territoriality of middle school cliques and cell block gangs. In part because there were no veterans here, everyone had arrived today or last night, and everyone thought of themselves as a friend of Carlos. It was a Democracy of gap years and Peace Corps, next year’s law schoolers and committed wanderlusts, good timers and aspiring novelists, murky pasts and and opaque futures, all smoking and drinking and planning procurements for the all-night party ahead.

Was I back on the gringo trail? A matter of perspective, like the Cold War joke about a railway platform in Warsaw where the westbound Russians marveled at the bright city lights alongside eastbound Germans who could not believe a capital lay shrouded in such darkness. I had ended a self-imposed exile from the far reaching tendrils of the guidebook-destination travel complex. But the second annual Casa Carlos was hardly an established outpost. It was a five-night phenomenon, an ethereal agglomeration too fleeting for the pages of the next Lonely Planet or Rough Guide. What better place to re-acclimate? I was getting back on the trail soon, after all. I had been delaying my trip north for weeks, and just eight days left on my visa. I needed a weekend at Carlos’s fun house. I could stop being a shadow on the streets of a wasteland city and pass out in company for a change.

The energy was good in this courtyard. For the backpackers Carlos had drawn from the seedy alleys of Getsemani, his insider’s invitation to a city-wide street party had been a revelation. Carlos knew his audience--the budget travelers who couldn’t afford the charms of old-town Cartagena, a UNESCO site among the most beautiful cities in the world. They had gotten stuck in the dingy hostels off the Calle Media Luna, where the cocaine dealers and hookers jostled for space in the doorways beyond the fortified walls that bounded the old town’s fairytale and astronomically expensive tourist zone. Travelers could lose weeks there, mired in a drug binge or waiting for a boat to Panama that never materialized. Carlos filled his four apartments on a single visit to Cartagena’s backpackers ghetto. And every traveler here loved him for it. For twenty bucks a night, by far the cheapest rates in a town with no vacancies, Carlos had given them Carnival time in Barranquilla. A reaffirming experience after a week wandering the cobblestones of magical consumerism.

I knocked, then gently pushed the door open, remembering last year’s flophouse with mattresses blanketing every inch of empty space save the desk wedged into the corner of the room that doubled as the office for Carlos's fly by night enterprise. The sleeping quarters were elsewhere. This year Carlos had the use of a furnished apartment to serve as a living room for his guests. A beige sectional couch wrapped around a glass coffee table centered over a white tile floor. A canopy of waxy jungle ferns rose along the walls behind the couch. A pair of potted pygmy palms framed an LCD television atop a black cabinet with gold trim. Barranquilla’s ghetto good version of Miami.

Three early college age Barranquilleros, local friends of Carlos, residents of the apartment, sat on one side of the couch positioned to watch the television and the door. They each wore pressed shirts unbuttoned halfway down their chests. The two with straight hair combed theirs straight back. The third had his curls under the lid of a Yankees cap. As I leaned forward to shake their hands I did well not to grimace. They may as well have bathed in the cologne that burned through my nose.

The young men wrung their hands as they watched and waited. Casa Carlos had transformed their living room into a landscape formerly accessible only through Hollywood and the internet. They were voyeurs in their own apartment, a brave new world where girls, the good girls, smelled of sex the way the boys reeked of perfume. Girls free to act like boys, to flirt and fuck without a thought of tomorrow. Carlos had stocked their building with young women from across the globe, some of them traveling alone. The boys knew enough to know that if they played it right, these exotic women were capable of doing things tonight, and more, that they might not get from the local girls, the good girls, after many persistent months of pursuit with promises of marriage.

Conservative mores in Colombia had so far held up a counter weight against the global tide of sexual revolution. Not that the cracks weren’t showing. Gay culture was remarkably open in contrast to a hetero world where young couples were forced to meet at underground sex motels. Part girls navigated the murky every man’s land of the prepaga and the disco, where girls acted like their first world cousins for (and at) a price. Good girls were by and large reactionaries. What was left to bind them to this old world? Catholicism? These young women went to college, parties and bars. They wore their skirts cut high and their tops low and were immersed in the same do-it-now advertisements from the rapid frame global media. They lived in the same world where the rest of us were second and third generation beneficiaries of a movement that had long divorced sex from marriage, love, religion. Yet unlike these boys, they mostly lived at home.

With their ironed shirts and waterfalls of cologne the young Barranquilleros had prepared themselves for the onslaught, the long-past revolution drawn suddenly inside their door. But how would they act on this opportunity, the four more nights of uprising? Could they riff off the irony soaked words flying through the courtyard or decode the outfits that designated hipster from raver from granola from post-post punk? By what language did they navigate these daughters and granddaughters off the barricades and onto the mattresses?

They twisted their hands in terror at the prospects of the girls who, despite all the misunderstandings and lack of conversation, would still choose to come home with them. Because what then?

We sat and watched the Europeans, the Commonwealth Anglos, the Latinas who had grown up in the States, we sat and admired their short-shorts and cleavage baring tops as they came and went through the apartment looking for Carlos, their new friends, their stashes of liquor.

Carlos was out. This worried me, Carlos was not one to leave guests unattended. He spent the year planning, living for and off of this makeshift hostel. It would have taken a crisis, say Nancy and Diego’s misadventures at the police station. The boy in the baseball cap claimed not to know anything, the others nodded in silent agreement. I thought to explain I was a friend of Carlos, but then everyone here was a friend of Carlos.

So I waited in the living room where for the next four nights I was the native and they were the foreigners, their collars galvanized in cologne, parsing the runes of near future feminine advances.

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