Monday, August 9, 2010

Barranquilla XVI: Calle 84

Our thirty odd travelers and four Colombians absorbed into a tributary of celebrants two blocks from the main channel of the street party. Traditional wood-benched Chivas buses, rented by well heeled Barranquilleros as bars on wheels for Carnival, stalled in the party-clogged streets. A few of the riders jumped down to coax the foreign girls onto their buses while their girlfriends splashed us with handfuls of flour.

The stream bottlenecked between two trucks of out of town policeman parked just beyond the reach of the street lamps on the 84. I could not make out their faces in the shadows, whether they were good cops or bad, relishing another opportunity to grab the batons and riot shields stacked inside the vehicles and bludgeon through a wall of drunks, or just happy to be drawing wages on a balmy Caribbean night, listening to the dance beats over the murmuring crowds.

The stream thickened then coagulated as we neared the sidewalks and parking lots along the main strip of the zona rosa. The scene on the raised banks of sidewalks along Calle 84, the now dry riverbed for one of Barranquilla’s fiercest arroyos, was reminiscent of the Venetian Carnival, where the flesh managed to pack to within centimeters of the canals without spilling over into the water. Slow moving cars with open windows and trunks doubled as sound systems, blasting competing notes of salsa, meringue and vallenato up into the crowd. A slightly older set emerged from the cabs and pushed through the wall of bodies to the doors of the night clubs, which seemed like madness, unless by experience they knew the interior passageways were less crowded and sweat soaked than the street party outside.

From a distance the crush of people along the 84 appeared as writhing chaos. Closer in, the atoms of individual parties were distinguishable within the larger celebration elemental. A Doctor Fernando type held the center of each nucleus. His arsenal of booze kept the dancing electrons bumping back to within arms length so that he could pour rum and aguardiente straight from the bottle and down their throats. More surreptitiously, slender vials passed between the fast moving particles along the edges. Flirtatious friction further charged the outer valences as dance partners jumped back and forth from neighboring parties. Occasional free radicals in twos and threes slashed through the outer rings, young men spraying their foam cans in the air and mashing handfuls of flour over heads and faces in the crowd.

Covered in flour, filled with powder, the unbroken mass danced a grind to the proximate rhythms, shouting epithets in honor of Carnival gods.

We wormed our way down the edges of the party to where Carlos knew a spot on a less crowded block fronted by a deep parking lot there were still pockets big enough to accommodate our group. The little Colombian pumped his fists in the air as he rode atop the shoulders of Shawn and the even more enormous Bruno, a rugby prop from France who with his free arm poured streams of aguardiente down his own throat. I trailed with the rest of the Irish contingent in the wake behind our twin crowd breakers.

When we arrived to our destination at the tail end of the street party, a trio with flour bags and foam cans sliced through our group. The guys received the customary handful of flour to the face, though the women got more thorough treatment; the temptation of real flesh in this land of surgical augmentation was too much to resist. I noticed the lead flour man, short and muscular, didn’t bother with Sarah’s blonde hair. He kneaded his flour covered palms into the burgeoning symmetry of her chest.

The Irish boys also noticed the display. Mark shielded his girlfriend and both he and Liam grabbed the offending groper by the wrists. The little body builder lashed free, and after another dip in his bag he jumped up to slap a handful of flour into Liam’s head, and another in Mark’s face.

Shawn, now alerted to the chalky hand prints on Sarah’s chest, set our Maestro to the ground and wrenched the flour tosser around to face him.

“Fuck’s wrong with you mate? Keep your hands off the girl.”

Tranquilo, es Carnaval (Easy, its Carnival),” The flour man replied. He then ripped at his bag and as he mashed two last fistfuls of powder into the Irishman’s face his fat fingers dug into Shawn’s eye sockets.

Shawn grabbed the the flour man and flung him backwards. His head pin-balled off elbows and thighs on his way to the concrete.

The two accomplices sprang between Shawn, and their downed comrade, shouting and gesturing at the bigger man who stood seething beneath his fresh mask of powder. Liam and Bruno, whom the Irish lads hadn’t known more than a couple of hours, stood shoulder to shoulder in solidarity with Shawn.

The downed man sprung up from his ignominious dive. The combination of cocaine and public humiliation had popped out the veins on the little body builder’s neck and at his temples. Rage bulged his bloodshot eyes and flared his nostrils as he pointed his finger at the Irish boys.

“Are jew crazy, gringos locos?” he shouted.

Then he turned and pandered to the crowd behind him where a dozen young men now flanked his associates.

As quickly as the crowd grew behind the Colombians, the foreign ranks thinned. Our only common link was to our little host whose entire body screamed danger. Bug-eyed and hands trembling, he hopped along the back line of the crazy gringos and tugged Shawn, Bruno, and Liam at the elbow, repeating over and over, “We go. We go. We go.”

Liam turned halfway to Carlos, and then back to Shawn, waiting for a cue from his friend that it was ok to split. Though Liam’s face was expressionless, I was sure the worst case scenario was locked on repeat in his mind. He didn’t get the out he was seeking. The other two lads ignored Carlos and focused on the other short Colombian in front of them.

The remainder of the disparate travelers heeded Carlos’ alarm and resisted the temptation of spectacle. We melted away in twos and threes. I grabbed the girl next to me, another wandering San Franciscan named Veronica who was transfixed by the coming showdown. I whisked her to the far side of the parking lot where we could watch from a perch of concrete embankment just beyond the arc of street light.

We turned to see the little body builder strut between the rump of the Carlos crew and crowd behind him. He continued his taunts in English so that the foreigners could be sure of the stakes.

“Fucking Americans! Don’t you know you’re in Colombia? We are going to keel you tomorrow. We are going to fucking keel you fucking gringos! Tu puta madre me la chupa!”

For many Colombians in the interior of the country, Gringolandia was a vague, transnational supercontinent that encompassed most every nation in the non-Latino, European derived world. I have told Colombians I am from the USA who enthusiastically replied they had relatives in Paris or Sydney. Among costeƱos, like their neighbors on the Caribbean rim, gringo had more specific associations with the United States. It takes a far higher level of language skills than most locals possess to pick up accents in a second language. The English speaking foreigners became American by default.

But the Irish guys didn't know this, and Bruno, still at Shawn’s side, could have only caught snippets of the heavily accented vitriol. Not that it mattered. Both sides were sufficiently powdered, inside and out, and any insult from the muscle man was enough fuel for a fight.

“What’d the little cunt call me?” Shawn asked, turning his head back to whom he assumed was Carlos and the rest of the hostel at his back. In fact he had turned on the only empty space on a sidewalk elsewhere thick with bodies. After his frantic attempt at intervention, Carlos had melted away along with the rest of us. Even Mark had disappeared, wisely escorting Sarah into the anonymity of the crowd. Only Carlos’ cologned drenched business partners stood at a distance behind the gringos. With no need to fear the impending race war, they could afford to be spectators. They did not make any signs of alignment to the gringo cause.

Liam, still stoned out of his mind, clenched a bottle and made an awkward chopping motion with the intention, so he claimed, of splashing the Colombians with the remainder of his beer. He didn’t judge the distance between himself and the opposing line, and unfortunately the taller sidekick leaned forward just in time with the downward snap of Liam’s hand. The lip of the bottle smacked across the bridge of the Colombian's nose.

Silence. A strange silence, because music still pounded from oversized speakers and in every direction the party churned on. Yet for a long moment, what must have seemed an eternity to the three Europeans, a whisper would have been enough to break the spell. Everyone within 50 yards of the confrontation stood hushed and still, enraptured by the insanity of the gringos either too crazy or too stupid to turn and run.

“You threw a fucking bottle at my head?” The tall flour man stepped forward and asserted himself in Liam’s face. Then he turned to Shawn, then back to Liam. He swiveled a third time and threw a sucker punch that landed square on Shawn’s jaw. The attacker coiled to launch a sprawling hook. Shawn easily ducked the second punch. Only then, with an open shot on his attacker, did he seem to appreciate the scenario. Instead of leveling his assailant he grabbed at the shirts of his old friend and new acquaintance and the three took off in a dead sprint for the street.

The mob waited for a second, then their little Napoleon shouted, “Kill the Americans!”

The crowd at the edge of the sidewalk parted for the honorary Yankees. Sympathetic revelers waved them forward as if they were runners on the home stretch of a marathon. As the boys jumped down into the street, a taxi driver attuned to the situation opened his back door. One after the other they dove head first into the back seat. The French giant was still airborne as the cab cut away from the curb.

Bruno’s legs dangled out the back door, providing the opening for two Colombians to jump into the moving cab and grab at the bodies in an impossibly crowded backseat. The second attacker could not get enough of his torso in the car and his dragging feet pulled him out onto the curb. After a brief scuffle the second attacker tumbled out backwards onto the concrete.

The street was too clogged with bodies and cars for the taxi to make a clean get away. With a half dozen men closing on the traffic constricted vehicle, the driver swerved into the oncoming lane and screeched a u turn that narrowly missed sideswiping the crowd filling out to the edge of the opposite curve.

Surely such a scene would have drawn attention from the police, but I couldn’t see a uniform in either direction. Neither did the mob. With Liam, Shawn and the Frenchman out of the way, the pack of taxi chasers scanned the crowd for another target.

“Where is the other one?” shouted the muscle man, scanning up and down the sidewalk for the boyfriend and the blonde with the powdered chest.


At first I couldn’t see what he was pointing at. Not Mark and his girlfriend, they should have been long clear of Calle 84.

Then I saw them. A flour besmudged couple made their way up the channel of the road.

Were they insane?

No, apart from North European ancestry, the two foreigners edging along the street only superficially resembled the Irish couple who had wisely fled the scene. The man was too short to be Mark, too gangly, and even at 100 yards it was evident his woman lacked the measurements worthy of a street riot. But they had the same coloring as the Gaelic pair. With the competing sound systems and the thousands of wasted revelers spilling out of the lots to the edge of the sidewalks above them, the approaching Canadians were completely oblivious to the half-dozen cocaine riddled beserkers flying in their direction.

The sequence slowed down in my mind. The wheels of justice turned. For a moment I enjoyed the illusion of fleeting equilibrium in our rapidly expanding universe. The wheels of justice were grinding, and I was in perfect position to watch the scumbag editor’s moment of reckoning.

As the pack closed to within 20 strides, probably still shouting kill the Americans and something about what they would do with their grieving mothers--I was well out of range to hear the particular epithet--I watched it dawn on Ian McKay that he was the target of their venom and that the Maple Leaf sown onto his day pack was not going to save his ass this time.

There was no time for mediation, to plead a case of false identity, nor was their honor in his last moments. He made no move to protect his lovely girlfriend. He had probably just been pouting about her pulling him from the safety of their comped hotel room. He just threw up his hands and lowered his chin into his chest. He twisted towards the curb and lowered into a half squat so that the whole of his body reflected his existential terror of the oncoming plow.

Only one detail, or lack of one, saved Ian from more than the humiliation of soiled shorts and the initial blow from the wedge of attackers. The lovely Vanessa had just a hint of convexity under her tee shirt. It was such contrast to Sarah’s bosom, that no man, tit man, ass man, straight or gay, could have possibly mistaken the two blondes. The pursuing general, noticing the disparity, called off the attack. The danger had passed I walked closer to the scene so as to get more details of the aftermath.

I hugged the distraught Mrs. McKay. She hugged me back and whispered something in my ear as the bystanders peeled her shell shocked husband off the concrete and sterilized his wounds with searing splashes of cane liquor.


Alas, Barranquilla is not a city of Justice or Karma. After the heroic cab driver threaded the needle’s eye and delivered the Irish boys to safety, the mob petered out. I imagined the rest on my solitary walk back to the hostel. Veronica had found what she had been looking for, a smooth faced and quick-footed Colombian whose ostentatious dance moves were superfluous to his going home with the 26 year old American.

Back at the hostel, the Irish-French contingent were the heroes of the night. They recounted the play by play of the fracas between congratulatory shots of rum and and pulls from bottles of Aguila beers, the same label which had nearly induced a lynching.

"He left himself open,” Shawn said as he shadow boxed on the sectional couch. “I could have dropped him after that hook, but then they would have killed us."

“You’ve been in a few fights in your life?"

“More than a few,” Shawn grinned.

“Where did you go?” another of the vanishing spectators asked Mark.

“Me? I’m too pretty to fight.”

With every angle of the street fight hashed and rehashed, it was wasn’t yet 2 AM. Bruno, who remained stoic throughout the glory session, suggested there was still time to hit a nightclub.

I mentioned Frogg’s Leggs. The Irish lads were in, even Mark was up for it. Sarah, our Helen of Troy in the near riot, had gone to bed. The Colombian boys, still a touch too fragrant, offered to drive. Maybe Carlos was there ahead of us. No one had seen him since the confusion of Calle 84. Shawn asked me to tell him once more about the pre-pays and again we ventured into the night.

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