Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Thoughts on feathers: What was any art but an effort to make a sheath, a...

Thoughts on feathers: What was any art but an effort to make a sheath, a...: What was any art but an effort to make a sheath, a mould in which to imprison for a moment the shining, elusive element which is life its...

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Mata matas

In Colombia they have a different word for plant which took me a long time to understand.

Instead of calling a plant a planta (easy enough for us English speakers) they call it a mata. This word would be fairly simple to understand if it weren't for the fact that "mata" also means "kill." In the mental milieu of stereotypes about Colombia, one could guess where this lexical confusion led my imagination at first. (killing + plants= guerrilla in the jungle).

However, the distinction between these terms really became clear to me when the word mata, in both its senses, was used as an epithet to describe me.

"Mata matas" means "she who kills house plants."
Could be my Native American name.

But no. I was given this name by Colombian friend who considers himself a green thumb. He will not admit that having the maid water his plants takes away his horticultural cred.

The reason he gave me this name traces back to my first moments living in my big, beautiful, sun-through-stained-glass lit apartment. On any given corner outside the apartment there is someone selling plants. And cheap. So, when we first moved in, instead of investing in, oh, say, a couch, or a refrigerator (which we still don't have) or even a bed--- we bought plants.

We slept on air mattresses for more than a month, but somehow our "tree of happiness" (and it's dozen or more oxygenating relatives) were enough to make our empty apartment feel like home.

(see right--->)

In any case, by the time I had a bed, I had also killed a great many of our home's original furnishings. It was after my repeated failure at indoor gardening that my Colombian friend suggested I just put fresh flowers everywhere.

After all, they were already dead.

Most Sundays since that suggestion have been spent in the flower market at Bogota's working-class shopping plaza called Paloquemao. ( Paloquemao seems to be a truncation of the phrase "palo quemado" which literally means "burnt stick." I imagine the market won its name due to do the smell of burning wood that billows out from beneath the grills of countless seƱoras charring sausages, chickens, corn on the cob, and any kind of innard you can imagine...from opening hour to close.)

I'm told that people arrive to buy flowers as early as 4 am. At that ungodly hour on a Sunday much of Bogota is still dancing. But the vendors who begin to hawk their wares before the sun comes up get there as early as 2:30.

When the sun does grace the plaza I can only imagine the sight. The first time I went I rolled in around 7:30am the rainbow and its reach made me feel I was in Willy Wonka's factory. Only instead of everlasting gobstoppers and Wonka Bars, color and candy, I feasted my eyes on a gardener's playground of variety and and visual appeal.

Any given day you can find scads of lillies, orchids, roses, birds of paradise, lotus flowers, carnations, mums and many more blossoms for which I have no names. Walking through this Wonka-like botanical wonderland, I, the wide-eyed giant gringa, made the Colombian vendors seem like oompa-loompas. Indeed.

Colombia, as it turns out, is one of the worlds top exporters of flowers. People working for the ministry of commerce might argue that Colombia, in pursuit of "developed world" status, should find a more lucrative product. Buckets of roses don't bring in buckets of gold.

But I'd argue that the ministers of commerce ought to take a morning field trip to the market. They might discover that at least one category of Colombia's riches is measurable only in petals.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

My Backyard

Bogota has 8 million people, and almost as many buildings as is necessary to house them. But despite all this brick and concrete, I've discovered that this city has many green backyards.

My search for home in Bogota led me to discover many of them.

We've fondly named the building where I live "the castle" as its brick turrets and rooftop terrace rise far above the red tile roofs of our neighborhood, La Candelaria. From the rooftop you can count 14 churches, including Monserrate, Bogota's most iconic church, which is perched atop a treed-covered mountain on the eastern extreme of the city.

The cerro de Monserrate is Bogota's steepest backyard.

From the rooftop of the castle I often watch the sunset and notice one solitary palm tree, "palma de cera," (Colombia's national tree). No matter how crepuscular the light, it is always backlit by the sunset to the west. It stands proud in front of the slums stacked upon the southern hillside painted in gold. Sunset is the barrio’s moment of wealth each afternoon.

That neighborhood seems to have no backyard.

I return to apartment 117, on the ground floor. Back to earth. I remember that at one point in my search for a home across the central neighborhoods of Bogota, I imagined living in the Torres del Parque, elegant spiral towers in the hip neighborhood called La Macarena (no, not like the song). The three towers were designed by one of Bogota's most recognized architects, Rogelio Salmona, to embrace Parque de la Independencia.

I imagined that, if I’d lived there, the green refuge of Independence Park would've become my backyard. But living in the sky was not in the cards.

Instead, I am grounded. I have a backyard at the doorstep of my first floor apartment, unusual for a building in the historic center. It was this yard, not the beautiful architecture, that sold me on the place. The garden, as it’s called, is more of a patio, in the Spanish colonial sense of the word. All of the apartments of the building face the rectangular lawn which is about the size of a quarter of a soccer field. It is an interior space; a place to look inside.

My backyard is many things. My sanctuary. My star gazing palette. My dining room. My office. On any occasion, I throw a pink blanket on the grass, more often than not, reading for my classes. I wait to be interrupted by one of many neighbors who also cherish this space.

Professor Juan Manuel, an ex-literature professor at the University where I teach, and his labrador Mambo say hello as they have lunch in the garden before he retires to the sofa to read Joyce.

There is Richard, the twenty-something son of diplomats who has lived everywhere from South Africa to Jamaica. His Colombian Spanish hid the fact that he is originally from Texas. He always sits on a small stool in front of his window, organizing concerts on his blackberry, chain smoking, offering a smile.

Next door to him is Rafael, a long-haired, solitary Colombian with a boxer called Tomas. He is the first on the lawn every morning before he walks the few blocks to the fabric store he owns, back at midday to be with the dog, and again at dusk. Reliable as any clock, he and Tomas are the sundial I refer to when I have somewhere to be.

My next door neighbor is Brian, a sixty-nine year old British chef with a thirty something Colombian mamasita of a girlfriend. He’s enduring life with her 17 year old niece who’s just given birth to a very colicy baby. But despite his unplanned surrogate parenthood, Brian continues to be his jolly, white-haired self. With a voice that carries up to Monserrate (and through the wall) he is the neighbor who, if you plan to say hello, you must have a half an hour to spare to talk about coconut cheesecake, or a dilapidated hotel in Cartagena ( which he is attempting to buy). Despite his patchy Spanish, most everyone in the building seems to understand they must budget some time before speaking with him, though they don't seem to mind.

But best of all is Jairo. Jairo is six years old, the only one of the cast who lives on the second floor. He always arrives at the perfect moment, just when the grey of Bogota starts to get to me, or when I feel overwhelmed by the boxes academia often forces us to live inside. Jairo rings my doorbell, or trots over to my blanket, to see if I can come play soccer. I never say no. And inevitably, the sun comes out.

My backyard at 931 Douglas in Elgin,IL was also a meeting place. Summer nights, when I was a kid, a dozen or so children would emerge from their back doors and migrate toward that space behind our house for a game of kick the can. There was less small talk in that yard than in this one. Fewer hours of soccer, too.

Nevertheless, a similar sense of community, youth, and renewal sprouted up from that little patch of green we called the backyard.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Conjunto Calle del Sol

When the tourists stop outside my bedroom window to take pictures of my building I hear them speculate.

"I think it's a church," one says.

"I heard it's haunted," another guesses.

"I heard that it was once a jail," someone else offers.

“Well, I heard that people live there."

Should I have the energy to sit up in bed and answer their queries through the stained glass window, I would say, "All of the above."

I didn't discover El Conjunto Calle del Sol, or it's many histories, until about a month after moving to Bogota. Each time I tell someone new that this historic site is my home, the plot thickens.

The first month of living in Bogota I got to know the city in an atypical manner. Though at first, I did traverse some of the typical tourist routes. But all roads don't lead to the calle del sol.

Most interesting was a tour geared (pardon the pun) for bicyclists like myself. Though pedaling here is a bit dodgier than cycling through Chicago, I managed to avoid injury maneuvering through narrow streets on the Bogota Bike Tour. This tour is not one of the rose-colored glasses tours. Guides shows you both museums and the red light district. Both the bullfighting plaza and the drug addicts getting high behind it. Both the plaza de Bolivar with it's impenetrable government buildings, and the gay pride parade that fills it at the end of its course.

But despite the nooks exposed to me during the bike tour, I never heard tell of this building. It doesn't have the same importance that it had in the past.

First, as it's facade suggests, the building housed a seminary. Constructed in 1917, it was first home to a group of clarist nuns. When I've told some very Catholic friends back home that I am living and a monastery, they laugh.

I suggested a seven deadly sins party for a house warming. I figured we could start on the rooftop (heaven) and end in the basement (hell) after committing our sins. There would have been stations for each of the sins with a unique activity. I decided in the end that it sounded too much like second grade "centers time" and that regular debauchery would suffice.

Long before we thought of the seven deadly sins party, the edification of conjunto calle del sol was finished. In that year, 1945, under the government of president Gustavo Rojas Pinilla, the building served as offices for the SIC (Colombian equivalent of the CIA). (Today we foreigners know this office as the DAS, the place where we waste hours and days waiting renew our visas and i.d. cards.) It's common lore that much of the building, under the government's reign, was used as a prison where the SIC tortured people.

That was not in the real estate listing.

But I have heard stories. Lots of stories.

One neighbor swears that when he first moved into the apartment there was a "presence." The presence lived only on the first floor of the the apartment and tended to break things. The original set of dishes, of which there were 8 of everything, made of durable black clay, are now four. The presence was aggressive.

Finally, unprepared to cede his space to someone/something who was not paying the rent, my neighbor challenged his uninvited roommate to a face off. Speaking in his most firm voice to the empty dining room, he said, "This is my house now. I want nothing to do with you. And stop breaking my dishes."...Or something to that effect.

Though my neighbor claims his space has been ghost-free ever since the face off, I still find myself listening for the sound of clay shattering on brick as I carry laundry down to the basement.

In 1980 Colcultura (cultural foundation) acquired the building with the idea of turning it into the National Archive. But during the 80's the space did not fill with files. The gloomy, neogothic space more aptly sheltered the Candelaria's local transients, many of whom you can still find at the doorstep of the entrance, sleeping on the sidewalk as though they've forgotten their keys.

In the end, a group of spanish investors bought the place and turned it into 71 duplex apartments, which, despite their modern conveniences, don't cease to remind its residents of the building's sordid past.

El hilo conductor, or, a common thread

it's a common trick:

a brilliant string

tied to your wrist,

almost like

Mrs. Chase the librarian

taught you to do,

only that was your finger,

and to remind you

to return your borrowed book.

equally juvenile

and charming

is this young man who

somehow has your hand in his

within seconds of greeting you.

he has convinced you

with his yarn,

to share with him the following intimacies:

something you wish to do for the Earth;

a fantansy that you have;

something you desire to do for yourself.

(“we will skip dreams, travels and studies,” he says

“because it seems that you need not be

reminded of these.”)

“A little knot

on a string cannot

remind you of your dreams

or wishes.

That is silly”

he assured .

“But this string can line your pockets, no?”

I asked.

And gave him mil pesos

For reminding me.

The Olympic-sized swimming pool

In the summer of 1993, on Saturday nights I swam naked in the Trout River. With a belly full of beer and bonfire smoke in my hair, I mounted the pedestrian bridge below the interstate for an exhibitionist dismount. The rumble of the semis above shook the bridge as I shivered on the rail for fear that any second a police beam would shoot behind me. Both of these, the rumble and the fear, propelled me forward to the current, which always delivered me to the safety of my friends waiting on the motorboat.

The danger, not the safety, was why I chose to swim there.

In summer of 1993, my friend Santiago swam in an Olympic-sized swimming pool in Medellin. Among the sounds of splashing Colombian beauties whose breasts were-scarcely formed beneath their purple bikini tops, you couldn’t even hear the squeak in his voice, which his mother said sounded like the conversations between the mice living between the walls in their country house. He and Juan and Andres would meet there summer afternoons with two purposes; watching the tiny purple breasts, and to find safety from the things their parents always talked about in their presence. Puberty and politics.

That summer when Santiago thirteen, he drank Postobon soda at the poolside. I drank Pabst Blue Ribbon on a broken down peer over the river. We discovered this parallel between my American adolescence and his Colombian one over shots in a Bogota bar as adults, when we were both living far from our parents and our homes.

When Santiago talked about the Olympic-sized swimming pool in Medellin, he buddies perked up. “Do you remember that day?” Santiago asked his two musketeers, as he knew I certainly would not.
“Andres was on the diving board, clutching his nuts and shivering like a little girl. Same as now,” Juan said winking at Andres. Andres punched him and took a shot.
“He was trying to impress that little mamacita, Maria, and her friends. Remember.” With each detail, the salsa music, the heat of December, the green hills that were the backdrop for the pool deck-- I felt myself disappearing from the scene.

"When Andres jumped, we heard the shots.”
“For a split second we thought that little gordito broke the diving board!” Juan chuckled. I did not. “But then the people near the radio started cheering. The salsa stopped and someone started yelling. 'They shot Pablo Escobar!' "
The boys had cheered with the rest of them, or so they told me between casual puffs on their cigarettes. When they talked about it, it was as though puberty and politics were tainted by the same nostalgia.

After Escobar was shot, they walked home, for once without looking over their shoulders. Santiago's parents were in the kitchen, still cheering, while the rice for lunch burned on the stove.

“For once we felt like you gringos. Safe for a whole day!” All of them laughed at me for this. I was still caught in the feeling on the pool deck. I could only imagine their relief, and thought it must have been similar to the realization that the police beam never hit me on the bridge over the river.

They bought another round of shots, and the party continued as usual.