Wednesday, December 12, 2012
Tuesday, December 7, 2010
In Colombia they have a different word for plant which took me a long time to understand.
Saturday, October 23, 2010
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.
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.
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.
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
it's a common trick:
a brilliant string
tied to your wrist,
Mrs. Chase the librarian
taught you to do,
only that was your finger,
and to remind you
to return your borrowed book.
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
That is silly”
he assured .
“But this string can line your pockets, no?”
And gave him mil pesos
For reminding me.
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.