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.

Directions for moving in Bogota

Bogota, t embodies all the cities you’d ever want to see, and I suppose, many that you would not.” (paraphrase from an Airplane magazine.)

[It is dangerous there.]

[Don’t go alone.]

[Best not to walk at night.]

[ Carry your cash up your sleeve.]

Discover if they are right

By moving, in your way,

Around that forbidden city.


Move with reckless abandon

Like the costeno ice cream seller

who I saw hurdle the Carribean surf

with his impermeable

cart full of firecrackers,

bombpops, and other dangerously

sweet treats.

When he surprised

the Santa Marta swimmers

he exposed a hidden desire:

A craving for the sweet countered by salt,

A guava popsicle on sea-kissed lips.


Move with awareness of your desire

For the beautiful and the terrible


A decadent dessert

at the restaurant that reminds you Europe

can be yours too: Crepes and Waffles.

Indulge in your crepe, chocolat, crème fraiche

From your seat near the glass

Where you can smell espresso

And at once

bazuco and sniffers glue,

the odor of garbage sacks


your leftovers being exploited by men

on the other side of the glass.

Move up mountainsides

For a panoramic view from Monserrate

verdant and sublime

shared over a bottle of wine

and on your way home,

a view of twelve year olds

exposed in red-lit doorways.

Moving in Bogota is

street mangoes doused in salt.


And continue searching.

Move weaving

As though you were the Guajira woman’s hands,

through crowds of suit coats

tattered trousers,

citizens dressed for the cool

or evading it

beneath door frames and newsprint.

Move rhythmically

Behind a plaid-skirted girl

as she hopscotches an improvised court

skipping over holes,

alternating her beat,

narrow sidewalk to narrow street.



That the walkways are not

minefields of shit

and electrical pits

and grime ground

between bricks--

The streets can be a tap dancer’s stage.

Hear the clicks on pavement

slick from all-day mist.


With eyes skyward,

the painters

remaking the faces

of buildings old as Bolivar,

day by day,

ochre, salmon, celeste.


Like the obrero

whose charcoal eyes

are as singed as the door

he torches and scrapes

until he reveals

centuries-old oak

the color of his wife’s skin.


Your own admiration

as he who pauses

to marvel at the wood,

imagining his senora

and lunchtime in her steaming kitchen


At last,

move inside

a door.

You will understand:

Bogota is a beauty

coated in soot.