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.

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