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.