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.

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