The Gerente’s English

July, 2012

Ahead of us there is smoke billowing out of the back of something metal, black, stained and industrial. It’s moving slowly.

And it is making me late for my lesson with the Gerente.

I can see the smoke through the front window of my stick-shifting, gurgling, gears-grinding-gears bus that holds more than twenty people. There are roughly ten seats. The driver sits on something soft, maroon, and squeaky and uses one hand to steer as he rips several peso notes out of his fist and quickly turns to make eye contact with his latest passenger, whose feet have barely left the ground as the bus lurches forward and away. The new passenger is a mother holding a child.

Changing cash and driving stick should be classified as an act of God in Bogotá’s gnarly traffic frenzy.

But it is not.

This, like any other concrete vein coursing through the city, is just the way the road is. This time it is the road to Mosquera, a small, and what I expect to be sleepy, town one and a half hours outside of Bogotá

Some sort of divinity, surely, is the only thing I can think of that keeps my driver sane.

That must be why, when looking through the window, the exhaust filled road is not the only thing I see. Hanging from the window there is a string holding several crosses with a crucified Christ dangling from each one. And on the dashboard, The Virgin Mary faces our driver head on.

The lore behind the Virgin Mary’s relationship with Bogotá’s bus drivers goes something like this: some years ago a group of drivers were taking a rest along the road. A group of old hands told some younger fellows that they should get religious quick, that they should start respecting the virgin Mary, and carry some faith with them for their new lives on the road. They declined, and two of the young drivers went off and got into an accident later that day. The story circulated. Anecdote turned to superstition. The superstition spread. And now, years later, decking out the interior of almost every collectivo bus in Bogotá, there is a fervent display of Catholic symbols and paraphernalia. And the Virgin Mary is almost always present.

The bus’s dashboard is almost like a private altar.

Along the way what I see along the road is a chaotic sort of transformation. A gigantic excavator tears up soil from a fallow farm field and deposits it into a dump truck. Modern architecture sticks up on the outskirts of Bogotá with signs draped over its glass window panes, signaling “office space for rent.” Further along a town street lined with grease-stained mechanic shops and heaping junkyards, where every other bus is a truck carrying freight, there are apartment residences under construction.

The small towns toward the West of Bogotá – Funza, Mosquera, Facatativá – are hotbeds of an industrial wildfire, where industrial parks, distribution warehouses, a Nestle factory, and massive flower companies have sprung up and started to thrive in a lively, chaotic way since the early 2000s.

Somewhere in this chaos there is an office where the Gerente of a French multinational manufacturing company is waiting for me to arrive.

Then, suddenly, the bus screeches to a halt. The bus driver shouts at me to get off. This, apparently, is my stop.

My feet hit the ground. Dirt. Next to me something of a makeshift flatbed truck is broken down. Several men hover around two feet, which stick out from underneath the engine. Across the road there is a massive and vacant industrial park. Everything else is flat, open green.

Several paces back in the opposite direction from the broken down truck there is a gate and what appears to be a complex of buildings.

I trudge toward it.

At the gate there is a man with a gun. Security. I pass him my identification card through the thin slats in the fence. Inside his guard house I hear the murmur of a voice on a telephone. The phone clicks. The gates of Saint-Gobain open.

“Siga,” says the security guard, telling me to enter.

I do, and then I set out to meet the man who will be my private pupil of the English tongue for the next several months. I set out to meet the General Manager, the Gerente, of Saint-Gobain Colombia.

The cluster of offices is a two-story box that hangs over a long, narrow factory building with wide sliding doors and no windows. Inside, there is a young, black haired woman who appears to be no more than 20 years old. She points to a set of stairs. At the top, there is a long wide room that stretches the entire length of the building. About 15 shirts and ties face me as I enter. Then, just as suddenly as I appear, they go back to their whirring computer terminals, and all I can hear is the snapping click of keys entering figures into spreadsheets. I behold the finance department.

A woman in her forties approaches me. Her posture says professional and confident, but it balances polite and hospitable too. She explains that the Gerente will wait for me here, and gestures with an open hand to a long black sofa outside a closed door at the end of the room. She asks me if I want coffee. I say yes. She disappears.

After a quick five minutes, the door swings open. A round-faced man who appears to be his late thirties stands in front of me. He is wearing blue jeans, a pressed shirt, and a tie. There is a fast, intense sort of energy in his round frame. Wearing a modest smile, he looks at me, holds out his hand, shakes it, and says, “Buenos días.” Something in the way he says it is hesitant.

We enter the Gerente’s office.

The Gerente’s office is many things. It is the sound of the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Shania Twain, and a string of Salsa tracks playing softly through speakers close to the windows. It is a round conference table with a projector poised and ready to flash presentations at a screen that fills up one entire wall at the end of the office. It is phone calls. Phone calls from the factory line downstairs, phone calls from the secretary just down the hall, phone calls from Paris, phone calls from Brazil, emails in Spanish, emails in English, sudden ideas for innovation, for branding, for re-branding, debates, resolutions, fast black ink scribbling on white correspondence stock. And it is time, too, falling away at the feet of the man who tries to run faster than everything happening around him.

We sit down across from each other at the conference table. There is a knock at the door. A maid enters with two cups of coffee. She places them in between the Gerente and me. The maid leaves. The Gerente turns back to the table, looks at me, produces a heavy sigh, smiles, and apologizes.

“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to say Buenos dias. I meant to say Good morning, how are you?” he says.

And then class with the Gerente begins.

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