The Blacksmith

January 3rd, 2013 CARTAGENA- The authority of a large metal gate guards an entrance where there are men with carts gathering and waiting. The gate is a pair of cathedral-sized doors made with 3-inch perfect circles. Suddenly a man appears from the darkness. I see him through the gate. He carries a brick. I ask him about the iron. He tells me I should meet Tico on Calle de Lumbra. Tico knows iron.
Javier, an eager servant to a woodworker, tells me to follow him. He promises to help me find Tico. We walk in silence. A heap of shoes wait on a rickety desk outside of a barbershop. On one street, in front of a blue facade, a man chisels off the rust on a set of bicycle spokes. The wheel he scrapes has no tire. The man wears no shirt. His feet wear no shoes. And his skin, like cursing and swearing through the night, sobs sweat from an oily black back. Then we turn down an alley. Children. Suspicious eyes. Men gambling. “Habla!” one says to Javier. Javier ignores any temptation to talk.

We turn again. Then stop. A man comes to the threshold. His mustache covers his expression. He stands in front of the doorway as if to say that it is impossible to pass. Stubborn as a mule. Finally, the blacksmith.

The blacksmith wears spectacles. His hair is salt and pepper, but mostly salt. And his mustache is salt and pepper too, but more pepper than salt. Tico leads us into his workshop. Behind him a younger woman sits and carves flesh with a large metal blade. From a pile of tangled rusty memories, of steel chairs and metal gadgets, Tico wrestles out a long steel rod. He towers over a piece of rail road track – his anvil – and with a hammer in hand he begins to crush the tip of the long metal rod over the iron track. Each slam is perfect. In a matter of seconds, the metal fits a calculated scroll. Without saying a word, Tico holds it out for me to observe.

Tico makes gates, locks and cages that protect precious things from thieves. In each example he points out his scrolls. Each one obeys an exact Fibonacci sequence.  Like his ironwork, the blacksmith is quiet but strong. Silent but sure. And proud. There is something very proud about the way Tico moves through these streets. He is their protector, after all.

For thicker steel, you need heat, says Tico. Serious heat. When we get to the forge, the doorway is guarded. A squad of men with hard faces stand around the doorway. In the doorway two men grapple with a lantern, twisting it and slugging it with a hammer. The men say something hostile toward Tico. He ignores them. Finally the distraction of the lantern falls and one of the men asks Tico what he wants. He answers. What he says is enough for the men. Suddenly we plunge into the workshop. It is cavernous and cluttered. Tico leads us to the back, where a tall man slinks around an open pit of coals and fire. His mouth twists nervously. Three metal rods are snoozing in his fire. He pulls them out of the coals, waking up their hot tips. His hammer goes into action. There is a paced immediacy to his swing. When he finishes, he holds the rod up. Tico takes it. It is red hot on the tip. Four sides are visible. They come to a point.
“La punta de la lanza,” says Tico. “The point of the lance.”
The humble shops that line the streets open their doors for service when they want to here. Small children sleep pasted to ancient tiled floors, inhaling dust, dreaming against honking taxis and wailing vendors. You can see them lying in wooden-framed bed, tucked in safely under the vigilant gaze of an old body that rocks back and forth in a chair. You can see them doze at every hour of the day beyond gates that cover the windows. Time has no authority here. But its people do have an authority. He is a quiet one. He lives through the iron that protects the people of these streets. Tico says little. Then again, sometimes authority doesn’t have to.


January 2, 2013 Getsemaní, Cartagena – Two dogs loll and swagger around us. Sad dogs. Dogs whose ribs show through their tired skin. Behind us meat smokes on a rickety charcoal fire that sits on the sidewalk. Chicken, yucca, potatoes, pork and slabs of raw meat, whose dignity fell prey to flies and ignorance a long time ago, sit and melt on the sidewalk chef’s modest altar on Calle de la Media Luna. Three men sit in the street lawn chairs. The chef hacks away at the meat with a dull blade. His three men watch the hacking. If they are praying for anything right now, they stay away from putting their faith into plain words. A bottle touches one man’s lips. He sips.

Gustavo sits next to me, chicken grease taking his hands prisoner. He wears a clean white collared-shirt and plaid shorts. The curb underneath him, however, is black from the street and the smoke and the dirt. Ripping through our chicken, Cartagena unwinds around us. You can hear the two dogs’ soft panting now. That oppressed sound, crushed by the noise of stronger machines, fades into the sadness of the cracked pavement on which they snooze. Some old men shuffle by. The chef with the knife finally has nothing to do, so he stands.

Then a young tall guy suddenly crosses the street and starts to walk directly toward us. A young girl walks next to him. He sets his eyes on mine. He holds a tough stare. His arm reaches out. His palm is open, as if ready to shake mine. But instead of a friendly greeting, his hand seems more like an intruder, and I am suddenly vulnerable here, planted on the curb, covered in gobs of chicken fat. Sweating.

The hand swoops down and touches my chest just above my breast pocket, which holds my cellphone. I say something involuntarily. Probably something loud and threatening, but I don’t register the words. A memory that forgets is precious in an instance like this one. The man and his girl are walking again. This time they are on the other side of the me. I pat my hands over my chest. The cellphone is still in my pocket. But that hand and the arm and the stare and their quiet machinations felt more like a vulture than a man. The sad dogs are happy to wait until we are done with our chicken. They lick the bones, but only after we have decided to feed them. Something closer to civil. Not like vultures.

Bullfighting in Colombia: For what purpose?

November, 2012

Bogotá’s Mayor, Gustavo Petro, does not see the same art that Hemingway saw in the running of the bulls – corridas de toro – that have cured the masses of the Santa Maria ring in the center of Bogotá with entertainment for much of the 20th century. Earlier this year Petro tried to propose a ban on the blood sport that has been a traditional spectacle in the capital since Alonso Luis de Lugo brought 60 beasts and Spanish tradition to Bogotá in 1543.


The ban Petro proposed would put a halt to the Colombian matador’s game in Bogotá and might inspire mayors of other cities where bullfighting is controversial to cancel the games as well.


The tradition of bull fighting in Colombia took a strong hold when two Spaniards arrived in Bogotá in 1917 to develop the industry. Bull rings popped up in the 1950s, first in Manizales, then Cali, Bucaramanga, Medellín, Cartagena, and later other smaller municipalities.


In 2004, a law called the “Bullfighting Code” was passed under Alvaro Uribe to ensure that bullfighting was protected as an ‘artistic expression of human beings,’ and protect the art from being abolished.


Despite the code, many in Colombia think there’s nothing more than blood and brutality behind the ancient “art.”


Several of Colombia’s municipalities and a growing row of activist sentiment express disgust toward bullfighting, calling it inhumane. Medellín has already decided to oust the matadors from their ring. Of course, animal rights activists have reason with their strong views of animal cruelty. It is a sad thing to watch a bull’s legs crunch underneath its own might after desperately trying to survive.


Surprisingly, however, there is still a strong, unflinching following behind Colombia’s bullfighting scene. And some of them see something more important than whether or not animal cruelty is right or wrong.


Ernest Hemingway, for one, would turn over in his grave if he knew what Petro was up to. But he would probably turn over again if he knew why so many wanted to keep the blood sport alive. Hemingway was passionate about bullfighting.


After Ernest Hemingway witnessed the meticulous events leading up to the death of a bull or the man who tried desperately to kill it as majestically as he could, he was captivated with the dance that matadors do with death. He said, “bullfighting is the only art in which the artist is in danger of death and in which the degree of brilliance in the performance is left to the fighter’s honor.”


So now a matador standing trial for cruelty toward animals is an artist? Hmm…


Hemingway went on to write a treatise on the Spanish art of goring great 1,000-lbs horned beasts. He titled it Death in the Afternoon. He even participated in amateur bullfights himself. Through bullfighting, Hemingway ascertained the realities of fear, death and how the human condition tries to cope with it. Exposing himself to it was an important step for his journalism, as he would go on to cover and live through some of the bloodiest battles of the first half of the 20th century. It thickened his skin and primed him for his own encounters with the uncertainty of life and death.


Whether right or wrong, bullfighting is a ritual. And for the most part, that is how Spain, Mexico, Colombia and other countries that recognize it as an art choose to approach it. Matadors train at specialized academies from an early age, almost like little ballerinas might train. Duels between man and bull follow a specific series of stages before the matador can take the bull’s life. Those who choose to be spectators view the ceremony as an artistic dance with death more than an uncivil slaughter.


But a deliberate ritual is not always the way the spectacle works in Colombia.


What might be the most controversial incarnation of bullfighting is something called a corraleja.


It only happens in one place, but it happens.


Each year, in a small town called Sincelejo near the coast of Colombia, people build a wooden stadium where ‘journeymen’ – amateur bull fighters – enter into a ring with an agitated horned beast and try not to be killed. Unlike the young boys – usually 12 or 13 when recruited – who enter bullfighting school with the hopes of rising out of poverty and into the bosom of torero fame, the journeymen who enter the corraleja ring are untrained, mostly drunk, and the exotic variety of fame they’re looking for is called the peso.


What usually comes out of their drunken stupor is a marvelous chance to gamble their lives for the possibility to win a pocket full of cash offered by another intoxicated (and usually more wealthy) spectator if they can manage to do a somersault over the horns of the bull as it charges head on.


For this reason it is normal to see a pile-up of dead bodies after a good day of fun at the corraleja in Sincelejo.


Usually it’s a 20-40 count.


The festivities at Sincelejo, indeed, make up quite another ritual next to the majestic dances performed by professional matadors.


But it is doubtful that Hemingway would be much happier with the corraleja from Sincelejo than with Mayor of Bogotá and his pledged ban.


To the Mayor, Hemingway would probably say that fear is an integral part of Colombian history (not to mention human nature). Indeed most of Colombia’s 20th century was occupied by politically-induced terror for the Colombian people, and so why not allow them the choice to view how a young matador tries to face fear and cope with it in the ring? Let the spectators who choose to watch the dance formulate their own terms of how to cope with death.


To the ‘journeymen’ from Sincelejo, he would probably tell them not to get so damn drunk so that they can see the bull when it charges.


The point, after all, is not your prize in pesos, nor is it plainly to survive the bull. Everyone faces the uncertainty of death. It is more about how you choose to survive.


And everyone, no matter whether they face a bull or not, should get to choose how to survive.

Agustín’s Salsa

October, 2012

A French political analyst named Daniel Pecaut once said that Colombia’s problem is that it lacks a founding national myth – something to really tie together the fray of Colombia’s history.

In his analyses, Mr. Pecaut must have failed to touch his wooden foot to a Colombian dance floor then. What a shame! He doesn’t know what he’s missing.

In spite of the deep cleavages that ravish Colombia’s past, nowhere is its egalitarianism more alive than when Salsa starts to play. With its origins seeping out of the melting-pot immigrant enclaves of New York in the 1970s and spreading throughout the Caribbean and the world, Salsa touched the Colombian coast during the 80s, where musicians like Cali’s Grupo Niche nourished it into a corner stone of the nation’s health.

Salsa might as well be accessible to anyone with the passion to listen and dare.

Old, formal men in Bogotá nightclubs practice it. Young cosmopolitan, independent women in New York worship it. It is the thing that families do when there is a birthday or a wedding.  And best of all it triumphantly disobeys the sad racial walls familiar to American culture, where rap and hip hop is only for when you’re black, and white people don’t know how to dance.

The words sung and the bodies moved might as well be the myth Pecaut is looking for, even if only for its beauty, because almost everyone in Colombia believes that Salsa is beautiful.

Nowhere else is this myth more lucid than the fiesta of a man named Agustín Villamarín – a quirky designer in his late 30s who wears a blue stone-colored jacket, a black scarf, and an Ascot cap that reminds one more of the city’s mayor, Gustavo Petro, than of a designer for one of Colombia’s top clothing brands. However, the man whose day will be celebrated by family, friends, loved-ones, and even a handful of strangers, does not smile. His face wears an eternal frown from a stroke that tortures the happiness in a man who can’t help but exude enough of it.

It is Agustín’s birthday. And he makes himself clearly in charge. But his power is not an authoritative sort. Rather, it is charismatic and charming. One by one his guests enter. As they do, it is Agustín who runs up to them in a brilliant burst of child-like excitement.

“Welcome to the house,” he says, gesturing around himself at a clean, cozy design. “In Colombia, we are all friends,” he says, greeting myself and a young Chinese student at the door.

Friends, he says.

I have always been skeptical of someone who welcomes me into friendship before his palm has barely broke away from mine. Colombia is a friendly place, but trust is delicate here. So I force a smile and carry on.

As I watch, the faces that meet Agustín appear optimistic on the surface, but like most parties, a quiet skepticism channels them into neat, comfortable corridors and circles that kiss cheeks and chatter according to family and age.

But these neat little categories disintegrate at remarkable speeds and fall away like shingles in a storm when the Salsa begins to sing out from a set of speakers.

Agustín lives through the middle of the gale of sound that entrances the house. He is the captain. At one moment he is roped up with a young girl who laughs as he whispers into her ears. Then he is the champion of a small team of young men and women who form a chaotic sort of ring that spins and turns and glides. Then it is his mother. And then his Grandmother. Somehow he maintains an energy that is pure and undiscriminating. In a way Agustín is like a Cesar of this small house. He showers his people with love. And the masses follow. Agustín is a generous Cesar with his sound.

He is a clever fellow. Somehow the masses mix in a way that would startle old Analyst Pecaut. Somewhere in the fray an old woman struts up to me and grabs me. We dance. Then later there is her husband, and a ring of us move, letting the sound soak down our senses.

Suddenly the secret slaps me across the face. Agustín’s myth is the music that makes you forget the things that have succeeded to conquer and splinter Colombia – the age and time a person owns, the money jangling around in our pockets, the color of our skin, the language one speaks, the peculiar formations of nose, eyes, lips and cheek bones that make up the face, a person’s histories and however tragic or beautiful they might be – Agustín and his Salsa make us forget it all and for a moment, live without suffering the pain of divisions.

That, I think, is the most refreshing part of this world of sound and dance. It does not represent the stuffy elite, and it is not a product of impoverished miserables. It doesn’t believe in race and difference. And it would well up in tears if it couldn’t let an old man and his young daughter hold each other and dance on her birthday. Or his.

The next morning I spy Agustín leaning against a wall in an empty room where just hours before the bodies pulsed. It is early. Approximately six o’clock. Agustín appears just as alive as he was last night, teeming with energy. I ask him how he feels.

“I am happy,” he tells me. He says it through his eternal frown. I quickly try to forget his frown and smile back in return. I believe him.  But even though I smile I also know that there are certain sadnesses that you just can’t forget, like the sharp, omniscient realities told by the French analyst – a set of observations that might infiltrate, trickle down, and occupy the unguarded conscience of people like Agustín Villamarin when the Salsa stops and the Colombian’s day finally begins again.

No need to fear though. There is always another night. Maybe even Mr. Pecaut will come.

Watching Juanita’s Piñata

September, 2012

A reflection on my three months in Bogotá, what I’ve experienced, and what about the country has changed. Some parts will feel familiar to my first entry, “A Reason for Applause.” Some will not.

There was a celebration when we landed. It’s traditional in Colombia to clap when the plane hits the runway. My hands, however, were cradling my head. It is Tuesday May 29th and I’m dizzy.

Immigration didn’t stop me. I always feel as though officials have the power to come up with a silly reason to stop you at immigration. You didn’t spell your address correctly. You can’t speak Spanish. You’re too old. You’re too young. You’re too beautiful. Hey, you, you’re too beautiful. What’s your name?

After a brief pause and a hard stare from the sad looking immigration man who hid behind the glass, I passed through, back into Colombia.

I’ve been here before. In 2009 I came to Colombia to volunteer as a CEEDer for AIESEC EIA and study Spanish for 2 months. I remember the fear and anxiety that plagued me when I landed in Medellín at the beginning of the summer. But suddenly there was an old friend from university and a handful of others hanging over a balcony in the Medellín airport. They were shouting and waving, and my welcome, indeed my entire time in that city, was warm.

Again, now in Bogotá’s El Dorado airport, even though the air is chilly, my welcome is warm.

Right as I walked away from the currency exchange window, I heard my name being called loudly. Cristian and Nataly, two members of the AIESEC Trainee Integration team, greeted me with huge hugs. They took photographs. They gave me a small traditional Colombian pouch with a hand-made Colombian poncho inside. A small bottle of aguardiente, the national white rum touted as a point of Colombian pride, came tumbling out of the pouch as well. Then they bought me a hamburger. We sat down. And we talked. We talked in Spanish. We talked in English. Everything was coming back. A gust of strong, good memories was pouring in from the smells, the sounds, the feel.

I was happy. I felt comfortable. I felt safe. And the hamburger was delicious.

Now, the first thing you learn when you get to Bogotá is just how dangerous it really is, how you have to tener cuidado or be careful. At first, I didn’t understand exactly what this meant. Did it mean that I was going to get killed? Kidnapped? Robbed? Tripped? Does it mean that some parts of the city are more dangerous than others?

“Everywhere in Bogotá is dangerous,” Yudbeny, the woman who runs my apartment, told me later with a big chuckle. “After 8pm in the evening, if you are on the street alone, and the street is empty, then debes tener cuidado (you have to be careful).”

Living in Bogotá, I realize, can be dizzying when the city around you has suffered decades of civil war, the Bogotazo, forced displacement, and a massive gap between rich and poor. The insecurity and the poverty can get dizzying.

After hopping into a small car with Cristian, the road starts moving underneath me. Small, wobbly buses called collectivos zip and dart around us. It is dark. The road is dented with potholes and cracks. The car shakes violently. Cristian is cool.

As we zoom toward the Alvarez family’s house where I will stay for one week until I get settled, something in Colombia is happening.

What coincides with (almost to the day) of my arrival is the release of Roméo Langlois, a French journalist, by the FARC (Las Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia). The FARC, a left-wing guerrilla group that formed in 1964 in opposition to Colombia’s tattered political climate, took Langlois captive during a firefight with the Colombian military in the mountains of Caqueta (a department in the south of the country) on April 28th.

During his 30 days in captivity, Langlois rigorously interviewed and documented the life of the guerrilla soldiers whose political motives and weaponry could decide life or death for the young Frenchman on a whim. He emerged from captivity claiming that he was treated well, and that the FARC desperately want to talk peace. Langlois came out of captivity carrying the voice of one of Colombia’s most marginalized and feared guerrilla groups – and how the international community needs to put pressure on Colombia for a peace process.

Now, three months later, much has happened around me here in Colombia, and fortunately the dizziness is passing.

Now, much more so in response to a tired 48 year armed civil conflict than Langlois’ hostage theatrics, after sacrificing 2% of GDP ($16bn) on military spending, and an $8bn Plan Colombia to help fight Colombia’s FARC, ELN and a variety of military groups, and after tens of thousands of lives taken on both sides of the fighting, real signs of a peace process have seemed to come alive again.

After a messy and inglorious attempt to start talks in 1998, President Juan Manuel Santos is renewing that failed effort. Colombia and the FARC have jointly declared that they agree to start a peace process starting no later than October of 2012. The talks will take place in Oslo and then later in Havana, and Chile and Venezuela will help facilitate the talks. The US will not be involved.

The mood amongst students in my classrooms, of my boss, around my neighborhood in the Palermo, my housemates – a Venezuelan political science Masters student, and a Colombian history student – is generally a cool mix of tired hope and cautious skepticism.

It has been roughly three months since Langlois came out of the Caqueta carrying the voice of a marginalized group that wants to talk peace – supporting it, promoting it. Finally, his wish is coming true.

Three months, and things are still changing fast around me.

But my changes happening to me are different from the changes that frame Colombia against its tired civil conflict.

Since day one, and beyond the backdrop of the Langlois fiasco and hopeful peace talks, a rich and lucid life has unfolded for me as an AIESEC trainee.

I have learned to listen to the sound of harmonicas whine through the sleepy streets of the Candelaria.

I’ve learned to dance Salsa on rooftops, in kitchens and backyards, and a creaky old joint called the Cubano where the bathrooms might as well be an entrance to purgatory, where no one is younger than 40, and where I reckon they make the mojitos stronger than Hemingway’s beard.

I’ve taught students at a BPO (Business Process Outsourcing) call center that handles ATT&T telecommunications accounts, where employees are students making an extra buck next on the side of university classes, oil mechanics making an extra buck on the side, aspiring teachers, and a Eurozone crisis refugee from Spain. I’ve taught engineers, CEOs, and designers.

I’ve learned to bravely cut into a new, strange and exotically delicious fruit each new week, struggling to defeat the element of surprise that springs from Colombia’s insanely endless diversity of botanical temptations. So I cut again. And then low and behold there always is: another surprise.

I’ve learned to be scolded, praised, humiliated and advised by Yudbeny Gonzalez – Queen of an old broken down house in the Palermo where I used to live. Queen of twelve young boys who want to be men. Mother none.

I’ve learned my language from a new perspective, how its complexity is both its flaw and its beauty, and how news of the way phrasal verbs work is always taken as tough news.

I’ve learned that what is important to remember when living against the backdrop of a place, a people, a country made up of a narrative laced with violence, drug-trafficking, street crime, and robbery, is that it is important to stay hopeful, to stay positive.

Colombia is a country that has been led through countless dizzying trials of hope and despair.

Right now though Colombia is leaning toward a hopeful future.

There was a celebration as Juanita struck the piñata and hundreds of dulces scattered across the floor. A group of children converged on the blind-folded Juanita, whose birthday has brought salsa music, grilled meat, family and friends into the house of Diego Jaimes, the man from whom I rent a room in my neighborhood, the Palermo. I stand somewhere off to the side and talk to a father of one of the children about the US. He is curious. For all the dizziness brought about by Colombia’s political conflict, Juanita’s birthday and the people it brings together feels extraordinarily lucid.

Juanita holds up a dulce. She looks at it, and then she looks at me, and then she unwraps the candy and stuffs it into her mouth and chews and smiles. She is shining. Juanita, who has just turned five years old, will grow up with the worst of Colombia’s memories buried in history. It is hoped.

In the snap and thrash of Juanita’s piñata exploding like a bomb in mid air, I realize I’ve been here for three months now. It is September 8th. There are children and dulces and laughter covering the floor of my house. These are clear and beautiful things.

And Colombia is less dizzy than ever before.

“Watching Juanita’s Piñata” is a reflection on my three months in Bogotá, what I’ve experienced, and what has changed. Parts, though by no means the whole, of this piece are taken from my first entry, “A Reason for Applause.”

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.

Cut Right in Two

July, 2012

Cutting across Plaza Lourdes, one of Bogota’s many pigeon-dotted hubs where shoe-shiners huddle and whisper, policeman drift, and idlers stand and stare, I notice two features of the plaza that proudly stick out from these other ordinaries.

First, there is a large, ornate Gothic-Moorish church, Iglesia de Nuestra Señora de Lourdés, which seems to maintain a straightforward, blunt posture toward me no matter which direction I face. Second, on the front doors of the church there is a gigantic, equally sincere dollar-sign spray-painted, fresh and white, into the defeated wooden doors.

The front doors are shut tight.

Iglesia de Nuestra Señora de Lourdés was constructed in 1875. Designed by Julián Lombana, the church, which is under what appears to be a forgotten moment of construction, sits in the center of Bogotá’s Chapinero district, where a strong proportion of the city’s lively commercial activity flourishes by day.

Up until 1991 Roman Catholicism was the official state religion in Colombia. Then, a wave of constitutional reform granted equal treatment to Colombians no matter what their spiritual choices. It is estimated that some 90% of the population identifies as Catholic. Only roughly 25%, however, practice their faith each Sunday inside dim, quiet cathedral walls like the ones that face me as I pass.

Moving swiftly through the plaza with a dossier of documents clutched under my arm, I head for home, where Yudbeny waits to put something on my plate and quiz my mood.

But something prohibits my cut across the plaza.

In the middle of the flat brick space, there is a large crowd. A circle of shoe-shiners, elderly women, young boys and old men, idlers and passers-by gravitate around someone who has decided to growl and yell something important at the top of his lungs. Everyone is watching intently.

I decide to take a look, and what I find is a hefty man with his shirt and shoes absent. The soles of his feet are black. He is yelling passionately. In front of him there is a raggedy blanket, and on top of it, there is a small mountain of shards of broken glass bottles. Next to him, there are more instruments that could only be the utensils owned by a soul of strange habits: a board laden with nails, and a knife whose tip is stuck into the board, as if a cut frozen in time.

The crowd watches as the man shakes the glass on the towel and waits for him to perform his act.

I, instead of becoming enchanted by the charm of the performer and distracted by the blur of the crowd, decide to take a moment to scan my surroundings.

I see no police. That is odd, I register.

And then my eyes seize upon it. It is the sort of thing that should send chills through any spine.

It runs from somewhere near the top of the left side of his head straight down toward the collar-bone. The cut is deep. It appears freshly stitched and still moist. It runs directly behind his ear. The image is not startling at first, but it grows increasingly grotesque as I hold my stare.  Feigning an aware calm, I am totally transfixed on the gash belonging to the head of a young boy that bobs in the quiet crowd one foot in front of me.

The young boy is standing close to an old man. Both listening patiently to the yelling voice harmonize with the rattle of broken glass.

Surely, it appears that the young boy was the victim of some heinous crime. That is what I think of first. My conscience tells me it was not an accident, but I am in no position to know, and I feel as though I am in a precarious position to ask.

So I don’t.

For all of the beauty that Colombia owns, today its Plaza Lourdes wears another ugly liability. For a country that tries desperately to dress its wounds, cuts still appear.

Later I cross through the plaza again. This time the man with black soles who screams with the sound of shards of glass is gone. The plaza is nearly empty.

It is a morning on a Sunday.

Then, further toward the church, I notice an old man. He is standing almost directly in front of the front doors. The doors are still shut. The man possesses a wide stance. He wears dark shoes, a suit coat and peppery hair. He appears comfortable and dignified with his hands tucked calmly inside his pockets. And the only thing he does is stare. The old man stares at the doors of the Church of Our Lady of Lourdes and the gigantic dollar sign seared into the mouth of the church – like stitches holding together a once beautiful face, now knotted and ugly.

The old man’s stare is fixed and intent.

But it is difficult to know why he stares so hard. It is difficult to know if he is watching the doors, saying a prayer to his beautiful church and cursing the scar, or if he is cursing the ugly church and praising those who gave it the scar it wears. Or maybe he has his eyes closed tight, not watching anything at all, thinking instead of how the politics of fighting for the church against the politics of fighting for the dollar have plunged his country into decades of civil war – cutting his sweet Colombia right in two – and how when he opens his eyes, he hopes both the church and the dollar sign will vanish before him. Maybe this is what he wishes.

The next day I pass again. The man has vanished. The church and the dollar sign are still there.

Yudbeny’s Alphabet

June 21st, 2012

The world around me in a large room located at the back of an old house is barely changing.

The room is cold. It is some time after noon. Across the room, a black maid wears a blue apron and chops potatoes into long slender shapes. As her wet hands let the starchy shapes hit the pan, a radio voice singing in Spanish cries out in between violent crackles of oil on hot iron. The potatoes fry and the music doesn’t stop.

Somewhere in between the maid and I is a rotund woman who wears not an apron, but a sleeveless shirt. Her red frizzy hair is tied back behind her head in an old-fashioned bun. As she moves toward me, she sings to the music and wiggles her wide hips playfully.

In her hands she is balancing a piping hot bowl of white broth. She sets it down. I start eat. Lunch begins in the old house.

Yudbeny Gonzalez, the eccentric proprietor of the house where I now stay, turns, still singing, and sways back toward the sizzling oil. Yudbeny came from Huila, a department south of Bogotá where security issues are still prevalent, six or seven years ago. She is one of many Bogotanos who have moved to the city to escape minimum opportunity and the dangers of more rural parts of Colombia.

Now Yudbeny, along with her Mexican husband Alfredo, whose mornings are normally occupied by reading one of the national newspapers, El Tiempo, through a magnifying glass the size of an orange, own an historic faux-tudor style house in a neighborhood called Palermo.

Yudbeny and her husband own a handful of these old beauties in the Palermo and their primary profession is renting rooms to students, young professionals, and expatriates like myself.

Yudbeny pauses in the middle of her feast-making and plops down in the chair across from me. I have begun the daily chore of slurping my ajiaco, a thick Andean soup made with potatoes, corn, and cilantro.

The menu at Yudbeny’s house, much like the tired peeling paint on its walls, its faulty drainage system (whose being neglected causes dripping in several of its rooms during the wet season rains), and the stubborn, sticky keyholes on the locks that protect it, does not change.

The things that Yudbeny says and does, however, do.

Today, Yudbeny calls me niño (or little boy) and by doing so she exalts herself to a location far above me, where the Colombian mother is almost a goddess watching over the banalities of my youthful, masculine, yet ultimately boyish ways. It gives Yudbeny the power to ask. Yudbeny asks me about my love life, and about my work-life, and about when I will become the next President of the United States, and why it is so hard for Colombians to get a visa to the US, and how I like the women here, and whether or not I like her food, and which fruits I’ve tasted recently and why haven’t I tried this exotic new fruit that Yudbeny says I must try. Everyday it seems like there is a new fruit to try.

Today it is the Cherimoya.

I correct her about being a boy. “I am a man,” I say. She ignores me.

The broth of my soup is nearly gone. What is left is a large, unwieldy bone with a single morsel of beef dangling off the edge. Being the well-mannered man I am I lift the bone carefully out of the bowl and position it on a plate near by. Fork in one hand, knife in the other, I begin the final butchering of my meal.

Yudbeny protests and gestures with her hands and mouth to grab up the bone in my hands and tear the meat off with my teeth.

I do not follow her rule.

She probes for details about mature topics – love and money and politics – topics that seem to appear out of thin air like demons for me. I am the tongue-tied informant, who must capture and tame her probing questions before moving on to the next puzzle inside Yudbeny’s labyrinth.

Her questions are like temptations. And as the questions unroll I know, like always, that soon Yudbeny and her labyrinthine alphabet will find some way to ensnare me. No matter my seriousness, Yudbeny finds a way to disarm it with comedy.

Yudbeny has a way about her.

It seems that she has the uncanny ability to fix the young men who occupy her rooms and quarters into niños – little boys – and keep our becoming serious from growing up into men – from becoming dealers of love and money and politics. Us men, well, we are just boys waiting at Yudbeny’s table – not just for her food, but her alphabet too. Yudbeny is the eternal mother for men who wish to be boys for a quiet hour.

“Be careful,” she says to me. She always smiles after she says this, as if she knows more about what comes next than I do.

Mothering, more than money, I think, is Yudbeny’s plot. Every day there is a masterful trial designed to entangle me in a linguistic bind, to entwine me in her idioms, to corner me in a place where my forthright explanations about serious things often come across as juvenile, plain, and ultimately innocent. Yudbeny just laughs.

Often I feel like Don Quixote de la Mancha (a serious man tirelessly striving to demonstrate serious action, but where my granter of judgments lets only comedy precipitate). Except in Yudbeny’s kitchen there is no Sancho Panza to remind me what it feels like to be sane in this house that does not let one change. There is only Yudbeny – temptress, enchantress – to lead me away from my seriousness and into a distraction of theatrical fits and tricks and laughter. I am sure of my conclusions. Yudbeny wants me to slip, to fall, to come crashing down from my seriousness and formalities – in a sense, my being a young man. She wants me to break the rules of her alphabet so that she can laugh at me, and so that I can make confessions to her without being so serious, so that we might be distracted from the hard truths that come pouring out of her questions, and so that she might be able to put life against the mundane chaos of the sizzling and the clinking and the scratchy singing radio noises of her old, decaying, unchanging house.

Learning a language is uncomfortable, but it is a whimsical thing in the company of Yudbeny and her house.

Yudbeny, despite daily theatrics, teaches me her language. In a sense Yudbeny teaches me how to be.

But there is a rule in Spanish that makes being difficult for an English-speaker.

The rule is that there are two kinds of being. There is the verb ser. Ser means to be. Then there is the verb estar. Estar also means to be.

“What sort of grand trickery is this?!” I ask myself.

Growing up in Spanish (indeed in other Latin languages as well) you live through two modes of existence – you live inside two ideas of what it means to be.

The first, ser, is used when you want to declare that something is normal, unchanging, and fixed. A normalized type of being could be the meaning of where someone is from, the time of day, or the beauty or ugliness of an old empty church crumbling in the middle of a city.

The second is estar. Using estar is for declaring the being of states or conditions of emotion, feeling, location, and a long list of other things that have lives of a more transient sort. Estar is used when you want to declare whether or not someone is feeling blue, or to say whether someone is standing inside or outside that crumbling church at some precise moment in time.

Like choosing whether to act like a man or a boy at Yudbeny’s table, I must choose my way of being at each step along the way in Yudbeny’s maze of questions.

Sometimes I feel like a shepherd, and these two essential words are my mischievous sheep. Playing with them is fun. Yet my livelihood depends on them and that is a serious business.These days I feel as though I must always choose: to be a boy or to be a man.

Yudbeny performs a string of examples to help me out:

“Estoy aqui. Estoy contenta. Soy una mujer. Soy Colombiana. Soy mágica. Soy divina.”

I am here. I am happy. I am a woman. I am Colombian. I am magic. I am divine.

“I’m divine,” is the last thing Yudbeny says. She shoots me an enchanting smile as she says it, again, showing on her face a message that says that she will know more about being, in some ways, than I ever will. Then she laughs.

Trying to draw the line between these two ways of being, I watch Yudbeny turn and move toward the stove. Janet, the black maid from the Chocó, attends to a patacón frying on top of the the hot iron. The room is cold. On the walls, I can see the paint peeling on the old house. The room feels decadent. It feels as though it cannot change no matter how much it wants to. It is too old.

Yudbeny explains that the house falls under a certain class of housing called patrimonio cultural where the owners of the property are legally forbidden to make changes to the house. In other words the laws governing the old house say that the house is and it always will be the way it is.

Other things, however, are changing fast around us. In less than one week, I will leave Yudbeny and her old house. She does not know this. I slurp the last bit of my soup and push the bowl and the bone aside. I am done. Lunch is finished.

No matter how much Yudbeny wants a young man to seem like a boy forever, young men want to grow up. They are done being boys. Boys, I realize, have a tendency to run away from their mothers in order to become men. But the best of them remember that the seriousness and pain that comes out of realizing maturity and the responsibilities of masculinity are best buried deep within the secretive vaults and chambers of memory of a comical muse like Yudbeny Gonzalez.

Contemplating my linguistic maturity inside the realm of Yudbeny’s alphabet, I escape from the noise and try to find some presence and assemble what I have just learned.

“Let’s practice,” I tell myself.

Estoy aqui. Estoy feliz. Soy Americano. Yo era un niño. Ya soy un hombre.

I am here. I am happy. I am American. I used to be a boy. Now I am a man.

Yudbeny looks at me. She knows I am reciting words in my head. She can see it on my face. “What is it?” she says. “Nothing, I tell her.” The reason I don’t tell her is because, well, too much could change, and this is a house where things are not supposed to change.

Some time much later, another white bowl hits the surface of Yudbeny’s table. Like yesterday it is piping hot. Not cold. It is in front of me. I do not slurp. I quietly eat like a man. I eat like a man against a house and a woman that tell me, “Niño, do not change.”

Forgive me. But some things must.

Gods of Dog

A reciclador paws through the trash as he scavenges for valuable material in a residential neighborhood, Bogotá

Gods of Dog

June 20th, 2012

The word dirty is graffiti-ed onto the side of the cart in purple letters. It is written in English, as if a silent scream – a message that wants to be heard by more than just passive eyes.

Inside the cart there is a mess of used appliances, black bags concealing used auto parts, pieces of wood, plastic, beer bottles, and coils of wire coated in rust. The cart is stopped on the side of Avenida Caracas, one of Bogotá’s main commercial avenues. It’s raining. Tied up and wet, a dog jumps out of the cart and onto one of the planks of wood. Tugging against the weight of the cart, the dog points its head toward the sky and howls.

I can hear it, just barely, from inside the eerie confines of my clean, modern bus, which roars down the road, past the cart, away from the ugliness.

At first I think that the dog and the cart are abandoned. In fact, this is how the recicladores’ (recyclers) carts usually appear: like lost piles of junk. But then, further down the road, I spot three bodies huddled together. All of the storefronts on Avenida Caracas are closed and the streets are deserted. At night, the Caracas is where the homeless live and work while their dogs scrape and paw and pull on their chains and howl.

 These bodies, these Gods of Dog are the impoverished, the addicted, the homeless, the destitute of Bogotá. In the most dignified case, they are hustling, hard-working recicladores who scavenge the city streets by night and day using horse-drawn carriages for materials that can be sold to one of several bodegas sprinkled along the Caracas where someone promises to buy their loot in exchange for barely enough pesos to scrape by until the next day. In the most tragic of cases, the reciclador is a bent man standing in the middle of the road causing buses to swerve and honk, huffing a worn out black bag most likely containing some sort of aerosol. He is drugged and delirious and stumbling.

Bogotá, a city of 8.9 million people, is bulging at the seams in large part due to a massive wave of internal migration where land-holding people have been ousted by guerrilla and paramilitary groups and therefore have been forced to find refuge in Bogotá. Some, like the three I see huddled together on the street, have evidently resorted to scavenging recyclable material in order to make ends meet. An estimated 70 thousand families claim life of a reciclador. Those who choose it make roughly $1 to $10 per day.

A recent act introduced by Juan Manuel Santos called the Victims and Land Restitution Act promises to compensate roughly 4 million victims who have suffered forced displacement from Colombia’s conflict and to a lesser extent environmental degradation, according to the International Organization for Migration.

Until then, Bogotá’s displaced will have to settle for being recicladores. At least they can be Gods of Dog.

Pieces of a Colombian Family

Tuesday June 5th, 2012

Altogether there are seven of us now. Pacho. Quiet, patient, caution of a surgeon. Pedro. Forthright, engaging, owner of a politician’s opinion. Grandmother Beatríz. Gentle, kind, suffers from arthritis. Señora Alvarez. Ecstatic, vain, exhales breathes of an alcoholic. Señor Alvarez. Firm hand shake. Absent. Like a ghost.

And then there is Cindy.

Cindy. Venezuelan. Seventeen. Wide, glorious smiles pouring from her face. Strangely, I later learn that Cindy is the lifeblood of the Alvarez family, even though she is not even part of it.

I am a stranger to the Alvarez family, and occupy the seventh room of a house that is undecorated. Beside plain white walls there is nothing to look at except a collection of mirrors, which seem to serve only one purpose, and that is to show you how old or young you really feel in a house where memories seem to be better forgotten. There is a collection of telephones in the garage. This is the shared memorabilia of the Alvarez family. 
The Alvarez family seems unprepared for my visit. On the day I arrive, Pacho notifies me that his father has left and has become unreachable. I ask why. Pacho tells me not to worry. Pacho says his father does this sometimes. It’s not me. Pacho explains that he has never done this before – he has never hosted an extranjero. I can tell that he is anxious. I tell him not to worry. I tell him that I have done this before.
At a wooden, clothed-in-white table, we sit down to our first meal. We wait. There are seven places for us. Señora Alvarez and Señor Alvarez do not come. Señora Alvarez, I later learn, would had long since chosen to remain inside her lone chamber on the second floor enjoying the bliss of smoke and beauty magazines and early retirement. Señor Alvarez, it becomes clear, is plainly gone.
Pacho explains that both of his parents used to work for one of Colombia’s most important telecommunications companies during the 1970s, 80s, and 90s as computer engineers. This made his mother unique. They retired early. The small collection of 20thcentury telephones is a celebration of an earlier era for the Alvarez family. Now the small collection of phones seems like an ugly reminder of an antiquated conversation had one time too many.
What I learn learn, in amidst low voices, cold tones, careful, and short whispers, is that the Alvarez family is not excatly unprepared for my visit. It is not that the conversation is obsolete. No. The Alvarez family is torn. The conversation that carries them, I think, seems to be dying.
But to say that it is dead would be an injustice to those who try to keep the family alive.
I hear Cindy’s footsteps on the stairs that lead into the center of my one room apartment. Balancing on a tray clutched tightly in her hands is my dinner. She sits it down on a small table in the center of the room and stands upright. She waits for me to sit and acknowledge her latest domestic feat. I do. I pick up my fork and begin. Then she sits across from me in an aristocratic wooden chair and crosses her legs. She feasts her eyes and watches me eat.
¿Te gusta? she asks.
I nod affirmatively. We talk.
Pacho says that Cindy is like a little sister in his family. Even though the presence of a domestic servant is foreign to me, I quickly learn that Cindy is not the rule, but the exception. When Pacho and Pedro and Cindy are in the same room there is finally laughter. She is more family than servant, it seems. 

Pacho explains that Cindy will clean my room daily, make my bed, and prepare meals. Meals are as follows: breakfast at 8am, lunch at 1pm, and dinner somewhere in the later parts of the evening. Dinner is taken alone, in our rooms. Lunch on Saturday is the last meal. Then Cindy finishes cleaning. Sunday, she is free. Do not expect Cindy to be here for you on Sundays, Pacho explains. And so I feel like a king.

Finally, Sunday comes. The Alvarez house is full, but silent. I am alone in my room. Then I hear footsteps. They are Cindy’s footsteps. However, who enters is not the diligent, youthful girl who cooked my meals over the last several days. Instead, today she is dressed to kill.“I’m going out,” she informs me. She says it in this dignified way as if it is a curated message that she has carefully decided to give to me at that precise, perfect moment. She says it like a diplomat. She stands in front of me, arms crossed, eyes staring into mine and says it.“Ok,” I reply. It is Sunday and Cindy is free. This morning, she appears like a lady. She appears astonishingly beautiful and mature for a maid of seventeen. Cindy might spend her Sunday with her sisters and her Mother and lament the cleaning of bathrooms and other domestic foes, politely toil over the intimate perplexities of a family to whom she does not belong, and conclude the day with a plot for navigating a week of the Alvarez family again. Six days of smile and laughter bravely crushing the habits of silence between brothers, father and son, mother and son, mother and Beatriz, sons and Grandmother. Six days of desperately trying to defeat the weariness of a dying conversation at the table she tirelessly governs so that she can make it to the seventh day intact, and express her disappointments to her sisters and her mother, and finally, maybe, feel like something of a lady again.