What of Colombia? The only way for me to describe this country is "lento y fuerte," slow and powerful. It creeps up on you and before you know it, it has you. It's like everything is turned up to 11, both the good and the bad -- a marriage of heaven and hell. My experiences so far have been uniformly good but you can't get away from the bad unless you walk around blinkered.
Bogotá itself isn't the most beautiful city in the world and, set high up in the Andes, it is a little cold. But the people are charming, welcoming, and a little surprised that I'm staying so long. I think that's why they have gone to such lengths to help me out in whatever way they can.
Still, one has to be careful. I'm very conscious of the conflict going on in the jungle and in the mountains; not as far as one might imagine from my own front door. My first weekend here, a friend who works at the European Commission took a group of us for a drive in the mountains around the capital. We drove along winding mountain roads high up into the Sierra. The scenery reminded me more of the Alps than of the Latin America I knew from living in Cuba over a decade ago.
We ended up in a sleepy little pueblo, Sopó, just as a local wedding celebration was about to start. People were gathering at the doors of the church in the village square to await the Bride's arrival. The girls among us insisted on staying until they had seen her. So the day whiled away...
A few days later, back in Bogotá, a friend from the U.N. asked me how my first weekend had been. When I'd told him, he said: "Lovely isn't it? But don't forget that you were in the middle of a war zone." And so that's how it is. Lento y fuerte. Beauty sits side by side with ugliness. It's a thrill but as they say here: No doy papaya (Literally, "I don't show papaya" or "I don't show off").
Since arriving, I've been staying in the plusher northern quarter of the city. It's not exactly Kensington or Chelsea. The buildings are mostly modern high-rises with little that "old world" charm. The streets are less packed and there is something of sense of calm.
I cycled down to the center one of my first days and -- bang -- about 10 blocks down suddenly it all changes with the hustle and bustle and traffic madness I had come to expect. The faces are different, too. Suddenly everyone looks a little less Spanish or European and a little more Indigenous or Black. The streets are packed with small stands selling everything from knock-off mobile phones to the ubiquitous "tinto," coffee, and local food, wares, knock-off DVDS and, well, pretty much everything else you can think of.
Seeing this side of the city, I knew I had to strike out on my own and make a few contacts with locals from the other side of the tracks. So I went down to markets in the south-central part of town with a guy that runs a restaurant here to have a look around. This, I always find, is the best way to discover the internal workings of any city. Waking up at 4a.m., we headed down so he could buy what he needed for the week, and then we had breakfast. This is the way it should be done: go with someone who is known and all will be cool. Yes, people were a little bemused by the presence of a gringo. But, as my friend told me, they were pleased that a foreigner had come down to see that there is a lot more to this place than simply violence.
In the short time I have been here, I have also a seen side to Colombian life which most people, even Colombians, never glimpse: the poorer barrios in the south of town. A few weeks ago I was invited by a friend to go to a birthday party in one of those barrios, Olarte. My friend hadn't been back in almost two years but she knew that it might be interesting for me. And, although she hesitated in saying it, she wanted to go, too. It was clear that she missed her friends.
I could dress it up with tales of extreme poverty. But I have seen that kind of poverty in a few places before. I was acutely aware that had I come alone I probably would not have lasted five minutes. But as my friend's guest, the women present went to unimaginable lengths to make me feel welcome. Initially, most of the men, both young and old, seemed a little distrustful of my presence. But the introduction of the karaoke machine broke the ice and they soon had me up dancing and singing rancheras and corridos. The hosts may not have had much but they did have sound system twice the size of mine and a TV screen that wouldn't have looked out of place in a West End cinema.
All I could think while I was there was that these people reminded me of my mother's family -- a bunch of reprobates themselves -- in their way of acting amongst themselves. I recognized them, their characters. They seemed almost interchangeable with people I had grown up with. It was a strange sensation, one I can only reconcile with the thought that we are all not so different the world over after all.
We stayed until the dawn and then took a cab home. The hosts did not want us to leave, offering me a space to sleep should I have needed it. For them the party wouldn't end until the last person hit the sack (which would probably be around lunchtime). But we were tired. And one thing I've discovered here is that Colombians' drug of choice is not cocaine -- as you might think -- but alcohol.
They were knocking back aguardiente (the local firewater) like it was going out of fashion. The prospect of being the only sober person in this particular corner of town wasn't very appealing. Our host accompanied us to the road and hailed a cab and we headed back to the city. On the way back, our cab driver told us the story of his night: one of his colleagues had been shot dead during a robbery while another colleague was injured in a separate incident.
Lento y fuerte.