A friend of mine is off again shooting documentaries all over the world, and I am always glad to get the customary email updates which he sends out. This time he is telling tales of Colombia, amazed at the similarities between Latin America and Africa (my Latin American pals and I can totally relate). He raves about the Caribbean coast, the scenery and the villages; and in one line dismisses talking about Bogotá saying he found it "to possess very little soul and character". I owe it to Bogotá and to the pot of Colombian coffee living in my kitchen to set the records straight.
My visit to Colombia was a quite pleasant surprise. In Madrid I had made friends with many Latin Americans, before that I was an avid reader of Marquez and other masters of magic realism from the continent. Naturally, I was dying to get to know many countries in Latin America and my friends the Middle East, so we made plans of visits to each other's homelands in a couple of years. When I came back to Cairo looking for a job, I fell upon one which sent me to attend a conference Colombia in my first week on the job (the memory has served as an anesthetic during many working weeks). My travel buddy and I have photos of this business trip labeled "what we went to do" (2 photos) and "what we ended up doing" (close to 40 photos); she still vows that this is the best business trip she ever went on.
From the minute we landed and took a cab to our hotel everything screamed Welcome to Colombia, the colorful buses and the lively music, the courteous people, the military presence and the chaotic traffic.
The view from my hotel room in the 14th floor was different from anything I had seen before; even though I had been warned about what I was about to see, the minute I pushed the curtains back I was speechless. My Colombian pal had reminisced about the view from downtown Bogotá on many occasions, but I had reverted that extraordinary portrait to extreme nostalgia; I shouldn't have... for nothing I have seen in my entire life looked as surreal as the view of Bogotá, skyscrapers and adobe buildings against really green mountains! Our conference was held in the Universidad de los Andes, therefore its logo was a graph depicting a curve on top of which symbols of a house and a cross were perched; that's the view you get from the university, the mountains, the Monserrat sanctuary and a statue of the Virgen de Guadalupe with arms wide spread.
The surreal mood was complimented bit by bit ...
meals of fried bananas,
people living in an eternal spring and going for summer holidays on weekends (a veranear they say),
colorful markets full of crafts which could be made by the Inca gods themselves,
a private tour of the Museo del oro where you enter a dark room and suddenly the floor lights up to reveal sunken golden treasures which have been rescued from the sea,
waiting for a bus to take you to the ceremony and finding a wooden chiva party bus instead (Egyptians can try to picture the bus equivalent of a felouka with all the electric lights and blasting music),
finding whistles on tables in a club,
asking the taxi driver to just go straight ahead and finding he's not surprised (seemed like a 40s movies saying: طوالي يا أسطى
drinking fresh berry-juice (that's surreal to me, I'm from the desert),
finding a Barrio Egipto in a city a zillion miles away,
seeing emeralds of all shapes sold in La Candelaria as if they were blue stone scarabs sold by the dozen in Khan El Khalili bazzars,
a Cali Carnival ensemble entering the room as red, yellow and blue balloons fall from the ceiling (how cool is it to have a flag with the three basic colors! you can get any other color by mixing those on a palette),
seeing a Lama and remembering how it spat on Captain Haddock in Tintin's adventures in South America (Prisoners of the Sun),
thinking you're in Bogota whenever you listen to El Negro Zumbon and dancing wherever you are.
It is in Montserrat where that I was tempted to take my only photo of the trip (the rest are stolen as you know), that of a whitewashed gate with a bell on top (see above) which in my mind's eye was the gate to Macondo. Macondo, a fragment of Gabo's imagination*, exemplifies for me any remote place which lives as if the world around it does not exist, it comes as no surprise that this town belongs in a land where people are cultured, happy, courteous and embracing life in the midst of meager safety, drug cartels and fierce inequality.
Colombia's people are as generous as its land, a land that bestows magical fruits, unique coffee, emeralds and narco. Colombia's music makes you forget how complicated life can be in other spots on planet earth (Salto del Ángel by Parque de la 93 is the ultimate Salsa club, highly recommended).Even the art in Bogotá goes in bolder brush strokes that do not fear to stand out (Botero fans can testify).
Weekends in Bogotá are also unique, whether you hit the student barrio of La Candelaria filled with cheap eats and music blasting from all cantinas from as early as 5pm on Friday evenings, or you rush of to the plains of the mountains to eat Ajiaco elaborately prepared from five different breeds of potato, or go visit uncle Andrés Carne de Res and dance the night away while noticing a new weird trinket hanging from the ceiling every 2 minutes, you are guaranteed to get a treat for your senses.
In all honesty, while in Bogota and even before going there safety was a major concern; it started before getting there, when my Colombian friend's idea of a joke was snatching my bag while I was getting cash from the ATM machine, and then grew with the sight of the military presence in the streets as we arrived to the hotel, for such a sight instead of reassuring me made me question the need for it. The feeling grew with everybody advising me to stay very alert after 9am and preferably not go anywhere on foot nor hail a cab from the street.
However, my curiosity and the contagious love of life that the city transmitted made me roam its different neighborhoods day and night, thinking I was safe as long as I can fake a Colombian accent (that much I thought was possible since the lady at the embassy back in Cairo insisted I was coming to issue a new passport not to get an entry visa).
I thank my friend who transmitted to me love for Colombia and familiarity with it before I got there. Before I got to Bogota, I had helped cook patacones, I had learned all the formules de politesse which exist only in Bogotano Spanish , I knew how to ask for a tinto instead of a café, got my verbal conjugation messed up, I knew better than to be surprised or offended when people shouted marica, was giving one kiss on the cheek instead of two, and felt almost like a local when I recognized the guava candy wrapped in leaves and packed in wooden boxes at the supermarket.
Bring back some coffee for me if you go, will you?
*Gabriel Garcia Marquez's classic "A 100 years of solitude is set in the imaginary town of Macondo"
' recipe for patacones
Menu at 80 sillas a Cevishes restaurant at Usaquen (trust Latin Americans to come up with unique names such as 80 chairs).
Gate and Bell tower at Monserrat, the sloppy photo is the one I took of course, and the neat one with blue skies in the background is from Travelog