Without knowing, I already had a book (edited) by Andrés Ospina, of which I am very fond because it has a CD with it. On that very CD is a song called Río Bogotá by a band named Sociedad Anónima. This song has always fascinated me for a line that goes: “Nunca se te ocurra ir con tu novia al Río Bogotá”, which translates to “It should never occur to you to go to the Río Bogotá with your girlfriend”. In the rest of the song, the singer explains that people throw trash into the river and that it’s a health risk to go swiming there. I who I only know the smelly and murky version of the river, was fascinated by the very idea of people actually bathing there. What is more, I never really considered the climate quite warm enough to go swiming outside. But as a Colombian saying goes, gustos son gustos. You can listen to this precious late 1980s rock jewel on youtube.
However, Chapinero (Laguna Libros, 2015) is a novel in which the river Bogotá is never mentioned. But those familiar with the city’s geography might have guessed, rightly, that it’s about the Chapinero district. The history of the quarter, which when Bogota was founded was a distinct settlement, is told in the voices of five different characters through various generations. The first is a Spanish shoemaker arriving around 1655, followed by a struggling father of the late 19th century. Then follows a young adult witness of the quarter’s transformation of the 1930s. The era of rock and hippiedom, in turn, is recounted by the only female character. They are all related to the main protagonist of the novel, who lives in todays Chapinero, through an antique shoehorn.
How did I come across the book?
I was hanging around in bookstores somewhat frequently during my last field trip. And I literally saw it in any one of the ones I visited. Plus, it was on the “Colombian authors to check out” list I had made when I got a gift certificate for a bookstore, together with Carolina Sanín, and Margarita García Robayo.
When and where did I read it?
It took me a while. As can be guessed from my bookmark – a plane ticket from Msocow to Riga – I have started it during my vacations to Moscow. I needed almost a month to finish it, because the number of characters was a little overwhelming in the beginning, and the middle part had it’s lenghts. Only as I started to realize all the characters could be related through family ties and the antique, did I become curious how their stories would unfold. I might read it again, reading not in the order of the book, but each character’s story by itself to better grasp the connections.
Para eso están los vivos. Para preguntales, y no esperar a que se vayan ausentando, hasta eternizarnos la duda. (p. 212)
As I said a few times, already, I am not a big fan of short stories. This, mostly, because I really like slow character development and a story that takes time to reveal itself on at least 100 pages. Which is a totally arbitrary approach, I know. Nevertheless, there are always exceptions to my rules, and Ponqué y otros cuentos (Laguna Libros, 2016) by Carolina Sanín is one of them. The collection contains 7 short stories, all of which star strong female characters. It is this aspect I liked most about the stories, which depart from everyday situations like riding a train, listening to the radio, or reading a hand-written note, and usually revolve around quirky aspects of the main character, if not her surroundings. Especially the last two stories stroke chords with me, the darker Carolina en su funeral for its factual approach to loss, and Ponqué, the title story, because it reminded me of the Satanic Verses. This, mostly, because it combines a story of a young woman from Bogota going out to live in New York with the biblical narrative of Joseph (son of Jacob) from the book Genesis.
I was utterly impressed by the accuracy of descriptions and wording. For a long time I haven’t read anything as precise and therefore enjoyable in Spanish, and I am often bored by too long and too forced sentences when reading Colombian authors. I was very happy to see that a different style is possible, and one that appeals to me both in topics and style. And as if marvellous writing wasn’t enough, the book is also really pretty. The edition and illustration are beautiful, and the thick paper makes for a pleasant tactile experience, as well. For so many reasons, this is a book I did not want to stop reading.
How did I come across the book?
I took a creative writing seminar with Carolina Sanín, which turned out to be a live-changing experience. Not because I think writing fiction could be a thing for me – I still don’t, really – but because it happened at a complicated moment in field work and brought back the curiousness about the topic and the willingness to write. I started reading her books only after the seminar, in a way attempting to continue the conversations on writing. Turns out Carolina is not only an amazing teacher, (so if you have a chance to take a course with her: GO DO IT!) but also sticks to all of the rules she teaches. Speaking of authenticity in teaching, she is most definitely a new role model for me to follow.
When and where did I read it?
I started on the plane back from Bogota to Zurich, to make the passage a little lighter. I finished it within the first days while trying to get rid of the jetlag. But fortunately, there are several other works from her left to read in my bookshelf.
I have recently started to have a look at Colombian history inspired graphic novels. After caminos condenados, Los Once (2014, Laguna Libros) was a logical consequence, especially considering its focus on Bogota. The novel takes the reader to the siege of Bogota’s Palace of Justice in 1985, from the perspective of a handful mice living in the palace. What is interesting about this view from an insider-outsider, is how it allows to get a feeling for the situation of not knowing what is happening, a strong feeling of being threatened and vulnerable, and of not understanding even when things are supposedly said clearly.
The mice ar probably an alusion to the famous Maus comic by Art Spiegelmann. But instead of cats, Los Once uses different kinds of birds and dogs to represent military forces, police and members of the M-19 guerrilla group. To me, it was not quite clear who was who, as shapes and figures often transform into each other, but maybe this was also intentional, to further underline the feeling of not knowing whom to trust, and makes clear that no-one was “the good guy”, there.
How did I come across the book?
I wanted to read it for a while, and had heard about it when it was just out, but didn’t search for it actively. After I read caminos condenados, however, I decided to have a closer look at other graphic novels.
When and where did I read it?
March 8th, International Women’s Day. The heavy rains outside made it easier to go through with the plan of striking, and to avoid working on anything else, I decided reading would be a good substitute.
I’ve recently started to attend a seminar on creative writing, and so far am very enthusiatic about it. We already had our first homework, which was basically free practice, and the following (I don’t know if-)story came to life. Sorry to the non-Spanish-speaking audience, but I am not going to translate it.
Dizque por ese puente atracan. A veces me pregunto como sería eso. ¿Se paran en la entrada y no lo dejan seguir a unx hasta aliviarse de sus pertenencias? Más probable que se paren en medio del puente. O le siguen a unx. ¿Lo hacen con frecuencia, por ahí tres veces por la semana? Sería muy bobo. Pero ¿de dónde sacan esta regla si no es con frecuencia? ¿Y cómo es que se sabe eso, se lo cuentan los vecinos? Yo que no entiendo me voy por ese puente, ya sea de día o de noche, y cada vez que viene alguien me pregunto si ahora sí me tocó y si este ahora sí es el supuesto atracador (o la atracadora). Me acuerdo de como una noche vine con una amiga ya bien pasada la media noche, y ella me dijo lo que me dicen todxs: que por ese puente atracan y mejor vamos cruzando la calle en el semáforo. Pero como es más largo ese camino, la convencí de usar el puente. Y vinieron dos tipos del otro lado, y ella se asustó, y yo seguía derecho hasta cruzarnos con los tipos que resultó que eran amigos del colegio de ella.
Otro día que fui estaba con el hombre oso, que no tiene nada de oso, solo que es hermoso y también cruzamos el puente de noche y después le pedí que fueramos por el parque, que sí es oscuro, pero más bonito que caminar al lado de la avenida y más corto para llegar a la casa. Me hizo caso, pero ya cuando llegamos al parque e íbamos por el caminito ese que hay por allá con los arboles justo al lado que son perfectos para esconderse, noté cómo caminaba más rápido y me apretó la mano. Y no pasó nada. Dizque la gente ingenua vive más feliz. Parece que en mi caso eso es cierto, porque a mí no me preocupa que me atraquen ni en el puente ni en el parque. Porque no tengo ni idea de cómo sería eso.
Lo que sí me da miedo es que me atraquen cuando saque la perrita de noche. Porque como no llevo nada, lo único que me podrían quitar es la misma perrita. Que a mí no me quedaría nada mal, porque no estoy disfrutando mucho ir con ella de noche con el frío que está haciendo, y además teniendo que quitar la mierda que deja por donde se le da la gana. La saco para quedar bien con mis suegros, para ayudar en los deberes de la casa, y porque soy la única en esta casa que no se ha dormido todavía a las diez de la noche. Entonces sí quedaría muy mal con mis suegros que me quitaran la perrita, y eso obviamente no lo quiero.
Con el puente es diferente. Yo que no entiendo me voy por ese puente, pero no lo hago de manera ingenua. Lo hago porque sí se puede, y porque nunca me ha pasado nada. Porque es uno de los pocos puentes diseñados por alguien que camina, y no una de estas cosas horrorosas que construyen aquí, por las que le toca a unx dar vueltas y vueltas como peatón, mientras que los carros pasan derecho por debajo. Porque es de las pocas libertades que unx puede disfrutar en esta ciudad que no fue hecha para gente que camina, pero que unx las tiene que apropiar. Para no entrar en el juego de los 2600 metros más cerca de la paranoia. Como dicen aquí, hay que romper las cadenas. Y las cadenas no se rompen si unx se queda en su zona de confort.
Entonces, me arriesgo y tomo el puente, pero tampoco tan desprevenida. Porque cuando me monto al avión para cruzar el gran charco sí me cambio el chip. Me quito la argolla para que no me la roben, no llevo el iPhone sino la flechita, y estoy pendiente de mi bolso a toda hora y en todo lugar – cosas que no hago en mi tierra. Cuando me preguntan mis colegas qué tan peligroso es viajar a Colombia, les digo que cada día lo sobreviven 54 Millones de Colombianos, y que es más probable morirse en un accidente de tránsito que por alguna de las cosas que han oído. Sin embargo me escriben preguntándome si estoy bien en Bogotá, y me preguntan si sentí algo si hay un terremoto en Chile. Lo peor de los dos mundos, en cuanto a ignorancia.
Yo que en toda mi vida no he visto un arma (y eso que tengo un tío que es policía), no me puedo imaginar cómo sería un atraco armado. Me gusta imaginarme cómo reaccionaría toda tranquila, entrando en negocios por la tarjeta del Transmi, la cédula, o mi cuaderno de notas. De tantas cosas que unx oye, de que le roben hasta los tenis, que le dejaron algo pa’l bus, que no se qué más cosas, las historias que más se me han quedado son las victoriosas, en las que la gente atracada por lo menos pudo conservar algo de dignidad. Entonces cada vez que cruzo el puente, preparo mi pequeño discurso sobre la libertad, la dignidad y también la solidaridad, porque sí me gusta ayudar y me imagino cómo, con una sonrisa tímida, les doy toda la plata que llevo. Así voy caminando, mirándoles fijamente los ojos a todos los que se me cruzan. Esto también es mi barrio, y no voy a dejar que me quiten mi ingenuidad. Si algo, ¡la que atraca aquí, soy yo!
December 30th, my husband and I are driving down Calle 100, until we have to stop at a traffic light. We’re following the rest of the family in the other car, we’re going to Villavicencio for the holidays. As we stop, a man approaches our car to clean the back windows, and my husbands asks me for some coins to give to him. It is a cloudy day, and the cleaning will not last for long, because we’re heading for a dirt road to see some more of Colombia’s spectacular landscape and avoid the heavy traffic on the fast road connecting both cities. The man finishes, and my husband hands him some 300 COP – about 10 cents. The man is very energetic, smiling all over his face as we hand him the money. He thanks us for the contribution and starts a small conversation about working during the holidays. “You for the taxes, we for the food” he says and we wish each other happy holidays and a happy new year as the traffic lights change from red to green. As we drive down the street, I think about what he just said: We, meaning people like my husband and I, who in his view gain sufficiently to pay taxes, and him and people like him, who can barely make a living from the few cents the “tax-paying” people pay him for his services. I liked him and his friendliness, and felt connected as we wished each other happy holidays, but as I continue to think about our brief encounter, the separation startles me. We in the car, he cleaning the windows outside; we supposedly paying the taxes, he not earning sufficiently to even think about it; he working, we on our way to our holiday getaway; and so on. Possibly the only thing we have in common is that after a few minutes, we will both have forgotten about this encounter at the traffic light. Because others will follow, for both of us.
Since I am back in Colombia to do fieldwork, and I’m terrible at keeping a diary, I decided to use this space for something it was originally also meant for: Instead of tiresome navel-gazing, I will from time to time upload small vignettes from the field in which I intent to describe incidences that somehow seem meaningful to me. I might be evaluating them at some later point, but for now, there’s more of a collectors attitude behind. I’ll start today with a trip in Transmilenio.
Friday afternoon, I try to find my way back from the city centre to the north. On the first ‘Transmi’, as people like to refer to the fast red busses traveling the major avenues, I am lucky enough to get a window seat, so I decide to stick to the line as long as I can. (Several stops would have suited me to change…) When it is finally time to get out, the bus is crammed with people and I have to watch my steps to find the few centimeters on the floor not occupied by other feet or bags. I manage to get out and wait at the exact same stop to get onto another bus, which doesn’t take long to arrive. I am lucky enough to get a space in the back, standing; the bus is not as packed as the last one. I stand there in the middle between two pairs of chairs in the last row of the bus, as the city outside fleets by. The streets are bustling, people doing christmas shopping on the sidewalks, lines and lines of cars trying to make their ways, many a colorful wall painted with graffiti from all kinds of styles, ocassional green spots, sometimes full of waste, several homeless men taking a nap in the grass or even on the paved sidewalks in the middle of the road. As I watch, I start thinking about the evening, when I am supposed to attend a novena by a very catholic family. (A novena is a tradition here where families meet before Christmas to come together and pray. There’s also ususally food.) As a non-religious person, these events make me nervous, because of course I know no prayers, not in my mother-tongue, nor in any other language, and at the same time I’m afraid of being or behaving wrong, or being judged for my lack of knowledge of these customs. I’m getting tense, anticipating discussions about politics that inevitably happen at family gatherings, even though there is a famous Colombian saying that goes somehow like not talking religion or politics in the family – because these topics mean trouble. I am thinking about how many christians have voted ‘No’ on the recent peace deal, and prepare myself for arguments. What to say when someone mentions how the peace deal would have destroyed the traditional family, benefitting instead same-sex marriage and adoption (NOT part of the agreement at all)? How to respond when someone claims all guerrilleros get amnesties (wrong: there will be no amnesty for crimes against humanity, genocide, massacres, kidnapping, extrajudicial executions, torture, forced diasappearance, rape and other forms of sexual violence, forced displacement and forced recruitment of children, among others)? How to respond to people saying the guerrilleros will get 2 million COP per month (also wrong: they get a one-time payment of 2 million (approx. 630€), and 90% of the minimum wage for two years (200€), and of course only if they don’t have other income)? As I anticipate these discussions I think again about what a happy christmas this might have become had the peace deal been approved in the first round. I feel anger rising within me. I still can’t seem to understand how the image of a different Colombia could be so appaling to some voters. The afternoon sun shines golden through the high-rise buildings when I arrive at my stop. I get off the bus and walk home, past a nativity scene set up at the entrance of our compound, where baby Jesus still hasn’t arrived. He’ll be born on 24th, only.
So as I said, I’m back to fieldwork again. Had a nice and turbulence-free flight of some 11 hours, arrived save and sound and with all my baggage. This way around the globe, I always suffer less from jet lag and got up at a pretty average 7:15am, and with only light symptoms of soroche (altitude sickness, which comes with headache and or vertigo: Bogotá is at 2640m above sea level). I’m staying with the family, so I didn’t have to worry about where to live or how to get there, and guess I will slip back easily into this other routine. This other routine is one of different ways of doing things, not just related to different weather, place, time management and security situation. I’m always fascinated with the small things, the very quotidian practices one usually doesn’t even notice when at home. But here, I notice that making the bed, washing the dishes or going to the bathroom can be so different. Every time I spread those three to four sheets one by one onto the bed, making sure they fit neatly and don’t throw wrinkles, I also think of the one blanket I use at home and how I just fold it once. Or when I wash the dishes with rubber gloves and creamy to solid rinsing agent in fluorescent colors, instead of without the gloves and with hand and eco-friendly dish liquid. Or when every now and again I forget I’m not supposed to throw toilet paper into the toilet bowl and curse the narrow drainpipes. Or when changing back from using a big wallet with all my cards to simply keeping notes and coins in the pockets of my pants. Or when I wake up to the Lambada sounds of the reverse gear. Did I say waking up? Zzzzzzzzzz. So much for the jet lag.