Joan Didion once published an essay called “In Bogota” and years later, in a hotel in Italy, I came upon it and discovered that she had written about Bogota when I was living there. In fact, the hovel of a residencia where I holed up was only a few blocks from her magnificent Hotel Tequendama. They were a long few blocks, however. Ms. Didion saw a Bogota with fresh roses in the bathrooms, a Bogota with hot water whenever you wanted it, a Bogota of gold and emeralds and parties with film makers from New York.
I was quite sure she had no idea what Bogota was about.
The day I arrived in Bogota its biggest building burned. It was a fifty or sixty-story glass box, the only one of its kind in Bogota in those days, sky scraping over the city with miles of dark glass and chrome and the look of LA or Tokyo or Manhattan. The first thin sizzles of smoke appeared at the sides of the tower at ten in the morning. The 10th or 13th or 20th floor had caught fire, far above the range of Bogota’s fire department, and all day from everywhere in the city you could follow the fire rising in the building, breaking out the windows floor by floor, licking higher up the black glass, loosing clouds of gray black smoke into the Andes. Only time before the building was consumed. All day long I walked the streets and found Bogotanos in tears. Tears not for the people who leapt from 30 stories up like angels; tears not for those who did not even reach a window for a rush of freedom between the smoke and the end. The tears were for the tower, for the chrome and dark glass, for Bogota that had lost its tallest building.
I arrived in Bogota after weeks in Santa Marta in the North. Dog years on the Barracuda Coast where the driving heat lost all hint of pleasure. I was robbed three times in the same week and I began to dream about going home. But I took a train trip instead, an astounding 30 hour train trip through the hot marshes of Central Columbia. A trip where the train had to back up for two and a half hours, for Christ’s sake, to let another train coming the other way pass. The inside of the train got so hot that I burned a one inch square on my forearm when I laid it on the metal marker on the armrest of my seat.
Coming into Bogota after a lifetime on the train was like one of those moments swimming in a sun drenched lake when you come upon a cold pocket and your bare legs below the surface are surrounded by the chill and your balls shrink to marbles in an instant and the color of the sky seems to change. At 8,000 feet in the Andes, Bogota was cold. It made me lightheaded to say the word. It was as if the change of temperature was a loosing of restraints. As if in the mountains you could really feel free.
Bogota was filled with gamines. Mock families of little kids living together in cardboard boxes and alleys, sleeping in warm brown batches in doorways, racing in packs into restaurants along Calle de los Hippies, and before the harried waiters could catch them, shoveling their mouths full of rice from the plates of departing patrons. Mornings opening the door of Hotel ABC and finding two black haired, black-eyed boys no older than six sleeping wrapped around each other in the threshold. They moved in their sleep like boys in the morning but they would not wake even as I stepped over them and out into the cold Bogota morning.
In Bogota in those days, you could buy a pack of oval Pielroja cigarettes for four cents. The black tobacco and licorice paper stained my fingers like creosote and after smoking a few packs, my gums began to bleed. Beer cost eight cents, but they charged another eight cents as a deposit on the bottle. I remember movies sitting in a crowd on wooden benches in the back of the theater for a dime trying to see over the barbed wire strung to keep us from sneaking forward into the expensive, thirty-five cent seats up front.
Mornings in Bogota with the streets full of men in heavy brown suits with bulging pockets and boys selling newspapers shouting “BOGOTANO, BOGOTANO, EL BO-GO-TAN-O” over and over until I heard them in my dreams. I would walk down to the American Express office to see about mail and stop for a shot of tinto neat at a stand up coffee bar along the street; the roasting smell of Columbian coffee so rich you carried it in your clothes for miles. Cold mornings in Bogota. Mornings that made it hard to get out of the cot I had at Hotel ABC, a cot too short so my feet hung over the end and no matter what I did I could never keep them covered and in the mornings I’d swear that I would move down the street to Residencia Tuesquilla where they had real beds. But Tuesquilla was thirty pesos a night, nearly double ABC, and after I’d warmed up with a tinto, I couldn’t convince myself to spend the extra sixty cents.
Hotel ABC was a beaverboard hotel. Its high ceilinged rooms were divided into cubicles by partitions that did not quite reach to the arching ceilings. There was no hot water and no shower head and it would be days at a time before I could get myself prepared for the experience of showering under the pipe. My room had a single overhead bulb hanging from the fifteen-foot ceiling on a twisted wire. I remember reading Dostoyevsky in the bad light and trying not to listen to the sounds behind the walls.
I finally moved from ABC to Residencia Teusquilla in September after the lodger in the next room began to cough in hard rattling sort of way like he had nuts in his throat, and I worried that whatever he had would come after me over the wall.
The Teusquilla was not really the family-style residencia I had thought. The Senor and Senora who owned the house had assembled an extended under-family of servants and freeloaders to take care of the day-to-day operations. The chief executive officer of this eight room enterprise was named Berta. She had long black frizzy hair and a smile you could take a nap in. One of her legs was shorter than the other. She had a dour three year old son named Cessa.
Cessa was fat and pouty. He spoke bad Spanish and was given to standing in my doorway staring at me in silence for minutes until his dark sulky stare lay on my shoulders like a wet towel, and I would get up from my chair and close the door. I could feel him outside the door staring in through the crack and when I’d open the door — it could be hours later — he’d still be there. It was like being haunted.
Other times, Cessa would come into the living room of the residencia when I was reading and climb onto a small coffee table across the room from me. He’d fish his wang the size of a hose from his little boy sailor pants and loose a rope thick stream of yellow urine into the potted palm by the table. He’d look at me the whole time, never smiling, only that dour stare and his black eyes. Then he’d climb down from the table with that serious expression he always wore and run off to find Berta, his wang still flopping. I never saw him laugh the whole time I lived there. And by the time I left, the potted palm had begun what was to be, I was sure, a bitter lingering death.
Maria was a student who passed time with me that year when the Policia closed the University. She was dark and short with a big Indian nose. Her family lived far in the North in Turbo where the smugglers jump off for Panama and the San Blas Islands. Her friends called her “imperialist woman” for being with me, and I thought that was funny. She had a typewriter and, astonishing thing, lent it to me so I could type a story I was writing. I remember hoping desperately that the University would remain closed until I could finish.
Walking home one night with Maria and finding the street lined with riot police for a hundred yards. Long grim rows of Colombian men in visors and heavy green uniforms standing in the shadows shoulder to shoulder the length of the street. They carried plexiglass shields and in the streetlight they looked as if they had come for some reason. Maria wouldn’t walk past them the first time, but they were there every night – purposeful, stolid, anonymous, rippling like a massive forearm – and it got so we wouldn’t even notice them. They were always gone in the morning, and I never learned why they were there.
Ricardo came up to me to practice his English as I ate yucca soup one night in a dive near the planetarium. He was about thirty years old, short, dark and morose. For nearly ten years, he had lived in St. Louis before being busted and, scared witless by stories about American jails, had jumped bail to Bogota where his family lived. He was desperate and miserable and broke and in love with the Missouri farm girl of his dreams. I couldn’t get rid of him. He had an unswerveable conviction that I could get him back into the States, back to old St. Louie.
The staff of the residencia took an unhealthy interest in my life. A page from my journal:
I went to see Cancha. Met her at ten. We walked and drank and ate. She had the grippe and came back to the hotel to give it to me. In the morning I was anxious to work on my story but I just couldn’t. I slept all afternoon.
Bela and Belen had stiff necks all the next day from listening through my door. Berta tried to charge me an extra thirty pesos for Cancha’s use of the room. I refused to pay. Much wailing and screaming and threats of calling the Senora. Finally, Berta hammered a compromise out of me. I had to take the whole sad crew, including the beast Cessa, to the movies on Sunday and then to the park and they made me waste a half a role of pictures on Cessa riding some sad-ass burro that Berta found limping through the square.
I spent days in Bogota trying to buy a pair of sneakers, but my size 13 gringo feet were size 48 by the Colombian measure and nothing, simply nothing, could be made to fit. I finally had a pair of shoes made specially for me. When I returned to the store a week later to pick them up, I found my shoes in the store window all alone the way an impossibly large clown’s shoe will be displayed at a shoe store in the States for a laugh.
I remember men in furtive suits and cheap hats who would slip up to me outside the American Express office with an armful of watches for sale. Colombian hippies who gathered in the evening along the Calle de los Hippies hissing in rotten English that they had “grasssssss” to sell. Gamines with torn sweaters and pants in shreds that would crowd around me with their runny noses and wide black South American eyes when I sat on the park bench near Hotel ABC because they knew I had a marvelous leather soccer ball and once playing wild futboll in the streets with armies of shrieking gamines kicking the bloody ball in a big footed blundering American way and, literally, knocking down the door of someone’s house on a back street and going in to apologize with a horde of torn gamines quiet behind me and finding a kitchen filled with babies and smoke and a sixteen or sixty year old cooking soup on a wood burning range who wouldn’t look me in the face and who took some money for the door in a sorry sodden sort of way as if money could never repair the door or her life, her wonderful life in Bogota.
I was in Bogota on census day. On census day no one was permitted to leave his or her dwelling. The streets were to be totally empty except for the military to enforce the edict and students to go from door to door in this city without street plans. Door to door counting every nino and indio and gamine and hippie and businessman and borrachero and smuggler, door to door counting every Bogotano.
Viajeros, as I called myself in those days, travelers, were not exempt from the edict but I snuck out from the Tuesaquilla over the desperate pleadings of Berta and the warning I’d be shot on sight by the Policia. I slipped out on census day because I couldn’t believe that teeming, seething Bogota could be tethered for even an hour. And before I was stopped, I saw Bogota bare and shivering in the cold Andean daylight; I saw Bogota naked. Running for miles in every direction, Bogota with dirty streets and ramshackle shops and peeling posters on every wall announcing a circus or prizefight or a baile on some long gone Sunday. Bogota sprawling and seedy; Bogota jerrybuilt; Bogota with streets sad and silent and empty, really empty. So that is how it looks, I thought to myself, and for years after I told myself I’d seen Bogota to the quick, I’d really seen Bogota.
But I was not right about that. I was not right about that any more than I was right about Ms. Didion and the Bogota she described. I never saw her Bogota but it does not surprise me that she carries it with her today. We come to Bogota on whatever road we happen to be traveling. We come to Bogota in the mountains and never know where we will be going next but when we leave, Bogota follows after us like the smell of rich coffee or the shouting of gamines running in a pack down some dead street in pursuit of a soccer ball that has gone forever astray.
In Bogota originally appeared in Outside In Literary and Travel Magazine and was subsequently included in the anthology Whereabouts: Stepping Out of Place.